Thursday, March 29, 2012

How to Create a Compelling Character, Addendum: What Are the Rules They Live By?

The original purpose of these “compelling character” pieces was to eliminate the hundreds of questions (Where did their grandfather go to college?) that some writers feel they have to answer about their characters, and boil it down to a small number.  But that number just keeps growing!  

Nevertheless, as I was working on the rewrite I just finished, I kept realizing that, through I had answered all my core questions about each character, I still didn’t know them well enough.  Then I realized: most of my questions are about knowing my heroes externally.  The questions are focused on what I think of my characters, not on what my characters think of themselves

Then I tried asking a question I’d never asked before and it did wonders for my rewrite: What are the rules they live by?  Every character has these, though most don’t state them out loud, as John Wayne does in The Shootist:
  • “I won’t be wronged; I won’t be insulted and I won’t be laid a hand on.  I don’t do these things to other people and I require the same from them.”
One problem I had with my script is that my characters, who all went to college together and had the same job, just weren’t differentiated enough.  This turned out to be a great way to differentiate them.  Here’s what I came up with:

This helps me love my characters, and it also helps me polarize them in a non-judgmental way.  As you can see, I tried to force myself to stick to what they people would actually say if asked.  Nothing like “I can’t stand dirt”, or “I don’t like kids”, or “Never get off the couch”  Those may be rules that actually define a character, but the purpose of this exercise is to get to know their self-image. 

Once you’ve got your rules, you can start playing with them.  Which rules are they forced to break over the course of the story?  Which ones should they break but are too proud to do so?  Which rules are they just deluding themselves about, since they’ve never really followed them? 

The advantage of listing these rules is that they force you to listen to your characters and allow them to define themselves.  It’s easy for a character to become just a bundle of flaws: a false goal, a false statement of philosophy, a limited perspective and a long host of ironic failings.  But they don’t know that.  They’re just living their life, doing their own thing in their own time, so you need to know what that thing is, as they see it.  

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Storyteller's Rulebook #131: Write Down Your Bad Ideas

Yesterday, we were talking about the benefits of being highly critical of your own work.  But how do you keep writing if you’re no longer confident that you’re spinning gold?  Well that’s the million-dollar-spec-sale question.  The answer is: learn to love revising.  You have to get to the point where the whole point of the first draft is to anticipate the fun you’ll have revising it later.

The purpose of the first draft is just to create raw material.  You’re just mixing together a big bowl of sculptor’s clay.  Your second draft is a pile of lumps you’ve shaped out of that clay.  Your third draft is the first one that anyone but you would recognize.  Your fourth draft is where it begins to get beautiful.

And how do you keep making those drafts better?  Not by shutting out the world and dwelling on your inner muse.  By getting feedback!  You can only see one side of your own work.  In order to figure out the shape of it, you have to ask other people with different perspectives what they see.

The biggest mistake a writer can make is to think, “I’ve got a bad (or half-formed) idea in my head, so I’ll wait until it gets better before I start writing.”  The best possible advice for any writer is this: WRITE DOWN THE BAD IDEA!

This is what people mean when they say that writing is re-writing.  Perfect writing almost never begins with a perfect idea.  Even if you do have a perfect idea, you’ll probably blow it, because you’ll be paralyzed by fear of ruining perfection as you stumble through the actual writing process.  It’s much safer to start with a so-so idea and perfect it as you go along. 

When I’m stuck, I’ve been known to create documents with names like “ “THE DUMBEST VERSION” or “EVERYTHING THAT DOESN’T WORK ABOUT THIS IDEA”.  These titles liberate me to dump all the crap out of my head and into list form. Inevitably, as I savage myself, picking the flaws apart, I wind up pruning away most of the bad parts and leaving something good behind.

Bad scripts become good scripts all the time.  Good Will Hunting started out as a techno-thriller.  Can you imagine how terrible that would have been?  Whether you love or hate the final product of Titanic, you should check out Cameron’s published script.  
I love the movie (I know, I know, how tacky of me!) but the original script was terrible!  There’s twice as much Billy Zane Snidely Whiplash over-the-top villainy.  By the time you’re done reading, no matter how you felt beforehand, you’ll see the final product as a masterpiece of restraint.  

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Storyteller's Rulebook #130: Practice Loving Everybody

Did we all read the great ScriptShadow interview with Lorene Scafaria, writer/director of the upcoming A Friend at the End of the World?  Here’s a brilliant thing she said:
  • “I think it helps that I look at myself with a critical eye and I look at the people around me with a sympathetic one, so I try to love every character but also know what they're doing wrong.” 
A lot of writers get this dead wrong.  They think: “I don’t believe in negativity, so I’m going to love myself and my own work unreservedly!”  Um, no.  The courage to be hyper-critical about your own work, and yet keep working, is crucial for a screenwriting career, or any career. 

This is a collective medium.  If your script sells, it’ll be made into a movie by a collective of artists, then it’ll be shown to an audience that will make a collective judgment about it.  In this business, collectives decides how good your work is, not any one person, and certainly not you.

Negativity is in fact a huge problem, but the negativity you need to worry about is not the inwardly-directed kind, it’s all the negativity you’ll feel towards everybody else.  Envy towards your more-successful peers, disdain for your less-successful peers, exasperation with fickle producers, flat-out rage towards your own management…

…And the worst form of negativity is the negativity towards your own characters.  A good writer, like any good god, loves everybody in their world.  You love your villain as much as your hero.  You love the messenger boy as much as the main character.  You love not only your geeky heroine, but also the cheerleader who picks on her.  Think about how much Shakespeare loves Hamlet’s lowly gravedigger, or even pompous Polonious.

As you walk down the street, practice loving everybody.  That Wall Streeter with slicked-back hair.  That sneering kid with his pants down around his knees.  That lovey-dovey mom cheering on her toddler’s tantrum.  Ask yourself: How did they end up here? Is this what they wanted to be? Like you and everybody else, these people had their hopes and dreams quashed long ago.  Look at what is lacking in these people and ask, “Who took it away from them?  What would they do if they could have it back?”   

But wait, let’s get back to that negativity towards yourself.  How do you keep writing, if you no longer think what you’re writing is automatic gold?  We’ll pick up there tomorrow…

Monday, March 26, 2012

Deadline, USA!

Sorry, folks, big deadline tonight.  (Ive been revising it all month, which is the reason for all those zeroes under new pages on the calendar)  Content resumes tomorrow!

Sunday, March 25, 2012

What Should've Won That Could've Won: 1931

The Year: 1931
What the Nominees Were: Cimarron, East Lynne, The Front Page, Skippy, Trader Horn
Other Movies That Should Have Been Considered: Frankenstein, Little Caesar, The Public Enemy, Street Scene, and our winner…

What Did Win: Cimarron
How It’s Aged: Very poorly.  This talky western melodrama’s half-hearted whispers of feminism were drowned out by a roar of unintentional racism.

What Should’ve Won: City Lights
How Hard Was the Decision: This was a tough call: Frankenstein is pretty much a perfect film, and Vidor’s Street Scene is an underrated masterpiece.  Plus, it was hard to convince myself that this lone silent hold-out could have won in 1931… but City Lights is such an ideal “you’ll laugh / you’ll cry” combination that I’m convinced the Academy could have been honored it if they had overcome their prejudice just a little bit.  

Director: Charlie Chaplin
Writer: Charlie Chaplin
Stars: Charlie Chaplin, Virginia Cherrill, Florence Lee, Harry Myers 
The Story: The little tramp is back to take on the Depression.  He falls in love with a blind flower girl, then rescues a suicidal millionaire, who goes back and forth between lavishing gifts on him when drunk then kicking him out when sober.  Can the tramp stay in his good graces long enough to help the girl? 

Any Nominations or Wins:  None whatsoever!
Why It Didn’t Win: It’s simple enough: Chaplin was the only filmmaker who refused to transition to sound.  He broke off and went his own way.  This movie was not at all the image that Hollywood wanted to project in 1931. 

Why It Should Have Won:
  1. No one was better than Chaplin at a pratfall, or an elaborate set-up and pay-off, but this movie shows how much of his genius lay in his scene choreography, elegantly demonstrated in the movies delightful boxing match.   
  2. One great thing about “Downton Abbey” is the way it conveys the capriciousness of life without a social safety net: the rich were more than happy to take care of the poor—when it occurred to them.  Made in the darkest days before the dawning of America’s long-overdue New Deal, this movie hits that point even harder.  Whenever the millionaire is drunk, the tramp has it made, but otherwise it’s a boot to the ass. 
  3. Cherrill’s role could not be more sentimental in its conception, but she makes it work by playing the role as a real person, not a suffering saint.  Few female stars at the time were allowed to look this genuinely annoyed:
  4. As a good communist, Chaplin dreaded the notion that his work would no longer be an international (or should that be internationale?) art form.  He skewers sound every chance he gets here.  The first shot is a windbag getting up to give a speech, but when he opens his mouth, all we hear is trombone music (shades of Charlie Brown!)  The film does have a synchronized soundtrack, but only to provide annoyances: a swallowed whistle, a police siren, that boxing bell…
  5. The movie is most famous for its indelible final shot, in which the now-sighted flower girl finally gets a look at the tramp, who suddenly realizes that he may not pass this final test.  It’s the ultimate riposte to anyone who doubts Chaplin’s serious-acting chops. 
How Available Is It?: All of Chaplin’s movies are available on the same so-so DVDs from the ‘90s.  They’re crying out for new editions. 

Ah, 1931: Nose Adjuster!

Thursday, March 22, 2012

How to Create a TV Show, Part 7: A Long Way To Go And A Short Time To Get There

Writing a pilot is pretty much the hardest job a screenwriter can take on.  You have to do all the same work as writing a feature and more, but in much a shorter timeframe. You have to cram a dramatic feature into an hour (42 minutes for network) or a comedic feature into a half hour (21 minutes for network)!

Yeah, but wouldn’t it would be easier in some ways, since you have so much more time over the course of a season to get to know these characters?  Nope, if you want to sell the pilot, you can’t hold anything back for later.  We have to get to know (and love) these characters just as well as feature characters, lightning fast, and then plunge them right into the plot a minute later.  

In fact, we have to love them even more than we love feature characters.  Features are only asking for a two-hour commitment, so we’re more forgiving towards cookie-cutter heroes.  We’re far more wary of TV heroes, though, since they’re asking us to make a five-year commitment. 

Yes but at least you don’t have to transform the characters! In fact, these characters are forbidden from ever transforming, so you don’t have to build an arc, right?  Well, it is true that a TV hero is not going to be fundamentally transformed in the way that a movie hero is.  A movie (or play, or novel) is about the most important thing that will ever happen to your hero.  Obviously, you can’t do that on TV...  There’s no way every week can be the most important week in their lives! 

But the art of TV is the art of the small transformation.  Our heroes very rarely change their philosophy, but they almost always have to change their perspective to get what they want.  Over the course of a one-hour show…
  1. Our hero has a long-standing problem that becomes acute, (Teaser):  Dr. House has had been kicked out of the hospital again.  He’s going crazy…
  2. He gets a new opportunity to fix it (Act 1): His interns secretly bring him a case that they can’t solve…
  3. That opportunity leads to an unforeseen conflict (Act 2): Cutty finds out and tries to block him from the case…
  4. So first he tries to resolve that conflict the easy way, which leads to a midpoint disaster (Act 3): House makes a cocky diagnosis which accidentally puts the patient in a coma…
  5. Then he tries the hard way, which leads to a realization (Act 4):  House stays up all night, but can’t fix it, then he notices they forgot the lemon juice in his iced tea…Wait, that’s it!
  6. …Which allows them to solve the problem (Act 5): He runs across the hospital just in time to save the patient with the correct diagnosis: It’s scurvy!   Cutty reluctantly lets him back into the hospital…
Like I said, all the same stuff that happens in a movie, except in double-time.  Plus, a TV show is more likely than a movie to have unrelated subplots interwoven with the above.  Movies are far more linear, focused like a laser on the hero’s journey, whereas TV almost always presents a boarder, messier picture.

The above is true for almost every episode, but in a pilot you have to do all that while introducing the setting and the characters in a way that’s so compelling that the audience will want to commit for the long haul.  It’s insane!  But the good news is, if you can do this, you can do anything...

Okay, were not done, but Im tired of TV for a while.  This series will continue a little bit later...

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

How to Create a TV Show, Part 6: Spec Pilots Can Go A Little Wild

Here’s the thing, as I pointed the first day, the real purpose of a spec pilot is to help you get a job on a pre-existing show.  Your spec pilot will be handed over to that show’s producers along with your other writing sample (a spec episode of a similar pre-existing show) and they will decide whether or not to hire you for their own staff.  

For the most part, no one will want to actually put your spec pilot on the air, unless one of these things is true:
  • You’ve been a staff writer on another show for a while
  • You’ve been a showrunner.
  • You got a veteran showrunner attached to run this show instead of you.
  • Maybe if none of the above are true but you’ve recently sold a hot feature screenplay. 
The point is this: you’re creating a show that will, in all likelihood never get on the air, and everybody knows it.  Don’t pretend otherwise.  In fact here are some more DON’Ts:
  • DON’T create a show bible: If you’ve been hired to create a TV show by a network, they’ll often want a 5-10 page document explaining the premise, tone and characters.  They’ll give this to the other personnel so that everybody is on the same page.  These things can be fun to create, but they’re a waste of time if you’re not actually likely to sell the show.  Put all that clever concept work on the page in the actual script.  This also means…
  • DON’T save any good stories for future episodes: you’ve got so much work to do introducing all the characters, it can be tempting to just line them up for now and promise to make them dance later.  But there is no later!  This pilot is the whole show.  Take all those exciting ideas you had for future episodes and weave them into the pilot!  Blow your wad!
  • DON’T create a safe show.  Networks these days are getting less experimental in what they actually put on the air than they were a few years ago, but you don’t have to worry about that.  Don’t try to sell them “CSI: Kansas City”.  That may be what they really want, but they won’t admit it.  Flatter them by writing something they wish they could buy.  Or... if you want to write about cops, doctors or lawyers, make sure that theyre doing their jobs in ways weve never seen onscreen before.
  • DON’T worry about the budget: Set your show on a pirate ship.  Or in World War I, or after the robot apocalypse.  Go crazy.  
  • DON’T worry too much about how sustainable this premise is. A lot of spec pilots read like the first half of a movie: exciting, unpredictable, and volatile.  Don’t go too crazy with this: Show you understand the form by establishing an ongoing situation that will last for at least one season, but don’t start worrying about the first episode of season five: it’s never coming.  
But I’ll end on one big DODO keep your pilot character-driven, not plot-driven.  Again, I miss all-business shows like “Law and Order”, but those shows are no more.  For better or worse, TV is all about character now.  And I don’t mean a “character study”, I mean a character-based story.  You hero has a tough decision to make, makes it, and handles the consequences.  No matter how wild your setting is, you have to establish it quickly and get us focused on a character goal within the first act.  

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

How to Create a TV Show, Part 5 Premise Pilot, Center Cut, or In Between?

This is a fundamental question for any pilot: Does your pilot show the origin of this situation (called a “premise pilot”) or are we already in the middle of it, making this a rather typical episode (informally referred to a “center cut” pilot, as in “sliced from the middle of the loaf”)? 

You might think that all serialized shows would begin with a “premise” pilot while episodic show wouldn’t, but it doesn’t quite work out that way.  “The West Wing” was highly serialized but, rather than start out with the inauguration, we just have a normal day at the office.  “Castle” on the other hand, is mostly episodic, but it starts with the formation of this team.  Likewise on the comedy side: “Cheers” is mostly episodic but starts with Diane’s arrival.  “Entourage” is serialized but starts on a pretty typical day for the boys. 

There are three types of premise pilots:
  • The whole situation begins  (“The Wire”, “The Walking Dead”, “My Name is Earl”)
  • Someone new joins the pre-existing team.  (The Peggy storyline in “Mad Men”, “The Unit”, “Mary Tyler Moore”)
  • The old team gets a new assignment that changes their direction (“The Killing”, Brody comes home in “Homeland”, The end of the Gallic Wars in “Rome”, “TGS” gets reformatted in “30 Rock”)
The temptation, of course, is to write a premise pilot, since it makes the writer’s work a lot easier.  Rather than catch the reader/viewer up on the fly, you get to have a character stand around gawking and asking, “what’s that?” 

One problem is that newbie characters can’t carry much of the drama, because they don’t have decision-making power.  As I pointed out in this piece, one clever “in between” solution to this problem was on “CSI” where they introduced a new character, had her ask about everything, and then killed her off at the end of the pilot. 

But the other problem with many premise pilots is that annoying question that TV execs love to ask and no pilot writer wants to hear: “What happens in episode five?”  Or sometimes even, “What’s the first episode of season three?”  If you’ve written a center-cut episode, the answer is obvious: the same stuff.  In fact this might be the first episode of season three, for all they know.  

With some premise pilots, this is a much harder question to answer.  Especially recently, weve had a lot of shows that seemed unlikely to sustain themselves for multiple seasons.  When done right, like on “Homeland”, this can actually be thrilling, creating a electrifying feeling of fly-by-the-seat-of-their-pants unpredictability.  When done poorly, on shows like “The Nine” or “Day Break”, it’s massively annoying.  
But now we’re running into a problem, because we’re starting to get into the difference between what’s good for an actual pilot and what’s good for a spec pilot… Remember what we said the first day?  Spec pilots are nutty. Tomorrow we’ll look into ways to use that nuttiness to your advantage…   

Monday, March 19, 2012

How to Create a TV Show, Part 4: Serialized, Procedural, or In Between?

If you’re creating a drama, this is your next major dilemma.  The pendulum swings back and forth mightily on this one, so at any given moment, networks tend to be hot on one and cold on the other. 

The appeal of pure- procedural shows like “Law and Order” or “NCIS” is obvious: they’re ideal for syndication.  Only hardcore Law-and-Orderlies like myself (okay, maybe I just made that term up) can tell which season we’re watching when an episode comes on TNT, and even then we don’t really care. (As long as it’s not an Elizabeth Rohm season).  As a writer, you get to tell satisfying, self-contained stories instead of constantly handing the football off to the next writer.   

The appeal of almost-entirely serialized shows like “Lost” or “Breaking Bad”, on the other hand, is that fans feel far more compelled to show up every week during the show’s first run.  The writer gets to create deeper, richer characters who are allowed to grow and change over time. 

The danger with writing a pilot for a serialized series is that you’ll be doing a lot of set-up with very little pay-off so it might not be a very satisfying read.  The danger of writing a procedural is that it’ll seem too pat, tidy and old-fashioned.  Once again, you guessed it, the sweet spot is somewhere in between.

It used to be that a show had to be one or the other, but “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” changed all that, by creating something called “the big bad.”  Basically, almost every episode features a stand alone-monster of the week, but little clues mount up every week implying that there is an unseen villain contributing to much of the evil over the course of a season.  Finally, Buffy would confront the “big bad” in a conclusive two-part season finale.  
As this format became more and more popular, it even started to take over pre-existing shows: “CSI” was a pure procedural for the first four years, but ever since they’ve added a recurring serial killer who finally meets his fate in each year’s finale.  Unfortunately, as the trend has spread, it’s moved on from being satisfying season-long arcs to endless multiple-season teases (The mentalist has apparently sworn to never remove those silly vests until he catches that dastardly Red John.)

And yet, the format is appealing for spec pilots.  Your best bet is to resolve one self-contained story, and then end on the revelation of a clue that opens up a larger mystery and sets up a season-long plot, so as to show that you’d be able to keep viewers coming back every week.  (And get the network execs salivating to see episode two.)

Sunday, March 18, 2012

What Should've Won (That Could've Won): 1930

The Year: 1930
What the Nominees Were: All Quiet on the Western Front, The Big House, Disraeli, The Divorcee, The Love Parade
Other Movies That Should Have Been Considered: Nothing much on the American side, but The Blue Angel and L’Age D’Or were two great imports that year.

What Should’ve Won and Did Win: All Quiet on the Western Front
How Hard Was the Decision: Tough, because Lubitsch’s The Love Parade is so smart, funny, and self-aware. But there are good reasons why drama almost always trumps comedy at awards time. A truly profound, heartfelt drama like this can reach greater emotional heights and depths than even the best comedies.

Director: Lewis Milestone (and George Cukor as “dialogue director”)
Writers: Adaptation and dialogue by Maxwell Anderson, Screen Play by George Abbott, Adaptation by Del Andrews, based on the novel by Erich Maria Remarque
Stars: Lew Ayres, Louis Wolheim, John Wray, Arnold Lucy

The Story: In small-town Germany, four high school students are convinced by their jingoistic teacher to sign up for the infantry at the beginning of World War I.  They are totally unprepared for the hunger, brutality, and absurdity of life on the front which slowly destroys them, body and soul. 
Any Other Nominations or Wins: Also won for direction, lost cinematography and lighting
How It Won: Mayer’s grip was loosened and the Academy begrudgingly adopted a one-person, one-vote system.  The results of democracy showed right away: Western Front was far less glamorous than the previous two winners, and it was released by Universal, the least powerful studio.  After an ignoble start as a failed union-busting scheme, the Academy was now stumbling towards credibility, not that there aren’t a lot more dubious winners to come…

Why It Won:
  1. It sounds like a dubious idea: How courageous is it to make a pacifist message-movie that says that our enemy who lost should never have gone to war?  Who could possibly disagree with that?  But that’s where this movie’s subversive genius comes in.  Focusing on the enemy army disarms the audience, but the trick is that there’s nothing German at all about Milestone’s soldiers, other than the names and the costumes: No German accents, no Teutonic theories, no Kaiser worship… Just the universal realities (and evils) of war. The four kids could be from any town in America, and that’s exactly how they seem to audience: these are our boys.  
  2. The movie is an episodic series of small vignettes: tiny moments of compassion, camaraderie or black humor, interspersed with epic-scale, fully-immersive battle scenes.  Milestone is equally adept at both.  The cumulative effect is devastating.
  3. As movies adjusted to sound, so did acting styles, slowly… Things are already far more natural here than in Applause, but still not quite there: Ayres is startlingly good and underplayed in dialogue scenes, but he lapses into artifice for the monologues, still telegraphing his emotions as if we couldn’t hear his words.  They say that Gary Cooper was the first pure sound-film actor, staying still and letting the words and his eyes carry everything.  He would have his first big hit the next year…
  4. And sure enough the best moments are still silent… We see one soldier’s brief flashback: After his impulsive enlistment, his mother sees his uniform and collapses in horror.  Suddenly filled with shame, the boy tries to tear the uniform off…but just then his father comes in and beams with pride.  Caught between the two, he doesn’t know what to do.  That’s the whole movie right there.  The rest is gravy. 
  5. Ironically, the arrival of strict censorship in 1934 is now seen as the beginning of Hollywood’s Golden Age, because of the sly sophistication it forced filmmakers to adopt, while the frank sexuality of 1929-1933, the “pre-code” era, can appear tasteless by comparison, but this movie belies both of those prejudices: the tender scene in which Ayres loses his virginity to a French village girl, both desperately seeking a connection but unable to speak the other’s language, is beautifully restrained and heartbreaking.  It forcefully reminds us just how destructive and dishonest it was of Hollywood to spend thirty years denying the existence of pre-marital sex.  
How Available Is It?: They’ve just released a beautiful new restoration on DVD.  Even if you’ve seen the movie before, you should check this out… I felt like I was seeing the beautiful and haunting imagery for the first time.

Ah, 1930: Hey, I thought Don Draper came up with that slogan in 1960!

Thursday, March 15, 2012

How to Create a TV Show, Part 3: Network, Cable, or In Between?

Now that you’ve made your first three decisions, it’s time for the big one.  Again, you might ask: is this even up to me?  After all, you can’t control who will buy your spec pilot (on the very off chance that you sell it), and there are plenty of examples of shows that were originally developed for network but ended up on cable (“The Sopranos”) or vice versa (“Swingtown”).  

But no, you do indeed have to make this decision beforehand, for two big reasons: length and act breaks.  The length differential has gotten severe: it used that network dramas were about 52 minutes long, but now they’re only 41 or so.  Comedies have gone from 26 minutes to 20.  This is a brutally short amount of time to tell a story. 

But then it gets worse: if the commercial breaks had merely gotten longer, that would be bad enough, but they’ve also chopped them up more and more, so we now have up to six or seven short commercial breaks in an “hour” of dramatic programming, and three or four in a “half-hour”.

In addition to boring your DVR-less viewers to death, this gets to be a problem because of all the “act-outs.”  Generally speaking, you want to cut to commercial on a dramatic revelation or cliffhanger.  These so-called “act-outs” will keep the viewers on the edge of their seat until you come back.  One reason that network dramatic TV has gotten pulpier in the last ten years is that you now need six hyped-up cliffhangers per episode, instead of three. 

So the appeal of writing a show specifically for HBO or Showtime should be obvious: you get a full hour or half-hour with no artificial-drama act breaks.  Plus you get to curse and show nudity!  (Although more and more “edgy” network pilots include these things in their script as well and just assume that it’ll be bleeped or fuzzed out.) 
But beware.  As I said two days ago, the whole point of a spec TV episode is show that you can work within rules and limits.  The fewer limits you give yourself, the less impressive you’ll look.  And do not write a standard sitcom or cop show and declare it to be a pay-cable show just to avoid the restrictions.  If you’re aiming for cable, you need to have a dark, unique, adult show, preferably with a killing and some nudity.  Even  “Homeland” was required by Showtime to have a lot of nudity in the first few episodes, even though that has little to do with the show, then they were allowed to taper off afterwards.

Besides, hitting all those act breaks can be kind of fun.  It gives you a firm structure and allows you to keep things fun and zippy.  First you figure out the act breaks and then rest pretty much writes itself. (And, in truth, you can cheat a little bit and stick to five act dramas or three act comedies, and it’ll still feel right to the reader.  Just don’t write an old-fashioned four act drama or two act comedy.  They’ll notice that.)
As with our previous examples, the best answer may be in-between.  Many writers these days aim their spec pilots at the FX / TNT zone: more darkness and sophistication, some cursing and semi-nudity, but still enough act breaks to show you know the rules.  Are we ready to start writing?  Not at all!  Another big decision when we come back…

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

How to Create a TV Show, Part 2: The First Three Decisions

Hour-Long or Half-Hour?  And while we’re at it: Drama, Comedy, or In Between?
Obvious, half-hours are usually comedies and hour-longs are usually dramas. Right now, they’re not so far apart.  Dramas have gotten lighter (“Bones” instead of “Law and Order”, Grey’s Anatomy” instead of “ER”) while comedies have a little bit more bite (“The Office” instead of “Friends”).  Plus, there’s an ever-increasing middle-ground: both “Desperate Housewives” and “Glee” have been nominated for best-comedy Emmys, despite the fact that both are hour-long. 

In terms of choosing what to spec, as much as I hate to say it, it’s good to head for the middle ground.  I miss the old-school no-nonsense “Law and Order” days, but you want to spec to show off your ability to craft both an exciting outer life and a complex inner life.  What’s the best compliment anyone can pay your script? “You’ll laugh, you’ll cry!”

Three Camera, One Camera, or In-Between?
If you’re creating a comedy, you have this additional question to answer.  Traditional three-camera sitcoms have always shot in large chunks in front of a studio audience.  The actors go for as long as possible as three cameras shoot the action from different angles.  Back when TV was live, a controller would cut between the cameras in real time, but now the angles are cut together afterwards in the editing room.  You can always spot three-camera shows because they have a missing fourth wall we never see. 

These days there are lots of “one-camera” show, like “Modern Family”.  These shoot like a drama in normal-looking locations (though the sets are built with fly-away movable walls to allow the camera more room to maneuver)  Then you have in-between shows like “How I Met Your Mother”, that do a lot of cross-cutting and one-camera scenes mixed in with the three-camera set-ups. 

But why do you need to know this?  Can’t you just write it and let them choose how to shoot it?  Not really. It used to be that the two types of shows used an entirely different script format (one-camera scripts were formatted like dramas, while three-camera shows used an odd double-spaced format, designed to encourage on-the-fly rewrites) but these days the old “three-camera” script format is being abandoned in favor of doing it like everybody else.  Nevertheless, the two types of shows work very differently, so you should know, in your own mind, which one your sitcom is, even if you’ll never identify it either way on the page.  
Why would you prefer one or the other?  Well, it depends on the preferences of the network you have in mind.  Louie C.K. tried to mount a three camera sitcom on HBO and he got savagely ridiculed.  He learned his lesson and re-launched the show as a one-camera on FX, where hes been massively acclaimed.  More on picking your target network tomorrow...

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

How to Create a TV Show, Part 1: Spec Pilots Are Nutty

It used to be that only TV veterans ever tried to create new TV shows from scratch.

If you wanted to get started in TV writing, you had to first write a “spec” (short for “speculative”) episode of an existing show.  If the showrunner for that show or (more often) a similar show liked your script, they would hire you for a staff writing position.  After you put in a few years, and mastered the form, you could pitch the network your own ideas for a new show.  If they liked an idea, they would help you develop a “pilot” script for the first episode of the series.  If they were happy with how that script turned out, you would shoot a pilot episode.  If they liked the pilot, and they had a place for it on their schedule, they would “order it to series”. 

In reality, that system has barely changed: it’s still virtually unheard of for someone without a lot of screenwriting experience to sell a pilot.  Nevertheless, these days, in addition to a “spec episode” of an existing show, every would-be TV writer is also expected to write at least one “spec pilot” for their own show.

Why are you writing a “spec pilot” if the studios have no interest if buying one from an untested writer?  Who knows?  Here are some guesses:
  • It’s a way of raising the bar, and really testing you right off the bat. Writing pilots is hard, and it shows you’re truly a master of the TV form. 
  • It shows that you can create, and not just mimic.    
  • If I may be cynical, it gives producers another chance to play the big-shot, and talk about all the big stuff they’ll do for you in the future (your own show!) if only you play ball in the meantime…
But who are we to question why?  Let’s create a TV show that no one will buy!  After all, it does teach you the form.  So let’s get started!  First, you have to answer several questions:
  • Drama, comedy, or in between?
  • For comedies: Three camera, one camera, or in between
  • Network, cable, or in between?
  • Serialized, episodic, or in between?
  • Premise pilot, center cut, or in between?
We’ll tackle these questions in chunks, starting tomorrow, but first let’s address one more question that you’re not allowed to ask:
  • Normal-length or extra-length pilot?
The answer is: normal-length.  Yes, lots of great pilots have been extra-length: “Alias” was 90 minutes, “ER” was two hours…  Hell, “Battlestar Galactica” started with a 5 hour miniseries!  But all of those shows were created by veterans with proven track records.  

The whole point of writing a spec pilot it to show that you know how to play by the rules and work within limits.  As soon as you remove one of those limits, you fail. 

Okay, off we go...

Monday, March 12, 2012

Storyteller's Rulebook #129: Comedy Requires Pain

Two surprising things happened last week:
  • Betsy and I dropped “Modern Family” from our DVR lineup entirely.
  • We realized that “The New Girl” had become our favorite network show. 
Mere months ago, “Modern Family” still seemed fresh, smart and sophisticated, while “The New Girl” seemed like a funny-but-terminally-silly trifle.  But that’s the wonderful/terrible thing about TV: it’s always changing.  Stasis is impossible.  If shows stop getting better, they start getting worse, and if they aren’t getting worse, they start getting better. 

What finally made us drop “Modern Family” was a repugnant episode premised on the horror of  three shrieking harpies all going through “mon-struation” at the same time.  But, in retrospect, another episode, a few months ago, while nowhere near as terrible, had revealed the heart of the problem. 

I had already been lamenting for a while that the show was getting more and more “sitcom-y”.  Then we got an episode in which Phil (Ty Burrell, the show’s best character), couldn’t reach his doctor on the phone, so he irrationally assumed that there must be bad news, and then spent the whole episode over-reacting and worrying, until the mix-up was finally cleared-up at the end. 

I kept shouting at my TV, why not give Phil an actual health scare: a real lump or an actual operation he had to have?  Making it obvious that his worries were hysterical was the “safer” choice, but the showrunners fell prey to a basic fallacy: they thought that if we got upset, we would be less willing to laugh.  Not true!  They wanted us to laugh at Phil for feeling false fear, but the stronger choice would be to dredge up our own fear of death, get us upset along with Phil for a moment, then invite us to laugh at our own fears as well as his...
So imagine my happiness when I saw last week’s “New Girl”, which provided the Gallant to “Modern Family”’s Goofus. Aimless slacker Nick (a great out-of-nowhere actor named Jake Johnson), who has no insurance, is forced to admit that he’s had a lump in his neck for a long time that he hasn’t let any doctor see.  It’s a grave situation, and the show doesn’t shy away from the horror and pain this causes for the whole ensemble. 

Sound dreadful?  Nope, it was hilarious.  What makes these characters lovable are their insecurities, so the more genuinely insecure they get, the funnier they get.  Even better, as we in the audience feel our own real emotions about the seriousness of the situation, that gives us license to laugh that much harder at the comedy, buoyed by the knowledge that the writers respect us enough to really feel, rather than merely setting us up for quick gags. 

Comedy requires pain.  Make us feel.  We’d rather laugh at ourselves than laugh at some hapless doofus.