I’ve updated the Checklist road test for Alien and you can check it out here. Now let’s look at one of the new answers in more depth:
On the one hand, the basic situation in Alien would seem to the typical “man up” story, of the type I complained about before:
There’s first contact with an enemy that is humanoid but seems to be devoid of feeling. When deaths ensue, there are those who are reluctant to kill their enemy because he’s a living creature, but the ones we agree with say, “Who cares? It’s clearly a monster so let’s just kill it.” Over the course of the story, those who wanted to maintain contact are proved to be wrong and hypocritical, and the “kill it with fire” side is vindicated. Our hero is a woman, who starts out unassertive and then become more assertive as she realizes that she has to kill the creature mercilessly.
But of course it’s far more complicated than that. The seemingly right-wing narrative above runs in tandem with a far more left-wing narrative:
The ship is run by an evil corporation, acting with complete impunity with no government in sight, and sacrifices its workers one by one in the interest of developing a new weapon. When the workers ask for better pay, their demands are dismissed with the same language that will later be used to justify sacrificing them to the alien.
The two narratives contrast nicely and counterbalance each other, keeping it from seeming overly-strident either way.
But let’s focus on Ripley’s arc. Even though the culmination of her arc is, “let’s just kill it and blow everything up,” it still feels like morally ascending, not descending. She starts out the movie as a drone, blandly defending standard procedure, but she becomes more human as the story progresses, and ironically, as she decides to kill the alien, she becomes a more compassionate person, endangering her life to literally “save the cat”.
Usually, coming to value one’s own survival over the values of one’s society is a moral descent, but in this case it’s an ascent: Serving the needs of her society is actually a terrible idea, because her society serves death, demanding its workers sacrifice their lives for company profits. In discovering that she values herself more than she’s allowed to, she becomes more fully human, and more empathetic towards others, as shown by her belated protectiveness towards the cat.
In this movie, and in many subsequent anti-corporate stories, we’ve exposed the hidden sub-basement of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, below self-preservation: profit. Moving from that level to cold-blooded self-preservation feels like a rise, not a fall.
This helps explains why journeys like Walt’s on “Breaking Bad” feel oddly uplifting despite the hero’s horrible actions. The twin evils that launch Walt’s quest, (a for-profit health care system and income disparity that pays a chemistry entrepreneur billions while paying a chemistry teacher less than a living wage) outrage us more than his crimes. Tellingly, it was only in the final season of that show, when Walt’s business finally became consistently profitable and he took on employees, that the audience started seriously rooting for his downfall.
I’ve updated the Checklist road test for Donnie Brasco and you can check it out here. Now let’s look at one of the new answers in more depth:
When we think of framing devices, we tend to think of retrospective voiceover, flashforwards, or a beginning scene that turns most of the movie into a flashback, but this movie has a more subtle approach.
As Donnie first gets in with Lefty, we intermittently get a literal framing device: we hear an ominous-sounding camera clicking and the action is rendered in a series of still frames, shot from far away at a high angle, until we go back to normal. We never have a clear sense who’s taking these picture or from where…we’re not even sure if Donnie himself knows about it.
The effect is sinister, for both Lefty and Donnie. These are both manhunters with licenses to kill, and they’re both potentially in each other’s gun-sights, but this creepy surveillance reveals them for what they really are: victims of forces beyond their control, ground up by the twin bureaucracies of the mob and the feds.
Like any framing device, this establishes the mood, the nature of the jeopardy, and the dramatic question. In most undercover movies, the question is “Will the hero survive long enough to get the evidence he needs?” Here, it’s more a question of “Can either Donny or Lefty get out of the boxes that their bosses have put them in, or are they both trapped?” The occasional intrusion of these ominous, fatalistic photos set up that dynamic nicely.
This device acts as the cold eye of fate, foreshadowing the ultimate powerlessness of both men. Tellingly, this is the only movie movies I’ve looked at in which the hero is not there for the climax: We finally see the photos manifest themselves in the story when Donnie’s fed bosses walk in to the mob club, toss them on the pool table, explain who Donnie was, and walk out. Donnie will never have the chance to intervene and save Lefty’s life: larger forces are in control now.
I’ve updated the Checklist roadtest for Bridesmaids and you can check it out here. Now let’s look at one of the new answers in more depth:
Another new question on the checklist asks if the dialogue shows empathy for every character and this is something Bridesmaids excels at, as shown by the scene where Annie has an awkward lunch with her “nemesis”, Helen.
Many writers think that their hero has to “save the cat” in the first scene and continually save the cat throughout the entire story, but this just isn’t true. The scary truth is that your audience will give you about ten pages before they decide whether or not they like your hero. If they haven’t identified with the hero by then, they never will, but the upside is that once they’re onboard they will follow your hero anywhere.
Especially in a comedy, this is the point where you want to stop writing scenes that play up your heroes’ rightness and start yanking their certainties out from underneath them. This will test their self-image, and since we’ve chosen to identify with the hero, it will also test our own self-image, causing us to sweat along with the hero.
This is why you need to demonstrate empathy for all. Sacrificing the other characters, turning them into hypocrites or sniveling caricatures, does your hero no favors. If the initial certainties that your hero and audience formed turn out to be true, then they can both coast through the story smugly, untouched by events. But you do want to touch them: not all comedies need to touch our hearts, but they do at least have to poke us in the ribs. We laugh when we feel vulnerable.
Showing empathy for villains will always make your story more meaningful. This scene is funny, but it also makes Helen into a much stronger antagonist, because it makes it harder for Annie, and the audience, to dismiss her. Seeing this side of Helen also makes us understand more why Lillian would like both of these women, and might genuinely choose Helen over Annie, which amps up the jeopardy.
Instead of saying, “Ugh, we hate trophy wives, so we’ll show the world how terrible they are,” the writers of this movies said, “Sure, Helen’s terrible, but have you ever thought how much it would suck to be a trophy wife, attempting to be at-least-somewhat-maternal to kids who see you as an interloping vamp?”
I’ve updated the Checklist road test for How to Train Your Dragon and you can check it out here. Now let’s look at one of the new answers in more depth:
Another new question in the checklist is “Is the movie based more on observations than ideas?” I have this under “Theme”, because startling fealty to real life is more likely to create deeper meaning than any big ideas you may want to impart, but the fact is that these observations don’t just improve theme, they empower every aspect of the process.
As I pointed out here, movies must reflect how the world works even if they’re not set on our world, and I discussed here how fantasy worlds should draw most of their mythology and methodology from real-world cultures. How to Train Your Dragon is a great example of both, but the movie’s commitment to reality goes even further...
The heart of the movie lies in the astounding silent sequences in which Hiccup and Toothless the dragon form their tenuous bond. In the book, the dragon could talk, but the filmmakers made the daring decision to render him mute, even though they were adapting the story to a far more dialogue-dependent medium. How did they pull it off?
One would assume that, when writing a dragon story, the fun part would be coming up with the complex dragon mythology and the crazy creatures, and this movie has glimpses of that, but for the most part, they don’t let their imaginations run wild: they base all of Toothless’s behavior on real animals…specifically cats and tigers.
They could have just assumed that we would say “Hey, these dragons are clearly real, since we can see them!” but they knew that, especially in an animated movie, merely seeing a character is not believing. We would only truly believe in these dragons if we recognized their behavior. By basing their dragon behavior on close observation of real-life animals, they accomplished that.
(And another related fact from the excellent DVD documentaries: they brought in master cinematographer Roger Deakins to advise them on their “photography”, and he taught them how to simulate light more realistically than any other computer animated movie, creating truly hard shadows for the first time. The effect is both beautiful and subconsciously powerful, giving even the cartoony main characters a startling solidity. That made the writers’ job a lot easier.)
In order to test the new checklist before I posted it, I re-submitted the movies I had already evaluated with the old checklist to the new one. I’ll be updating those old posts for a while, and doing quick highlights here of how they answered one of the new questions.
One addition to the checklist is that the hero’s primary motivation for at least the first half of the story should not be selfless. In Silence of the Lambs, Clarice Starling is a straight-up stand-up-and-cheer hero, and audiences love her unreservedly, but, like real heroes, she’s far from selfless.
She’s not a pro bono volunteer at the FBI, it’s her career, and there’s no doubt what her motivation is for most of the movie: advancement. She follows instructions to the letter, lets her boss hold her back or spur her forward, and genuinely respects him. She doesn’t burn with rage at “technicalities”, or society’s failings, or the thought of “injustice” as an abstract concept.
This was especially notable because there had been a lot of cop movies in the previous twenty years in which the cop was advised to think about his career, only to angrily retort that this wasn’t about his career, dammit, this was about the victims! Clarice feels for the victim, but she doesn’t pretend that she’s the only one who does, and she clearly knows that the victim’s loved ones must be kept away from a case with a ten foot pole, because they’ll just screw everything up.
And now, without further ado, check out lots more new answers like this one here…
So we’ve reached the end, but all we’ve talked about is how to give notes, and not how to receive them. One reason for this, of course, is that you don’t have much choice about the latter: you just say thanks, read them, and weep.
The real question is, how do you handle notes that don’t have the level of sensitivity and specificity that we’ve discussed here?
The answer is simple: you just reverse-engineer this process. The notes you get might not follow those steps, but treat them as if they did:
Happily forgive and filter out note-giver’s emotion.
Happily forgive and filter out any less-than-charitable assumptions the note-giver made.
Ignore any references to gurus or rules or the market, just treat these notes as one person’s individual opinion, which is what they are.
On your first read-through, skim over everything but the praise and assure yourself that the note-giver isn’t rejecting you or your project outright. Once you accept that, then go back, read the whole thing and take their criticism seriously.
Categorize the criticisms and evaluate what this critique has to say about each of your separate skills.
Whatever you do, even if you found the notes infuriating, thank the note-giver profusely and ask for the chance to offer up your own good, strong, sensitive notes for the note-giver’s current project. Remember: any set of unpaid notes is a huge favor, and you now owe one in return. (If you don’t like the way they gave the notes, the only good way to let them know is to set a better example in the notes you write for them!)
So what do you do now? Divide the notes into those that ring true to you and those that don’t, then go out and get a few more sets of notes on this draft. Any note that you don’t like, if you only got it once, you can safely put it aside for now. But no matter how much you disagree, if you get the same unwelcome note from more than one person, the Back to the Future rule kicks in, and you have to assume that millions will feel that way. Call those note-givers back and ask them to explain in more detail what you’re doing wrong.
So now we’re actually going to tell our poor writer where he went wrong, but first one last caveat: we’re not going to tell him where it all went wrong. Inevitably, there will be one huge problem, and every other problem will pale in comparison, but don’t let that one problem overwhelm your other notes.
Whether or not you use The Ultimate Story Checklist as part of your notes, I highly recommend that you break your notes down and evaluate each major writing skill separately. Don’t roll your eyes and say that good scenework doesn’t matter if the characters are utterly passive. Even if one aspect is bad enough to sink the whole project, you still need to mention it once (emphatically) and then move on to other strengths and flaws.
If you keep harping on it, one of two things will happen: either they’ll instantly concede that point and want you to move on, or they’ll stubbornly dig in. And guess what, once they’ve fixed everything else, maybe that thing won’t look so bad. “Speech therapist has to help a figurehead stop stuttering” is a terrible concept for a movie, but if everything else about the movie is well done, then it can still be a success. Sometimes stubbornness pays off.
So how do you give notes about each skill?
Concept: In this case, give notes like an audience member, not like a fellow writer. Do you “get it”? Is this a cool idea? Would you pay for it? Would you be glad that you did? If not, why not? (Should you pitch ways to re-conceive it? Some writers want to hear that and some don’t. Ask in advance, or offer those ideas with a heavy pinch of salt.)
Character: Now you can think like a writer—don’t just focus on likability, zero in on specific “motivation holes” and “empathy holes”. “I became exasperated with the character on page 45,” “I didn’t buy that he would do that on page 67,” etc.
Structure: Identify the plot holes and the dead spots (every time you stop reading, note the page number). Suggest repeated beats to eliminate. Point out where it’s too much plot and not enough emotion. Point out places where the structure beats are too obvious.
Scenework: Identify your favorite and least favorite scenes, and give reasons why. Talk about the overall quickness or slowness of the read (which usually comes down to scenework).
Dialogue: Focus on this least because it’ll get rewritten over and over as everything else changes. Just give your overall impression. (Whatever you do, don’t just quote your least-favorite lines back at them and simply assume that they will cringe. They wrote those lines! They have them memorized! They like them! If you think those are cringe-worthy lines, you have to gingerly tell them why!)
Tone: Say how long it took you to figure out what kind of a story it was, what genre it was, what the mood was supposed to be, etc. Talk about what you expected to happen that didn’t happen, and try to figure out at which point you got the wrong expectation.
Theme: Most writers haven’t given this much thought yet, so usually you can just ask “What does it all mean?” and freak them out. Ask what the big thematic dilemma is. Suggest ways to make that dilemma more awkward or painful. Suggest ways to make everything more ironic.
Rather than go through these in order, I start with the skill I have the most praise for and then count down to the skill I have the least praise for, in order to create buy-in.
So that’s it! …But wait, you say, this was all about how to give notes, I never talked about how to receive notes. Okay, okay, come back tomorrow for that coda…
So we established yesterday that there’s no point in giving notes if those notes aren’t persuasive, and that’s a tall order, because it takes a lot to overcome a writer’s natural resistance. This turns you into a salesman, whether you like it or not, and in order to close any sale, you need to create “Buy-In”.
You should start each set of notes with a lot of general and specific praise, not just because that’s nicer, or because you’re trying to soften the blow, but because you need to establish common cause. You need to make it clear that you “get it”, that you see what the writer is trying to do and you agree it’s worth doing, that you see where it is working and how it’s working.
Otherwise, the writer will likely say, “Oh well, this person just doesn’t get me”, or “doesn’t like this kind of story” or “didn’t read my work closely enough to figure it out”, and they’ll have every reason to feel that way. It’s up to you to prove to them that none of these things are true.
Of course, once you’ve gotten them to accept your praise, then you’ve got them on the hook. Now you can hit them with both barrels and they’ll still say, “Uh oh, I can’t reject this criticism without also rejecting that praise, so I have to accept them both.”
Okay, that’s four days of mollycoddling out of the way, so now can we finally get to some criticism?? Yes, tomorrow, we’ll finally begin to pick away at our poor writer.
But Wait, Before We Move On, Let Me Tack On One Last “Do” and “Don’t”:
You can mention classic universally-beloved works to emulate, but DO NOT EVER MENTION SIMILAR PROJECTS IN DEVELOPMENT (or ones that are about to come out, or recent superficially-similar flops, or cult classics they’ve never heard of!) My old Film School chums are probably sputtering with rage right now because I was the asshole who always did this, and it took me years to stop, even after several people told me how inappropriate it was.
Believe me: Nobody wants to hear this. It’s just dampens their enthusiasm and bums them out. And there’s no reason to tell them:
That competing project will probably never come out, or be totally transformed by the time it does.
If that competing project gets made, and it’s a hit, then that might actually help this project get made.
If that project does come out (or already came out) and it’s a flop, then there will still be a market for a better version.
Yes, you’re very smart, and very savvy, and you know all the angles and all the inside dope. Good for you. But keep it to yourself. You’re their peer, not their agent. Your job is to make it better, not to worry about if it’ll sell. So clam up.
Even if you’re just reading something for free for an acquaintance in a writing group, you need to remember that you’re not just giving these notes, you’re selling these notes, and you’re selling to a tough audience. On one level, of course, this is ridiculous: what do you care if they accept what you say or not? But there are good reasons:
Because you’ve put a lot of time and effort into reading this thing and writing up these notes, and you don’t want that work to go to waste.
Because the number one reason to give notes is to get notes back, and if they reject those notes, then they might not feel the need to return the favor.
Your notes need to be persuasive. You have to give them notes that they will accept, however reluctantly. These are the kinds of notes that writers reject:
Notes based on rules that the writer hasn’t accepted: If you say, “According to Syd Field, this plot point should happen on page 15, not on page 45!” they’ll respond, “I prefer the sequence approach,” or, “You’ve misidentified which plot point is which,” or, “Don’t be a page-nazi!”
Notes are based on marketability: If you say, “Nobody will ever buy a story like this!” they’ll respond, “I don’t write for the market! Nobody knows anything! Genius is never appreciated in its own time.”
Notes based on assumptions about the writer’s intentions: If you say, “You’re trying to write a horror movie but this feels like a spoof,” they’ll say, “Good, that means it’s subversive!”
Notes focused on a hypothetical audience: If you say “Fans of broad comedy won’t like these kind of scenes,” they’ll say, “They don’t know what they want until I show it to them.”
Don’t focus on your pre-established expectations of what a writer should do or what a story should be, and don’t focus on how you think other people will react. Instead, focus on what this writer is trying to do in this work and the effect it had on you the reader, and you alone...
“As I was reading, I felt frustrated that not enough had happened by page 45.”
“This is the sort of concept I would be interested in, but I would feel very let down by what you have so far. Here’s the sort of stuff I would want to see based on this concept...”
“I couldn’t figure what sort of story it was supposed to be, so I didn’t know how to react.”
“I laughed really hard at that one scene, so I wanted more laughs like that, but I didn’t get any.”
Just speak for yourself. It’s impossible to reject these notes. They can’t tell you (or tell themselves) that you didn’t feel that way. Don’t try to convince them that everybody will feel this way, because you don’t know that…and besides, it will be heart-breaking enough for them to discover that one person feels this way.
Next, the final step of being persuasive: Create Buy-In…
This one is especially true in the screenwriting market in recent years, which has become especially outrageous. In order to be heard above the noise, writers tend to get signed as a result of a really shocking sample work (often with a profane, unreleasable title), which will never actually gets made, but will get the writer in the door for years of tame rewrite work.
As a result, writers are putting more and more audacity into their samples, and that audacity can easily put the note-giver in the wrong mood: because the writing lacks humility, it can be easy to assume that the writer lacks humility, and needs to be put in his or her place. Don’t fall into this trap. Remember, this person has done something profoundly humble by coming to you for notes.
You may strongly suspect that the writer just wants you to say it’s great (or, even worse, just wants you to show it to your agent), and that’s often the case, but you have to act on the assumption that this isn’t true.
A bold writing style is just that, a style, and the writer underneath might still be very sensitive. Showing someone your writing is like showing your diary: you have inevitably put a lot of your hidden emotional life onto the page, both intentionally and unintentionally, and it’s painful for anyone to have that judged. Even if it seems like they’ve puffed up their chest and dared you to take a swing, don’t go for the gutpunch.
Never be confrontational, or derisive, or flippant. Even if you’re used to kidding around with the writer, never use dismissive words like stupid, lame, lazy, shitty, terrible, or rotten. Most importantly, never imply that any choice was made out of laziness, no matter how much you suspect that to be the case. Remember how hard this is: nobody ever finished a manuscript by being lazy. It may be worthless, but that doesn’t mean it was effortless.
No matter how much it might seem to the contrary, you have to assume that this person did his or her best possible work and wrote it with the best possible motives. What you’re reading may seem quick, sloppy and insolent, but you have to assume that’s not true, and that you actually have the writer’s tender, beating heart in your hands, and only your meticulous scalpel and delicate stitches can repair its wounds.
So how to do you do that? You have to move on to Step 3: Be a Salesman…
As vampires need blood, writers need an endless, steady stream of notes in order to survive. It’s impossible to know for certain what others will think of your work until you finally, tenderly send it out to be judged. Inevitably, you will discover that nothing has gotten the reaction you intended, but that’s good, because now you know what you actually have, if anything, and you can begin to make something real out of it.
But to do that, you need good notes. And you’re not going to get good notes from your loved ones (who like you too much), or from your professors (who are paid to like you). You need notes from your peers, preferably from peers who are just peers, not close friends.
So what’s the best way to get good notes? If you develop a reputation as someone who gives good notes, then your peers will be happy to return the favor, so let’s figure out how to do that, starting with…
Part 1: Deal With Your Emotional Reaction First
This is a what most note-givers fail to do. We inject too much emotion into our notes because we’re unwilling to admit to those emotions, so the first step is to be very aware that all manuscripts cause emotional reactions in their early readers, for a variety of reasons. When you read a manuscript…
You will feel insulted if it’s bad. “Why are you wasting my time with this half-ass crap??”
You will feel frustrated if it’s so-so. “This is like reading the phone book!”
You will feel manipulated if it’s blatantly emotional. “Stop telling me how to feel!”
You will feel vulnerable if it’s subtly emotional. “This makes me really uncomfortable…”
You will feel threatened if it’s too good. “Holy crap, who does this asshole think he is?”
Allow yourself to have these emotional reactions: get frustrated, get pissed, get upset…but don’t take it out on the writer. Don’t say, “How dare you!” Always remember our big secret: Storytelling is an inherently manipulative thing to do. Readers (hopefully) don’t realize this, but we are in the emotional manipulation business...and it takes a lot of practice.
Writers want to shock us, upset us, sadden us, anger us, goose us, derange us, etc. It’s disturbing enough when they succeed, but it can be excruciating when they fail. It’s as if the writer is poking you in the ribs over and over again saying, “Isn’t this awesome?” You just want to slap them down to make them stop.
But you don’t. You control yourself. You allow yourself to feel those feelings and then you keep them out of your notes. You remind yourself that, by reading their work, you invited them to poke you. Now you have to say, “Actually, there are better ways to poke me, and here’s how...”
If you watch the “Cheers” pilot, you’ll see typical shots of random extras in the background enjoying the bar, but one of them stands out: a flinty-looking old lady in a wheelchair, drinking alone. This is a glimpse of what might have been, because she was supposed to be a regular character. Here’s veteran staffer Ken Levine on his excellent blog, explaining what happened:
“The character was named Mrs. Littlefield. She was an opinionated old broad from the D.A.R. She was in the pilot and the decision to drop the character was made after it was filmed. Politics just didn't fit with the mix. So they cut out her part, but there are a few shots here and there where she is still in the background. Just look for a sweet white-haired little old lady who used to have lines. Since several back-up scripts were in the works before the pilot was filmed, we also had to go back and write her out of those episodes as well.
If you look at the script, the final version is almost verbatim the way it was written, with the exception of all of Mrs. Littlefield’s lines being cut out. She’s very funny, but you can see why she had to go:
But, that said, the show was political, just in a different way. Let’s look at the amazing cold open:
There is so much packed into this. Yes, it’s funny, and it introduces our setting and central character, but it’s also a bit of a mission statement:
“That’s what they say: ‘War is gross.’” The first amazing thing about this line is that Danson dares to play it melancholy, not like a punchline, letting us know that there’s something under the laugh: We’re here underground hanging onto our working-class traditions in this bar but there’s a younger, more privileged generation up there with a breezy contempt for those traditions who literally cannot conceive of what real suffering is like.
“This is the thanks we get,” the kid says in faux-reactionary outrage as he turns his back on Sam’s world. Our heroes would spend the next eleven years camped out in this bunker as their working-class world was gradually demolished above them. More and more bartenders now have (useless, overpriced) college degrees. We’re all Diane Chambers now.
Mrs. Littlefield was an attempt to inject partisan political humor into the show, but it didn’t work, because the show was really about class politics, albeit only implicitly, and that was a subtle source of its power.
This deviation from the rules is very big and very rare: The audience’s loyalty is intentionally split.
There are a couple of different ways to introduce your hero and his or her world to the audience:
In some shows the whole world comes into existence in the pilot, so we get to know it along with the entire ensemble, but the camera picks one of those characters to be our main hero. (Jack on “Lost”, for example)
In many pilots, we have one hero who is also our point-of-view character, getting to know the world of the show for the first time along with the audience (Buffy on “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”, Jeff in “Community”)
In other pilots, the hero is already in his or her element and we meet him or her through the eyes of a separate point-of-view character, who might turn out to be a secondary regular (B. J. Novak on “The Office”)…
…or only a guest star (the patient in the pilot of “House”).
In other shows, we have two almost-co-equal heroes, but each is the hero of their own separate storyline (Don and Peggy on “Mad Men”, Bauer and Palmer on “24”).
In the “Cheers” pilot we first we meet Sam alone for a self-contained opening joke, but then Diane walks in the bar and the rest of the episode is clearly from her point of view as she gets to know everybody one by one. In retrospect, knowing that Diane was ultimately on for less than half the life of the show, it might be tempting to put this in the third category. It’s still Sam’s show, and she’s just a secondary character, right?
But in the context of just those first five glorious seasons, this seems too reductive. Was it really Sam’s show at that point?
This might be the time to point out that the pilot had rather weird opening credits, placing Ted Danson and Shelly Long’s names on the same card diagonal from each other, so it’s hard to know which one to read first. And indeed Shelly Long really does threaten to steal the show, both in this pilot and throughout those early years, not just because she was so talented but because her character was so beautifully-written.
It’s easy to misremember her as just another Fraser, that pestering poindexter, but in fact her sly wit and intelligence were usually portrayed positively. Frequently, in the pilot and onward, we’re in on the joke with her and the rest of the gang are two steps behind us.
Before we even meet her, starting with that credit card, the pilot intentionally makes the daring move of not telling us who to root for in this relationship. These were not two characters sharing the spotlight-- This was a case of two would-be heroes fighting for the audience’s affection as much as they fought for each other’s. It made for a scintillating romantic comedy.
(And yet, eventually, for the show to continue, she had to go. This is because she had one unforgivable flaw as a main character: she was reconcilable. Working in the bar was a useful corrective from her previous life, but her problems were ultimately resolvable and every possible solution involved leaving that bar. Sam’s problem was that he shouldn’t be there, because he’s a recovering alcoholic, but it was the only place he belonged. That’s an irreconcilable problem that can generate 11 seasons. Diane’s problem could only generate 5 seasons before it had to be resolved, and both Long and the writers knew it.)
After squandering his money, ex-major league pitcher Sam Malone run the bar he bought, even though he’s a recovering alcoholic. His bartender is his old sweet-natured ex-coach, his waitress is wicked-tongued Carla, and his two best patrons are nerdy Cliff and sarcastic Norm. In the pilot, high-class Literature Ph.D. Diane stops in with her professor/fiancé Sumner, who leaves her there while he goes to get a ring back from his ex-wife. Sam figures out that she’s been abandoned and reluctantly offers her a job.
PART 1: IS
THIS A STRONG CONCEPT FOR AN ONGOING SERIES? (14/20)
The Pitch: Does this concept excite everyone who
hears about it?
Does the concept satisfy the
urges that get people to love and recommend this type of series?
Yes, it’s hilarious and has the
effervescence of a great screwball romcom.
the series establish its own unique point of view on its setting?
there a central relationship we haven’t seen in a series before?
Yes, an earthy bar owner and his snooty waitress.
the ongoing concept of the series contain a fundamental (and possibly fun)
Yes, it’s about a recovering alcoholic who runs a bar (and
hires a posh waitress who despises bar talk.)
the concept meet the content expectations of one particular intended network,
venue, or audience?
No, this breaks the rule that “Nobody
every really rebrands”.NBC
wanted to make a smarter, gentler show, like ABC’s “Taxi or CBS’s “MASH”, and
if the setting is unpleasant, is there something about this premise that is
inherently appealing? (Something that will make the audience say, “Yes, I
will be able to root for some
aspect of this situation to recur episode after episode.”)
much so.This is a warm,
comfortable blanket of a show.
Series Fundamentals: Will this concept generate a
strong ongoing series?
there one character (or sometimes two, in separate storylines) that the
audience will choose to be their primary hero (although these heroes should
probably be surrounded by an ensemble that can more than hold their own)?
not really.The show
deliberately makes it hard to choose between Sam and Diane, even giving them
weirdly co-equal name placement in the credits.This is a not a case where they’re co-heroes, because
co-heroes must star in separate storylines.Instead, they were allowed to fight for supremacy in the
audience’s affection as much as they fought for each other’s.It was an interesting choice, and
they pulled it off.
this is a TV series, is the hero role strong enough to get an actor to
abandon a movie career, come to work in TV for the first time, and sign a
five-year contract before shooting the pilot? (And even if not for TV, is the
hero role still that strong, simply for narrative purposes?)
both Danson and Long had budding movie careers and gave them up to do this
show set in an unsafe space?
a very safe space…until Diane walks in and ruins it.She judges them and they judge her,
making it unsafe for the first time.
this a setting that will bring (or has brought) different economic classes
very much so.
trouble walk in the door on a regular basis?
certainly can, but doesn’t have to, because trouble enters the heart of the
bar once Diane is hired.
the heroes be forced to engage in both physical and cerebral activity on a
bartending involves a lot of physical labor, a constant barrage of quizzes,
and a lot of empathy.
there big stakes that will persist episode after episode?
Not huge, but to a certain extent,
both Sam and Diane are drowning here and throw each other a lifeline, and we
sense that they genuinely need each other to be saved.
the ongoing situation produce goals or mini-goals that can be satisfactorily
resolved on a regular basis?
Sam is dedicated to helping customers with their problems, and tries to do so
before each day’s end.
The Pilot: Will this pilot episode be marketable and
generate word of mouth?
the pilot contain all of the entertainment value inherent in the premise
(rather than just setting everything up and promising that the fun will start
premise is not established until the final moments, but Diane is already a
member of the ensemble by the halfway point, though she doesn’t know it yet,
so it works.
Does the pilot feature an image we haven’t seen before (that can be used
to promote the show)?
Yes, the old-timey photographs that make up the opening
credits, the in-show Cheers logo.
there something bold, weird, and never-before-seen about this concept and/or
Not really.That wasn’t a selling point back then.
Is there a “HOLY CRAP!” scene somewhere along the way in the pilot (to
create word of mouth)?
No.Again, not as much of a big deal back
the pilot build up potential energy that will power future episodes (secrets
that will come out, potential romances, etc.)?
Sam and Diane clearly have a potential romance.
if this is episodic, is there a major twist or escalation at the end (though
sometimes this twist will only be new to, or only revealed to, the audience)
that will kick future episodes up a notch?
against his better judgment, Sam hires Diane to work at the bar.
PART 2: IS THIS A COMPELLING
HERO (OR CO-HEROES IN DIFFERENT STORYLINES)? (16/16)
Believe: Do we recognize the hero (or co-heroes) as
the hero have a moment of humanity early on? (A
funny, or kind, or oddball, or out-of-character, or comically vain, or
unique-but-universal “I thought I was the only one who did that!” moment?)
Same: his gentle put-down of the kid trying to get a drink proves he’s funny,
ethical, and empathetic.Diane:
Her witty banter in the phone scene.
the hero have a well-defined public identity?
Sam: the beloved ex-relief pitcher for the Red Sox and avuncular bar
owner.Diane: the intellectual
ironically contrast with a hidden interior self?
Sam: the melancholy recovering alcoholic, Diane: the hopeless screw-up.
the hero have three rules he or she lives by (either stated or implied)?
Sam: Take it easy, help everybody, any girl can be seduced, Diane: be
smarter, judge everybody, maintain high standards.
the hero have a consistent metaphor family (drawn
from his or her job, background, or developmental state)?
Sam: old-timey “Quite a fella, that fiancé of yours.” Diane: romantic
literature, psychology: “What a shame such an astute observer of human nature
is stuck behind a bar.”
the hero have a default personality trait?
Yes, Sam: avuncular, Diane: snooty
the hero have a default argument tactic?
Sam: announcing how the argument is going to end before it ends, Diane:
making outside references others won’t get.
Care: Do we feel for the hero (or co-heroes)?
Does the hero have a great flaw
that is the flip side of his or her great strength?
the hero feel that this flaw cannot be resolved until it’s time to abandon
the world of the show?
actually feels that owning the bar is a bad place for him, but he chooses to
stay for economic and sentimental reasons.She definitely feels that she must hang onto those flaws
to avoid becoming like the bar patrons.
the flaw resonate with the theme and/or setting of the show?
bars are sleazy places.
Invest: Can we trust the hero (or co-heroes) to
tackle this challenge?
Does the hero have a great
strength that is the flip side of his or her great flaw?
Is the hero good at his or her
job (or family role, if that’s his or her primary role)?
Yes, he’s a great bartender, and she
turns out to be a waitress savant, who can instantly memorize an order better
hero surrounded by people who sorely lack his or her most valuable quality?
Sam is more of a winner than the patrons, Diane is smarter than everyone
Sam divines the truth about her. She is fascinated by the patrons, though she
won’t admit it.
hero generally resourceful?
they’re doing improv together before they’re even introduced, working
together to bamboozle his floozie on the phone.
Does the hero use unique skills to solve problems (rather than doing what
anybody else on the show would do)?
Yes, he uses his astute perspective (partially derived from
his personal pain) and she uses her vast knowledge.
PART 3: IS THIS A STRONG
ENSEMBLE (BEYOND THE HERO OR CO-HEROES)?(13/13)
Powerful: Is each member
of the ensemble able to hold his or her own?
this is a network TV series, are there at least two more roles that are
strong enough to get TV veterans to sign their own five-year contracts? (And
even if not for TV, are the characters still that strong, simply for
Coach and Carla were both veteran character actors.
all of the other regular roles strong enough on the page in this first
episode to attract great actors? (ditto)
Cliff and Norm were great finds.
Does each member of the ensemble
have a distinct and defensible point of view?
Very much so.In a way, each of them is proven
right: Carla’s cynicism and Coach’s open-heartedness are both validated.
each character defined primarily by actions and attitudes, not by his or her
Do all of the
characters consciously and unconsciously prioritize their own wants, rather
than the wants of others? (Good characters don’t
serve good, evil characters don’t serve evil.)
Yes, although they
care about each other (and even strangers entering the bar) very much.
most of the main characters have some form of decision-making power? (And is
the characters’ boss or bosses also part of the cast, so that major decisions
will not be made by non-regulars?)
Sam owns the bar, and the others can all stand up to him.
Balanced: Do the members
of the ensemble balance each other out?
Whether this is a premise or
episodic pilot, is there one point-of-view who needs this world explained
(who may or may not be the hero)?
it take some effort for the POV character to extract other characters’
Diane does have to extract their backstories with some effort.
Are the non-3-dimensional
characters impartially polarized into head, heart and gut (or various forms
of 2-way or 4-way polarization)?
Yes, it’s the rare 5 way: Diane is
head (so is Cliff, but he’s just a day player at this point), Coach is heart,
Norm is stomach, Carla is spleen, Sam is crotch.
Does each member of the ensemble
have a distinct metaphor family (different from the hero’s, even if they’re
in the same profession)?
each member of the ensemble have a different default argument tactic?
Coach: agreeing with everybody, Cliff: making up phony trivia, Carla:
reversing your turn-of-phrase in a crude manner.
there at least one prickly character who creates sparks whenever he or she
PART 4: IS THE PILOT
EPISODE A STRONG STAND-ALONE STORY AND GOOD TEMPLATE FOR THE ONGOING SERIES?
Template: Does this match
and/or establish the standard format of this type of series
the pilot have (or establish) the average length for its format?
this is intended for a form of commercial media, does the pilot have the
right number of commercial breaks for its intended venue?
one after the teaser, one in the middle, one before the tag.
this is intended for commercial TV, does every act end on a cliffhanger or
escalation, especially the middle one (and, if not intended for commercial
TV, does it still have escalations happening in roughly the same places,
simply for narrative purposes)?
show was somewhat unique at the time for having a teaser unconnected from the
rest of the show, but the only “true” act break, in the middle is a nice
escalation of the tension.
the pilot establish the general time frame for most upcoming episodes of this
we will often follow events from opening time to closing time, beginning with
a stand-alone gently-humorous bar interaction.
of the pilot’s storylines intercut believably within that time frame?
There is just one storyline and a bunch of running gags.
this is a premise pilot, is the basic premise established by the midpoint,
leaving time for a foreshortened typical episode story in the second half?
No, but it’s fine.
Pilot Story Fundamentals: Does the pilot
episode have a strong story?
the pilot provide at least one satisfactory stand-alone story (even if that
story is just the accomplishment of a mini-goal)?
very much so.Diane is totally
this episode’s plot simple enough to spend more time on character than plot?
pilot’s challenge something that is not just hard for the hero to do (an
obstacle) but hard for the hero to want to do (a conflict)?
Sam gradually comes to the realization that the only way to help this
customer is to offer a job, despite the fact that doing so will make this no
longer a safe space, and her decision is even harder, since it means totally
going against her values.
First Half: Is the problem established in a
way that reflects human nature?
the hero start out with a short-term goal for this episode?
Sam: serve drinks, Diane: stop in for a quick drink.
troubling situation (episodic pilot) or major change in the status quo
(premise pilot) develop near the beginning of the episode?
Sam has a customer in more trouble than she realizes, Diane is suddenly
the hero eventually commit to dealing with this situation personally?
Sam becomes proactively protective of Diane, Diane decides to confront Sumner
if he comes back.
hero’s efforts quickly lead to an unforeseen conflict with another person?
Diane rejects Sam’s protectiveness.
the hero try the easy way throughout the second quarter?
Sam leaves Diane alone, Diane insists Sumner is coming back.
this culminate in a major midpoint setback or escalation of the problem
(whether or not there’s a commercial break)?
they both realize that Sumner probably isn’t coming back, or at leas not to
stay, and they both know the other knows it too.
Second Half: Is the mini-goal resolved as
the ongoing trouble escalates?
the hero try the hard way from this point on?
he determines to make her see the truth.Sumner comes back briefly and Diane confronts him,
halfway through, are character decisions driving the plot, rather than
external plot complications?
the stakes increased as the pace increases and the motivation escalates?
the day is ending, and with it the chances that he will return.
further setback force the hero to adopt a wider view of the problem?
they both hear that Sumner has gone to Barbados with his ex-wife and they
both come to realize that she needs to be there.
that setback, does the hero finally commit to pursuing a corrected goal?
he offers her a job, but she seems as if she’ll never accept.
the final quarter of the story begins, (if not long before) has the hero
switched to being proactive, instead of reactive?
for him, he’s actively courting her.She becomes proactive at the very end when she enthusiastically commits
the climax, does either the hero, the point of view character or a guest star
have a personal revelation and/or life change, possibly revealed through
Diane has a total life change and Sam quietly has a personal revelation when
he comes to suspect he needs a woman like Diane.
PART 5: IS EACH
SCENE THE BEST IT CAN BE? (20/23)
The Set-Up: Does this scene begin with the essential
elements it needs?
Were tense and/or
hopeful (and usually false) expectations for this interaction established
NA, this is the first scene of the
Does the scene eliminate small
talk and repeated beats by cutting out the beginning (or possibly even the
No, it begins at the
Is this an intimidating setting
that keeps characters active?
Yes, a bar is an intimidating place
for an underage teen.
Is one of the scene partners not
planning to have this conversation (and quite possibly has something better to
No, they both want to be there.
Is there at least one non-plot
element complicating the scene?
Yes, it’s all non-plot.
Does the scene establish its own
mini-ticking-clock (if only through subconscious anticipation)?
Yes, can he get the drink before Sam
examines the ID?
The Conflict: Do the conflicts play out in a lively
Does this scene both advance the
plot and reveal character?
It’s all character, no plot.
Are one or more characters in
the scene emotionally affected by this interaction or action as the scene
Sam is oddly upset by it.
Does the audience have (or
develop) a rooting interest in this scene (which may sometimes shift)?
Yes, we’re rooting for Sam to give
this kid his comeuppance.
Are two agendas genuinely
clashing (rather than merely two personalities)?
Yes, the kid wants a drink, Sam wants
to let him down gently.
Does the scene have both a
surface conflict and a suppressed conflict (one of which is the primary
conflict in this scene)?
Yes: The surface conflict: is this a
valid ID?Suppressed conflict:
should you be drinking? Can I run a bar ethically?
Is the suppressed conflict
(which may or may not come to the surface) implied through subtext (and/or
called out by the other character)?
Yes, by echoing back the kid’s claim
that “war is gross”, he implies that the kid is woefully naïve about the
dangers of adult life.
Are the characters cagy (or in
denial) about their own feelings?
Yes, Sam’s gentle
good humor masks the feelings of melancholy this scene clearly brings up for
Do characters use verbal tricks
and traps to get what they want, not just direct confrontation?
Yes, the kid attempts to trick Sam
into not checking the ID “I’ll have to tell the mrs!” and Sam tricks the kid
into lying more, “What was Vietnam like?”
Is there re-blocking, including
literal push and pull between the scene partners (often resulting in just one
Just the object
Are objects given or taken,
representing larger values?
Yes, the ID is
offered and then taken back.
If this is a big scene, is it
broken down into a series of mini-goals?
It’s a very small scene.
The Outcome: Does this scene change the story going
As a result of this scene, does
at least one of the scene partners end up doing something that he or she
didn’t intend to do when the scene began?
Yes, the kid leaves empty-handed.
Does the outcome of the scene
ironically reverse (and/or ironically fulfill) the original intention?
Yes, the kid doesn’t get what he wants
but he gets what he needs.
It’s the very first
scene, but given that this is a show about a bar owner, the audience is
automatically going to have the question, “Is this going to be a rotten
guy?”This scene immediately
shuts that question down.
Are new questions posed that
will be left unanswered for now?
Yes, why is this
bartender so melancholy and compassionate?
Is the audience left with a
growing hope and/or fear for what might happen next? (Not just in the next
scene, but generally)
Does the scene cut out early, on
a question (possibly to be answered instantly by the circumstances of the
It ends on a great punchline.
PART 6: IS THIS
POWERFUL DIALOGUE? (13/14)
Empathetic: Is the dialogue true to human nature?
Does the writing demonstrate
empathy for all of the characters?
Very much so.
Does each of the characters,
including the hero, have a limited perspective?
much so.If the show was about
just Sam or Diane, we would go crazy.Each can see what the other can’t.
Are the characters resistant to
openly admitting their feelings (to others and even to themselves)?
Yes, they each
attempt to hide their baggage, except Carla, but the others drag it out.
Do the characters avoid saying
things they wouldn’t say?
Yes.Nobody directly confronts Coach on his senility, or Norm
on his alcoholism, or Carla on her bad home situation, but they do it through
sympathetic looks.Diane doesn’t
want to acknowledge an attraction to Sam, but the situation forces her to
say, “You’re a magnificent pagan beast.”
Do the characters listen poorly?
No, some do, but the others are great listeners, even
Do the characters interrupt each
other more often than not?
Specific: Is the dialogue specific to this world and
Does the dialogue capture the
culturally-specific syntax of the characters (without necessarily attempting
to replicate non-standard pronunciation)?
Yes: “What are you, nuts?They’re up to their ears in
Does the dialogue capture the
jargon of the profession and/or setting?
Yes: sports: “You call that a football
team?Did they get a jackrabbit
for the back field?No.Did they get a gunslinger for
quarterback?No,” and bartending
(elaborate drink orders galore)
Does the dialogue capture the
tradecraft of the profession being portrayed?
Yes, Sam not only does the job, he
astutely evaluates and helps everyone with their personal lives, and steers
bar conversations in fun directions.
Heightened: Is the dialogue more pointed and dynamic
than real talk?
Is the dialogue more concise
than real talk?
Does the dialogue have more
personality than real talk?
Is there a minimum of commas in
the dialogue (the lines are not prefaced with Yes, No, Well, Look, or the
other character’s name)?
Do non-professor characters
speak without dependent clauses, conditionals, or parallel construction?
Yes, Diane, a would-be professor
character, frequently begins parallel constructions only to be cut off by Sam
Is there one gutpunch scene,
where the subtext falls away and the characters really lay into each other?
Yes, Sam finally yells, “That goof
will probably be in Barbados tomorrow rubbing suntan oil on his ex-wife!”
PART 7: DOES THE PILOT MANAGE ITS TONE
TO CREATE AND FULFILL AUDIENCE EXPECTATIONS? (9/10)
Genre and Mood: Does the series tap into
Does the series fit within one
genre (or compatible sub-genres)?
Semi-serious workplace comedy
Are unrealistic genre-specific
elements a big metaphor for a more common experience (not how life really is,
but how life really feels)?
Yes, our pov
character gets a useless degree and has to work in a bar, which happens to a
lot of people, but it happens in a more extreme way, with her boss / thesis
advisor / fiance dumping her (in more ways than one) in the bar on the eve of
Separate from the genre, does
the pilot establish an overall mood for the series?
If there are multiple
storylines, do they establish the spectrum of moods available within that
Sort of: the runners are very light
and the main storyline is actually fairly heavy.
Is there a moment early on that
establishes the type and level of jeopardy?
Yes, Sam turns the kid down for a
drink, doing the kid a favor, and the kid resents it, foreshadowing that Sam
will help his customers with gentle fairness, but always be left behind after
he helps them move on.
Framing: Does the pilot set, reset, upset and
ultimately exceed its own expectations?
Are there framing devices
(flashforwards, framing sequences and/or first person narration) to set the
mood, pose a dramatic question, and/or pose ongoing questions?
Is there a dramatic question
posed early on, which will establish in the audience’s mind which moment will
mark the end of the pilot?
Yes, will Sumner and Diane make that
Does foreshadowing create
anticipation and suspense (and refocus the audience’s attention on what’s
Yes, the phone becomes more and more
Are set-up and pay-off used to
dazzle the audience, distracting attention from plot contrivances?
Yes, he has predicted that Sumner will
fly to Barbados with his ex-wife, and that turns out to be true, which
distracts us from the fact that it’s a bit of a plot contrivance for him to
overhear the final phone call.
Is the dramatic question of the
pilot episode’s plot answered near the end of the story?
Yes, the plane takes off with Sumner,
but without Diane.
PART 8: DOES
THE PILOT CREATE A MEANINGFUL ONGOING THEME? (14/14)
Pervasive: Is the
theme interwoven into many aspects of the show?
the ensemble as a whole have a unique philosophy about how to fill their role
(and competition from an allied force with a different philosophy)?
they’re the friendly bar.We
don’t find out about their competition yet, but we sense that this bar is
the pilot have a statement of philosophy and/or theme, usually either at the
beginning or ¾ of the way in. (Sometimes this will be the ensemble’s
statement of philosophy, sometimes this merely be the implied theme of the
“What are you doing?” “Just trying to cheer you
up a little bit.” “What a shame such an astute observer of human nature is
stuck behind a bar.”
Can the show’s overall ongoing
theme be stated in the form of a classic good vs. good (or evil vs. evil)
Yes, goods: winning vs.
community-building, evils: alcoholism vs. loneliness.
Throughout the pilot, do the
characters have to choose between goods, or between evils, instead of
choosing between good and evil?
Yes, for Diane: faith vs. wariness,
for Sam: bragging rights vs. compassion.
the storylines in the pilot thematically linked (preferably in an indirect,
There’s only one storyline.
Are small details throughout the
pilot tied into the theme?
Yes, it’s great that Sumner knows the
sweatiest movie, tipping us off that he’s sleazier than the bar customers.
the heroes grapple with new moral gray areas in each episode?
Sam is peddling the poison that ruined his life, and trying to gently protect
his customers from his fate while profiting off their self-destructiveness.
Grounded: Do the
stakes ring true to the world of the audience?
Does the series’ set-up reflect
the way the world works?
Does the series have authentic
things to say about this type of setting?
Does the ongoing concept include
twinges of real life national pain?
Yes, as the episode begins a kid
pretends to be a Vietnam veteran, and then when Sam rejects this, the kid
says “This is the thanks we get.”This ties the show into the heart of the ‘80s: which was all about
America turning its back on the working class.Our heroes will spend the next 11 years huddled down in
this underground bunker as their proletarian world is dismantled above them.
Are these issues presented in a
way that avoids moral hypocrisy?
Do all of the actions in the
pilot have real consequences?
Yes.This is one of the few episodes where they worry about
Norm driving drunk.
Untidy: Is the
dilemma ultimately irresolvable?
Do the characters refuse (or
fail) to synthesize the meaning of the pilot episode’s story, forcing the
audience to do that?
Yes, Sam doesn’t try, Diane tries and
fails, in her speech to the tourists.
Does the end of the pilot leave
the thematic dilemma wide open and irresolvable?
Yes, in getting her to stay did he win
power (putting this posh woman under his thumb) or surrender power (inviting
her to enrich him and his community with her higher ambitions)?