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10/04/2006: An Open Smile on a Friendly Shore
Here's a little riddle for you: How is Desperate Housewives like The Love Boat? Well, until Ted McGinley is added to the DH cast in season eight, the best answer I have is that they share an interesting writing peculiarity -- the stories are divided among the writers by thread instead of by act.
Sometimes a writing staff splits up episodes and writes them as piecework. This is very common on comedies, but often happens on dramas as well. The name that appears on screen as the author of the episode may or may not indicate something meaningful about the contribution made by a particular writer. Now, obviously, one can imagine different strategies for splitting one script's worth of writing among a milling and embittered clump of writers. One common way is to assign continuous chunks of the script. Usually this is done by acts, but sometimes it's more like: "I'll take act one up to but not including the least scene. He'll take from that scene up to the middle of act two, then..." The other way, which I call the Love Boat way, is to give a writer responsibility for one of the story lines all the way through. (On the original Love Boat, the episodes were actually credited this way, with the different story lines each having titles and the writers of each identified in the opening credits.) This is how Desperate Housewives apportions the work.
The Love Boat method, of course, only works under very special circumstances. It requires that the stories be fairly separate. A few scenes in which the threads overlap and influence each other -- that can be worked out, but if the story lines are very dependent on each other, things will quickly get difficult. The method also requires additional writing to smooth out the transitions in and out of scenes and figure out those scenes that are influenced by more than one thread and do whatever else is needed to unify the whole.
On Buffy, we used this method exactly once that I recall. For an episode named "Conversations with Dead People." The episode had an atypically modular structure. The episode named "Life Serial" was also split up by thread, but since each act was a separate thread, it actually was also an example of the other method as well.
Usually, if we needed to split an episode, we did it by acts. This method allows the writers more control over their own transitions, but it also requires a very good outline. No one wants to sit down and write Act Four if they're not entirely sure what led to this point. Even given an outline, it's always amusing to read that first assembled draft in which the output of different writers is just slapped together. There will always be exposition that is covered two or three times, and sometimes, interestingly, the same joke will appear more than once. Again, more writing is required at this point, to sand down the joints where the splinters stick up, and to make it all read like a genuine whole.
By the way, I think there's a lesson in the Love Boat method for those of you writing specs. Sometimes, instead of writing your script straight through, you might want to power through all the segments of your script that relate to one thread. There is something to be said for the mental focus you get when you tackle a single thread from beginning to end. Maybe you'll find it exciting and new!
Lunch: the sirloin and cheese ciabatta sandwich and jalapeno poppers at Jack in the Box. Wonderful.