Wednesday, August 11th
If you've found this page, you've found an archive of blog posts by me, Jane Espenson, about writing. I'm not currently updating this page very often, but most of the advice here still holds. I hope you find it useful!
In case you don't know who the heck I am, I have written for shows including Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Firefly, Gilmore Girls, Ellen, The O.C., Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Dinosaurs, Andy Barker PI, Battlestar Galactica, Dollhouse, Caprica, Game of Thrones, Torchwood: Miracle Day, Star Wars: Detours, and others. I'm currently writing for ABC'S Once Upon A Time and for Husbands, which I co-wrote and co-created with Brad Bell. I encourage you to watch it here
Follow me as @JaneEspenson on Twitter
. Check out Husbands on Facebook
, follow @TeamHusbands
and enjoy the Husbands comic books
Thank you thank you!
Thank you and feel free to check out the archived posts!
on 11.14.12 @ 05:24 PM PST [link
I get asked a lot of questions about how I'm influenced by fans' reactions to a show. This is a very legitimate question in a world where there are no longer a few reviewers who publish their opinions about an episode, but instead there are thousands of people blogging and Tweeting their reactions instantly.
One of the specific questions I'm asked is "do you ever change the show to appeal to the audience, now that you have such immediate access to what they do and don't want." The answer I give to this is that I consider myself to be the audience I'm writing for. I write what I would want to see. Often, people are surprised by this. Not only am I saying I ignore all those fans who are desperately telling me what they want, but I'm also saying I'm writing for one very specific person who may not be at all representative of who is actually watching. Well, when you say it that way, it does sound crazy.
But here's how I defend it. I think there's an analogy to be drawn with cooking. Theoretically, why does a chef need to have a good palate? If the chef is cooking what the diners like, why does the chef have to like it? Why, in fact, does she even need to know what it tastes like?
Well, obviously, I'd rather take my chances with a chef who likes the food they're cooking than one who doesn't. Only the chef who likes it is going to know when it's exactly right, not almost right. And only the chef who likes it can put passion into it, playing with the flavors night after night, augmenting and complementing and pairing the dish with wines and so forth.
No one would want to be a chef assigned to cook for aliens with weird alien taste buds. Similarly, I would suggest that you not try writing for a show -- or even a kind of show -- that you don't personally like. I've heard many writers talk about how their first agent told them to write a spec script that was the hot spec that year, but that didn't fit their style. The successful writers generally found a way to write a show that fit them instead. They found a show they would want to watch, and that fit their skills.
Keep this in mind when you pick existing shows to spec. Keep it in mind when you come up with your own spec pilot. And keep it in mind when you're getting notes on your completed draft. If taking the note is turning your script into something you don't enjoy reading/watching, then think about the reason behind the note and see if you can find another way to address the problem that doesn't make you have to cook and eat literary Brussels sprouts.
If you trust that you have a good palate -- that you don't like crap -- then you can trust that when you've made something to fit your taste, that there will be many many people who agree with you.
Lunch: heaps of white anchovies on glorious toasted sourdough bread
on 08.11.10 @ 08:53 PM PST [link
Sunday, July 18th
I was told once that there is a formalized way of offering second portions at a Japanese table that goes something like: "Would you like more? It isn't very good." Or maybe it was France. Or Apocrypha. But it always struck me as an interesting solution to resolving the conflict between enticement and modesty.
When you're in a writers' room, you're going to notice almost exactly the same formula used to preface idea pitches. Common phrases -- seriously, you hear EXACTLY THESE WORDS all the time -- include:
This isn't it, but I just want to get it out of my head...
I don't think this is right, but in case it prompts someone else...
Here's the bad pitch...
This is terrible, but I'm just going to say it...
If you spend even half an hour in a writers' room, I would expect you to hear at least one of these.
For a long time I attributed this strange counter-salesmanship to some kind of natural self-effacement characteristic of writers. But I realize now that these disclaimers are actually serving a really valuable self-preserving function.
The room is a very fluid place. Ideas are adopted and discarded very quickly. If you wed yourself too enthusiastically to any one idea, then it becomes harder to gracefully execute the turn when that idea is dropped in favor of a different one. Even if you agree that the newer idea is better, all that passion you put into the previous pitch can make it hard to suddenly run full tilt in the opposite direction.
Obviously, this sort of pitching style can become ridiculous and self-defeating. You don't want to run down your own ideas with any kind of serious vigor. And there's nothing wrong with suddenly sitting up straight and exclaiming "I think I've got it!", if and when you think you've got it. But there are few things more awkward than watching a writer return to a sitting position after an over-caffeinated but ultimately rejected pitch brought her to her feet.
This is all about developing your own style, of course. You'll figure out what kind of pitching style fits you best. You may be able to gracefully make the turn even after the most passionate advocating of another road. Or you may find your own happy medium. It's just worth being aware that your colleagues aren't being self-hating writers when they hedge and excuse.
Lunch: meat and cheese board and chilaquiles at Westside Tavern. Very nice.
on 07.18.10 @ 06:36 PM PST [link
Friday, July 2nd
Let's imagine that you've landed a job interview for a writing position on a new show. You've just been shown the pilot and you need to react in the moment. What should you say? What I'm going to say here may seem self-evident, but it's amazing what you'll hear yourself saying when you're nervous, so it's best to have thought about it.
First tip: concentrate on the positive. They may ask you what didn't work for you, but wait until they bring it up first. And then pick the flaw wisely. If you criticize the basic premise of the show, for example, you're not likely to come across as someone who will have loads of ideas in the room.
You're there because you want to work as a writer, so figure out what you liked about the writing. All the other aspects -- acting, prognosis for success, production values -- that's all secondary to the writing for the purposes of this meeting. So when they ask what you thought of the pilot, talk about the best parts of the writing.
For example: I really liked how the humor was really subtle and grounded. Like in the moment when [blah blah]. It makes the show feel very real.
I loved the way the characters liked and supported each other. It gives the show a positive feeling. Like in the moment when [blah supported blah].
I loved the way the show brings in a horror element. Like that bit where [blah]. It's so effective when genres are mixed like that, because I think [blah].
I'm not putting "blah" in there because the content doesn't matter, or because I think you'll be less than sincere, but just because the exact examples depend on the show.
The more specific the better. Don't just say the show was "good" or "funny". Use this as a springboard to talk about specific aspects of writing. You may want to mention other widely-admired pieces of writing that use similar techniques. And then, if I may suggest, you might want to say that this particular quality is one that you strive to achieve in your own writing.
You don't need to pitch story ideas (unless you've been told to), but it's perfectly acceptable to say that watching the pilot filled your head with thoughts about stories and about the characters. The idea is to make it clear that you're eager and able to contribute to the process of writing the series.
This is the time of year when many shows are interviewing new writers. I hope some of you will have meetings like this. And I hope you get the job!
Lunch: Mango and papaya salad and a tuna-avocado thing at Rock Sugar. Nice.
on 07.02.10 @ 08:21 PM PST [link
Friday, June 18th
When you're setting out to write a spec pilot, it's natural to be thinking about some kind of surprising (but inevitable) development for the end of the episode -- a twist that turns a story into a saga. A series has an arc, just as an episode does, and it's not a bad idea to think of the pilot as containing the inciting incident that launches that arc.
However, you can't rely so much on some late-in-the-script event that it becomes the ONLY incident you've got. In other words, the pilot episode cannot simply be a collection of interesting people puzzling over a mysterious event until a big revelation happens in the last five pages.
Make sure you've got a story, even as it is also serving as a prologue to a bigger story. So how do you have a beginning, middle and an end, if the whole episode is all beginning? One classic way to do this is to have your heroes successfully solve something, then reveal, either to them or just to the audience, that the problem was part of (or the start of) something bigger. Similarly, you can have your protagonist succeed entirely at the immediate task, but then reveal to the audience that the protagonist has larger, less concrete problems looming -- perhaps a mental or personal challenge that's going to take a lot more work. However you accomplish it, there has to be real story movement and I would suggest some measure of satisfying closure in the pilot, not just character moments and anticipation.
A good way to make sure this is happening in your pilot is to look at your beat sheet -- the pared down version of your outline in which each scene is described with one or two sentences. The beat sheet is the easiest way to see the SHAPE of the story. Make sure that the story is a story. If your characters are encountering a mysterious event, is it the same every time, or is it escalating and evolving? If they're informing other characters of what's going on, are those characters adding more to the story than just introducing themselves to the viewers? If there are villains, are they being active? And, even more importantly, is your protagonist being active, changing her own situation? This is all basic story stuff, and I know you know it, but when you're holding back cards so that you can make that big play at the end of the pilot script, it can be surprisingly easy to forget this stuff.
Pilots are tricky. In our lives as viewers, most of us see a lot more episodes of television that aren't pilots than ones that are. We just have more examples. So you have to be more analytical when you plot them. But it's still part of the same art. You can do it.
Lunch: Kaya Toast and other amazing things at Susan Feniger's Street.
on 06.18.10 @ 08:15 PM PST [link
Monday, June 7th
If you're writing a spec pilot, then you're taking on more than shaping a single story that's worth telling. You have to decide why THE ENTIRE SERIES is worth making.
A spec pilot has to work as an episode, but it also has to be plausible, even brilliant, as a template for a whole show. And one thing that makes a show brilliant is if it's got a big macro reason to exist -- if it's got a point to make.
You might find it helpful to think of your pilot as having a topic sentence, just like an essay. Here are some topic sentences that could fuel series: Sometimes crime can be justified in an unjust world. Intelligence is a social deficit that can be overcome by applying intelligence. Childlike beliefs keep us young, for good and bad. Justice needs the help of dedicated people in order to prevail. Outsiders can form a family that's stronger than one connected by blood. Strong leaders pay an almost unbearable price. Competence can outweigh compassion. Immoral but necessary actions ultimately corrupt anyway. Times change, people don't. Freedom and safety are opposites.
Notice that many of these are very familiar. The number of shows that are about outsiders forming a family is staggering. It's okay if your topic sentence has been used before. That probably just means that you know it works. It's good if it's something you really believe, too.
This isn't a task that has to be added to your already daunting list of pilot requirements. This is something that can help make the whole process easier. You might have started work on your spec pilot with nothing more in mind than a setting. Then you added characters. At some point, though, you want it to take on a shape. Having a topic sentence like this will really help you shape the story. Having something to say is better, and easier, than not having something to say.
Lunch: home-made grilled cheese sandwich, but not grilled. Toast the bread. Apply mustard and slices of cheddar. Microwave very briefly. Perfect!
on 06.07.10 @ 09:26 PM PST [link
Sunday, May 23rd
A couple weeks ago, I was sitting in the audience at a classic film festival here in L.A. and I overheard two young women having this exchange:
Have you seen "Seventh Heaven"?
I've seen the television series.
Have you seen director Frank Borzage's classic 1927 film "Seventh Heaven"?
You've probably got a good sense of how these lines were said. I've helped cement this impression with the names. But here's how they were actually said:
Have you seen "Seventh Heaven"?
Ditzy hesitates. She knows this isn't the right answer, but:
I've seen the television series.
Have you seen director Frank Borzage's classic 1927 film "Seventh Heaven"?
(laughing at herself)
What I love about the way this exchange actually happened is that it was unexpected and warm and human. It's got subtler shadings than just a dumb girl irritating a bossy one. Sure, Ditzy is still a little ditzy and Bossy is still a bit bossy, but they're tempered and real, more like people we know. That makes me more interested in getting to know them. Some might say that drama has been lost, but I think the old "drama is conflict" mantra can be a dangerous oversimplification. Simple conflict is less interesting than subtle conflict, even if that subtler conflict is less conflict-y. And you don't need conflict between every pair of characters that has a scene together. Complicated shaded friendships are really interesting to watch, too.
I chose this example because I enjoyed overhearing this interaction. It made me start speculating about the girls. I imagined them to be college classmates who didn't know each other very well. Perhaps they'd met up at the theater by chance, not design? I got curious because the interaction seemed to reveal so much about them -- about Ditzy's desire to be liked, about Bossy's ability to make clear she was laughing with, not at, the other girl. There was a lot going on in a very few lines.
Pay attention to conversations around you when you're out on your own. See if you can identify conversation molecules, the smallest pieces of conversation that capture important facets of all the characters involved. It's really good training to help you write conversations that sound like they were lifted from real life, not from other writers' screenplays. Even without collecting examples, I think you'll find it's a simple adjustment to look at dialogue you've written and play around with subtling up the attitudes.
Lunch: a BLT with a fried egg. It would be a BTLE, but the E is silent. Delicious!
on 05.23.10 @ 09:33 AM PST [link
Sunday, May 16th
It's not often that a joke becomes an instant classic. But let us now discuss the joke from Glee that goes like this:
I will go to the animal shelter and get you a kitty cat. I will let you fall in love with that kitty cat; and then on some dark cold night, I will steal away into your home, and punch you in the face.
The beauty of the joke is that, unlike the joke from the McDonald's ad that I talked about last time, this one WANTS you to get ahead of it, and then subverts your expectation. This is extremely hard to pull off because you have to make certain that the audience is going to get ahead of the joke, but you can't be so obvious about it that you know they're going to anticipate the switch-up. This particular version is a thing of joy. I think a lot of what makes it work is the violence of the final image -- you lose nothing of the force of the threat by not getting to any violence against the kitten.
It can be easy to be too heavy-handed with this joke. Whenever a character on a sitcom is about to say an obvious swear word but is interrupted by another character, or quickly turns "ass" into, say, "asphalt," the laugh is supposed to lie in the failure to reach the anticipated ending, just as in the kitten joke. But I generally find that in this form it feels forced and self-aware.
One time that I did see this version done well was in an old episode of the British series "Are You Being Served" in which the character of Mr. Humphries describes a quaint verse on an old calendar. He relates it as: "Monday is for Meeting. Tuesday is for Talking. Wednesday is for Wishing. Thursday is for Touching. Friday for some reason was torn out." This works very much like the kitten joke -- the sudden swerve off the well-worn track of the joke is in itself the source of the humor. Note that the delivery, without a pause after the word "Friday," is an excellent example of throwing the joke away.
The other danger with this joke is being too subtle with it, so that the audience doesn't have the replaced punchline clearly in mind. A friend of mine once created a single-panel cartoon that showed an egg-shaped Federal Express truck. On the side of the truck was printed "FederEGGal Express." The joke, of course, is that the joke should be "Federal EGGspress". I think that this probably escaped many readers, although I'm tickled by it. (In my mind it's a character joke all about the cartoonist who made the mistake.)
So Sue Sylvester wasn't really doing anything new, exactly. The joke form is established. But the joke hit a very small, hard to hit target perfectly and is perfect for modern savvy audiences who have become adept at anticipating punchlines. Give it a try. Tee up a joke and then let the ball fall off the tee.
Lunch: Back to Susan Feniger's "Street" for more of that Kaya Toast. Wow.
on 05.16.10 @ 12:39 PM PST [link