Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Friends On TV

Last Sunday some friends and I staged a reading of an episode of “30 Rock” that I wrote for a contest.[1] Based on their feedback and comments I’ve gotten from people who read it later, I did a good job capturing the voice of the show. And I have to say: it was easy.

That doesn't mean it didn't take a lot of effort. I spent countless time outlining, struggled through a first draft that I knew wasn’t great, and then spent three or four late nights rewriting scene by scene.

But compared to writing my own material, it was a breeze. And I believe that ease comes down to one simple fact: Once you know the characters, the story almost tells itself.

Two years ago, I wrote an episode of “My Name Is Earl.” It was my first time writing something not completely original, something I hadn’t created every aspect of. The first season had just ended, and I had only seen one or two episodes. But it was hot and fresh, plus the concept easily lent itself to creating scenarios. Combining that with the fact that a friend had given me a good idea for something Earl could complete for his list, I decided to write an episode.

While I could have read plot descriptions online to make sure I wasn’t repeating anything, I wanted to see more of the show to get a feel for the characters.

So I downloaded[2] the first season and began to watch it. I wound up watching the ENTIRE first season in one day. Perhaps not the healthiest exercise, but it gave me a great advantage. I now felt like these characters were my friends. I felt like we had hung out, so I knew what they were like and how they talked and how they acted.[3]

From there, I was easily able to create a detailed outline that allowed me to write the entire 30+ page script in one day. And, unlike the one for “30 Rock,” I didn’t have to change that much.[4]

I later did the same thing for “Heroes.” And when I say “the same thing,” I mean it as literally as I can.

This was during the long break of the first season, after the 12th episode or so. I now needed a drama show to write an episode of, and a number of friends had told me I would probably like "Heroes". So I downloaded all of the episodes, and watched the pilot while vacationing with a friend. Upon returning home, I spent the next day watching the rest of the episodes.[5]

Based on that I created an even more detailed outline, and once again I was able to write the entire draft in one day, meaning 50+ pages this time. I did have to go back and rewrite it, but I never made any major changes to it.

While I didn’t connect with the “Heroes” characters on as deep of a level, (We weren’t “bestest buddies.”) I was able to get a flow for how the show worked and what sorts of things to expect each episode. Still, the action wouldn’t be as interesting if not for the characters, and though I didn’t like all of them, there were a number I was quite fond of.

I’ve only had the luxury of feeling intimately connected with my OWN characters two times that I can recall. One was while doing the third (or maybe fourth) rewrite of a sitcom pilot that I wrote a year ago. I was getting pretty frustrated because it was close but not quite there, and a friend sat me down and asked me questions about my characters. He also had me compare and contrast different characters from various shows, which highlighted the fact that even characters that could be lumped together with simple descriptions (jerk, sweet, depressed, etc.) are actually very different. That difference comes from what’s underneath their personalities (Why are they acting that way? What’s their ultimate agenda?), and how they manifest that personality (their actions).

Once I was able to pinpoint the personalities of my characters, the writing was much easier.

The second time, which actually happened earlier chronologically, is when I was rewriting a comedy script I had written along with the friend mentioned above. Granted, there were only three main characters, but we knew them so well that dialogue would just roll out of us.[6]

I want to reiterate that I’m in no way saying that writing for TV is easy. If the episode I wrote was actually being written for the show, it would have had to be completed much faster.[7] But when it comes to writing things on spec, existing shows are much easier for me to dive into because I already know the characters so well.

Still, the ultimate goal is to always reach that point with the characters from my original work, no matter how long it takes to get there.

[1] Well, actually it's for the ABC Writing Fellowship, but it’s quicker to just say “contest.” (Unless you then explain it in a footnote.

[2] Back then you couldn’t view them online, and the DVD hadn’t come out yet. Since it was for “research,” I felt justified.

[3] Yes, this was a little freaky.

[4] Of course, it’s not nearly as good as the “30 Rock” one either.

[5] A little math shows that the “Earl” watching actually took more time, but "Heroes" felt worse because each episode was such a commitment. Plus the fact that, in retrospect, it wasn’t as good.

[6] Which is why we spent countless hours debating about this line versus that line.

[7] Maybe twice as fast. Or maybe even more than that.

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