Monthly Archives: April 2014

Action and Unfilmables

When I first thought of screenwriting, what really scared me was the dialogue. Turns out, that’s the least of my worries.

Coming from prose writing, the action I write comes so close to being an “unfilmable” and sometimes just jumps right over the line. This wasn’t always the case. When I first started writing scripts I was pretty good at only putting on the page what absolutely needs to be there. I even was good at being a little creative and conveying what I meant fairly eloquently.

What changed?

Probably the sheer volume, honestly. Writing three scripts in less than two months does not give me time to write both good dialogue and good action along with good plot. Something has to give. To me, the natural break comes by way of the stuff the audience doesn’t directly see or hear. But that’s not entirely true, is it?

Obviously, there are elements of action that are essentially direction. In film screenwriting, this is a big no-no. But in TV screenwriting, there are less stringent rules as far as I can tell. Besides, how else do I let the actor and the director and whoever else know that the character is saying something sarcastically? It pains me to actually tell anyone he’s being sarcastic, so I have to rely on a rolling of the eyes or some other action to convey it.

Which inevitably leads to writing like this:

Levi obviously doesn’t trust them, but he trusts his ability to get out of any situation. Without a word he walks toward Gabriel, who isn’t sure what to expect.

Which I eventually changed to:

Levi obviously doesn’t trust them, but his confidence implies he trusts his ability to get out of any situation. Without a word he walks toward Gabriel, who isn’t sure what to expect.

It’s not much better, but it’s what I could do at the moment. I also had to add some dialog later to give a better understanding of the character and the fact that he’s the strong silent type. (Dialogue in which he says very little.)

It’s something I’m constantly struggling with and I wonder how many other people struggle with the same thing or if anyone has any ideas on how to get around this.

On the other hand, I feel like my dialogue is pretty strong and my pacing is usually good, so I wonder how much the action part really matters as long as the reader gets an idea of what’s going on, who the characters are, and what they’re doing.

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Killing Your Biggest Darling

Sometimes it’s necessary to just go ahead and kill your biggest darling.

If you’ve been reading this blog, you’ll know that I’m ridiculously focused on The Vampire Diaries right now. I just finished a Vampire Diaries spec script (which I will probably never show anyone because it is not my best work) and I’ve been working hard trying to start a new spec script for the show.

But it just wasn’t working.

Besides which, the reasons I was writing a Vampire Diaries spec script are not as applicable anymore. I knew that you shouldn’t write a spec script for the show you want to work on. And I wasn’t. I actually want to work on The Originals. But the point I failed to recognize is that you shouldn’t write and submit a spec script to someone who writes the show you’re speccing. The Vampire Diaries and The Originals are essentially the same show in that way. But even after that, I was determined to write a good spec script for The Vampire Diaries. Probably because I felt I could do it the most justice because it (and The Originals) were my current obsession.

But that’s a flawed argument.

Yes, it’s good to know a lot about the show you’re speccing. But sometimes knowing and enjoying a show too much can become a hindrance to the writing process. Besides which, I was finding it near impossible to find a place to write a spec script in this highly serialized show.

So instead, I switched gears. I chose a similar show (supernatural themes; serialized, but somewhat less so; and even on the same network). I chose Supernatural.

This quickly became a brilliant idea. I was overflowing with inspiration and highly attracted to the fact that Supernatural often has self-contained episodes. In fact, the story I’ve begun outlining could theoretically fall into any season, though I’m specifically writing it as an episode that falls between two season-nine episodes. The main serialized theme here is emotional, but it’s an emotional story that has been present since season one and just never really goes away.

While I’m still working out some kinks, I’m happy to have moved on from The Vampire Diaries and into something that I love just as much and feel I can really do justice.

And since I’m insane, I’m now thinking I’m going to have my second spec script (Warner Bros. Workshop allows up to two submissions) be The Walking Dead. I think this will solve the two main problems I might encounter with Supernatural: it’s a show that’s been on for a long time (I’ve heard people say that’s not a great idea), and it’s a show that not everyone is familiar with (though I’d hope the people at WB are, especially since it’s included in their list of approved shows). However, The Walking Dead might end up being my strongest chance for the other fellowships.

With this tentative plan going into the second half of April, I’m more optimistic about having at least one, if not two, spec scripts written, workshopped, revised, and completed by May 30.

If my non-stop working since yesterday morning is anything to go by, I might be dead by the end of this, but I’ll have some kick-ass arsenal in my portfolio.

 

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Being a TV Fan and a TV Writer

For me, it’s been the most difficult transition into TV writing…how much of my writing is being tainted by my fan perspective?

I touched on this in “Spec Writing a Serialized Drama”, but I think there are other elements at play here.

In essence, there are things I might want to do with a TV show as a fan that aren’t right for the show or at least aren’t right at this time.

But a lot of fans don’t realize this. No matter which fandom, there’s always a strong-willed group that will continuously think they know better than the writers, which is a flawed argument for many reasons, not the least of which is:

The show you love so much, the characters you love so much, you love them BECAUSE of the writers. Yes, actors play a part in this, as well as myriad other people, but most of the time the core of a character or story or theme is there because of the writers. So in the end, it’s best to just trust them. And if you don’t trust them, then you can stop watching. Really, you can. No one’s making you watch. The beauty of the internet and fandom is that your stories, your favorite characters, can live on in fan fiction. If you don’t like what the writers are writing, write your own. In most cases, it won’t be as good, but it will be what you want it to be.

Why won’t it be as good? It’s not because you’re not a good writer (though that’s not necessarily a given) and it’s not because you don’t get paid to spend all day thinking about what you’re going to write. It’s because writers of TV shows are forced to be as balanced as possible. Plus, there is a room of writers that have to keep each other accountable to the quality of the story.

One of the most helpful blog posts I’ve found that speaks to this struggle between TV fan and TV writer is from The Bitter Script Reader. In working out how to write a “Don’t Trust the B— in Apt 23” spec script, his first instinct as a fan of the character James was to write an episode featuring James. But he couldn’t do that, because that’s not the show. James is a secondary character. If he does get his own story, it’s the B story at best.

A TV fan’s instinct might be to write a spec script featuring your favorite character. Or even if that character’s story is the B story, having that character do something you’ve always wanted him/her to do. Now, this can be a good thing. It could show your unique perspective on the character and the show, but only if you’ve considered all other options and decided this is the best one for the story you want to tell and the spec you want to present. In fact, in thinking about “The Vampire Diaries” and “The Originals”, Julie Plec herself asks the question, “What do we want to see this week?” Sometimes it’s as simple as wanting to see Elijah smile. So how are they going to do that? That right there is partially a fan response. Fans of Elijah want to see him smile. A great story can come out of that, but because there is a room full of people, they’re more likely to recognize if the story is too far-fetched or self-satisfying.

As a single writer writing a spec script, there is not this checks and balances system for the most part. I’m currently building a group of people to eventually workshop my specs with, but before that happens, I have to actually write the story. I’m my own accountability partner.

So why are fans so quick to attack writers when the show doesn’t go the way they want? Simply put, they haven’t been through the process of writing something for mass consumption. It’s not sexy, but a writer has to please producers, network execs, reviewers,  fans, and then, maybe once in a great while, themselves. And when a writer begins a new story line, he/she has to see it through. For example, in Season 4 of “The Vampire Diaries”, the writers made Jeremy a Hunter. Now he needs to finish the Hunter’s Mark. Which means he has to kill a lot of vampires. And oops, eventually that means that they’re going to figure out that killing an Original will do the trick just fine. There’s every likelihood that this was the original plan going into this story line, but there’s an equal likelihood that the writers kind of painted themselves into a corner. They couldn’t kill Elijah because he’s the Noble one, they couldn’t kill Klaus because he’s just too damn good a character and he might be the sire of everyone’s blood line, and Rebekah is the only sister and a fan favorite. Besides which, all three of these Originals have been around the longest and therefore the fans expect them to stay around. So Kol was the obvious choice, especially considering his history with Jeremy.

These are choices writers have to make. Because if they hadn’t, then the fans would be complaining that either the writers aren’t smart enough to figure out the obvious answer to the Hunter’s Mark problem or that they pull punches (if Kol had escaped being killed). Besides which, it wouldn’t be as good a story.

And herein lies the beauty of fan fiction: none of these rules apply. Yes, the story is better if there’s at least some rules and some logic, but in fan fiction you can make Bonnie and Kol a couple whether it’s believable or not.

As a “Klaroline” fan, I want nothing more than for Caroline to leave Mystic Falls and join Klaus in New Orleans. But that’s not realistic. First off, it’s too soon. Caroline is still too human to just forsake everything she’s ever known to join the world of the supernatural full-time. More practically speaking, “The Vampire Diaries” probably couldn’t survive it. In a moment, they lost a huge chunk of their cast and characters. A huge chunk that, by the way, was the best part of the show for years. The Originals made “The Vampire Diaries” what it is. To lose even more than that so soon would be a fatal blow.

But “The Vampire Diaries” has to end eventually and if “The Originals” outlasts it, then that’s a perfect time to bring Caroline over. Or maybe “The Vampire Diaries” finds new blood that gives the show a new life at which point they can survive the loss of another major character. There’s no telling, but as of right now, I don’t see a way for Caroline to switch over without “The Vampire Diaries” suffering.

Most fans don’t take this kind of thing into account. And they don’t have to. But when fans start attacking writers and producers for not doing exactly what they want, then maybe it’s time to look at the bigger picture.

But there is such a thing as accountability. Fans keeping the writers accountable for the choices they make. Klaus’s promise to Caroline at the end of season 4 is, in essence, a promise from the writers to the fans: “He’s your first love. I intend to be your last.”

In the end, though, the fans don’t get an actual say in what’s being written or what develops. In my experience, though, however many perceived missteps the writers make, they’re always (or almost always) able to get back on track, which makes it worth it to stick with your favorite shows.

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The Creative Life

Most of my friends are creative people. But I do have the occasional friend or acquaintance whose life is really just 9-to-5 and outside of that their time is their own.

As a creative person, my time is never really my own.

So when I was recently told that I should be able to “find time” to continue to partake in a weekly get together if I really wanted to be there, it got me thinking again about the life of a creative person.

A creative person is almost always working towards something bigger and/or better. A creative person often has a “boring” or at least non-related “day job” in addition to their real career goals.

I’m currently working towards finishing up my BA in English with a minor in Creative Writing and a focus on TV Writing. Additionally, I am Director of the university’s event planning department which often takes up most of my free time between classes. Most days are 8-10 hour days on campus jumping from one thing to another. I also manage to keep up with my doctor-ordered special diet and get to the gym at least four days a week. On top of this, I’ve managed to get straight-As in my more recent terms.

And then I come home and write scripts that may or may not ever get read by anyone.

I don’t have much of a social life. And I’m kind of okay with that.

I’m an introvert by nature and while I’ve learned to be more extroverted over the last few years, my comfort zone is still as an introvert. And with juggling all of the above elements of my life, I need my comfort zone now more than ever.

Now, for my friend who seems to think I can “find time” if I want to, I say “it’s easy when you live alone; it’s easy when your day ends at 5 pm”.

I don’t live alone. I live with SIX other people. So yeah, I get in social time nearly every day if only with my housemates (who are all awesome, by the way).

And I work with people. Awesome people who inspire and encourage me every day.

And I have classmates and other friends on campus who are right there with me in my struggle to juggle school with everything else in my life.

And so if at the end of a long day I don’t feel like spending 3-4 hours with 5-10 people in an enclosed space, then I think I have the right to abstain.

I’d rather have lunch one-on-one with each of those 5-10 people than fight for conversation time in a room full of people.

But I digress….

So how do I get all this done? Well, I’m not going to bore you (too much) with the particulars, but I’ve found a few things that work for me.

1) I wake up earlier than I need to.

Now, I’m a college student and I never take a class that starts earlier than 11am unless I absolutely have to (haven’t had to yet, though). So I don’t really wake up EARLY so much as EARLIER. I wake up at 8am most days. That gives me about 2.5 hours in the morning. If I go in for a workout before class, I wake up at 7:30am and cut short some of my morning ablutions.

What do I do with that time? I take my time getting out of bed. It’s calming. I stretch for about 10 minutes. I make a large, wholesome, filling breakfast. I finish up any last-minute homework if necessary. I read. I sit in front of my “happy lamp”. And yeah, I make myself presentable for the day, but honestly that takes about 15 minutes max. I could theoretically wake up at 10am every day and make it to school with plenty of time. But I’ve found that’s no way to start a day.

Side note: my general “bedtime” for myself is midnight, but I try to get to bed as early as possible once I’ve finished what I need to do for the day. For example, after writing this I will hopefully be in bed by 11pm. If I hadn’t decided to write this, I probably would have been in bed by 10:30pm.

2) There’s no such thing as “later”…unless there is.

Any time I find myself saying I’ll do something “later”, I force myself to actually choose a time. I think into the future, consider my schedule, and if I can’t find a more convenient time to do it, I have to do whatever it is right then. If I can find a more convenient time, then I commit myself to it. This can be as little as taking dishes to the sink to as big as writing a paper that’s due soon.

3) I’m organized.

It’s boring, I know. I have spreadsheets and systems and the “right” way of doing things. But I need these things because otherwise it’s all chaos. I triple check my homework schedule. I clean before I start any work. I prep my workspace with water, pencil, pen, anything I think I’ll need over the next hour or more.

This doesn’t mean my whole life is organized, but the things that get to me the most, the things that are the most immediate…those need to be done and in place before I can get any serious work done.

4) Sometimes I play THEN work.

There’s no point in me trying to get any work done if my favorite show is airing or I’m nearly done with a really great book or I just plain need to rest up. I don’t get quality work done and I end up miserable. There’s a line, a balance, as with everything, but for the most part I let myself do what I need to do to get into work mode.

Once I’m in work mode, I’m pretty flexible. I do what I want to do when I want to do it. I take breaks to read blogs and keep up on twitter. If I’m in a really productive mood I try to do the least fun things first, but for the most part I let my feelings take free rein.

5) I’m not afraid to live mediocre days.

I was recently having a conversation with two of my friends and they both shared that their biggest fear was living a mediocre life. Essentially, they wanted every day to mean something. I told them bluntly “I’m not afraid I’ll live a mediocre life. I know I won’t.”

Which is why some days I allow myself to just lay in bed all day watching TV and reading. I’m not afraid of “wasting” a day because I know it rejuvenates me in a way that allows for future meaningful days and moments. In that way, I probably have more meaningful days than my two friends who are so afraid that they end up not living to the fullest.

Final note: I’m a lazy person. Seriously. I could sit in the same place all day (and often have) and not get bored and not feel like I should be doing something else. I don’t usually like cooking because it’s too much effort for something that needs to be done at least 3 times a day. I am a lazy person, which is why I’ve had to implement the above (as organic or non-organic as they may have been) to ensure that I do get the most out of life.

Spec Writing a Serialized Drama

The following is perhaps the most difficult thing I’ve encountered in writing specs…and the reason why I prefer writing original material. Which is especially surprising considering I’d rather be on a writing staff for someone else’s show than create my own show. That will probably change down the line, but right now that just seems really overwhelming.

Overall, I think I’m good at imitating the tone of a show and even coming up with some compelling stories.

But when it comes to serialized drama (usually high concept in my case), when should the episode take place? It should be able to fit somewhere in the canon, but most episodes in serialized television are written one moment to the next. And lining up a filler episode with the one that follows is difficult anyway. I could definitely do a “The Vampire Diaries” spec script post-season 2 or post-season 4 that takes place in the summer break, but how good is that really going to be? However, it’s probably my best option.

Or do I just write an alternate 511? (Which is what I’ve been doing and ultimately have decided to pretty much scrap once I’ve finished it.) Or an alternate 407? So on and so forth.

Finding the perfect time period in which to write your spec script is crucial, and not an easy task.

But there are other struggles.

Can I use flashbacks? Flashbacks have become the bread and butter of “The Vampire Diaries” and are an easy way to “pad” a script. Though really, considering the multitude of characters and A, B, C, and even D stories that are at my disposal, I don’t really need any padding. On my nearly completed (and soon to be scrapped) spec I have 37 pages with 10 scenes to go.

The problem with flashbacks, though, is that you’re essentially messing with a character’s origin story, which I have a feeling is a big no-no. But with shows that depend so much on flashbacks, it’s really tempting to utilize them.

My third major issue in writing a spec script? I find I accidentally start writing something that’s more fan fiction than spec script. Which isn’t to say the characters are out of character or the tone is wrong or I’m writing a Damon/Stefan slash scene.

No, it just means I made a story choice that was good and viable, but not the best. I thought of a completely believable and interesting plot and I just stopped there because as a fan I got excited about the possibility.

Instead, in this next “The Vampire Diaries” spec script, I’m going to choose both my time period and plot as carefully as possible. I want to explore exciting story lines, not just put in stuff that makes the fangirl in me squeal…and not just something that gets us from A to B.

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The Edge of the Cliff

So I’m in my third term of my school’s one TV Writing class taught by a former actor and TV writer. I’ve written two original pilots, one of which has notes and is waiting for revision. I’m about to start writing a third original pilot.

On top of that, I’m nearly finished with my first spec script (which I’ve found I hate and will have to completely re-do) and I’m feeling mostly okay.

Because I have great feedback from my classmates and my professor. I’d say I’m in the top 3 of the class based on quality, work ethic, and overall talent and drive.

I know my strengths are pacing and dialogue and my weaknesses are creating interesting and concise action/description as well as sometimes stalling the story.

But I love television. Like, it’s an unhealthy obsession. Even as I type this I want to go watch Game of Thrones, or even re-watch some episodes of The Vampire Diaries to figure out where to place my next spec in the timeline of the show. Or maybe I’ll re-watch an episode of Gilmore Girls because that ish just does not get old.

I want to return to the lives of my favorite characters and cheer them on and maybe learn a little bit about myself and who I want to be based on their mistakes and triumphs.

I understand the difference between good television and entertaining television and I rejoice when they’re one and the same.

But I don’t particularly want to move to L.A. unless I know I have a job.

And while I’m all for networking (I’m surprisingly really good at it), it’s not something I relish doing in the schmoozefest that is Hollywood.

I read articles like the recent Julie Plec (“The Vampire Diaries”, “The Originals”, “The Tomorrow People”) interview and I think “I want to do that. I want to work with you, Julie, and I can’t help but think that you’d enjoy working with me.” But how to get there?

And the anxiety sets in. What if, going into the second season of “The Originals” there’s a huge hiring bump as they settle into this show that has become a CW hit? What if in a year or two or three they’re not hiring? What if I’m missing a dozen chances because I’m wasting my time on a degree that has nothing to do with what I’m currently passionate about?

And then I tell myself I’m an idiot because outside of my internal fantasy life, I’m not ready to be writing for a TV show. I mean, I could do it, but I don’t think I’d rock it as hard as I’d like.

But I think I’m on my way to being ready, and then what?

Do I get an agent? And how? Do I move to L.A.? And how? Do I just give up and stay in Portland and live the life I thought I would be living two years ago? Not a chance.

Because I’ve never been more excited about a career possibility before I discovered my love of TV writing. And every time I tell someone what I’m working towards, they answer enthusiastically, “Oh my god! You’d be perfect for that! I’m so excited for you!” (Like, seriously, it’s a little weird how excited people get.)

So I’m at the edge of the cliff and not sure where to go. I’ve been following TV writers on twitter and subscribing to blogs and just inundating myself with the TV business. And now I have this blog. Not sure what it will look like, but I do know it will be a place where people can find out who I am, what I’m about, and hopefully what I can do.

And now that I’m finding all these network writers’ programs, the new anxiety sets in. How am I going to get 1-2 strong spec scripts written by May 30?

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