Archive for the ‘On Writing’ Category

slept for 13 hours last night…

January 27, 2007

…and had some wacky dreams that involved a secret and mysterious hideaway on a remote mountaintop that got progressively more crowded with family members as the dream went on.  It was a bit like Lost somehow.

More frustrating is that in the dream I was working on a really brilliant play, but when I woke I couldn’t remember what it was about.

These are random thoughts

January 26, 2007

Just read Dave Eggers’ most enjoyable A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius and thought the following:

He got there first. Like me, like my writing, what it was supposed to be, but with a more interesting story and more aggression, a manic streak at least twice as manic and flights of fancy gooier in their fanaticism and looser grammar, oh how I’d kill for that looser grammar and– How the hell did he have sex with 34 women? I haven’t had sex with 34 women. If I’d been born in my proper damn generation I could have had a bestselling memoir and lots of tragedy and sex.

Miyazaki’s Castle in the Sky… it’s sort of about old people. There should be more things about old people. They’re neat.

On the set of Las Vegas two days ago:

Girl: “So, you have myspace, right?”
Me: “Uh.. yeah.”
“Headshots?”
“What?”
“Do you have your headshots up.”
“Oh. No. I’m not an actor.”
“Well what are you?”
“What am I?”
“What?”
“I’m a writer.”
“You’re too young to be a writer.”
“Well…”
“And too handsome.”
“Oh. Thanks.”
“You should be in front of the camera.”
“All writers have leprosy.”
“What? Can you write a part for me? Like a short?”

On TV writing

January 7, 2007

“The feature world, which I remain involved in, is not a medium, generally, where you’re able to write about character in the depth I like to write about character.  There are characters now on ER whose growth I’ve been writing about for years. … And subject matter is different in television.  The kinds of things we can write about seriously are more appealing than most of what you’re offered to do in features.” — John Wells, ER, The West Wing.  From Pamela Douglas’ “Writing the TV Drama Series.”

Ms. Douglas, former writer for Ghostwriter and Star Trek: TNG among others, expresses much the same opinion in her book.  On the surface, it makes perfect sense.  Movies usually don’t run much longer than two hours, while television shows can last, in some cases, hundreds of hours, so of course we get to know TV characters better.  It’s logical.  Almost obvious.  Except it’s false.

Do I know Jack Shephard from Lost or George Bailey from It’s a Wonderful Life better?  George Bailey, easily.  Which titular character has more depth: Veronica Mars or Annie Hall?  Tough call; one could argue either convincingly, but I would side with the latter.

Most enlightened people have by now acknowledged that TV is pretty great and getting better.  But for TV writers to argue that television is all about character and real life and Important Social Issues while film is about masturbatory fantasies for 12-year old boys is self-serving, dishonest, and requires extreme selective memory.

Yes, TV shows have more time to work with.  But they also lack a captive audience, and can’t risk losing viewers.  With a traditional four act structure (3 commercial breaks), shows must build to climaxes or major story turns every 10 to 15 minutes, assuming there’s no tag or teaser.  Some modern shows like Grey’s Anatomy and Lost have a full six acts, so that none last for much more than 8 minutes.  When you’re trying to cram 5 major turns into every episode, who has time for characterization?  And, indeed, when characters are being forced to make all these Big Decisions several times a week, how can they maintain coherence?  (HBO shows may not have this problem, but the six or so Sopranos episodes I’ve watched have shown such a complete lack of dramatic structure that the freedom, in that case, is actually a hindrance.)

There’s also the issue of stopping points.  Feature writers know they only have about 120 pages to work with, so they select only those moments most integral to their characters’ personalities.  TV series last as long as they can.  While a handful of great shows were cancelled before fulfilling their potential (Firefly, Freaks and Geeks), most drag on longer than they perhaps should.  Veronica Mars explored its characters pretty fully in its first season and had to awkwardly create more mysteries to continue.  Buffy the Vampire Slayer came to its logical conclusion at the end of season three.  Gilmore Girls managed a great four year run before it started recycling old arguments and was forced to have Rory and Lorelai act out of character to keep the drama fresh.  That’s not to say any of these series turned bad, necessarily; rather, exploring the growth of Veronica, Buffy and Lorelai wasn’t the writers’ main concern when certain choices were made.  Keeping the series alive comes first.

In the end, arguing about depth of character seems a bit ridiculous, because a good story, no matter what its length, will reveal as much character as necessary.  The play ‘night, Mother lasts only 90 minutes and takes place in real time.  How much could we possibly learn about Jessie and Thelma in that time?  Exactly as much as we need to know.