Me, International Man of Mystery

From a dedicated fan* in Turkey, I’ve learned that there is now a Turkish language version of Monk, and they’re “adapting” the American episodes… adapting in this instance meaning taking the original scripts and translating them, including my favorite of the three episodes Lee Goldberg and I wrote together, Mr. Monk Goes to Mexico. Although I guess it stretched credibility just a little to have the Turkish Monk driving from Ankara to Mexico, so they’ve transplanted the story to Cypress. That brings up all sorts of interesting questions for me, since so much of the original’s fun was based on Monk’s acceptance of stereotypes of Mexico as being dirty and disease-ridden, with potentially toxic consequences if he ate or drank anything across the border. Is that how Turks see Cypress?

Well, maybe you can figure it out from the first sixteen minutes of the show:

Mr. Monk Goes to Cypress

If you do, let me know!

*The fan in actually not one of mine, but of Lee Goldberg, to whom he sent this link. But since we wrote the episode together, I lay claim to half of his fan’s devotion.

The Other Best Book on Writing for Television Ever

At some level, just about every book on writing is pretty much the same. You’ve got some self-appointed expert talking about what works and what doesn’t, pointing out examples of success or failure and explaining how to achieve the former and avoid the latter. And while I humbly believe that Writing the Pilot has a lot of specific information you won’t find anywhere else, most of what fills most writing books is identical at every level deeper than personal style.

What you don’t get out of most writing books is a sense of what it’s actually like to write. How a tiny germ of an idea appears in your brain and sprouts into a story… or doesn’t. How little pieces of subconscious inspiration will magically join together with other bits, or attach themselves to something you’ve been struggling with, and suddenly transform everything you thought you understood. And what kind of brain-breaking work it sometimes takes to forge a vision you think you see with perfect clarity into the story you thought you understood.

That is what you find in Russell T. Davies and Benjamin Cook’s Doctor Who: The Writer’s Tale. Because it wasn’t written the way other books on writing are — long after the fact. This book is a huge collection of emails between Who showrunner Davies and journalist Cook as Davies planned and executed the fourth season of the series. Because it’s being written as the show is being made, there are lots of insights into TV production. But far more entertaining is watching the writer’s mind at work. Davies comes up with a spark of an idea, and then over days and weeks and sometimes even months (they work on a different schedule over there!) we watch it develop into a story, and then an episode. If you’ve seen the fourth season, this is even richer, because you will occasionally recognize that spark and understand how far Davies has to go to make it into the episode you know. But even if you hate the series, it should be fascinating and inspiring to get inside this brilliant writer’s mind.

And if you want to see what how the final scripts turn out, they’re all available for download at the book’s website.

Look, we can all argue whether the casting of the Twelfth Doctor is a stroke of genius or proof that Davies’ successor Stephen Moffat is actually a racist, sexist, imperialistic pig. (If you scroll down this page, you can probably figure out where I come down on the question…) But we can’t argue about this book. It is simply marvelous. And inspiring. Even if you don’t know a Tardis from a toadstool, if you’re interested in writing for television you must read this.

Your Pilot in Two Days

It’s August. It’s hot. There are no movies worth seeing, and unless you get a kick out of watching Under the Dome spiral further away from the brilliant Stephen King book it’s based on with every increasingly tiresome episode, there’s nothing much to watch on TV. The beaches are too crowded, the malls are too boring, and there aren’t any bookstores left to hang out in. What are you going to do with this last month of summer?

How about writing that pilot?

You know, the one that’s going to make you the next Matthew Weiner or Jenji Kohan?

The one you swore you’d get finished by the end of the summer? And that you still can’t get to work?

Writing a pilot is hard work. I think it’s the hardest form of dramatic writing you can attempt. And let’s face it, even the easiest forms of writing are pretty hard to do well.

But this weekend, you can get back to your pilot — and you don’t have to do it alone.

Thanks to my good friends at Writing Pad, I’m giving an intensive two-day workshop this weekend on writing the pilot. All day Saturday and Sunday, from 10 AM to 5PM, I’m going to teach you how to plan a riveting series and give your pilot a unique voice and a specific  world view. You’ll learn how to breathe life into your characters , break your  pilot story, and write an original plot. And then you’re going to put all this into practice, as we dig down into your individual projects, working as a writers room to develop each series.

You can find out more information about the weekend here: http://writingpad.com/classesbydate.htm#PILOT. But you’re going to have to move fast. We’re keeping this class as small as possible, so that every student gets in-depth help. I’m told there are only one or two spaces left.

 

 

The Episode Lives!

It’s really hard to see an episode of a TV drama these days.

Not to watch one — of course that’s easier than ever, thanks to Netflix and Hulu and Amazon and the rest. But to see one — to see a single episode as a single episode, instead of as one chapter in an ongoing story, that’s gotten tough.

A lot of that has to do with the way we’re watching TV now, of course. When I’m bingeing my way through four seasons of Sons of Anarchy, I stop noticing what happens in each individual episode. I just want to see what happens next. And it’s even easier now that Netflix automatically starts playing the next installment unless you hit your iPad with a hammer or call 911 to stop it.

This really isn’t a problem if all you care about is enjoying what you’re watching. Unlike my much more sophisticated colleagues who teach (and practice!) the delicate art of the short story, I rarely pause in my reading to notice the way a sentence is constructed. I want to find out what happens. And that’s how most people watch dramas.

But for those of us who are writing television drama — or who want to do so — this is something we’ve got to fight. Because as I’ve said before and will no doubt say many more times, a TV episode is not a chapter in a novel. It is a work of art in itself. It’s not just the continuation of the series’ story — it is the series in miniature. A well-constructed episode exists not just to further a plotline, but to replay and re-examine the conflicts that are at the heart of the series’ franchise, and to do so using the structural and narrative tropes established in the show’s pilot.

And that’s why it was such a pleasure to watch this past Sunday’s episode of The Newsroom. It may not have been perfect television for all the usual Aaron Sorkin reasons, but it was a perfect episode. Three storylines, each part of a longer ongoing arc, each with a discreet beginning, middle and end. Each structured to allow Sorkin to explore his characters and their conflicts. And each reinforcing each other in subtle, unnoticeable ways. So at the end, even if you saw just about every plot turn coming — oh, right, you thought that little African kid who looked like a miniature Marcus Samuelson was going to survive the hour? — you knew you had watched something rich, full and complete. Complete, even though it was only a small part of a bigger whole.

I watched the first season of The Newsroom in two days on HBOGo when I was in bed with the flu. Season two I’m taking week by week. With other shows that’s been a frustrating transition, as I get used to flying through storylines of, say, The Walking Dead, and then find it difficult to reach the same level of emotional involvement once I’m waiting seven day between shows. But I  haven’t felt that frustration with The Newsroom, and after this week I’m glad I’m taking it as it comes.

 

A weekend, a pilot and you!

My good friends at Writing Pad tell me that there are only a couple of spaces left in my intensive weekend workshop on writing your pilot that’s coming up in just a week.

And what is this intensive weekend workshop on writing your pilot? Glad you asked! Here’s the pitch:

Are you finally ready to write that pilot? Do you have a concept you’re burning to bring to life but don’t know where to start? How about an intensive weekend pilot bootcamp taught by the author of that classic text, Writing the Pilot?

(Um, that would be me, in case anyone is wondering…)

And when I say intensive…

We’re going to start Friday, June 21 at 7pm, and wrap up Sunday 23 at 5pm. (Okay, maybe not that intensive — Friday goes 7-10, while the two weekend days are 10am to 5pm…) We’ll be covering every aspect of writing a great pilot, from defining the concept to naming the supporting characters and plotting your pilot story. By the end of the weekend you will have developed your franchise and main characters and be ready to start writing…

…and the workshop still won’t be over! Because once you’re ready, you’ll also get a set of notes on your outline… and one on your script… and a one-on-one consultation (probably via phone, unless you happen to be in the desert!).

Best of all, this class is coming to you through the delightful people at WritingPad, so when Marilyn promises that continental breakfast and snacks are included, you know they’ll be worth the price of admission alone! I can already see the glowing radioactive beverages…

As you can imagine, we’ve got to keep this class really small. It’s going to be limited to 10 people… and I understand it’s half sold out already. So if you’re interested, move fast. Here’s a link: http://writingpad.com/screenwriting.htm#PILOT Hope to see you there!

 

Axe Murderers and Mad Men

Okay, I was just going to put up a quick post to remind you that I’m going to be speaking on a panel with Michael Saltzman and Jason Grote, two insanely talented Mad Men writers — completely unlike all those other hacks on the show — at 8pm, Friday, May 17 at Writing Pad’s faboo downtown LA location (admission only five dollars, and that gets you access to Marilyn’s incredible snack and drink table) when I was browsing her calendar of classes and stumbled across this. “Development Bootcamp: Ten Page Workout” taught by Robbie Fox, writer of So I Married an Axe Murderer… and thus undoubtedly a man who hated Mike Myers before hating Mike Myers was cool. (He’s also written for Mickey Mouse — imagine the stories he can tell about that little rat!)

It sounds like a great, hands-on class — a workshop focused entirely on your first ten pages. (Or as I like to think of them, five pages more than any executive will read unless Mila Kunis is attached.) It’s a little more than the five dollars it’ll cost to see me asking for Don Draper’s autograph, but well worth it. You’ve got to move fast though. The class is next Monday, May 6, and I believe they need your ten pages in advance…

How Not to Look at a TV Series

Okay, so this is kind of a long post. I wrote it as an article for an academic journal that was preparing an issue on what academics now call “arc TV,” which is possibly the worst way to refer to a series since the invention of the word “dramedy.” (Or maybe that should be the “word” dramedy..) My essential point was that while it’s great to have this booming art form being taken seriously, it does no one any good unless those who are writing about it actually know what they’re talking about.

Apparently, this didn’t go over well with the editorial board, and they declined to publish.

But it still seems important to me — not just because it’s fun to stick it to the Charles Emerson Winchester’s of the world, but because there is so much misunderstanding about the real nature of TV storytelling, even among many of us who do it. If we understand how a series works, it becomes a lot easier to design a pilot for one.

And that reminds me, there are still a couple of places left in my intensive weekend course, Writing a Pilot That Can Fly. It’s happening June 21 – 23 and it’s brought to you by the terrific people at Writing Pad in fabulous downtown LA. Two days and an evening devoted to developing your pilot… along with post-course consultation at several key stages of the writing. It’s a small group, so you’ll get plenty of individual attention… For more information, check out Writing Pad’s listing here.

And now, without further ado…

The availability of entire series for streaming is changing the way we watch television, and the way we watch is changing the way we think about television series. As we move smoothly from the end credits of a cliff-hanging season finale into the main titles of the subsequent year’s opening resolution, we stop seeing each episode as a dramatic work on its own and start looking at it as a new chapter in a longer whole.

That, in turn, leads us to imagine the series we are watching as a coherent narrative, designed to have a beginning, a middle and, most important, an end.  It is not just fans who adopt this belief; it is spreading to academia, as evidenced by a recent essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education by Thomas Doherty, chair of the American Studies program at Brandeis University, which compares the best of contemporary television to the works of “Dickens and Dreiser, Trollope and Wharton.”

But this belief, while increasingly popular, is almost universally wrong. To hold it requires us to ignore the ways in which television shows are conceived, commissioned, produced and aired. It is possible that with original series being created specifically for streaming – and more specifically for bingeing – by new outlets like Netflix and Amazon there will come a time when serial dramas are conceived as single, unified works of art. But until that time arrives, it does not aid our understanding of the art form to appreciate it based on qualities it does not share with the works to which we compare it.

If there is a single fact that disproves the idea of television drama as novel, it is this: With the rare exception of that handful of hit shows that are able to negotiate their end date one or more seasons in advance, showrunners never know how long they will have to tell their stories. A novelist draws up an outline, and then spends as many or as few words translating that into fiction as desired. A TV drama can be cancelled or extended at any point in a season. This makes it impossible for a showrunner to plan a complete narrative. There is little point in aiming for an end point in season five when you might be cancelled after only two years, or when you might, as happened with the 1980s serialized hospital drama St. Elsewhere, resolve all your conflicts at the end of the fifth season only to find your show renewed for a sixth.

Does this mean that serialized television dramas should not be taken as seriously as the novels to which they are now increasingly compared? Absolutely not. The best of them are, in Dr. Doherty’s words, “thick on character and dense in plot line, spanning generations and tribal networks and crisscrossing the currents of personal life and professional duty.” But if we are to treat these new works of art with the respect they deserve, we must do it through an understanding of their own form, not through the lens of another.

That said, it can be helpful to draw a comparison between these new serialized dramas and the greatest works of another medium. But that medium is not the novels of Trollope and Wharton; it’s this:

Jazz improvisation, as described by a critic at the website A Passion for Jazz, is “the process of spontaneously creating fresh melodies over the continuously repeating cycle of chord changes of a tune. The improviser may depend on the contours of the original tune, or solely on the possibilities of the chords’ harmonies.”

A television drama works in much the same way, with reiterations of conflicts and themes substituting for the cycle of chord changes and episodic storylines taking the place of the fresh melodies created from them. In the TV business those chord changes are called the show’s franchise.

In the case of Breaking Bad, for example, the central conflicts all revolve around the idea of a law-abiding high school chemistry teacher who, diagnosed with terminal cancer, becomes a meth manufacturer to provide for his family. Over the course of five seasons, the series has seen its protagonist Walter White evolve from a low-level dealer to a child-murdering drug lord. It’s easy to look at this and see a well-constructed, coherent narrative behind the growth, and to expect that creator Vince Gilligan plotted out Walt’s rise and fall from the very beginning, much as Mario Puzo would have done for Michael Corleone when writing his novel The Godfather.

But to hold on to that assumption we have to ignore everything Gilligan has ever said about the show and about his process. Even as he and his writing staff were plotting the last handful of episodes, he insisted that he still didn’t know how to end the series. “We are in a decidedly undecided state,” Gilligan told Rolling Stone reporter Brian Hiatt in September, 2012. “There’s an undercurrent of tension – related to how we feel about the terrible prospect of ending it badly.”

If there is not a structured storyline driving the series, how does it manage to seem so coherent? One might as well ask how Kind of Blue could end up being considered as “a defining moment of 20th century music” (Pape) when the musicians were given only a set of scales that would define the parameters of their improvisation before the recording session. Breaking Bad’s conflicts and themes repeat: the primary motif finds Walt’s ignorance about the drug world leading him into trouble; to extricate himself he finds the inner resources that lead him to a new level of brutality; these brutal actions succeed and bring him to a more elevated part of the drug business; his ignorance of this new level leads him into trouble again. Lesser strains find Walt torn between his desire to protect his wife and son and the contempt he comes to feel for their ordinary lives and struggling with partner Jesse to balance their criminality with a sense of humanity. Over and over these chords play, and the episodic storylines take off from them. Each new “melody” is pitched at a more dangerous level than the last, giving the viewer the sense of a designed plot spiral, when it is in fact new iterations of the same themes building on what has just been done.

This style of story generation is hardly unique to Breaking Bad. When writers pitch ideas to a network, they’re almost never for a multi-year plot with a defined beginning, middle and end. They pitch a set of conflicts they believe are sufficiently complex that they can be explored over and over through the course of a hundred episodes.

This is the case with almost all TV series, no matter how complex or intricate they are. Lost, more than any other show in recent history, was designed to look like a closed-ended narrative; it set up in its pilot not a situation to be explored – a Nucky Thompson looking to expand his power in Atlantic City; a group of survivors constantly evading an army of zombies – but a problem that demanded a solution: What is the secret of this island? The show held its audience spellbound for seven years as each new episode gradually teased out tiny bits of information about the secrets behind the mysteries of the Hatch and the Smoke Monster and The Others. Every solution raised three more questions; fans spent hours studying an increasingly dense mythology, searching for clues to the ultimate answer.

But the ultimate answer was that there was no ultimate answer.  If Lost had been written as a novel, the author almost certainly would have started with a solution and worked backwards, designing a series of clues that would lead to its revelation. But Lost didn’t even start with a writer. It began with a network executive’s desire for a show about castaways on a desert island. A first writer turned in an unsatisfactory script, and was replaced late in the development season by J.J. Abrams and Damon Lindelof. They wrote the pilot quickly and, as Lindelof has said, with only the faintest idea of what was going to happen on the island, or why. With such a limited amount of time to pull their project together, they chose to focus on fleshing out the characters instead of the mythology.

And while mid-series interviews with the showrunners –  Lindelof and Carlton Cuse, who stepped in when Abrams left the series to make movies – suggested that there was a plan behind everything, the truth turned out to be just the opposite. Lindelof later told critic Alan Sepinwall that during the pilot, he had mapped out “none of it, to be honest with you.” The odd incidents were not subtle clues leading up to an eventual payoff. They couldn’t be, because no one had an idea what they would be leading towards.

But this was not simply a matter of time pressure. Lindelof has stated that he does not believe in planning a show out too far in the future. “I personally believe that it’s hubris to plot out what the second and third and fourth seasons of a show are. You have to have a sense of where you want to go, but at the same time, you have to put your eye on the ball and write the season that you’re writing.” (Most of these showrunner quotes come from Alan Sepinwall’s terrifically entertaining and informative book The Revolution Was Televised, a must-have for anyone interested in contemporary TV drama.)

Why should this be? To answer that, we must look past the way concepts are created to the timeframe under which almost every series is produced.  When a series is ordered by a network, the showrunner is generally given two or three months to assemble a writing staff and start plotting out stories. Many will use part of this time to map out a story arc that will play out over the course of the number of episodes ordered.

No matter how this time is spent, there is one constant across all series: There is not enough of it to write, or even conceive a detailed plot for, the entire season.  When production commences, it’s considered ideal to have as many as six scripts in various stages of completion. That is six out of a possible ten or 13 or 22 that will be required. And while the staff continues to produce scripts while the show is shooting, the pace of production – generally eight days per episode – will always outstrip script generation, and sometime in the middle of the season there will exist no scripts beyond the one currently in pre-production.

This, of course, does not negate the possibility of an overall narrative plan.  After all, a construction crew, no matter how far behind schedule, does not abandon the architect’s plans simply to make up lost time. But once a show is in production, the finished episodes will inevitably change the way the showrunner approaches the writing of subsequent scripts. The pilot sets the chords for the series; almost everything after is improvisation, and many of the new melodies will spring from what is learned through production.

Sometimes this improvisation is driven by necessity. Breaking Bad’s Gus Fring was not intended to be the leader of an international drug cartel until creator Gilligan realized that he needed a force to stop The Cousins, the twin assassins he had created in the third season’s opening episode; Fring’s fixer Mike, who would become a series regular after Gilligan saw Jonathan Banks in what was supposed to be a one-shot appearance, was created only because Bob Odenkirk, who played Walt and Jesse’s lawyer, had a scheduling conflict when it came time to shoot a key episode and the writers needed a character to carry out his plot function.

More often, though, such improvisation is driven by a showrunner looking at episodes and being able to judge what works and what doesn’t.  Much of The Good Wife’s fourth season was planned around a storyline featuring the newly introduced character of investigator Kalinda Sharma’s dangerous ex-husband. But when showrunners Robert and Michelle King discovered that audiences hated the character and the story, they brought it to a quick and abrupt end after only four episodes featuring him had aired.

The best improvisations are the ones that come when a showrunner hears a melody he had never expected. Vince Gilligan had originally intended to kill off the character of Jesse Pinkman at the end of the show’s first, seven-episode season. But by the second episode he was so impressed by Aaron Paul’s performance in the role and his rapport with lead Bryan Cranston he decided to let Jesse live.  That relationship would become the emotional center of the series, and anyone watching would assume that this was the plan all along.

Some showrunners are so enthralled with improvisation that they refuse to plan out even what will happen within a single episode. David Milch, creator of Deadwood, would shoot episodes without scripts, instead conceiving and writing a day’s shooting only one day in advance. “You have to look at the actors and take the resources that are available to you. It’s like making soup. Sometimes, you’ve got to see what’s there,” Milch has said. A great deal of the writing sessions, according to Jody Worth, another writer on the show, was “pulling together threads that may or may not have existed in what we had intended.”  Milch himself had another way of looking at the process: “It was like getting great musicians to do solos.”

As a writer who has spent a quarter of a century producing dramatic television (although not anything as ambitious as those mentioned here), I am delighted to see my artistic medium finally receiving its share of academic respect. I believe there is much to be gained in a discussion of the present and future of modern serial television. But such a discussion must start with an understanding of what these shows actually are, and not what we would like them to be.