Typing Faster

November 2, 2009

What’s it really like in the room?

Filed under: Breaking In, Craft — petertypingfaster @ 7:01 pm

A television writing room is like no other place on earth. Whether it’s the overflowing creativity, the joy of making up stories all day, or the fact that you’ve got a bunch of bat shit crazy writers jammed together like cattle, it’s something you’ve got to experience to believe.

But, for those of you who haven’t been fortunate enough to sneak your way into an active writer’s room, I give you this.

Richard Manning has, as they say, “been around the block” a couple of times. And he gives a hilarious, heart breakingly accurate idea of what it can be like when you first step into a writer’s room.

In fact, it’s so funny, I’m just gonna quote the whole thing.

Picture, if you will, perky young Mary Sue, an aspiring TV writer who’s celebrating her first sale. She pitched a dozen ideas to veteran genre-TV producer Sam Showrunner for his new series Space Slayers, in which a ragtag team of teenage misfits travels the galaxy and battles alien mutants. But Mary Sue’s enthusiasm will soon be tested; she has no idea what terrors await in… The Writers’ Room.

Mary Sue’s successful pitch:“Griff and Angela [the series leads] must mind-link with K’Vax [their sentient, female, wisecracking spaceship] after a radioactive nebula erases K’Vax’s memories.”

There was more to her pitch – such as the mind-link forcing the aloof Griff and Angela to confront their true feelings about one another – but Mary Sue never got that far; Sam had interrupted. “Good hook, but amnesia’s soft. Needs more jeopardy. Hey! What if the nebula turns K’Vax evil? And she tries to kill everybody on board! So it’s dangerous for Griff and Angela to go into her mind; they might never come out. Terrific pitch! Sold!”

Mary Sue was ecstatic. “Great! I’ll write up an outline –”

“We don’t do outlines. We – me and the writing staff – break all our stories in the room. Once we get the structure down, you go off and write the script. Come in Tuesday at nine. Bring in a beat sheet. Not an outline, just the big moves. Some rough act breaks. Keep it simple. One page, tops, just to get things started.”

And so it begins…

9:00 am Tuesday. A punctual Mary Sue happily looks around her first Writers’ Room. Cheap, mismatched “executive” chairs surround a coffee-stained table strewn with old magazines, food wrappers, a Slinky, a broken water pistol, various Rubik’s-type puzzles, and other toys. The walls are a crazy quilt of actors’ headshots, set blueprints, costume design sketches, test photos of alien prosthetics… and three large whiteboards.

Two are covered with multicolored scrawls, circles, arrows, renumbering, and crossouts – the story beats for Episodes 5 and 6, in impenetrable shorthand: “5. BRIDGE: G + A expo. K ng 10 min no Froonium. H/L payoff? AB: J zapped.” The third is frighteningly blank – a naked canvas awaiting a plot. It continues to await until:

9:40 am. Two writer/producers saunter in: Madman Moe, a cheerful, inexhaustible fount of wild ideas, and Cyndi Cynic, a jaded naysayer who’s great at untangling plot logic. They get coffee and make phone calls until:

10:15 am. Sam Showrunner dashes in. “Sorry. Problem on the set.” To Sam’s surprise, Mary Sue proudly hands him a fifteen-page outline. “Wow. Lot of work here. Good for you.” He glances at the first page, tosses it aside forever, and hands her a marker. “It’s your story; you do the honors. Ready? Teaser’s easy. Fly through nebula, ship sparks, life support screws up. Act One –”

Sam stops. Mary Sue’s still neatly printing “TEASER” on the whiteboard. “Just put a ‘T’,” Cyndi suggests. “Then put ‘Nebula, sparks, life support NG.”

“Act One, Beat One,” Sam continues. “Ramon runs diagnostics. Technobabble. Thinks he’s found the problem. Fixes it. All seems okay. Beat Two. Spooky stuff begins. Suspense. Scary noises. Like a horror movie. So… hmm… Maybe Trixie’s below decks. Alone. What’s she doing?”

“Taking a shower,” Moe offers. “With Angela. And suddenly the lights flicker and the water turns cold.”

“That’s good.” Sam turns to an aghast Mary Sue. “Put that up. T and A, shower, lights.”

“Can’t do that,” says Cyndi, to Mary Sue’s relief. “I’ve got Trixie showering with Ramon in ep 5.”

Moe’s unfazed. “So make it the sauna.”

“What sauna?”

Sam likes it. “The Cargo Bay, redressed and smoked up. That sauna.”

Cyndi considers. “We could do different color smoke because K’Vax is pumping in poisonous coolant gas or something.”

Sam’s enthused. “Great. We’re rolling now. We’ll be done by six, easy.”

6:45 pm. Act One has seven beats on the board, Act Two has five, Three and Four are still blank, and nobody likes any of it. “It’s flat,” says Sam. “Bland and boring.”

“Excuse me,” quavers Mary Sue. “But I, um… have a thought…”

“Jump right in,” says Sam. “It’s your story.”

“Well… maybe Beat Two should be a character scene with Griff and Angela… because we need to set up their unexpressed feelings for each other…”

All stare at her. “We do? Why?”

“Um… because later, when they mind-link with K’Vax, they confront their feelings and realize –”

“In episode seven?” Sam’s incredulous. “Not a chance. Besides, this story’s already way too soft. We need conflict. Drama is conflict.”

Mary Sue’s getting crabby. “Well, what I pitched had lots of conflict. Internal conflict.”

“This is TV, not some romance novel. I want external conflict. Action. Danger.”

Mary Sue snaps. “Well, if K’Vax turning evil isn’t enough danger, why don’t we just throw in some nasty aliens with guns?”

Silence.

“She’s nailed it,” says Cyndi. “Problem is, we’re missing a villain.”

Moe concurs. “Evil K’Vax is great, but our heroes have to cure her, not kill her, which means they don’t get to defeat a bad guy.”

Sam nods. “But if a Gavork spy sneaks on board and brainwashes K’Vax, now we’ve got two problems – and somebody to fight in Act Four.” He slaps the table. “That’s it. Solved. Okay, everybody go home and think about it and we’ll finish this tomorrow. Nine o’clock sharp.”

It’ll take four more days of this to break Mary Sue’s story. Ultimately, Ramon, not Angela, will join Trixie in the sauna, to follow up on their shower scene in ep 5. Oh, and the mind-link with K’Vax will indeed force Griff and Angela to confront their feelings for each other – but once the mind-link’s over, they’ll forget it ever happened.

Mary Sue will grudgingly concede it’s a cleaner, punchier story than the meandering fifteen pages she came up with on her own.

And then she’ll have two short weeks to turn it into a script that makes it all work… but that’s another tale.

A big ole H/T to Will Dixon where I saw it first.

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