Thursday, October 02, 2008

The Kind of Writing that Pisses Me Off

Shortcuts, for one.

Now, let’s say you have a goal for your character(s). Let’s say they fight to achieve this goal and finally win. Let’s say this is a television show. Let’s say they fight for this goal for a good chunk of the first season. Let’s say we even get reminded of that goal and subsequent victory later in the season, maybe even in the second season.

DO NOT make it all pointless in the first episode of season 3. Don’t. That’s bad. And the writers of Heroes should know better.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008


Well, since that last entry, I got the chicken pox and did nothing. So here I am, trying to get back into the groove. Again. Here goes....

“Walt! Walt!”

That seemed to be regular dialogue for Michael throughout most of seasons 1 and 2 of “Lost.” Now, that’s not necessarily a bad thing because it crystallized Michael’s story; the struggles of a single father who had fatherhood thrust upon him when Walt’s mother died. (Quickly followed by crashing on an island overrun by psychotic cave-people posers and physics-defying smoke)

Scenes between Walt and Michael furthered Michael’s story, and to a lesser degree, Walt’s. But it was the scenes between Walt and John Locke that really hinted at what many hoped to be an incredible future story arc (journey) for Walt. It remains to be seen if fans will get to see that journey. I for one am no longer sure we will and sometimes believe that there WAS a story there, but was later shelved as priorities in the writer’s room changed.

Events in season 1 (and season 2 thanks to Miss Clue) suggested a big Walt story. “He’s special,” they said. From learning how to play backgammon to throwing knives, conjuring dead birds and (foreseeing?) polar bears, it was clear that something was “up” with Walt. But when did it start? When did we, the audience, get our first “Walt’s arc story beat?”

If I had access to my season 1 DVDs, I’d tell you.

I can say with complete... okay, almost complete certainty, that we didn’t get it in the pilot. Or did we? It certainly doesn’t seem like we did. So now, my dear nonexistent readers, I come to the point. (finally) When writing an ensemble, one that has…say… strong serial elements[1], how many character arcs do you set up in the first half of a two hour pilot?

The Secret TV Pilot
“A bunch of people struggle to maintain and protect their way of life. When it’s threatened and it seems all is lost, they go on the run to start over someplace new and safe.”

That’s a non specific concept for the TV show I’m writing with Mark and no, we wouldn’t/don’t pitch it that way.

The characters we focus on, the ones that lead the audience into this new world, have an arc that is set up in “Pilot – Part 1.” The characters grow and develop and are not static within the confines of that one 50 odd page script. Two of them, brothers who couldn’t be more different, have a kid brother they both care about. We call him…. Richard, and he’s our Walt.

When Mark and I were first brainstorming on this show over frosty pints,[2] we decided these two brothers needed… something. Something in common. Something they both care about. We discussed giving them a younger brother and after bouncing around story ideas and seeing just what we could do with this new character, Richard was born. (7 pounds, 3 ounces) But in our notes, Richard was merely described as a “wide eyed kid.” I think this MIGHT be where we went wrong, ‘cause you see, there’s something bothering me about Richard in “Pilot – Part 1.” Over the course of that script, Richard supplies some exposition (and we actually like how that scene plays out) and manages to get kidnapped at the end. But none of that, as far as we know, really sets up his character arc. And now that I think about it, I know it doesn’t. As writers, we’re not going to write this character as the kid who’s traumatized for a season or two by the kidnapping. The show isn’t about the kidnapping. The event will certainly inform the character, but nothing more. So my problem is Richard comes across as a tool. He’s just there to give these two brothers something they both care about because that makes them (especially the bad brother) nice guys the audience could like.

I want more for/from my characters.

I started writing this blog entry as a means of working my way through a dilemma. Writing is making decisions. Do we take all those scenes with Richard in the first part of the pilot and tweak them to set up some grand character arc and hint at the journey to come? Or will that merely be distraction and confuse the audience?

Well, hopefully this blogging thing has helped me again.

The Pilot is setup for the series.

Richard’s journey could only happen AFTER the events of the pilot (bunch of people going on the run). It could only happen after his ordinary world is interrupted and changed forever. Yes, he gets kidnapped, but he’s not the main character. I’ll come back to the kidnapping in a bit.

A character’s introduction is his first beat.

Firefly: Mal at the height of the war with the Alliance. Lost: Jack racing to save people. Sawyer being a jackass. (And being alone, smoking, reading the letter). In “Heroes,” Claire is introduced hurting herself because she can regenerate, but doesn’t know what to make of it. But Hiro is trying to stop a clock, and when he does, he gets excited and tells his buddy, Ando, all about it. He wants that kind of power because he wants to be a hero.

So, in writing this entry, I’m leaning towards NOT making Richard a busy-body to set up stuff the audience won’t care about yet. You see (if you had eyes, but don’t since you don’t exist, dear reader), our notes said “wide-eyed-kid” and that’s exactly what we wrote. Richard is static. The first step is making his introduction a little more interesting.

Getting kidnapped is a big deal; it’s obviously bad news for him. But it FEELS like it’s worse for his brothers, the people who care about him. One reason for that is they’re the main characters in the pilot, they’re the ones we’re invested in. I’m thinking Mark[3] and I just need a subtle change in Richard, one that’s brought about by the events of the pilot BEFORE he gets kidnapped. When this group decides to go on the run, we need to see how that affects him. We need to feel it. And if we can nudge him into a slightly negative headspace right before he gets kidnapped, we’ll feel for him too. Then, I’m hoping, he won’t feel so static.

[1] Mark and I want to write a serial. The first time I pitched our pilot at a pitchfest, the people I met with told me nobody wants serials anymore. They also said there’s no market for Sci-Fi. This was back in summer of 2006. Because of that experience, and because I’m a wimp, I say stupid things like “strong serial elements.”

[2] I’ve since switched to bottles. I drink slow and beer gets flat by the time I’m two thirds through a pint.

[3] I’m also thinking I gotta give Mark another nudge to start contributing to this blog. Otherwise I’ll REALLY come across as a lunatic talking about non existent readers and writers.