Guest Blogger: Jane Espenson

Hi! Jane Espenson here. Thanks, Jenny, for letting me sit in.

I’ve been invited in to help publicize a new book of essays, edited by me, about Firefly/Serenity. Called “Serenity Found,” you can find it here. And, as long as I’ve dropped by, I thought I’d add a few thoughts to the stellar writing advice you get here at Argh Ink — I adore the writing workshop, don’t you?

Since Jenny specializes in prose, and I, almost exclusively, write scripts (no one really uses the word “teleplays”), I thought I’d talk about the difference between the two forms.

Someone here asked if someone who is good at dialogue should write scripts instead of novels. Not necessarily. After all, it’s not like novels don’t need good dialogue. I think it’s a matter of the form you’re drawn to and the kinds of stories you want to tell. I’ve always read a lot of novels, and as a kid I wrote short stories, but television entranced me. I just knew it was what I wanted to do. Not movies, just television.

Part of the appeal, for me, is that in television, almost always, you’re writing for pre-existing characters while emulating someone else’s writing style. I adore doing this. My favorite writing assignments in school were always of the form, “Rewrite a fairy tale as if written by Robert Penn Warren.” Lovvved it! It’s not bad to want to create your own characters and develop your own style, but if you can have fun manipulating characters and voices that are already in place, then TV writing will be really fun for you. I call it chameleonship. And, of course, it simply isn’t part of what you’d normally get to do in short stories and novels.

As the questioner implies, of course, writing good dialogue is an important skill for script-writing. (Although every now and then one encounters established TV writers who write clunky dialogue and have thrived on good story-telling instead. A friend of mine once described another writer as having the ability to rewrite dialogue until it achieved “the sound of heavy objects falling from a closet.”) Good dialogue-writing skills are partly inborn, I believe, stemming from a good ear for how people talk. But a lot of it is certainly learnable. If you want a character to tell another character “I missed you,” but that’s just too bald a statement for this particular person to make, have them say, “I really– You were gone a long time.” There. By having them start a sentence they never finished, the audience will figure out what they were going to say and pulled back from.

This is actually a special case of a larger rule-of-thumb: people get less articulate, not more, when they’re emotionally moved. Want to write an emotional moment? Increase your quotient of stumbles and restarts.

I believe that even if you did nothing more than adopt that simple trick, you’d see your dialogue take on a fresher sheen. Of course, novels have dialogue, too, so, as I said, the ability to write good dialogue doesn’t mean you necessarily should steer yourself toward the script world.

The kinds of stories you want to tell, though… *there* you might find an actual clue to your career destiny. Perhaps your dream project has a plot summary something like:

A woman gradually comes to terms with the loss of her only child by moving to a vineyard in Tuscany where she communes with the grapes under the shadow of a crumbling castle for twenty years, ultimately realizing that life — like wine — requires patience, and that both are to be savored.

Novel. It takes place over years and requires an expensive location — making it hard to produce (a consideration even in spec scripts. You want to look like you can write to a budget). And, most importantly, it’s hopelessly internal, about unspoken mental changes that aren’t visual.

Now, television can tell internal stories, generally by manifesting internal states in some visible way. On Buffy, we did this by portraying inner demons as outer ones, for example. And many, many shows have adopted the convention of physicalizing mental debates through the use of a hallucinatory-style visit with a dead character. But, in general, television is better at things you can actually see.

The final thing I can think of to help you read your career compass is the process. Much of television writing is collaborative. You “break the story,” i.e. turn an idea into a list of scenes, as a group. And in sitcoms, you even rewrite it as a group. There’s still the solitary experience of going off to turn an outline into a script, but you do have to be able to function in a group. You already know, I’m sure, if that appeals to you or not.

So how does any of this relate to a book of essays about Firefly? Well, if I wanted to tempt any of you away from writing between hard covers, I would point out that every now and then you get to be part of a phenomenon like Firefly, where a show fires so many imaginations that the fans, and the writers, and the actors, and even the critics get to go on a ride that overshoots the planet it was aiming at.


Here are some answers to questions selected and adapted from those you guys submitted to the site:

What do you like to read?

Oh, lots of different things. I have a sizeable commute right now, so I get a lot of unabridged books on tape. My favorite recent read was Kazuo Ishiguro’s “Never Let You Go.” I don’t even want to tell you anything about it — not even the genre. Read it without a set-up, as I did. Brilliant. And, yeah, reading is more relaxing for me than scripted television, which can sometimes feel like homework. Not always, but sometimes.

Recommend a TV show.

I adore Friday Night Lights for its dialogue. 30 Rock is the best comedy since Arrested Development. But I’m lucky enough to be on the best show on television, Battlestar Galactica — check it out for subtle writing. Everything is intricately shaded… moral choices, personal interactions, political nuances. And there are killer alien robots! Whoo!

Favorite Buffy Episode.

Overall: Hush, Once More with Feeling (the musical), Fool for Love
Mine: Harsh Light of Day, Superstar

How far do producers/ writers do research on the viewer’s taste before they get started?

They do focus group testing on the pilots — where groups of recruited viewers give their responses to characters and stories. But these are notoriously bad predictors of success. I think the executives generally end up simply responding to what they like and don’t like. Theoretically this should work, since all of us are television viewers, no matter what our job is. Their taste is likely to be as good an indicator of what viewers want as anyone’s is. I think sometimes maybe we get into trouble when someone (an executive or a writer) tries to guess someone else’s preferences and ends up underestimating them.

Would you sometimes like to show a character in more detail but feel fenced in by the time frame?

Absolutely. If you could see the scenes that are cut from shows right before (or after) shooting, you would see some lovely character moments.

What was it like to work for Gilmore Girls?

It was fun and incredibly educational with respect to story structure. They structured stories in a way I’d never seen before: much, much looser with respect to the traditional rules of drama. What they’d lose in, say, on-screen conflict, they’d gain in verisimilitude — episodes unfolded in a very naturalistic fashion. I learned a huge amount.

(Again about Gilmore Girls) How do you pull off that rapid-fire dialogue?

Write a lot of it and make the actors talk fast. Their scripts were literally almost twice as long as a Firefly, Buffy or Battlestar script. The actors had to be letter-perfect and they had to rocket through it.

Are there big differences in writing comedy for a script as opposed to a novel?

I wish I knew. I’ve observed the same thing this questioner does, that sometimes TV-style comedy on the (prose) page can feel forced. I think maybe some kinds of jokes require the light touch of an actor? I have to think more about this.

Do you think that well-written shows still have a chance on network television?

Certainly, cable has traditionally been the home of quirk. They could afford to focus on a niche audience while the network broadcasters still had to think about the “broad” in their name. But this year some more idiosyncratic offerings came to network, and I think that will continue. And certainly the existence of Friday Night Lights and 30 Rock and The Office should make us all feel very good about the state of network TV.

If you could wave a magic wand and write a sequel to any film or TV series, what would it be and who would be in it?

I would love to see Alien Nation come back — one of the best metaphorical uses of aliens I’ve ever seen. The idea of telling stories about immigrants and other marginalized people through the stories of literal aliens is frakkin’ brilliant. Casting? Oh, how ’bout Nathan Fillion as the human cop and Alan Tudyk as the alien?

As a television writer what impresses you in an episode that the rest of us might not notice? When was the last time you watched tv and thought “gee, I wish I’d written that.” Why did the episode impress you?

Hmm… I’m still raving over the “Three Stories” episode of House from two seasons ago. Brilliant. It impressed me because it had such confidence in its story-telling. Watch it and imagine trying to describe to someone the unfolding of the gradual reveal that House is telling his own story. It sounds crazy. And on screen it works. When you see that, you’re dealing with a confident writer. By the way, if you’re writing a spec script, appearing confident in your skills is a HUGE part of your goal. As big as telling a good story.

What are some of your favorites among the new crop of TV shows (if any)?

I haven’t checked out a lot of them yet, but I enjoyed the Chuck and Reaper pilots. But no matter how good anything is, it’s too early to write a spec for a new show. So watch and wait.

How do you balance giving “secondary” characters enough screen/page time, getting readers or viewers to connect to those characters even though they are maybe not the main “draw” to the show?

You have to keep all your characters in mind as you break the story. Give them a point of view on the events that they witness. In a way, they can be far easier to service, since they can have more extreme, less nuanced points of view. Anya, Paris, Baltar… they can say totally outrageous things that steal the show. It’s not hard to fit them in when you know they’re always going to be interesting.

I read one of your blog posts about exposition — about “hiding the pipe.” Could you elaborate on that some?

Hmm… it’s hard to search my blog, isn’t it? Others have pointed this out. I think I will have to write a book. Something like “Dirty Tricks for Screenwriting,” don’t you think? I’ll keep you posted.

Anyway, I think I found the entry you’re referencing. I talk about avoiding opening a scene with a piece of exposition, as in opening a scene with “Tell me again why we’re lurking outside the Mayor’s house at midnight?” The problem is that you want to get exposition out of the way, to get it all shoved into the reader/viewer’s head so they can understand the scene, so it’s tempting to try to it fast and forcibly. Resist that temptation. Relax and let the reader figure out what’s going on as the scene unfolds. It’s all right for people to be a little confused. They’ll pick it up. Ever join Law and Order 15 minutes in? It’s a totally plot-driven show, and of course they’re making no effort to catch you up… but you do catch up. Readers and viewers are better than we give them credit for at dredging their own exposition out of our words.

If that isn’t enough… if you still need to explain things, try to avoid obvious clunkers like having one character tell another character things they both know. Tell-tale sign, the phrase “as you know…”.

Do you think screenwriting courses such as McKee’s workshop are useful for novelists hoping to try out the screenwriting world as well?

When I was in the ABC/Disney Writing Fellowship the studio sent us all to take the McKee course on their dime. I enjoyed it a lot and learned a lot. My only caveat is that analysis like his can make it all sound very difficult — like you’re going to need a slide rule or something. The truth is, learning to write for television is lot like learning to speak when you’re a baby. You don’t need rules, you need examples. Read enough scripts and study how they lay out their stories. Then formulate your own set of constraints based on what you’re seeing. Try to lay out your own stories so they strain as few of the constraints as possible. Bam! You’ve got a killer spec script!

Thank you, Jenny! I return your stage to you! And thank you, Gentle Readers for your questions and your attention!

Lunch (exclusive for Argh Ink readers): that heirloom tomato salad again