Monday, March 04, 2013
One of the many fine programs the WGA Foundation sponsors is their “Anatomy of a Script” series in which showrunners and screenwriters discuss in detail their shows/films. Moderated beautifully by Robin Schiff, each week the best scribes in the business discuss their craft. I attend these whenever I can.
Last Thursday’s session was particularly great. Michelle & Robert King, the creators/writers/showrunners of THE GOOD WIFE spoke. For my money, THE GOOD WIFE is the best drama on television – an even more remarkable feat because it’s on a major broadcast network and not a cable channel. They have to make 22 episodes every year as opposed to some shows that only make 13 or even 8 every year-and-a-half or two years.
There was a lot of juicy insider dish on the show, but I thought I’d share a few of the general writing principles and tips they shared. So even if you don’t watch THE GOOD WIFE or are less enamored by it than me, these are still some very valuable pointers.
Along those same lines, the Kings try to start each episode with a montage or something unexpected. They’re always thinking: “what haven’t we seen before?” Not easy to achieve, especially in a legal procedural. How many thousands of legal procedural episodes have you seen? On CBS in one year alone? Sometimes, they said, they will marry three different ideas to come up with a unique one. What they didn’t say but I will is that that approach is frustrating and hard and time consuming. But it can be the difference between being a good writer and a hack.
Example: How many times on lawyer shows have you seen the star handle a case that mirrors whatever personal problem they’re wrestling with? The Kings avoid that. They're too overused and too convenient. In reality, whatever case comes along you deal with regardless of your personal issues.
They advised young writers not to hold back. If you’re doing a pilot and you have some cool ideas but you want to save one of them for future episodes (should there be future episodes) – don’t. Cram all of your cool ideas in the script. Other cool ideas will come. And Robert suggested that by putting everything into the pilot script it will almost propel you to coming up with other cool ideas.
They advised young writers to take a workmanlike approach. Write as much as you can, every day if possible. And don’t get too hung up on making everything perfect. That’s one of the beauties of television – you don’t have time to endlessly craft a script like you do in features. Actors are on the stage waiting. So you find yourself writing dialogue more out of impulse and emotion as opposed to chiseling each word. (That was a mistake my partner and I made early in our career. The end result: it drove us nuts and the writing was too careful.)
When writing a procedural scene (i.e. discussion of the case de jour) there also has to be a character element to it. There’s some emotional undercurrent between the characters during the scene. It’s not CSI where characters just recite lab babble and forensic gobbledygook to each other.
The CBS hour-long format calls for five act breaks. The way the Kings construct a story is to determine what those act breaks are first and then work back from there. Side note: That’s how we break sitcom stories too.
Each scene should move the story forward. (If young writers feel the need to get a tattoo, that's what they should get -- each scene should move the story forward. Then throw in a rose or skull or something.)
The best TV writers love TV. Watching television shows is not a burden, not homework, but something they genuinely enjoy doing.
Networks are always looking to over-clarify. Robert believes viewers are very savvy and can handle a little ambiguity. Personally, I feel it’s so much more elegant to define characters by behavior than by saying who they are. In the GOOD WIFE pilot, Alicia’s (Julianna Marguleis) kids program her cellphone to play THE TWILIGHT ZONE theme whenever their annoying grandmother calls. Finding those little moments tell you volumes about characters in a much more ingenious way.
You have to love your characters. (Get that tattoo too.) As Michelle said, “Exploring what these characters might do, thinking about these characters – it’s fun.” I couldn’t agree more. That’s not saying they have to all be angels, but it’s my job as a writer to get the audience to love these characters as much as I do.
And here’s the awful truth and comforting thing about writing. You need to take chances. But… you never know. The Kings are so smart and have such a great command of their show. This year they presented a story arc involving Kalinda and her returning husband. The audience (myself included) hated it. It was wrong on so many levels. And yet, quite candidly, they admitted they never saw that coming. They weren’t thinking they were taking a big chance. They completely missed it. And if showrunners of that caliber can misfire, so can anybody. Also to their credit, they acknowledged and took steps to scale back the story even though it caused major logistical headaches. But the point is, if you take a shot at something and it doesn’t work, don’t get down on yourself. It happens to all of us, regardless of credits, awards, and nights being honored. It’s the price you pay for taking risks. But boy is it worth it.
The WGA series continues this Thursday. I keep waiting for their salute to BIG WAVE DAVE’S, but I guess they’re just saving that for when they really want to pack the joint.
By Ken Levine at 6:00 AM