Thursday, September 19, 2013

Different structures for different genres

Here’s one of those Friday Questions that ended up being an entire post. It’s from Sitcom Room alum, Wendy Grossman:

You've talked separately about the various things you've written - screenplay, stage play, TV scripts. What, to you, are the most significant differences in how the scripts for those three different media need to be structured?

Each has its own challenges.

The length is a big determining factor.

TV scripts need to be carefully outlined because you only have 22 minutes to tell a story. You have to work within the existing format (2 acts or 3), service every cast member, plot out a story, and find the humor. If it’s a pilot you also have to set up the premise, introduce the characters, and give an indication of where the series will be going in subsequent weeks.

In plotting out the story for an existing show you have to consider what has gone before and what is to come. Example: if there is sexual tension between two characters, just where in the relationship are they? If there are season long story arcs, how does this episode service them?

Is there more than one story in your script? Is there an A story and a B story? If so, do they connect and how?

In a screenplay you have more of a self-contained story. Your character needs to have some growth, unlike in TV where. for the most part, sitcom characters stay the same.

I find in screenplays that beginnings are easy (you set up the world and premise) and endings are manageable because you can build to a finite conclusion. You’re not worried about what happens next week? So you can devise a cool climax on Mt. Rushmore or the lovers can ride off into the sunset.

The real tough part is the middle. And that’s 60% of your movie. How do you keep the action going, the story going, the characters moving forward, and the jokes coming without running out of steam? Trust me, most rewriting takes place in the middle. 

You also need to bring your screenplay in at about 110 pages. That takes planning and outlining. When you’ve determined all the steps of your story, how much time can you allot to say...the two leads falling in love? Let’s say it’s only ten pages. You might come up with completely different sequences if you have twenty pages instead of ten. So you have to find the best device to service the amount of time you have.

For things to pay off you need to set them up along the way. Where exactly do you do that? And how many times? And how do you do it in such a way that’s it’s not obvious you’re setting something up?

I don’t actually start writing the screenplay until I have a solid outline and that can take weeks or even months.

And then when I’m writing the dialogue I find that the characters take me in places I didn’t expect so I’m forever adjusting the story and outline.

For a play, there really are no length requirements although you need to keep it in the ballpark of a couple of hours.

Plays are more dialogue driven. I tend to work off a very loose outline for a play. I know the premise, know the ending I’m heading towards, and know the theme. That’s generally enough for me to start writing.

And finally, musicals are tough because to write the libretto of a musical you’re really providing connective material between songs.

Musicals are very stylized. An argument you’d devote ten pages to in a play must be done in seven lines. So every line, every word is crucial. And if you change a single line, it usually sets off a chain reaction. The arranger has to adjust, the choreographer has to adjust, the cast has to adjust, the lighting people have to adjust, cues could change as a result. And once you’re in production you have a very limited amount of time you’re allowed to rehearse. So you have to be very judicious with your rewrites. I personally found this to be the hardest pill to swallow. Coming from television, if I wanted to change something I just did. If that meant new lines, even a new scene, we would write them and the actors would do them the next performance. God love those actors because at times those rewrites could get hairy, and they had to memorize massive amounts of new material. Try that on an Equity production musical and they come after you with bayonets.

So each one is different and comes with its own brand of frustration, but each is also incredibly rewarding and well worth the aggravation. Even musicals , Okay, some musicals, but the others for sure.


Jeannie said...

Thanks for breaking down just how much Rubik's-Cube-like thought goes into a script. I think many viewers watch a sitcom or movie and wonder, "How hard can it be?" Your post reminds me of the great line from Billy Wilder's "Sunset Boulevard" in which the William Holden character says, "Audiences don't know somebody sits down and writes a picture. They think the actors make it up as they go along."

Frank M said...

Do you have any specific examples of concept to outline to structure to final script? I find when I write a story I tend to get in a few pages and then go back and rewrite and embellish and then I get totally confused and lose the focus of where I was going in the first place.
DO you have a roadmap in your head when you are writing to keep you on track?

Marc said...

One of the more interesting things I've heard about sitcom writing was Carl Reiner talking about how a lot of.the DICK VAN DYKE SHOW scripts were written backwards. They started with the idea for what he called the block scene--which must be old fashioned terminology because I've never heard Ken use it--but anyway they started with the idea for the block scene and then worked backwards to get their characters into that situation.

Seems odd to me but maybe a lot of.sitcom scripts are written that way

Captain Not Obvious said...

Exactly how does someone submit a Friday question? Here? Do you need to know the secret handshake? Is there an email address on the back of your SitCom Room diploma? Just wondering

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Thanks for the extended reply, Ken. Very interesting and helpful.


D. McEwan said...

Ken wrote: "I find in screenplays that beginnings are easy (you set up the world and premise) and endings are manageable because you can build to a finite conclusion. You’re not worried about what happens next week? So you can devise a cool climax on Mt. Rushmore or the lovers can ride off into the sunset. The real tough part is the middle. And that’s 60% of your movie."

I found that also applied very much to novel writing. In writing my new book,Tallyho,Tallulah!, that exactly this was true, except that the middle was only 33% of the story. I had the premise and the finale in mind within half an hour of first getting the idea for the book. When I had it assembled enough to begin writing, I whizzed through the first third, as it was all basically done in my head and in my notes. But then I slowed way down. Whereas the first act took me about three weeks to write, the middle third took months and months. When I got to the final third, I zipped through it in about two weeks. Then all the rewriting I did after the first draft was completed (And read by a writer friend who gave me over 40 pages of extremely helpful notes, covering almost every page) was in the middle third. Middle's are bitches.

In writing plays, I've usually first written an outline that is very, very detailed, every single beat of the the play is in the notes, so that when I sit down actually to knock out a first draft, all I'm really doing is converting notes to stage directions and writing the dialogue. (Although I may have a few dialogue jokes in the notes, for the most part, I do not pre-plan dialogue. That's when I just let the characters speak to me, and type up what I hear them saying.)

Dana Gabbard said...

P.G. Wodehouse is reputed to have prepared detailed outlines. I find for creating a Wikipedia entry that an outline listing sources is essential.

DBA said...

Captain Not Obvious, you just post a comment, like you did, and ask your question in it.

emily said...

"Different structures for different genres"

Wasn't that the third verse of "Everyday People" by Sly and the Family Stone?

Of course, I could be wrong.

Breadbaker said...

Until the groundbreaking "Of Thee I Sing" and "Oklahoma!", books for musicals were just pure excuses for the songs (which could be reused in subsequent shows if the first show was a flop), and very little attention was paid to them. Which is why musicals from the thirties, if revived, are very hard to stage. The story of "Anything Goes" is basically crap but the music is so good no one cares. It's a lot different (and a lot harder) today.

Paul Duca said...

I heard it said that if you can remove the songs from a musical and still understand the story, that means the libretto is bad--doing what the score is supposed to be doing.

gottacook said...

The comment about reuse of songs put me in mind of Bye Bye Birdie. I didn't learn until relatively recently that one of its big hits "Put On a Happy Face" was written well before the show was conceived, although whether it had been used in a flop I don't know. In any case, even in the modern era, a song might have a prior existence and then turn up in a musical (or be shoehorned into it).

Johnny Walker said...

This is a great post! I'm glad to learn that it's not unusual, or a sign of a bad writer, to struggle with the middle section of a screenplay. I've always felt the second act was what separated a well-written script from an amateurish one. Keeping the story going by throwing obstacles in the way that feel natural, logical and entertaining is so difficult.

I'm also glad to hear I'm not the only one who finds their outlines going out the window when they start writing dialogue. Characters often have a mind of their own, and I hate constraining them... but that often leaves me up the creek. I never know what to do such in such situations, but I guess I'm learning that this is the difficult part of writing: You're always adjusting, looking for the best possible option in terms of story, character, dialogue, etc.

If it was easy, everyone would do it! :)

That said, constantly adjusting things in order to find the best possible solution isn't much fun :-/

Any tips on this part of the process, Ken? Thanks.

Johnny Walker said...

Re: "Block" scenes. I've heard other writers talk about this. They start off with a funny situation and then work backwards. I believe the writers of Father Ted used that method for the episode "Speed 3".

I'm guessing there's lots of methods of generating stories, but that seems like a common one.