Thursday, April 09, 2015

A GREAT writing (and acting) exercise

Hey they, scribes, do you sometimes have scenes that don’t work and you’re not sure why?  Or scenes that feel too long or unfocused?  There's a great exercise that will help solve these problems.  

It's actually an improv exercise.  Andy Goldberg in his improvisation workshop had us do this last night and my first thought was, as helpful as this is to actors it's even more helpful to writers. 

Here's how it works:  Two or three actors do a scene.  And then repeat it.  Two more times. The first time the scene is a minute long. The second time the exact same scene is thirty seconds. And the third time the exact same scene is ten seconds.

The exercise forces you to edit and ultimately distill the scene down to its very basic objective. Now, I’m not saying all scenes need to be less than a minute. You want the jokes and interaction and great character moments. But you also have to determine what’s really needed. And it’s amazing how you can always find trims.

For purposes of demonstration, I’ve taken a scene from the “Room Service” episode of FRASIER that David Isaacs and I wrote. Applying this exercise I’ve written three versions.
(In the story, Frasier has discovered that Niles has slept with Lilith. He runs out of the hotel room but returns. The point of the scene is that since all three are psychiatrists, they all have different psychological explanations based on their individual philosophies)

HERE’S THE ORIGINAL VERSION: 

THERE’S A KNOCK AT THE DOOR. LILITH OPENS IT AND FRASIER COMES BACK INTO THE HOTEL ROOM.

NILES: I knew you couldn’t stay mad at us.

FRASIER: I’m in a bathrobe, you jackass.

FRASIER BEGINS COLLECTING HIS CLOTHES AS SOMETHING DAWNS ON LILITH.

LILITH: I can understand your shock and – believe me, if I could erase everything that happened last night I would. But if you look at this rationally for a moment, we didn’t technically do anything wrong.

FRASIER: What?! You didn’t do anything wrong?

NILES: I’m a little unclear on that myself but I’m willing to go along with it.

LILITH: You and I are no longer married. Neither is Niles. I won’t say this is my shining hour but we’re not responsible to you or anyone else for our actions.

FRASIER: I can’t believe this! You’re actually defending what you did?

LILITH: Just listen. The past few days have been the worst of my life. I’ve never felt less self-assured, more in need of validation, both as a person and as a woman. And Niles was feeling the same thing.

NILES: Exactly. (realizing) Wait a minute.

LILITH: (to Frasier) Our physical reaction to each other was nothing more than a desperate attempt to reaffirm our own worth.

FRASIER: Very impressive, Lilith. But I happen to be a psychiatrist too. Let me tell you what really transpired. This is a passive-aggressive manifestation of the deep resentments that you both have toward me. You were punishing me for my notoriety. My successful adjustment after our marriage. It is this shared bond that brought you two to your palace of sweet revenge.

LILITH: Allow me to rebut: What a crock.

FRASIER: It is not!

LILITH: This is yet another example of your complete self-absorption and the reason we could not stay together in the first place.

FRASIER: I think I have a right to -- why am I defending myself?

NILES: If you ask me, you’re both off the mark. Last night was all about two people ruled by very strong superegos, tortured by them, who had a chance, however misguided, to break through and rediscover their ids together. Call me an old softy, but that’s how I see it.

FRASIER: (a beat, then) Okay, then… the three of us have certainly analyzed the crap out of this.

HERE’S THE MODIFIED VERSION:

THERE’S A KNOCK AT THE DOOR. LILITH OPENS IT AND FRASIER COMES BACK INTO THE HOTEL ROOM.

LILITH: Look, Frasier, you and I are no longer married. Neither is Niles. I won’t say this is my shining hour but we’re not responsible to you or anyone else for our actions.

FRASIER: You’re actually defending what you did?

LILITH: The past few days have been the worst of my life. I’ve never felt less self-assured, more in need of validation, both as a person and as a woman. Our physical reaction to each other was nothing more than a desperate attempt to reaffirm our own worth.

FRASIER: No, this is a passive-aggressive manifestation of the deep resentments that you both have toward me. It is this shared bond that brought you two to your palace of sweet revenge.

NILES: If you ask me, last night was all about two people ruled by very strong superegos, who had a chance to rediscover their ids together. Call me an old softy, but that’s how I see it.

FRASIER: (a beat, then) Okay, then… the three of us have certainly analyzed the crap out of this.

AND FINALLY, THE TEN SECOND VERSION:

THERE’S A KNOCK AT THE DOOR. LILITH OPENS IT AND FRASIER COMES BACK INTO THE HOTEL ROOM.

LILITH: Frasier, the sex was just a desperate attempt to reaffirm our own worth.

FRASIER: No, it was a passive-aggressive manifestation of your shared resentment toward me.

NILES: No, it was two people with strong superegos rediscovering their ids.

FRASIER: (a beat, then) Okay, then… the three of us have certainly analyzed the crap out of this.

What you're essentially doing is finding the spine of your scene.  Or realizing you don't have one.   Try it.  You'll thank me (well... you'll thank Andy Goldberg).  Probably three times. 

19 comments:

Chester said...

My Original Response:
It's a really interesting exercise. I just tried it with one of my own scenes... and although I hate to remove a good joke, the scene DOES pace better without it.

Here's the Modified Version:
Interesting. I tried it, removed a joke, and the scene works better.

And Finally, the Shortest Version:
Nice!

Oat Willie said...

"For sale.Situation comedy.Laughs imminent."
-after Hemingway

SBell in San Mateo said...

Reduced Shakespeare Company did this with Hamlet: http://youtu.be/H2Jzkop04P4

Jerry Krull said...

I had to do a similar rewrite for a Second City sketch show. The director wanted me to convert one long scene into three short runner scenes used throughout the show. Really made me have to write strong closing lines three times instead of just once.

By way, Room Service is one of my favorite Frasier episodes. It introduced actor John Ducey to sitcoms as the room service waiter. He deserves a lead in his own sitcom along the lines of a Sam Malone character.

Stu Shostak said...

Ken, what you just did was what the Hallmark Channel has been doing to your Frasier shows for years with their super time-compressing and editing so they can fit a ton of extra commercials in during the half hour. That episode of Frasier is also one of my favorites and all that "back and forth" dialogue between the three when Frasier catches them is the best part of the episode. It would be interesting to check if that scene actually had more dialogue in your first draft and we as viewers watched a "cut" version originally.

Michael said...

On a shallow note, I'm not sure the dialog matters when Bebe Neuwirth looks like that.

My Cultural Obsessions said...

This works in short stories too. Do a word count on your story, then cut it in half. Then cut it in half again.

Igor said...

Ken, this is a fascinating post.

After reading it, and since we know the characters in Frasier so well, I found myself envisioning even another 10-second version - without dialogue at all:

Frasier returns, each character takes a turn at starting to speak (yet, not speaking), Frasier leaves. (If I had the requisite video-editing skills, I might try a supercut of the actual scene to show something close to that.)

And then there is: Frasier enters, a beat, he shoots them both, a beat, eats breakfast.

Anyway, the scene, as aired, is a favorite of mine. The entries and exits, and the room-service guy's part, are all classics of French farce (as I understand that). IOW (and I say this with respect and admiration, in general and specifically for this scene), we've seen this "scene" before.

And so it's all about the execution - the dialogue, the small details, and the performances.

Thanks for the original, and for today's post.

benson said...

Yes, but food in the bathroom?

Johnny Walker said...

Brilliant idea. Thanks for sharing.

Makes me wonder if you could start with the short version and work your way up, but that feels like it might be detrimental.

iconoclast59 said...

Friday question:

Ken, what do you think about this season of The Good Wife? The show had such terrific writing and well fleshed-out characters, and this season has turned into a tire fire. Characters doing stupidly improbable things (based on how they've been written up to now), plot lines that are picked up and dropped without any explanation or resolution, and, probably worst of all, making the titular character downright unlikeable.

But here's the topper: Sunday's (4/5) episode involved a scandal with personal emails of Alicia and her cohorts being hacked. They used screen shots of the emails. The writers decided to embed this message to their fans in the last line of one of the emails: "If you’ve read this far, you aren’t paying any attention to our show. So, bite me." Way for the writers to shit on the show's fans, eh?

Albert Giesbrecht said...

You could pare it down to 5 seconds with just a withering look from Frasier.

Albert Giesbrecht said...

BTW, That's why they call me The Editman...OK, that's what I call myself.

Cap'n Bob said...

My first novel was 125,000 words. I cut it down to 72,000 words. It was a great learning experience.

Stephen Robinson said...

It's also interesting to me that the modified version works better for a scene in a drama (let's say THE GOOD WIFE). The storyline is the same and there's even a nice joke at the end, but it's not so much as to throw off the dramatic tone. The longer version works best for the comedy format because of the back and forth -- "I am wearing a bathrobe, you jackass!" is my favorite line, followed close behind by "Allow me to retort: What a crock!"

This goes to Stu's comment about time compression and editing for syndication. Comedies, I think, fare the worst because it seems the intent is to cut out anything that isn't necessary to follow the plot. So, you lose great lines like "What's the color of the sky in your world?" on CHEERS, for example. Dramas suffer less from this because they are more plot driven -- trimming the perceived fat is not as bad as removing a great punchline.

Oh, and Ken, this episode is one of my favorites of not just FRASIER but of TV. It also has nostalgic personal value because I was working front of house at CHICAGO when the episode was filmed, and I remember when Bebe left temporarily to shoot it.

Beyond nostalgia, though, I think it is a wonderful master class in comedic writing. Sometimes when I come across like an old stick in the mud for, say, not like GIRLS or some other modern comedy, I want to just show them this episode as what I enjoy about well-written comedy.

Finally, I think one of FRASIER's greatest achievements is that there was so much depth and humanity to Lilith and Frasier's relationship in maybe 10 episodes that exceeded what we saw in CHEERS.

Tom Quigley said...

Two things working here:

(1) You have to trust the actors to be able to convey the emotion and sense of the moment while at the same time expressing it in fewer words or actions. The cast of FRASIER could have pulled it off beautifully. I'm not sure that would be the case in all instances.

(2) Keeping in mind that it's still at its core a sitcom, what needs to be left in and what can be deleted to adhere to that premise? I kind of lost that feeling with each successive run-through of the scene.

ScottyB said...

In that respect, I guess you could edit 'A Tale of Two Cities' down to just the opening sentence. But then, it wouldn't be much of a story, would it?

I understand the gist of Ken's post today, but for me, the scene becomes less effective and funny the more it's edited. It's also a bit alien, knowing that Frasier and Lilith have been known to go on a bit. They're not exactly people of few words. Call me an old softy, but I like some good extended dialogue from my characters, especially when it's relevant *and funny* dialogue.

Johnny Walker said...

@ScottyB I don't believe the shorter versions are necessarily "improved". It's just a good exercise to help the writer realise what's important (or potentially missing) about a scene.

Anonymous said...

ScottyB said...
"In that respect, I guess you could edit 'A Tale of Two Cities' down to just the opening sentence."

If you take the time to review, Ken was talking about sitcoms, not novels.

The difference in approach is like the difference between writing a simple blues number, and a concerto for a full orchestra.

"I want you to cut the word count in the last chapter of Gatsby by half!"

See how stupid that looks?