Wednesday, June 27, 2012

More advice for young writers

There was a great exercise in Andy Goldberg's improv class recently. Yes, I still take an improv class. (You'd think I'd be better after all these years, but I take it anyway.)

This was the exercise: we had to play a character based on someone we knew. Not a celebrity -- no Al Pacino impersonations -- and not a caricature. We had to pick a real person we knew and really try to become him. Voice cadence, body language, attitude, pet phrases, endearing (or annoying) quirks.

The result was a series of wonderful scenes. Everyone in the class rose to the occasion -- even the guy who usually just gets by on glibness. Oh wait. That was me.

Anyway, the thought occurred that this is the perfect exercise for writers. So often writers create characters that are generic, or cliched, or not even that well-drawn. A great idea is to model your characters off of specific people you know. Imagine them playing the parts. Hear their voices in your head. I bet it will be so much easier to write them.

Draw up a list. Who are ten really interesting, maybe bizarre, people you know? At first you'll wonder if you can come up with ten. Then you'll hit fifteen and realize you're still just listing family.

We all know people who are naturally funny. Most don't try to be. But their take on the world, their reaction to frustration, the way they eat their food -- that's all comedy gold when you're developing your script. Especially now since agents and producers all want original material along with spec scripts for existing shows.

So don't just create slacker dude -- model him after Chad who you buy your weed from. Looking for a real asshole? How about that guy, Scott, who dumped you at your aunt's funeral?

A great example of this is GIRLS. I'd be shocked if Lena Dunham didn't model all of those characters after people she knew. And then took actual conversations from them.

Now you might say, yeah but the people I use as models will see themselves and hate me. 90% of the time when I have done this the person in question will come up to me and say, "hey, I know someone just like that!".

Start writing that list.

As for the character I chose? He was a writer friend who always whined. Not that he was always complaining. That's just the way he talked. So I played him at a restaurant on a date, and all he did was deliver good news. He got a promotion, increase in salary, etc. And he whined through the whole speech. Without a single "joke" I got laughs throughout.

And there are countless other people I could have used.  Just in the class alone.

Seriously, start writing that list. 


Dana King said...

I write crime fiction, not TV scripts, but I borrow from people I know all the time. The phrase shouldn't just me "write what you know." You should also write who you know.

jmacsmith said...

Check out my Dear John Letter for Lena Dunham:

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Hijacking to say speaking of funny women, what about Nora Ephron? Saddened to see today that she's died - she was only 71.


jeff said...

Just finished your book...

Ramblings in want of a sequel written just for ME..

Gordon and Sheila Macrae at the Valley Music center...creepy sexy
UCLA fraternities death 1968 due to the draft, drugs, sexual revolution...we closed ours as frats had run their course...Sammies were dead for years - with maybe seven active members in 1966 as I recall...worse off than Triangle...Jan's brother Dean was in my frat
Does anyone like "Drummer Boy"? All gone by the time you arrived
Little Johns and Corbin bowling center in Reseda and dangerous  Canoga Park Drive In
First "Love In" in Golden Gate Park with the reading of Valley College prof's "Love Poem"
Fix page 202?
Were four door Comet's on sale or something?
Mickey Dolenz the Circus Boy cruising the Valley looking for someone to talk to...but getting few takers?
"Cherish"? "Sugar Sugar"...come on. Really? Second  and third (to last?) only to "Sugar Shack"!
By "Costco Jews" might you have meant "Gemco Jews"?
"Vals go home" signs
Chalk Hill and Love's Pit BBQ
Too much Jungle Gardenia
Wasn't the UCLA Italian scandle in 1968?
Wasn't "2001" at the Pantages?
Visiting Steve Allen at the Hollywood Ranch Market
Malaprops from Jerry Doggett
Ahhhh...Zev. Our protector even then.
Hitchhiking and open doors died with Manson...
Taft H.S. reputation for the most drugged out school in L.A.
Didn't Eugene McCarthy speak at SFVSC/CSUN?
I never even heard of KLA...but I did take a class in map reading from Lt. Arthur Ashe...and sat next to Lew in psychology of music. Maybe if you had reported that...

I want the sequel!

Anonymous said...

jmac, I've bailed on "Girls" too. Could have used another season of "Bored to Death" - there's a writer who was doing something with his (other) life.

Brian Phillips said...

SORKIN you shall find:

I enjoy Aaron Sorkin, but after all those episodes and all those shows, he has repeated himself once or twice, at least as far dialog is concerned. Take a look at the Sorkinisms-A Supercut"

Breadbaker said...

Brian Phillips, thanks for making my day a little happier.

Of course, I've been a big Mental Floss fan since it first began.

Anonymous said...

the beautiful young woman in the photo looks familiar...

Unknown said...

Hi, so interesting to read about the trials and tribs of working in the industry. Or what was the industry. I have a shameless plug for an ebook I wrote available on kindle at or just search the title. I used the "nom de novel" Arpy Beck because it's fun, but I make no secret that I'm Rebecca Parr Cioffi, a sit com writer in the 80's and 90's until I alienated everyone, became too expensive and remained female. This book is fiction but if you worked with me, you might just see yourself in it. Or at least identify with the stories. And it's just a fun read. And Ken, I think you're in it. XO

Duncan said...

What's your opinion of Bunheads?

D. McEwan said...

"A great idea is to model your characters off of specific people you know. Imagine them playing the parts. Hear their voices in your head. I bet it will be so much easier to write them."

I routinely do this all the time, to the extent that, for my new book (just sent the final page-proof corrections off yesterday. Mext stop: presses) I have had to include in my closing Acknowledgements-notes a paragraph stating that, while yes, the high school choir director character in the book looks and sounds like my real high school choir director (in case he's still alive) and has a very similar name, but that the real guy had a happy marriage and did not kill his wife, cut her up into bits and then dispose of the bits about town. Even if he's dead (I have no idea. Lost touch with him 35 years ago), people who also knew him will be reading it.

But your advice here is well taken.

Matt said...


An interesting (albeit very very rude) podcast from the UK where Armando Iannucci (Veep) & Graham Linehan (IT crowd) are interviewed. Some discussion about working in UK compared to working in the US.

Annie said...

Look at that incredible space work! Am I right?

That girl's an improv genius!

Anonymous said...

"Look at that incredible space work! Am I right?

That girl's an improv genius!"


George Gervin said...

How do you feel about stunt casting? It seems like it keeps older actors busy--when then get "names" to play sitcom couple's parents--but perhaps at the expense of the "regulars," because you keep thinking "Wow, I can't believe is doing guest spots, used to have such a big film career.
Were you there for the episode where Alan Alda's father played a "guest surgeon" ?

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Ken, returning to your mention of GIRLS and the likelihood that Dunham bases her characters on people she knows, she talks about that in this interview, conducted by none other than Claire Danes:


Don K. said...

Since Girls has been brought up- my wife and I have tried several times to watch the show and never get through ten minutes of it. Whatever appeal it has is lost on us. Granted, I'm 54 and my wife is 46, so it's like watching kids we're glad we never had, but nonetheless, we can usually spot the appeal a show might have for the intended demographic. If Lena Dunham is a talented writer I suppose we'll have take someone else's word for it, because to us it's just bad.

phil b. said...

Great advice, Ken! I like to print these out and share them with young up and coming writers I know. I use these tips myself, even though I'm more on the down and going side of my career.

Mike said...

Brian, I suspect you could find that in the work of all writers. David Kelley does that as well. Why he even copied within The Practice.

Lawyer gets his client found not guilty on charges of rape, then later on is chatting up a store clerk, who ends up being the girl who was raped, and feels oh so bad.

Then you have a murder trial, and the judge calls in the lawyers, jury asked me if they can convict on manslaughter instead of murder, which tells me they don't want to find him guilty but they don't want to let him go either. So the question is who will blink first. Cut to lawyer who is serious.

Johnny Walker said...

Nick Hornby swears by this technique (and occasionally get into trouble with his friends).