Monday, March 04, 2013

Meet the creators of THE GOOD WIFE

 (I wanted to call this post "Inside The Good Wife" but that just seemed wrong.)

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.

They kept talking about something I always harp on – always be looking to do something that hasn’t been done. Avoid clich├ęs. Avoid formulas. Find characters you haven’t seen before. Kalinda, the investigator, for example. They wanted her to be a person of mystery. It seems fresh that someone whose job it was to uncover information never revealed any about herself.  Fun spins on characters and relationships.

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.

Robert compared showrunning to playing Tetris. You’re jiggling shapes (i.e. show elements) to make straight lines. And a big key is the script. If the script is weak it will have a ripple effect. The production will be harder, the editing will be harder – again to use the Tetris analogy – a sub-par script is that shape you just can’t twist to get it to fit.

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.


Scooter Schechtman said...

Internet buzz says they're going to do "Pink Lady And Jeff." Set Tivo on LOVE!!

Jason Roberts said...

Quick Question. When do you write your blog entries? Are you up at 6:00am everyday or do you just have an automatic posting set up for your entries?

Roger Owen Green said...

Oh, the Anatomy of a Script series continues Thursday; I briefly thought CBS was moving The Good Wife to Thursday.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

This was the one of the series I most wanted to attend in person; thanks a lot for the summary. (But come on, the dish about the show!)


By Ken Levine said...


There is a timer that posts the entries. I haven't been up at 6 since I was a morning disc jockey. And even then.

Rock Golf said...

How do they keep getting such top level guest stars? Just last night, they had 2 Law & Order alumni, 2 er stars, the lead from Twin Peaks, & a Soprano.

VincentS said...

So I guess it's safe to say you like this show better than WHITNEY.

VincentS said...

So I guess it's safe to say you like this show better than WHITNEY.

David Das said...

Ken, as a regular reader of this blog, I particularly enjoyed this one. In a completely separate discipline -- songwriting -- this article had a great series of tips I'd love to adapt to songwriting. Mind if I blog about your blog -- and of course provide attribution and links back to it?

Kate said...

Ken, this is a GREAT overview -- I was there too and I keep thinking of MORE stuff that I learned that night. Mr. King's answer to the thought-provoking and insightful question about weaving character into the procedural beats* -- that they tried starting from the character perspective in S2, and only last two days, so now they do it the other way around -- has completely reshaped how I think about writing procedurals.

* Okay, so it was my question. Frankly, the victory for me was that I got the whole thing out without vomiting on the microphone out of nervousness.

Sharon said...

I was there as well! I've gone to several of their other events (namely, the fantastic Beyond Words series). It was the first time I'd attended an event in this series and I'll definitely be back for more. This is the kind of thing that makes me glad that I live in this crazy city.

Aaron 313 Ausecop said...

I don't suppose that these events are available on DVD for the general public...

Tom said...

Does the "Kalinda's husband" plot line not working out hurt the actor playing him? I really enjoyed Marc Warren in the first few years of the UK show, Hustle.
P.S. Enjoyed hearing you on Stu's Show.

Sharon said...

AAron 313 Ausecop, as a matter of fact, they are available via online streaming.

Aaron 313 Ausecop said...

thanks, Sharon

Johnny Walker said...

Awesome post! Thanks, Ken. I love listening to writers talk about their craft, and that Anatomy of a Script series looks fantastic. Apparently you can buy the video of the talks, too. I think I'll have to pick out a few when I'm more flush :)

For anyone who's interested in similar things, there used to be a great podcast associated with Creative Screenwriting Magazine -- it was usually an hour or so talk with a major screenwriter about a particular piece of work. They've been taken down now (but not before I could grab every single episode :)

The show has continued under a different banner: The Q&A with Jeff Goldsmith, and I highly recommend it. Also, the Nerdist Writer's Panel can be good, but there's usually so many guests that it doesn't get very deep.