Sunday, April 09, 2017

Diagnosing problem scripts

Here’s a Friday Question worth an entire post:

It’s from Charles H. Bryan:

Are there times when you look at a script (yours or someone else's) and think "There's something missing, but I don't know what?" Or can you always pretty specifically nail down the problem?

I only wish in my dreams that I could detect all script problems and what the fixes are. But the truth is, there are plenty of times something’s not working and I’m completely stumped as to why.

This is another reason it’s good to have partners or a writing staff. And I’ll be honest, there have been many times during a rewrite when as a group we arrive at what we think is the problem, spend six hours rewriting, and then send the script to the stage not having a clue whether we really solved the problem or just did an alternate version. Generally, we’re right about 75% of the time. But once or twice a season we find ourselves right back at square one the next night.

Why do we find ourselves in these pickles? Because we strive to be original, tell stories in a fresh inventive way. If you just follow the same story structure week after week you rarely have these problems. Personally, I think the trade off is worth it. (Of course I say that now. Sitting in a rewrite at 5 A.M. I may not be such an artiste.)

On one show I worked on early in my career we would have a scene that didn’t work in a runthrough or a story that was problematic and one of our producers would say “Don’t worry. I got the fix.” So we would just move on to the next scene. Then we'd get back to room and say, “What’s the fix?” and he’d say, “Oh, I was just saying that so we could move along. I didn’t want to stand on the stage debating this all day with the actors there.” We wanted to kill him… and then ourselves for letting him fool us again.

But if you find yourself in this situation, you can take great comfort in knowing you are not alone. Practically all writers face this, even the great ones.

In his autobiography, the great Neil Simon talks about mounting his classic play, THE ODD COUPLE. They had their original table reading before the first rehearsal and the first act played like gangbusters. Huge laughs all the way through. Same with the second. During the break before the third act, Walter Matthau (one of the stars) pledged to invest a lot of money in the play. it was a can't miss!  Then came the third act. Big laughs until the last scene and then it just died. Playwright Neil Simon and director Mike Nichols (no slouch himself) were stymied. Neil rewrote and they took the show out of town for tryouts.

Night after night the same thing would occur. Monster laughs until the last fifteen minutes. Neil and Mike would then sit in the hotel lobby staring at each other. They would decide on a course of action, Neil would sit up all night rewriting, and the next evening the new version would be presented to the audience. And the cycle would be repeated. Night after night after night.

Finally, a Boston critic casually mentioned he really liked the Pigeon sisters – two characters that appeared in a second act scene. He wished they had come back. A lightbulb went on. Yes! Bring the Pigeon sisters back.

Neil wrote them into the last scene and suddenly THE ODD COUPLE played through the roof. The rest is (Broadway, motion picture, and television) history.

When geniuses like Neil Simon and Mike Nichols can't put their fingers on a problem, what hope is there for the rest of us?  

So when you get stuck just know, there is no Dr. House for writing. At times we’re all Frank Burns.


Juli in St Paul not Minneapolis said...

This reminds me of a comment by Theresa Nielsen Hayden. When your beta readers tell you about a problem, they are almost always right about where your work falls apart, but not about what the problem is. Stories are complex!

Matt said...

Is the producer who says "I got the fix" correct though. Is there value in just moving on to productive work and not looking like idiots in front of the actors?

VP81955 said...

If a Neil Simon can be stymied by a script -- one he corrected into a classic -- then there's hope for a mere mortal such as me. Thanks for the encouragement, Ken.

Peter said...

On the subject of scripts, Ken, I need a little advice. I've had a response to a query email I sent an agency. I've submitted my script. But after submitting it, I found one typo. Should I let it slide and hope they won't mind, or should I email a corrected version? I'm not sure what the correct etiquette is and I don't want to risk irritating them by emailing again. Thanks.

By Ken Levine said...

If it's one typo let it go. Better than driving them crazy with revised drafts. Good luck.

Peter said...

Thanks, Ken! I really appreciate the advice. And thanks for wishing me luck!

waldcast said...

I work outside your industry yet am fascinated by the creative process you employ. Some of these lessons could possibly adapted for my world of sportscasting. Thanks for sharing your gifts with us.

Charles H Bryan said...

Thanks, Ken! It's always a kick to see a question get used. I wonder if there is anyone (be they writer, director, critic, or producer) (I guess I'm leaving out network/studio execs- ha) who is a Dr. House for scripts. I'd imagine that those called upon frequently to be script doctors have such an eye, of if they follow directions given by directors or producers.

Again, with all of the time and budget constraints, it's a real accomplishment when quality work is produced.

Thanks again, and happy baseball season to you!

Ed said...


Bob Miller, long-time LA Kings broadcaster, ended his career on Sunday night. I know you're not a "hockey guy" but are a sports fan and have been connected to the LA sports broadcasting scene. Any comments on his career? It's not just the end of his era - it's the end of an era where your market had Vin Scully, Chick Hearn and Bob Miller all serving as the broadcast voices of LA teams.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Moss Hart tells a similar story in his autobiography, ACT ONE, about his and George S. Kaufman's play ONCE IN A LIFETIME. It played great for two acts, then died in the third. Eventually, the producer Sam Harris landed a comment that "it's a noisy play", and Hart saw that the thing to do was jettison a hugely expensive set and scene at the beginning of the third act and bring back the frustrated playwright Lawrence Vail (played by GSK himself) for a quiet scene, just him and the female lead talking.


Loosehead said...

Interesting you use Dr House as a metaphor for script doctoring, as House the TV series was a byword for the same story repeated again and again - a patient presents with unusual symptoms, House and his team try various treatments that almost kill the patient, and eventually House himself realises the unusual combination of conditions that is causing the problem, and fixes it. Hugely enjoyed that series, especially as us Brits normally associate Hugh Laurie as a bumbling comedian (see various BlackAdder series) so his casting was completely against type, but the stories can be summarised very easily.

Guey said...

Saw John Cleese do a Q&A after a showing of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, he brought up that the last 10 minutes of the movie is the worst. They didn't have an ending, but that is what they came up with, felt it was their worst movie. But the theatre was packed to see it....

Jeff said...

Here is a Friday question that flashed to me from the pic you have posted.

Is Walter Matthau a big asshole? That's what many on YouTube and net say, that he behaved as a pompous jerk because he was a big shot in Hollywood. Always smug while talking to "little" people. An acid tongue when someone made even a little mistake.