Friday, February 09, 2007

The TV Spec Script: 4 - If painting by numbers doesn't make great art, what makes anyone think writing by numbers will work any better?

Are you writing a 4 act or a 5 act?

Does your show have 35 scenes per hour? Or 48?

How many times does your main character talk?

How many pages does your script have?

Does yours have too many? Or too few?

THESE are just a few of the questions you are told to ask as you sit down to write a spec script for TV. They're similar for movies.

But since writing a television spec is about showing you know how to do it, these questions are emphasized over and over.

Of course, this nonsense is akin to saying that because you've written a poem in perfect iambic pentameter in 3 quatrains and a couplet (abab, cdcd, efef, gg), you've written a good sonnet.

It's all part of the anyone-can-do-it myth that's grown up around an auto-pilot, mass manufactured world of entertainment.

I blame Syd Field for doing this first (though I'm sure he was not the first) and JAWS for making it seem like the only way to get people to spend money on a story. The misuse/overuse of Joseph Campbell's ideas hasn't helped either.

The combination has, at its worst, led to dull, predictable emotional and action tropes.

It's lazy storytelling and, worse, it's led to an even lazier "teaching of storytelling".

I say this because it seems rather than tell someone, "Hey, you know, this script doesn't have a strong idea" or "Go back and figure out what this character is interested in emotionally" people are told to watch shows and make hash marks every time there's a cut to a new scene.

Other, less numerical, but just as mindless tidbits are often shared.

Things like, "don't use 'is' and 'was'" and "make more stuff happen" and "think of your story like a mountain range with valleys and peaks" and, my favorite, "no scene in a movie should ever be longer than a half page".

Does anyone else find this annoying?

All I can say is, thank god Sam Shepard didn't write True West, Buried Child, Curse of the Starving Class, Fool for Love or Lie of the Mind this way. And thank god Fornes didn't give a shit that Mud is too short for a "real evening of theatre".

In fact, thank god for theatre in all its baffling, unwieldy beauty.


Dave said...

And I want to add...thank god someone's blog is sufficiently well written to be worth reading!

You make a great point as always Malachy.

Growing up in England I remember when the son of a Welsh coalminer made it big. His name was Tom Jones. As soon as he got money he decided to get singing lessons. Luckily he found the right teacher who told him that lessons would destroy who he was and he would no longer sound like the guy at the top of the charts! Smart teacher.

My producer always tells me my songs are weird - I have a habit of putting things like bridges and choruses and the like in unusual places.

In both these cases it's not a matter of the old adage 'you have to know the rules before you can break the rules' but that never knowing the rules can bring creative freedom.

I remember being glued to the box years ago when 'The Prisoner' with Patrick Magoohan first appeared. It didn't break every rule in the book - it wrote a new book!

Given the size of their song catalog, I hate to think how many writers are busily picking out a Who song for their new shows, believing that this is 'what people want' just because it's worked a couple of times already.

J.D. said...

Yes. I find it F:*CKING ANNOYING. At the risk of my best friend seeing this, in a recent meeting abou a tv series we are writing, he started applying formulas and this made me very, very cranky. Enough about the white space already!

What disturbs me, when I allow it to, is how the focus on form has seemed to destroyed any critical analysis in the creation of a lot of film and television. And I fear is diluiting theatre.

Enough of the intellectuall chatter. *Putting it away and focusing on something more fun, like writing.*