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Babbling on the Internets, ft. Alex Epstein


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Before I left home for the weekend, I began composing an email to Alex Epstein, hoping he would answer it on his blog as he often does with people. I ran out of time before I left because I wrote it three times over; I tend to do that with letters. I think I finished it on Saturday, and was happy to find that he did answer it. I thought about what he said, and posted most of what came to mind on the thread. He replied in the comments, and much to my surprise, also came to my weblog and repeated the reply in my own comments when I wrote a short post about the deal. (This might have had something to do with me dropping a link to said post in my comment...naaaah.)

He said...

As I mentioned on your blog just now: if you don't want to mess with your structure, try to just "tease" the B story in Act One. Maybe you can split your first B story scene in two and put one half in the first Act. That's better than an over-long Act One, especially one that goes out on the B.

And I replied..
Interesting, I never thought of doing that way. Splitting up the B story "beginning" would be tough the way it's written though -- over a four page span the intensity builds from minor mystery to apprehension to tense action, and concludes all in its own little container, and I'd hate to lose the moment unless I could come *right* back to it quickly. (I'd hate to, but I am not beyond just putting it aside altogether.)

Creating a new short scene that teases it sounds very attractive, but the finite amount of space just slays me. In my first spec, I tried very hard to limit each act to about 11 pages. Then right before I set about working on this new one, Bryce Zabel published a couple of his scripts from produced episodes of Dark Skies, and I saw the act lengths ranging anywhere from 9-14.5 pages. It came out to about 55 pages total I think, so I could see how you could give yourself a little wiggle room if you needed it. I was so thrilled when I landed exactly on 14.5 as a natural consequence of the story, only now to find it's actually over loaded.

I might be best served by cutting out an entire scene from act 1 to make room for this, rather than cutting and trimming little things here and there to try to shorten it. That would at the very least preserve my act out, which I loathe trying moving around, but man it feels like it would just eat the soul out of that act. It's just so pristine, moving from scene to scene, each building on the last, revealing bits of information, questions creating questions, deceit, risk taking, *real* humanistic dialog...I wonder if the reason I don't want to change it is because I'm too in love with it to see that while it may be "pretty", it's dysfunctional.

I was so enthralled by how fast and solid that first act was written (3-4 hours for 14 pages) that it just never occurred to me to slow down for this.

Thanks again for the suggestions, both here and on my site. It's a bit of a kick to see a comment from you over there.

I was noisy because I honestly thought this was going to be the end of it. I was fortunate enough that he took the time to answer my question in the first place, and though it was helpful in that I now saw a new way to go about fixing problems like this, and the value of not making these mistakes in the first place, he went a step further and addressed some of what I said.
First of all, get over how easily it came to you. Sometimes it comes easy. Sometimes it comes hard. Easy doesn't mean good. Hard doesn't mean good, either.

Ouch. I struck out there. When I was talking about how easy and quickly the pages came, in retrospect, I was showing off in front of someone whom I admire and respect, and had come to for help. I got the help, but I also stepped out of bounds, and should have kept my mouth shut about it. The point here is something I actually understand, because I've had those days where I've gotten jack squat. It's an irrelevant statistic when it comes to quality, the only thing it means is if I can do that regularly, at least I won't be fired for being slow.
The reason you're uncomfortable splitting up your A story is that you feel each scene builds on the previous one. So does the B.

That's great. Except that you've got it exactly backwards. Movies flow, TV pulses. Each time you build to a mini-climax in one story, that's where you want to cut away to the other story line. You want to hold the audience. Cutting away at the moment of decision keeps the audience in suspense. By cutting away to the B, you're actually raising the tension on the A story. The hero opens his dresser, pulls out a gun and-- CUT TO: the B story. The audience has to wait to find out what's going to happen in the A.

Everything up until this point was the entrée, but this is the main course. This is the real reason I screwed up; I just wrote the first act of a movie, not a tv spec script. Whoops.

Now I've been chewing on this for about 24 hours, and I have a firm grasp on exactly what I need to do to dig myself out of this hole. Even though the first act builds from page 1 all the way through page 15, there are still a couple of places where I can easily leave the narrative to tend to another thread. I didn't want to do this, but I'm lucky in that there are places that I can do it, and I imagine it'll improve significantly because of it.

The first act is dialog heavy, about a 4:1 ratio for narrative/action. That works fine for The West Wing, and I'm sure I will probably thrive on a show that depends on those kinds of stories, but that is not what this show does for one, and it's the principle reason the act runs so long. A problem with writing dialog-heavy scripts is that invariably some scenes will come naturally and be of high quality, and running long is just a natural consequence of this as far as I know, but not all the scenes work out that way. Problem is once you've resigned yourself to writing a dialog laden episode, you're stuck with it, and any scene that runs shorter than you want needs to be stretched to fill out the space. (Now I know some sage writer out there saying no no no, never do that. If it's short, and you need to fill out some pages, leave it be or junk it with something better. I wouldn't know, I'm not very sage.)

I had this problem, and the results are some scenes that kind of drag on, and cutting them won't hurt so bad. Probably make them better, really. But there are also scenes I can cut out whole sale to make room for my B story (please God/Alex, don't make me do a C story..) Now I can cut these out because they don't really add anything to the story, and the sage writer would certainly tell me to cut it, but surely not every scene must be critical to the story, right? There must be room for some scenes that aren't bloated page fillers, but also aren't critical can't-remove-this types.

Here's what I mean by example. Now if you haven't seen Stargate Atlantis, this probably won't mean anything to you, but if you have: This episode starts off with an Ancient that arrives at Atlantis through the Stargate; just out of the blue. We don't know anything else about him, or why he is here. It's late at night, so the crew decides to deal with the situation in the morning (there's a long discussion that comes to that conclusion right before this point, so don't ask..)


INT. EMPTY SLEEPING QUARTERS - NIGHT

The room is bland at best. A bed, some stored crates of
equipment and supplies.

MCKAY
Well, here we are. Good night.

JARED
I love what you've done with the
place.

MCKAY
Yes, well, we have a lot of people
here and we couldn't exactly fit a
three story condo through the
Stargate now could we.

Jared gives McKay a look that says he didn't appreciate the
sarcasm.

MCKAY (CONT'D)
Right then. You just uh, hollar if
you need anything, and
(looking around)
I'm sure somebody will eh, you
know, yeah. Night then.

McKay turns quicker this time to get to sleep himself, but
he's held up yet again.

JARED
Of all the people that could have
found their way here, I hardly
expected such primitives would have
been the first.

That hook got McKay good.

MCKAY
Now wait a minute, what do you mean
-who are you calling primitive?

JARED
Have a lot of cities capable of
interstellar travel laying about,
do you?

MCKAY
We're making progress.

Beat.

MCKAY (CONT'D)
No.

JARED
I thought not.

MCKAY
If you guys were so big and bad
then how come you got your butts
whipped by the Wraith?

McKay strikes a chord of his own now. Jared doesn't answer.

MCKAY (CONT'D)
You're different. I don't know what
it is, but--

JARED
It digs at you from the inside out,
scraping and picking at your brain.

MCKAY
Yeah.

JARED
We're all different.

MCKAY
That's not what I meant.

JARED
Isn't it?

MCKAY
I've met an Ancient before, and she
wasn't anything like you. I'm going
to figure it out.

JARED
You already have Mr. McKay. You
simply refuse to accept it.

I'm sure this isn't up to professional standards, but remember that I'm new, and this is a first draft shooting from the hip.

The thing about this scene is, as far as I'm concerned -- this is classic McKay. It may not be critical, but it's fertile ground to start all sorts of things later on no matter what I do. It gives me just a ton of ways I can play these two characters off each other later in the script. The last thing that Jared says will later in the script be the very heart and soul of what this story is about -- when everyone "figures it out", it's a kick in the nuts that could, if you wanted, give you a multi-episode arc, yet in the same breath this is just one facet of that potential. It's just one story of many that his character has to tell, so it's really really good, even if the dialog stinks because I suck at this, but it's great for the story, but it's not critical. I can and maybe should delete it, and that really sucks.

This is one of the places I can start my B story, starting on page 7. Optionally, I can start the B right after this scene on page 8 right if I decide to leave it. I could drop the scene right after this one, or shorten them both to make room. Point is, I have options now. I can shorten the scene right before this one considerably because it's all dialog, all people talking at a table. I came into the conversation in the middle, yet I felt the need to end it. What I could do is come into the conversation at the beginning, and leave it as a bit of a mystery before I break away, and go right to my B story right there. Or I could just shorten it by not ending it, and accomplish the same.

Not sure, I'll have to try them all out and find out what works and what doesn't, and hope that the experience of doing that, added with the new writing tools that Alex gave me, will enable me to do this kind of thing while I'm writing it, and not after the fact. I'm not sure if this makes sense to anyone else, but it all makes good sense to me now, so I'm happy. This script is going to be much better, and I'm thankful for Alex's help. I really should go buy his book(s) now.

(Interesting note: If I put as many words into script as I just did this post, I'd have another act done..this one in an hour. Why can't scripts be as easy as babbling on the Internets?)
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Jul 17, 2006, 6:44:00 PM
Pretty cool that you got that kind of response! I mean, brutal honesty can be tough to take but there's something motivating about it too 'cause - as brutal as it is - at least they took the time to bother to write it, eh?. :P

Hrm, I don't see anything overtly wrong with your dialogue. But then again, I don't really watch Stargate Atlantis (Seen a few eps, but that's it).

DD


Jul 20, 2006, 3:02:00 PM
Hi there. I'm also an aspiring spec writer who sends Alex questions (the question about sloppy writing was from me).
Now, I've never sold anything, and I've never seen Stargate Atlantis (my current show is House), but...
In his book (which I assume you've read. If not, read it!), Alex writes, "try to make sure each scene raises a question... that a later scene answers." So maybe that can be your criteria for deciding whether to keep a scene.
When I was studying screenwriting (again, movies, not tv), they told us to leave out anything that wasn't absolutely essential to the story. I don't know if this is as true in tv, because you've got hundreds of hours, not just two. But with House, every episode has a theme, a (sometimes subtle) point it's trying to make. So another question you could ask is, what's the point of this story? Where do I need to get by the end of the episode and does this take me there?

And yeah, what you said about babbling on the Internets...


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The text of this article is Copyright © 2006,2007 Paul William Tenny. All rights reserved. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 United States License. Attribution by: full name and original URL. Comments are copyrighted by their authors and are not subject to the Creative Commons license of the article itself.