Monday, July 27, 2009

Easy To Say, Hard To Write

Over the weekend, Macleans TV critic and friend of the blog Jaime Weinman wrote a great post at his other digs Something Old Nothing New. Inspired by the words of music critic Conrad L. Osborne regarding an opera, Weinman spun it all into some inspired observations on the difference between great and merely effective dramatic writing.

Almost all commercial theatre, television, film, novels, use certain tried-and-true devices. And nearly all of them space out the use of these devices to the moments when they will be most dramatically effective. Musicals need spots for comedy songs, ballads, an "11 o'clock" number; movies and plays need certain set-pieces or types of scenes depending on the genre; TV episodes need to incorporate certain tricks to keep the audience's attention through the episode and especially during breaks.

The distinction between first-rate works and merely good or effective ones is not that the former doesn't use those proven, familiar devices. It's that the former tries to make those devices seem like an organic part of the story. It wants to convince us that a certain thing happens not because convention requires it, not because this is the moment in the evening when a certain type of response needs to be obtained from the audience, but because the characters would logically do this at this point. Of course they're also doing it because convention requires it, because the actor/singer needs a showpiece, and many other reasons. But the writer is trying to hide this and make everything seem natural.

If the writer does not succeed in making the events seem like they are driven by the story, and instead makes it too obvious that the story is constructed around the set-pieces and tricks, then the result may still be something entertaining and good. But it's probably not going to work on the highest level.

Read the rest of this very interesting piece HERE.

You work in or even watch enough TV and you know exactly what Jaime's getting at. All dramatic story-telling, but especially episodic television story-telling, is guided by certain rules and expectations. I'll take a drubbing here but I'm just now finally getting around to watching the Battlestar Galactica series. Watched several eps of Season 1 on DVD this weekend actually. Saw "Bastille Day" remember...the prison uprising, all hell breaks loose episode. And it was a fine hour of TV, but it was still a 'prisoners revolt and take one of our heroes hostage' story, even if set in space. That 'plot' device has been used sooooo many times in sooooo many network television series over the years, you could almost call each beat just before it happened. In fact you not only expected one of the heroes get taken hostage...the story demands it!

And that's the constant struggle one has when writing conventional network television (premium pay cable series not so much, though they now have their own rules and devices and conventions even sans commercial breaks). Whether it's a procedural or a medical drama or a crime drama or a soap drama or sci fi drama, there are 'industry standard' devices and conventions for every plot line you devise, and audience and story expectations for each story for each series. And yet you don't want to seem like an 'obvious' writer...frak! What to do?

Of course, the knee jerk reaction is to not give the audience exactly what they 'want' or tell the story people 'expect', so you throw some twists into the plotting. But sometimes those twists or turns won't feel organic to the plot or the series even, and you're back to executing the Fail Jaime describes above: that the story is being constructed around the twists (hello, Dollhouse anyone?) as opposed to the twists and turns being driven by the story.

Take what I'm sure many feel was as good an hour of network TV over the past five years, David Shore's "Three Stories" for House at the end of Season 1. It twisted and turned, it broke rules, it played with perspective...but it was only able to do so effectively because the majority of episodes written to that point in the season did have a predictable (but well-executed) pattern of devices used and conventions established. Same for many of the brilliant Darin Morgan's episodes of The X Files and Millennium...he appeared original, but only because he had a mold to break.

However, those episodes stand out for being different from the norm...and the 'norm' is what most of us watch or most of us get paid to write. So back to Weinman's post, he's absolutely right...a good sign of great TV writing is when the scribe can make those predictable and expected devices seem natural and organic within the established conventions of a series. But it's difficult to do and takes more talent than you'd simple as it sounds, it's waaayyyyy easier said than done.


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