Here's the second part of my interview with showrunner and creator Chris Abbott, author of the new book Ten Minutes to the Pitch.
AE: Could you talk a little about tracking what the audience expects, and how you write to take advantage of that? Do you like to leave hints for people about what's going to happen (who did it, etc.) , or do you prefer to surprise them, or does it depend on the show?
CA: I love to — my favorite writers always know what the audience expects and completely turn a corner on them. But you have to do it in a way that isn't cheating. Everything you see has to be true but it can also be looked at in another way. Look at The Usual Suspects, Sixth Sense
AE: The same facts, but with different meanings.
CA: Thing is it has to be emotionally compelling before
the twist and then after
the twist as well. It has to work at both levels.
I like to surprise people and I think it's really important to do every step of the way no matter what. Raymond
— I never expect what they're about to say, and yet you say "I knew
he was going to say that." The element of surprise has to be happening. I'd rather surprise an audience than be logical. You can't be so illogical you throw the audience out, but if you can find the thinnest tiniest strand of logic — too much logic is the murderer of good scripts. Scripts are like dreams. you kinda go into a dream state. You don't care about logic so long as you're not pulled out of the scene. Like that Al Pacino movie about Alaska, where he couldn't sleep, because the sun is up all the time — Insomnia
— right away from the beginning of the film, you know, because I've been up in that area of the world and they have blackout drapes everywhere. It's dark. So the whole movie falls apart.
There are certain logical steps you have to take. Then you can open it up. If you ground it in reality in the beginning then you can take liberties later on.
AE: And you can have a plothole only so long as the result is more entertaining than it would be if you didn't have the plothole.
CA: And you can't have a plothole just because it's convenient to the writer. That irritates them.
AE: Let's talk about tracking the audience's expectations.
CA: I like to leave hints so some people can figure it out. Especially when I'm writing mysteries. Then I leave big red herrings everywhere.
AE: Like when you create a character who's super likable, so you know right away they're going to get killed.
CA: Or teenagers having sex — those are horror films. I try to mix it up as much as I can.
AE: What are you doing in Utah?
CA: You can't be in Utah early in a career and if you're going to run a show you have to be in LA. Though actually I could have lived anywhere. On Magnum PI
I spent five years shooting in Hawaii. Then I was on a show in Florida with Burt Reynolds, then a show in North Carolina, then a show in Virginia. If you have enough of a reputation you can live anywhere. I moved up here because I hadn't been writing for episodic television so much. But as it turns out in the endless world of reinvention I live in, I got a call from daytime TV, so now I'm writing that. Everybody lives out of town and we do story conferences by telephone. We have Yahoo messenger so we can write things to each other while we talk, but you need to be on the phone so you can hear people's voices.
AE: What about, like, CU-SeeMe? Internet teleconferencing?
CA: Maybe someday. But being out of town works great. I can write features and I'm working on a novel and because I've lived in LA for 25 years my agent doesn't care where I am. He's very happy if I send him something.
AE: I've been told that the second act out is supposed to be a curveball that changes the story significantly, and the third act out leaves the protagonist in maximum jeopardy (whether physical, emotional or moral). What does the first act out do?
CA: When we were doing Magnum
, the way Don Bellisario explained it, the act two out was where the hero was in maximum physical jeopardy, and the act three out reaches to the heart of where the hero now sees what he's been blind to — he's been wrong, he has to change everything and fix it.
There aren't really action adventure shows any more, so for the act two out, I like what you're saying. Misdirection is always good.
For the act one out, it used to be it set up what the show was going to be about, but with today's faster story telling, the first scene does that.
Act one out would be what keeps the protagonist hooked or involved. What means they can't get out.
AE: Sort of, act one out is "Nope, the easy fix ain't gonna work."
CA: One thing I should add, something that we never paid much attention to but they're doing now... at the beginning of every act there's a slight recap for people who're just now tuning in, or who don't stay focused. It doesn't have to be much, just a few lines to pull them through.