I asked Paul Guyot, of Judging Amy and Ink Slinger fame, a slew of questions. I'm going to be serializing his answers over the next few days, so you can ponder them...
AE: What are some of the ways a scene can fail even when it's a faithful rendition of what's in the beat sheet? Are there any particular kinds of flaws you've tended to run across as scenes go from outline to pages?
PG: There are so many more ways a scene (or entire script) can fail than succeed. A beat sheet is a map, and very often once that information or idea is transferred to the written page it still looks like a map. Meaning the scene is cliched or obvious, or just stupid. Like a big finger pointing the way for the audience.
I think a common flaw of a scene failing after going from outline to script is when the drama, or depth, or comedy isn't there. There's nothing for the actors to work with. Nothing for the audience to be moved by. This happens most often with expository scenes. One of the toughest scenes to make work are the expository scenes. We used to call them the "Man with a hat" scenes. Meaning, there were akin to a man with a hat walking out onto stage and telling the audience, "Okay, here's what's going on..." I don't know why he had a hat.
AE: Do you ever notice that a scene's been written from the wrong character's point of view?
PG: Sometimes, sure. This probably happened more in television writing twenty, twenty-five years ago. That was before Bruce Paltrow and Bochco started the multi-storyline/multiple POV shows. It used to be that the protagonist drove every scene of every episode. But when St. Elsewhere
and Hill Street
arrived they showed that you could take television to another (higher) level by doing multiple storylines and multiple POV. They taught us you could play with POV in scenes without losing forward momentum.
But yes, there have been times when you write a scene and realize that you're on the wrong character. You hope you see it before anyone else, but sometimes it takes the read-through, or God forbid, you catch it in dailies.
AE: Do you have any tricks for getting into a scene that doesn't flow naturally?
PG: I'm not sure what you mean. If it doesn't work then you need a new scene. If you're talking about a scene that is required for expository or geographic reasons, then that's what makes a good writer. Being able to look at it from every angle - angles others wouldn't think of - and see how to do it. I think it was Vonnegut - I can never keep up with the quoters - who said "Every character on every page must want something - even if it's only a drink of water." This is so true in television writing. When I'm having trouble with a scene I will ask myself what each character wants. If I'm still stuck I start tilting, 10 degrees, 20, even 45 or more, until I'm looking at the scene from a completely different perspective.
AE: Do you think it's important for an episode to take place within a limited amount of time?
PG: Do you mean in time as it relates to the fictional world of the story? If so, I think it all depends on the story. I think you're limited to a certain amount of time simply because of episodic TV's parameters. Since all shows are weekly, it doesn't really make sense for an episode to cover a span of say, six months or more. But again it's all what serves the story (the series) the best. If it's best for a particular episode to cover 3 or 4 weeks in the characters' lives, as opposed to the normal 24-96 hours, then why not? Look at law shows - cases go to trial in minutes as opposed to months or years.