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Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Q. What do you do about the technical aspects of the narrative? For instance, I've always been intimidated by specing a medical show like Grey's or ER. Or a law/crime show. Do you research the hell out of something, or do you fake it the best you can? All of those shows have actual consultants, so will people cut you slack if your relationships and story are tight but your technical methods are suspect?
Yes. You research the hell out of something, and then you fake it the best you can.

First of all, you're not showing your Grey's spec to the Grey's staff. You're showing it to anyone but. The people on a show know it too well to be impressed by your spec.

Second, the writer reading your spec is usually not a doctor or lawyer and isn't going to show it to a doctor or lawyer. If you can convince him or her that you know what you're talking about, you've done what you set out to do.

That said, it is hard to convincingly fake medicine if you have not studied up on the illness or condition you're writing about. Most of us have seen enough medical and law shows to know when you're just completely making everything up. And writers are often fonts of trivia. This morning I was reading up on how Allosaurus jaws flex wide when they're eating something big. You never know what another writer will know. If they can spot the holes in your medicine by checking the Wikipedia, you haven't done enough research

On the other other hand, as Doris Egan (House) points out, the experts don't always agree, either.

Yes, the thing to concentrate on is the relationships. Do what you can to make the medicine convincing (not the same as real), compelling and above all interesting. But your spec lives or dies on the characters, their relationships, and how you tell their personal stories.

Incidentally, this is why I wouldn't spec a House, though lots of people are. It's too much about the medicine. I'd spec something like a Grey's first; it's not really about the medicine. Ditto something like Boston Legal (though BL may not have enough heat any more to spec): the cases rarely turn on intricacies of the law. They usually turn on Denny Crane pulling some courtroom stunt or Allan Shore suppressing a witness.

For bonus points -- and this is always a good thing to do if it doesn't bend the rest of the episode out of shape -- find a reason why the medical situation or legal problem is personal to the doctor or lawyer who is handling the case. It's one thing to have a story about a woman pondering giving up her baby. It's another thing entirely when Izzy's on the case and we learn that Izzy gave up a baby herself. Or when Denny Crane is fighting to defend a steakhouse when we realize that he's suffering from mad-cow-disease-related CJD. Or Burke has to operate on a musical hero of his who doesn't want to live if he can't be the best -- bringing up the question of what drives Burke to be the best.

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