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Thursday, July 20, 2006

Q. After reading your book I went back and re-read the NYPD Blue script samples that Pamela Douglas includes in her book Writing the TV Drama Series. They seem to be full of things that you say we shouldn't do.

In your book you discuss how much to put of what the character is thinking, the dividing line being whether or not the sentiment is actable. i.e., if it's a feeling, not a thought. Here is some "action" from this NYPD Blue script:
Though Russell has tried to sound as if she's dealing with a minor irritation, in fact she's growingly, irrationally afraid that if they don't leave soon they're not going to be able to leave at all.
This sentence is not well wraught, I feel. What's actable is:
Russell is trying to stay cool, but she's getting increasingly anxious to get them gone.
Why she's anxious (she's afraid they'll never leave) is not really actable, and "irrationally" is a value judgment. Don't judge your characters. Just reveal them and let the audience judge them.
Q. You also say that in movie writing, you shouldn't put a character's backstory in the action. Case in point:
She winces as she always did when he would shout or slam his hand down.
Would you have written it this way?
This is, I feel, sheer overwriting. (It's also a really ugly sentence.) All the actress is going to get out of it is, "She winces." I don't believe the backstory is actable. On a show, you might be able to get away with this sort of writing because no one is editing you for style. Everyone's in a big hurry and so long as what you've written in the action doesn't get in the way, it can stay, like junk DNA. But a sentence like that in a spec would throw up a flag.

If I had to communicate the same information, I'd take out the history and dissect the moment:
She winces. But she doesn't seem surprised. As if she's used to having to wince around him.

I try hard to keep my action restricted to what can be seen or heard. Sometimes there's a fine line between showing an expression and interpreting it. Sometimes it's just more economical to interpret it. But there's a point past which you're just writing sloppy. There can be sloppy writing on TV shows, especially in the details of the action, which the actors will mostly ignore anyway. After all, the writers already have a job. You won't be able to get away with it in a spec script, though, where the "read" is so much more important, and your professionalism is not yet established.


Makes me wonder if people who write like that are staffers for life, and not people who move up.

By Blogger Paul William Tenny, at 12:57 PM  

It's real simple. You can't shoot an adjective. I think Welles said that. Novel writing is notorious for this. Over explaining every thing, whereas scripts are minimal, minimal, minimal. Back story bleeds out of the story, not through an action.

By Blogger sean9, at 3:52 PM  

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