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Friday, September 12, 2008

Tuesday, I pitched my completely new episode 2 of my pay cable series to our network execs. I pitched it as a breakdown: here's the A story, B story, C story. They approved the new stories.

So, after a day of this, that and the other thing (amazing how fast things build up when you're out of town for four days), I'm working on weaving the stories together.

I do almost all my writing on computer. The exception is when I'm weaving the stories together. I like to be able to see the whole episode at a glance.

For my pay cable series, there ought to be about 40 index cards; each represents more or less one beat. Fewer, and I'm coming up short. Longer, and I'll go over my goal of 60 or so pages. (Remember this is pay cable, so each episode is around 52-55 minutes long.)

You might be able to see in the photo that I'm marked all the cards with a color. (My friend Shelley actually uses colored cards. That's much cleverer.) That way I can tell at a glance if I'm on one story too long. 

TV pulses. You want the end of one scene to slingshot you into another story; then the end of that scene or sequence slingshots you back into the first story. That way you build up forward momentum, and can easily cut out the dull bits.

You don't want to spend too much time on any one story, or the audience starts to lose track of the other stories. So it's juggling.

Broadcast TV is all about act outs, but really, every time you cut from one story to another, you want to leave the audience wondering "what's going to happen next." A man comes through the door with a gun and-- we cut to the B story. Jack tells Jill that yes, he cheated on her and-- cut to the C story.

What makes it tricky is that events have a chronological logic of their own. You might come up with three perfectly good stories -- but one is really an evening and night story, and the other takes place entirely in school hours. You'll have to figure out how to move some of one story to the other's time slot.

So I've been moving cards around, sometimes scribbling on them, taping them together, and occasionally snipping one in two, in order to touch base with a story that would otherwise fall out of the viewer's head.

Tomorrow, it's on to the beat sheet.



I've always thought soap operas do a good job of that juggling. They don't always cut at the perfect times, but considering how fast those episodes are written and produced, they're pretty close. Much like the rest of soap production, I imagine they've got it down close to a science.

Completely unrelated to writing (and only a little unmanly of me,) that's a beautiful floor, Alex.

By Blogger R.A. Porter, at 11:00 AM  

chronologic logic is one of the most over-rated problems -- it is usually cited by readers who have not spent enough time watching TV. most shows with multiple story lines -- often the professional case intercut with a couple of personal stories -- keep a very loose sense of chronology (unless the intercut is crucial to the telling of the tale). i usually don't sweat it and go back to the days of watching la law where the telling of a arnie relationship story could easily be intercut with a murder trial that would take months to unfold

By Blogger Frank "Dolly" Dillon, at 11:33 AM  

40 beats in a single, one-hour television episode -- is that typical? I know a lot of features have around 35-40 beats; it seems like a lot for TV.

By Blogger daveed, at 4:05 PM  

40 beats seems to work for this show. Bear in mind that this is a full cable hour, so it's on the order of 55 minutes, not 44. 40 bears over 55 minutes is about a minute and a half per beat, which seems about right.

Of course I'll probably cut some as I get into the pages.

By Blogger Alex Epstein, at 7:37 PM  

This is my first time creating index cards for a spec feature film. If 40 cards approximate 55 mins of screen time, then can I expect to produce about 90+ cards for an average length movie? That's a huge number of cards!

By Blogger Norlinda, at 4:27 PM  

I find that movie scenes run a little longer than TV scenes; and you cut between subplots more often in TV. I find that I often have 40-60 cards for a 100 minute movie.

But your mileage may vary.

By Blogger Alex Epstein, at 5:09 PM  

I find 70 cards will net me about 105 pages of script. Most cards result in about 1.5 pages of script.

90 cards would bump me up to 135 pages of script. Way too much.

Have fun writing,
Phil Rockwell

By Blogger Phil Rockwell, at 5:39 PM  

Thanks Alex and Phil.

I'm already at 36, and by knowing a rough max index card number, I'll know how much further I have to go before inserting the final climatic scene. I'm going by card numbers to make sure a decent number of scenes have been devoted to a character's development---it's a multi-character plot and this is the only logical way I know how to manage the depth of the story.

By Blogger Norlinda, at 8:43 PM  

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