I want every line of dialogue I write to land like a punchline.
Even in the most serious, least funny stuff I write — I still strive for that rhythm. Each line sets up the next. And each line has to land. And if it doesn’t, you tighten it (by cutting off the top of the line, the first half of the sentence, which the eye skips over anyway) — or you cut filler words — or you reorder the line so that the highest-impact word falls last. Or conversely — you reorder the line so that it falls away, it’s a throwaway, the intensity and conviction of the words and the speaker drop from the start of the line till the end. And this is a kind of punchline too, where we suddenly look at the speaker, knowing there’s a story there. He’s the butt of the joke. Sometimes it’s funny, sometimes it’s not.
What we’re talking about is a way to make your dialogue rhythmic, musical and responsive. Just make each line feel like the punchline to the joke that was the last line. I’m not saying make it funny — I did this in death scenes in my Iraq pilot. Ok maybe there was a little humor there, I don’t remember.
As an artist, I threaten the status quo. I test boundaries. I push limits.
Now, that isn’t to say I don’t get along with people or don’t follow directions or don’t take notes. I do. I believe in storytelling as a collaboration, and TV as one of the most collaborative media there is. And I believe in creating stories that are true to the show you’re making, and true to the network you’re on.
But collaborating and staying true to the show’s voice are no excuses for staying in the middle. Or being boring. Not threatening the status quo because that’s safe. You can plod along turning in recycled ideas and you’ll probably never get fired for it — because what are they going to point to? How reliable you were? How you always turned in material that you knew for sure would make it on the air, and that 68% of your audience would kinda like because it wouldn’t upset them and they’d kinda never even notice it go by?
Instead you can become an artist. And you can turn in material that may push the edge of what the show may do — and make the show bigger, and deeper, and bolder, and funnier, and more interesting, and more lasting. You’ll still turn in stuff or pitch stuff that you know is safe — because that’s part of your job, to repeat — but part of your job too is to get dangerous.
I met M at our “Welcome to the Writers Guild!” meeting earlier this year. I don’t know if he would mark it earlier, but I would put it at the conversation in the parking garage that night that I felt like I understood him and him me – I felt connected to him, which for me is very rare.
M and I are both TV writers. Because we want to keep our skills tight, we started a new scene-writing exercise, just the two of us. Every day we’re creating a scene assignment for each other, to be completed in less than 30 minutes, no online research. It’s just as much fun to make the assignments as it is to write the scenes – because in my mind, they don’t exist in a vacuum. The assignments, the scenes, communicate with each other and with our lives outside the project, creating a story with a life of its own.
So because I’ve got scenes on the brain, I’m going to share my cheat sheet with you. This is what I bust out when I find myself staring into space for 20 minutes – a file I have on my computer called “Drama Questions.” It’s a list of questions cobbled together from a variety of sources — David Mamet, John August, others I can’t remember. I gathered them from all over into one Break In Case Of Emergency File.
Here They Are:
Who wants what?
What happens if they don’t get it?
What is the hero’s problem that starts the scene?
In the end, how are the characters thwarted or turned in another direction?
What are we left wondering?
What’s the silent movie version?
How does the scene advance the story?
How does the scene reveal character?
How does the scene expand on an idea? What theme does it explore?
How does the scene build an image? What does this image mean?
What’s funny in this scene?
What’s the most surprising thing that could happen in this scene?
Where could this scene take place?
What’s the worst that would happen if this scene were omitted?
Who absolutely needs to be in this scene?
Where could this scene possibly take place?
What’s the next thing this character would realistically do?
What’s the most interesting thing this character could do?
Where do I want the story to go next?
Where do I want the story to end up eventually?
Does this scene stand up on its own merit, or is it just setting stuff up for later?
What are the later repercussions of this scene? How could I maximize them?
I want to be clear that I didn’t write these questions. But this is pretty basic drama stuff, and I don’t want to keep it from you just because I can’t source it properly. If I’m really stuck, I actually write out the answers for the scene I’m working on. Or I just read them over to give myself a kick start. Most of the time I don’t need them – but sometimes I do. And that’s what they’re there for, like a map or a wooden stretcher to stretch a canvas painting over.
If you go through and answer all these questions for the scene you’re in, guarantee it’ll get better. And as for what to do next, the next scene is a conversation with the scene you’re in – the way M and my scenes and assignments speak to each other, asking and answering questions.
Your story’s world is a reflection — a result — of what’s happening inside your characters.
The world doesn’t create the character. The character creates the world around her. You create the world around you.
Like a prism refracting colors or a digital projector — the image starts with the emotional footprint inside your main characters. You project this inner image outside them. That becomes their world.
Here’s how it works: I believe I can be successful, that I deserve success — so I act in ways that confirm that belief. I filter what I see for stories that confirm that belief and fail to see those that don’t. I set up my world in ways that support this belief. I gradually adhere to a system of rules that affirm this belief. Rules like if you don’t hold on to what you’ve got, it may be taken away from you and you don’t deserve success, you earn it. These rules build out and become my world. I don’t even recognize parts of the world that don’t agree. I know I’m in Julie-world because Julie-world is defined by these rules — rules that started inside me and served me at one time, and then, because I gave them power-of-attorney over my life, grew strong like a sentient computer program and jumped outside my head and started governing the world around me. Now, not only do I walk around following these rules in my head — but I insist on seeing the world as if this is how the world operates too. Because Julie-world starts inside me and is projected, reflected out. Julie-world is something I inflict on the world.
Many storytellers will start world-building by asking themselves tons of questions — how does this place work? what are the physical laws, political laws, cultural rules of this period — what does this place look like? —
Start by asking how these characters work — what are their internal physical laws, political laws, cultural rules — these answers will tell you what this place looks like. If your characters are haunted by past lives they can’t shake, their environs will be haunted. They may even have established an elaborate system of rules, laws, customs, moral strictures disallowing the past from sticking around — this started inside them. If your characters are liars, they will inhabit a world of false fronts. If your characters love, they inhabit a world that loves.
Worlds aren’t built top-down (what galaxy is this?), bottom-up (what does a wedding ring look like?) — worlds are built inside out. What don’t you know about yourself, that we can see all around you? What rules are you following unconsciously? These rules limn your world.
You build their world by establishing the rules that govern them.
The world IS the rules. And the rules are a by-product of the emotional life of your main characters — a structure organizing their hopes and fears. Because deep down they think that by following these rules they’ll get what they want.
Worlds are anchored, buoyed inside our main characters’ guts. The more the characters’ guts direct their outer world, the more we feel the piece. The bigger emotional impact. Bigger experience. The more we feel like we live in this world. These are people in our world.
A given character could walk into my house and her world would still be different from my world. Because her world isn’t bound by geography, it’s bound by the rules she feels she’s bound by. They feel they’re bound by.
The world is symptoms helping us diagnose what’s going on inside the character. Eczema doesn’t just exist and then a person finds himself inside it: he produces it. We see the skin rash, and that’s how we know what’s going on inside him. This strange place exists because they do, because they are the way they are and their world can’t be any other way. When they change, their world changes. Often, that’s how we know a character has changed — we see their world change.
Freshman year at Princeton, we were going to New York a lot because it was just an hour by train, and because the little shuttle train called the Dinky dropped off about a block through the Junior Slums from our dorm room, it was literally an hour and a half door-to-door, Witherspoon Hall to Penn Station.
I don’t remember who ‘we’ were.
Could have been a few different people on that trip — we were there for different reasons. I was probably doing something impossibly glamorous like visiting a real New York artist’s studio. Somehow we wound up catching different trains home.
Was I supposed to meet them under that sign with the spinning destinations? Was I late and that’s why I was alone in Penn Station in the middle of the night?
I think I had my book bag, like an anchor.
I was 18 and new to New York. I was afraid I would be robbed the minute I dropped my guard — maybe I was already being robbed, pickpocketed, or would, and not even know it. That is the bag I packed with me to New York that night.
All Princeton kids carry book-bags around at all times — jammed full to prove we were working or about to work or capable of working or at least thinking about working all the time. Our work was to think. We thought about big, important stuff. That was our jobs. Your book-bag was your guard against recriminations of the world — you’re not working hard enough. Not enough thoughts.
I didn’t want them to take it from me. I guarded it.
The next train to Princeton wasn’t for another hour.
I made my way into the urine-soaked, fluorescent bathroom. Metal ant-theft purse clasps. Signs warning you to watch your belongings. The scattered contents of a woman’s purse on the floor.
I tried the first stall. Blood all over the toilet steal and broken crack vials scattered on the floor. Pushed open the second door on a shrieking transexual clown. Ran for the handicapped stall — chased by the clown. Slammed the door on his hand as he tried to force it open. Locked the door and backed away from it, terrified. But I still had to pee like a racehorse. Dropped my stuff down, pulled down my pants and squatted over the filthy toilet seat —
A crack vial rolled from beneath the other stall and hit my foot —
The clown shrieked and stretched his hand after it, groping — touching my foot —
Then he squeezed his head and shoulders underneath the partition, going after the crack, smiling up at my naked cunt —
I kicked him and screamed —
I yanked up my pants and pressed myself against the wall. The clown stood on the toilet in the next stall and looked down over the partition, screaming at me to give him his medicine back —
I kicked his crack back over to his stall. I couldn’t hear what he was doing in there. I was afraid he was going to attack me the minute I opened my stall door. I didn’t know whether he had left or not. I waited an interminable amount of time, then I busted the door open and ran out of the bathroom all the way across the length of Penn Station to the retail safety of the magazine shop. Shaking, I flipped through magazines without seeing them. I looked over my shoulder — I thought the clown might still be chasing me. Maybe this was one of those movies where the end-game is destroying the clown by blowing up Penn Station. I flipped through magazines without seeing them for the hour till my train to Princeton. I felt guilty and dumb for being in Penn Station alone in the middle of the night. Was I brazen or a hayseed? I was new to New York. I probably didn’t tell my friends.
I shook all the way till I got on the train, maybe till my dorm room bed. I didn’t want to be robbed. I was 18.
When I was a teenager, I went with my parents to visit the beautiful new farmhouse of some of their friends. The property was idyllic — on a creek, in a valley, with cleared, fenced horse pastures, horses, a large finished barn a little ways from the Victorian house. The couple had been together for almost twenty years and had two happy children. Together they showed us around the house.
The house had been decorated in the wife’s style — lots of Victorian stuff everywhere, feminine — it matched the Victorian outside of the farmhouse. They joked about how the house was her domain — and his shit was out in the barn. Sure enough, he had renovated the barn and built a beautiful multi-room office and den adjoining the horse stables. That’s where he kept his stuff and whiled away his time.
They seemed exuberant about all their new stuff. Happy.
As we drove away, I told my parents they were going to break up.
My mom and stepdad thought I was nuts. That I was being negative and imagining stuff. When they asked me why I thought that, I told them —
There was no room for him in that house.
It wasn’t something I thought about consciously. I didn’t arrive at their home intending to analyze their marriage. I just moved through the tour — and listened to what they said — and got this overwhelming feeling. She’s pushing him out. There’s no room for him here. I didn’t think it. I felt it.
And by the time we drove away, the feeling was so overwhelming, I knew they were going to break up.
They broke up a couple years later. We always know more than we know.
We’re like fly-paper as we move through the world: we pick up everything. We’re stickier than internet memes, as thin-skinned as newborns. Stuff bombards us — and we can’t possibly notice or act on it all the time. But it enters us, it settles in us like heavy metals in our blood, our organs. And when a given piece reaches a critical mass — a clot forms and breaks free and bumps us — the balance shifts — suddenly we’re struck with —
There’s no room for him in that house.
We know more than we know. Finding out what it is we know is a matter of distracting the conscious mind and seeing where your attention shifts. What non-sequitors pop up? What are you reminded of, out of nowhere? These things seem like they have nothing to do with each other. When looked at together, they make meaning. They tell you what you know.
One way to look at a story is an effort to distract the focus of your audience in order to make meaning out of the pieces that emerge when they’re not looking. By the end, the audience knows more than they know.
My first T.V. job was writing for a show called “The Dish” on Style and E! — a spin-off of “The Soup” with Joel McHale, a clip show where a host stands in front of a green screen and shows clips of other shows and says jokes about them. Occasionally we did little sketches and trailer re-cuts, and we had characters (played by the writers or production staff) who would come out and do very stupid stuff. It was fun and low-budget, and there was a lot of room to try wacky stuff. Pitch Jerry the Fashion Crab on Monday and on Thursday the prop guy is spray-painting a foam cut-out in the shape of a crab — and the writer wearing it is dizzy from the fumes.
Once during punch-up we wrote a joke about a commercial for a female stand-up urinator — I don’t remember the exact punchline, but the commercial had a line like “I learned it in Europe.” So then we cut out of the commercial on that line, had our host Danielle look like she’s peeing while standing there. Then she said “I learned it from the host of The European Dish.” (Then the window over her shoulder flashed to a mocked-up photo of Danielle with a huge wart and a unibrow, in a gypsy costume, pushing a plough through a rutted field in Transylvania — with the logo of The European Dish superimposed over the whole thing.)
The joke killed in taping. We the writers loved this joke and laughed really hard when she did it. But the powers that be killed it in the booth because they didn’t want to seem “xenophobic.” We came up with something else on the floor. But I was sad to see the Host of the European Dish get iced, because building mythology is important.
Whether you’re writing a tiny little clip show on a cable channel somewhere in the upper 300’s or a huge-budget space opera on one of the antenna channels, mythology is what makes your show sticky.
Seeing the Host of the European Dish — or Jerry the Fashion Crab — or any other dumb little one-note characters we did on that show — once is funny. But then if European Danielle comes back — and this time she’s there to talk about the Paris runway shows, say in a tape segment, and then she pees herself again … now you’ve got a bit. But then say every time European Danielle comes back on the show, she drops little tidbits about how she got her gig as Host of the European Dish — maybe she was coyoted by a band of gypsies and she has to pay off her debt to them by hosting this clip show … Then we cut back to Danielle in the studio with fake tears rolling down her cheeks, going “They said there’d be opportunity in America … I didn’t know I was going to be a clip show host ….” You’re building the mythology of this character, populating the world of this clip-show, and creating a narrative myth that gives fans an armature to congregate around. Suddenly they don’t just love watching stupid Real Housewives clips, but they also love when European Danielle comes on, and it seems like no matter how outrageous things in Europe are, they’re gonna be more outrageous back in the home studio . . . . It brings people back. It makes you feel like you’re part of it. Fans know they’re fans by knowing that European Danielle became a clip show host via indentured servitude. Late Night with Conan O’Brien did this so well.
Human beings like stories. Tuning into a clip show is fun, mindless entertainment. But if there’s a chance that a character I recognize from a few weeks back will make a surprise appearance, even just to toss off a stray line that may add to his weird back-story — even if that character is just a foam spray-painted crab played by one of the writers — it’s satisfying. It makes us want to stick around, tune in again, see what happens next. Because what if we find out that European Danielle and Jerry the Fashion Crab know each other — what if European Danielle caught a case of Jerry the Fashion Crabs during her time working the Marseilles docks and now she won’t even look at him in the studio for fear of them being recognized together?
This is pure silliness because that’s what that show is. But the principles are the same, no matter what kind of show you’re writing. If you’re writing a serialized drama, mythology is that much more important. Every time you introduce one character or artifact or motif, and then bring it back — you’ve given it a story that has the potential to impact other stories. Tracing the pattern of these collisions, what impacts what and how that changes what can happen next — who has collided into whom in the past, and what that has produced — it becomes a puzzle for the audience to solve. It pulls them in, putting connections together and being rewarded when connections and histories are revealed. It turns your show sticky, holding onto eyeballs.
Because who wants to watch plot? We want to watch stories. We come back to create myths.
Hesitant, cautious, careful, wondering — no one gives a shit. I can get that anywhere, from anyone. From everyone.
I want to see audacity.
People warn you not to be audacious for fear you’ll get hurt, you’ll look foolish, you’ll hurt them. They speak to their own fear, to the voice that says they must follow the rules. They don’t. You don’t. Rules exist for other people’s convenience, not yours. They’re there to comfort and guide those who don’t know how, or don’t have the balls to create rules of their own.
Somewhere along the way we absorbed limits. This catalogue of stuff I’ve already seen in T.V. and movies is allowable to pitch, on the list. These stories and images and references are on the approved list. This is what we can draw from. We stay within these limits so we won’t be laughed at, so we won’t be challenged. So when we’re in the room and we pitch gay robots and people sneer or laugh we can feel okay about ourselves knowing they already did gay robots on Battlestar or wherever the fuck. So I know I’m not a complete fucking loon.
But you know what, they hired you to be a complete fucking loon. I mean, not completely. You have to understand the map before you veer off it. And if you’ve got a map that’s working, no need to bring in a new map. Especially if you’re working for someone else. But no matter what the map says, you always have the option to grab the wheel and drive off-road. Don’t be safe. Be audacious. That’s what people remember — both people who hire and people who watch. They — we — don’t care about how well you stay within the lines, follow form. That does not interest me at all. What we crave is stuff that thrills us. What thrills us is when you break rules. When you get big and then you fucking explode and take the ship down with you, leaving us feeling real fear and empowerment at once — those were all his options. Now what? That’s what storytelling is.
Know your craft, know the form you’re writing, the genre, make sure we’re rooted and hooked from minute one and then — blow shit up in our faces. Set up our expectations and defy them. Slow down when it’s time to speed up. Throw away jokes, as Jane Espenson says. Go psychological when all convention says it’s time for action. Surprise us. Be brave. Be bold. Shoot your wad — the more you give, the more you’ll get.
As the firemen say — the hotter you are, the faster we’ll come.
Some people argue that invoking theme in your work is artificial — theme is a by-product of the story you’re telling, and your audience will see what they want in it.
I argue that watching and tracing the ways in which themes emerge — in stories, out there in the world — is what storytelling is.
This is an anxious time for T.V writers — staffing season, when the network shows hire their writers. This morning a friend let me know that my manager’s client’s show had just gotten picked up, and his agent told him they were desperate for women writers. I asked my manager about it, and she said not true, they’ve already got the women they want. And they’re all lawyers. Even the staff writer they want is a lawyer. The janitor’s a lawyer. The dog is a lawyer. Ok. Got it. I should have gone to law school to be a T.V. writer.
And I’m anxious about other stuff too. I want to be loved.
I know a piece — whether it’s a pilot, a blog post, a joke, whatever — feels like one of mine when it starts dovetailing —
Writing I want to be loved just now brought me close, after roaming on this post for two days —
I went to a teahouse in Koreatown and back to my couch, changed clothes three times. I’ve eaten and eaten — am I getting fatter or is that another feeling I’m dodging, that wants to speak?
I abandon most of these posts. I write far more of them than I publish.
The word “abandoned” is such a fucking cliche. I hate saying it, and I wouldn’t if it weren’t such an accurate word. It’s such a joke now to talk about people with abandonment issues, but how do you explain people who roam, whose thoughts are restless, who can’t or won’t focus until they finally write the words “I want to be loved.” And when you do , a fresh wave rises —
I vowed the other day to be funnier in these posts. They’re getting Czech arthouse dreary. Next thing you know I’m going to have a table of indigent old people sitting around cracking hard-boiled eggs until one of them gets dragged away by the state interrogators.
So the anxiety is not free-floating. It’s specific, and it emerges. It shape-shifts. It takes the form of lawyers getting all the T.V. writer jobs. And it takes the form of my hunger. Of not knowing where my next meal’s coming from, if it’s coming at all. My lack of faith. I don’t know if I’ll have a job, and I don’t know if I’ll be loved. I don’t know when I’ll find out.
Themes emerge. I knew I wanted to write about theme, because I loved what John August said about it here, and blogging is a conversation. But when I started this post, I didn’t know how I was going to write about theme — in what context, with what examples. You start, you have an idea in mind, you find places in your story to bounce that idea around. Your story becomes an echo chamber, and you carve out more and more interesting folds in the walls. The tracing of the bounce becomes your theme.
In the story here, I wanted to write about theme, I wanted to make it immediate and personal and emotional. So that narrowed the frame greatly, because what’s going on today? Anxiety. But I could have told any number of stories about anxiety and staffing season, anxiety and love — it becomes a story about theme when you draw the parallel between them, waiting, the hunger for them both, the jar of sunflower seed butter I won’t stop eating — a jar that never fills my hunger. The way I can’t stop touching my belly. What connects T.V.-writing-lawyers to the touching of my belly.
The joke I wrote on Twitter last week about douchey guys who try to worm their way in by reassuring you about your body — and I’m like, reassure me about my career, jerk-off. This joke hits deep with me, where stuff hurts.
Hey, I put a joke on here — and proved I’m completely incapable of being funny here. This must be my ponderous, serious space, like when Americans go to Europe and feel we have to prove ourselves. This is my Europe. God help you all.
For theme to emerge, give it a space, a context, two adjoining contexts, and then pop your idea inside like a pinball. Watch it bounce around. What emerges will be a tracing that’s dense, provocative, layered. This is your theme.
I’m working on scenes right now. So I’m thinking about scenes as discrete units, like jokes. A mentor taught me this, and a showrunner he worked for taught it to him.
A good scene is pithy like a good joke. It takes leaps and accomplishes its mission in shorter than expected time and distance. It doesn’t explain itself, doesn’t tip its hand — it leaves its most important points unsaid, to the imagination, to be completed by the audience. Any time you let the audience step in to fill in the space you’ve supplied between Set-Up A and Punchline B, they’ll love you for it. Because you’ve let them become the heroes of the telling.
Whether you’re writing a joke or a scene — you wanna get in there as late as possible, get out early. But not too late, not too early. Finding those right moments to jump in and out of scenes (or jokes) is an art. A great scene will have a beginning, a middle and an end, turned like a little three-act play, as will a great joke (even a one-liner, if you look hard enough).
Think of the beginning of the scene (Act 1) as the set-up of the joke: Why does this person need something, here, right now? The set-up builds expectations.
Middle of the scene (Act 2): a reversal happens, a set-back. The twist in the joke. The moment we realize all is not right in joke-world.
End of the scene (Act 3): the character is thwarted or spun a new direction. Surprise! Punchline.
The punchline is the most important part of the joke. Your punchline lands your joke and lands your scene. Scenes finish with a twist, a turn, another obstacle for the character — they finish dramatically, and whatever you go out on is your punchline. The body of your scene was the setup, so you made it pithy and tight and turned it, then you killed with your punchline. Maybe it’s the hero’s final line as he blows out, maybe it’s what the hero does, maybe it’s what you reveal, maybe it’s an explosion. Whatever it is, it’s a punchline, something we lock onto, digest, understand what’s being turned or thwarted or revealed and then wonder what happens next.
Set ’em up. Knock ’em down. Always leave ’em wanting more.
Because in both joke-telling and scene-writing, the business we’re really in is keeping them wondering what happens next.