Wednesday, July 23, 2014

"Writing A Scene"

I had decided to rewrite a scene from a “Major Dad” episode produced twenty-five years ago, because it began troubling me that that scene could have been better.  This is not entirely uncharacteristic for me.  I have been known to rewrite blog posts after they had been published.  This is merely a continuation of that foolishness, only going back a little further.

And now we begin.

No, wait!

Oh, no.  More stalling?

No.  And probably yes, a little.  But this is important, if you want to be a writer, or if you are simply curious about the process. 

When you are writing, it is not good to just jump in and off you go.  Although – contradictory me – we invariably did that, the oppressive pressure of time denying a more calm and sensible approach, the result being that, twenty-five years later, you might harken back to that effort and believe that you perhaps could have done better.  (Note:  I no longer have that script, but the impression persists that that climactic scene was indefensibly “hacky.”)

When I took a cooking class once – I did not learn to cook anything, but I did drink a lot of wine and brought home an unneeded stainless steel spatula – I was apprised of a principle which works as successfully in writing as it does in cooking.

The principle introduced to me was called “mise en place.”

Mise en place” is a French-ascribed doctrine, directing the chef to get everything – ingredients, cooking implements, Band-Aids in case while you are slicing and dicing, you slice off a portion of an extremity not included in the recipe. 

Mise en place directs the chef to have everything they will need to get job done assembled and within easy reach before they get started.  It’s the same thing with writing, except instead of cooking implements and ingredients, what a writer needs “in place” is a mental checklist of instructions, to continually refer to while in the process of doing their work. 

The following internal reminders may not be listed in order of importance, or entirely comprehensive.  But at least they are in one place, and we can add to them later.  Maybe when I read this blog post in twenty-five years and I suddenly realize what I left out.

My invaluable though admittedly incomplete checklist includes the following:

Respect the Format

One of the rewarding advantages of writing in a multi-camera format (as I almost exclusively did) is that, because there are fewer scenes included, you can take the time that is reasonably required to “Examine the Moment.” 

A climactic multi-camera scene could last three to four minutes.  For a single-camera show – that’s, like, eleven scenes.  (Check it out some time.  Count the number of scenes included in a Parks and Recreation episode.) 

Traditionally the shows I worked on permitted no more than six scenes per episode.  It is hard to believe by cramming fifteen scenes into the same episode-length of time (or now even shorter) that something valuable in terms of depth and understanding has not somehow been sacrificed, or that transitions of insight and awareness are not unnaturally speeded up. 

Also involved in “Respecting the Format” is adhering to the expectations of that format.  Unless you are the Burns and Allen Show from the fifties or Showtime’s considerably later It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, your characters cannot suddenly stop the scene, and start talking directly to the camera.  (In those shows, that was the format, meaning that they were adhering as well.)

Also, like in the scene I am about to write in which the issue at hand is “To spank or not to spank”, as much of a momentary jolt as it might supply, it is a little cheesy to have the front doorbell ring, and in comes Dr. Joyce Brothers (Read:  “Dr. Phil” today) out of nowhere to deliver “The Word” on contemporary childrearing techniques. 

As in a play – not ones where the deus ex machinas show up with their “out of the blue” resolutions, the good ones – the characters, taking the appropriate time (within reason), have the opportunity to engage each other directly and negotiate their conflicts as satisfactorily as they can.

Which leads to the next point on the “Checklist”,

Respect the Characters

You have a series going on.  The characters’ parameters – what they will “characteristically” do and not do – are established in the pilot, or at least early on in the series.  The audience expects and deserves consistency in their behavior (unless they bump their heads, accidentally takes drugs or it turns out “It was a dream”, and then all bets are off.  (Note:  I have never written a show where such “uncharacteristic anomalies” ever took place.)

In the episode in question we have a “by the book” Marine who believes in spanking’s deterrent value versus a seven year-old girl who, like people in general minus a few aberrants, would prefer not to be spanked. 

You cannot have the Major suddenly go all squishy and abandon his principles.  You cannot have a seven year-old little girl arguing her case like Clarence Darrow.  (Or “Groucho” Marx.) 

As an honest writer, you have to take the characters as they are and allow those characters – and not the oh-so-clever writers – believably work out their difficulties.  The other was – breaking character for the sake of comedy or for any easy solution – is cheating.  And consciously, or unconsciously, the audience knows it.  I like to believe.

Respect the Situation

A crisis has come to a head.  The climactic scene is expected to resolve that crisis.  The Major cannot come home, the kid’s waiting there to be spanked, and the issue is ignored like it never happened. 

“Hey, Short Stuff.  Wanna go for ice cream?”

You cannot do that.

The writer has an agreement with the audience.  They buy into a situation – they are owed a resolution.  (Maybe I missed it, but at the end of Seinfeld’s “The Contest”, I was unclear as to who was the winner, Jerry or George – which, to me, was a diminishing disappointment to a landmark episode.)

And finally, though I am sure there are others,

Respect The Clock

I include this last, though for me it was always the first.  In sitcom writing, the clock – both in how long you have for the scene as well as how long you have to complete the work – was always oppressively ticking.  (That is why I never wore a watch.  I could not stand looking down and seeing my precious time inexorably slipping away.)

Since a sitcom’s length is finite, the professional’s imaginary though in significant ways real “inner clock” must keep them alerted to a scene’s being too long or too short.  It is a magical thing when a scene says exactly what you want it to say and is also precisely the right length – I don’t know how that happens but more often than you think it would, it does.  Like the right lyrics fitting organically into a melody. 

Those are the things that you have to remember – the indispensible checklist that must be kept firmly in mind.  (Along with remembering limitations on language and taste.)  Then you can get started.

As I unequivocally will tomorrow.


Wendy M. Grossman said...

Earl, you are doing one of the best tutorials on an essential writing skill I've ever seen: procrastination.



PG said...

Nu? So when, already?

GC said...

Bonjour M. Earlo,

Without my "Mise en place" problem, my bad English, i'd have certainly tried to write sitcoms.

Thanks for the post. Maybe one day, who knows...

Frank said...

Great build up!