Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Crafty TV Writing: 50% craftier than normal

Alex Epstein's great screenwriting blog, Complications Ensue (which just might be THE screenwriting blog, what with its no muss, no fuss attitude), is the sort of thing that one trying to break in to the screenwriting game will find instantly inspirational. Epstein's advice runs the gamut from business advice to story structure advice to dialogue advice. He's always forthright and honest. He may tell you just how low you'll have to stoop and just how hard you'll have to work to make it, but it's always, somehow, encouraging because you know he's being honest.

But, then, there are those of us who AREN'T writing screenplays.

Recently, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer commented on how the dream of writing the Great American Novel has been supplanted by the dream of writing the Great American Screenplay. And that's very true, even outside of L.A. I went to college in the middle of roughly nowhere, and everybody there was working on a movie idea or writing a screenplay or something. That joke you see in every Hollywood-based show where the famous producer is stranded in Klamath Falls, Oregon, or something and the guy who's manning the hotel desk says, "You want to read my screenplay?" That's almost certainly a very real problem for Mr. Famous Producer Man. We've gone from a nation of wannabe F. Scott Fitzgeralds to a nation of wannabe Charlie Kaufmans. And you know what? Fine.

Unless, of course, you want to be a television writer (or a television critic -- but I'll get to that at the House Next Door). Try telling someone at a party sometime that you're working to be a television writer (again, outside of L.A.), and they'll usually look you up and down and glumly nod their heads, as if to say, "Couldn't hack it as a screenwriter, hm?" At this point everyone smiles and excuses themselves.

But fear no more! For the aforementioned Alex Epstein has crafted THE TV writing book, which is equal parts how-to manual, thesis on what makes TV be TV and defense of the medium. If it's not THE VERY BEST television writing book out there (and I've read or skimmed a lot of them), I'd be very surprised. Granted, it's a limited market, but Epstein's prose is clear, his examples are witty, and his how-tos are lucid enough to make anyone feel both the reality of how enormous the task ahead of them is all the while realizing that it is very much accomplishable (for anyone -- honestly -- I mean, have you SEEN According to Jim?).

So if you want to be a TV writer, this is the book to get. It talks you through writing your first TV scripts and takes you all the way through creating your own show, making stops at breaking in to the business and working your way up in between. Priceless, priceless stuff (and yours for this onetime offer of $15!). I've never seen a book that laid out the process as clearly as this one (and with good reason -- much of it has been tested out on his blog over the years).

But most of you who read this blog don't WANT to be TV writers. Fair enough. But I still think you should plop down in a chair with this at Barnes and Noble some day and flip through it, if not outright buy it. Because Epstein lays out in clear language just what it is about TV that makes it not quite a film, not quite a novel and instead a weird hybrid of the two art forms (character development like a novel, presentation like a film, basically).

What's more, he gets in to things that most TV critics (even the good ones) hardly recognize. When TV critics complain about a procedural being formulaic, they usually have a point. But since they don't understand how the underlying structure of the show is operating, they can rarely say anything beyond, "That was formulaic!" And when a show like House BREAKS its format to do things differently, even our best TV critics can almost never point out just what in the structure played differently. "That sure was a different episode!" they'll usually say.

One of the things film criticism has going for it that TV criticism doesn't is that everybody understands the three-act structure because it's basic narrative stuff you learned in high school (again, I'll get in to this more over at HND). Critics can point at a foreign art film and proudly say, "This does not have the American three-act structure!" and we'll all nod and agree with them and give them Pulitzer Prizes (actually, probably not on that last part -- but that's another column). TV doesn't have a three-act structure to fall back on. It's a collection of three-act structures, designed to get us from commercial break to commercial break. And each episode has its structure. And each "story arc." And each season. And so on and so on, right down the line. It's complex, an organism in its own right, and nobody understands quite how it works.

But Epstein does. While his advice is directly geared at wannabe TV writers, it will also pay dividends to wannabe TV critics. Because once you know the structure, it's easier to figure out what's wrong (or right) with something.

So, basically, everybody who reads this blog should read this.

Except, maybe, for my mom.

Tomorrow, I go to Los Angeles to audition for Jeopardy! If the hotel has Wi-Fi, I'll try to get a film review up, but no guarantees.

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