When you are writing a script or a novel, you’re a constant adulterer. In essence, you’re always two-timing the thing you’re working on – while writing the script, you tease yourself with flitting thoughts of the actual world, and when you’re in the real world, you’re just waiting for your imaginary characters to say funny things. You laugh, and say, “oh Pretend People, how witty you are in my brain! I can’t wait to give you life on the page!”
And of course, while you’re writing their dialogue, you keep thinking about the ceiling mouldings at Home Depot.
I just finished a script at 4:30am last night, one that I have been living with for months, and I can’t tell you how happy I am to stop cheating on everything else. It’s a half-hour pilot loosely-based on one of my brothers, and for the first time, I had enough affection for the project that I won’t mind if it doesn’t go over like gangbusters. If you get to work on something really fulfilling, then it truly feels like means to its own end. Sure, you might live on ramen noodles, but hell, you created something you liked.
One thing about writing TV scripts, especially your own, is the elaborate tight-rope walk you get from years of hearing what is wrong with everyone else’s stories. Each time you hear phrases like “our protagonist has to be likeable” and “the show needs relatability” and “we need some wish fulfillment here” and “the comedy needs some punching up” …the tightrope becomes smaller and smaller until it’s a tiny thread, painfully slicing into your heels, and you’re a long way up.
The only thing left to do in those situations is to take a bold stand. One option is to write something that gives a thick middle finger to the rules, which leads to “stunt scripts” like the one where the entire Peanuts gang grows up and moves to New York. The first scene has Lucy screwing Schroeder in her apartment (or at least that’s what I heard). It will – nor could – ever get made, but the woman who wrote that spec script is now a much-sought-after writer.
The other option, as I see it, is to get personal. Use all of the basic storytelling rules, to be sure, but craft a story only you can tell, and use details only you would know. Perhaps that seems obvious, but you’d be surprised at how long writers will ignore their own best material.
You’ll always run into problems: perhaps your particular details will seem forced, weirdly random, indulgent or precious, and you’ll be asked to either make them integral to the plot or delete them. But if you let a few sneak through, and you genuinely enjoy the company of your invisible friends, then you’ve really done 95% of the work. The rest is editing, shuffling, and letting a fresh pair of other peoples’ eyes do their work. G.B. Shaw said “a great play isn’t written, it’s re-written.”
Carpenters get to stop at the end of the day to see the shed they built. Doctors see a smiling patient, plumbers dry their hands. But writers rarely get to spike their foam football in the end zone, so when you finish a big draft, it’s a big deal, future be blessed or damned. Both Tessa and I did it this week, and I think we’ll sit back, zone out, and watch some television.