All the Feels, None of the Flab
From Episode 104, "Don't Be Fooled -- Nothing Happens by Mistake" with Stacy Lumbrezer
JIM: So what I’ve been thinking about is, when you’re writing something, how do you convey what the characters are feeling in a way that lets the reader know what’s going on without overwriting it so much that it gets in the way of actually telling the story?
SAM: Right. And this comes up all the time because what sometimes people do in a script is they give you all this choreography, like, “Someone comes in the room, and then they pick up a mallet, and then they walk over to the other person and they beat them to death.” And you’re like, “Well why did they do that?” You should always know, or the reader should always know, why is the actor or character doing what they’re doing.
JIM: Right, and it gets really complicated, right? ‘Cause when you’re actually working with actors, right, there’s, there’s — in scripts you have parentheticals, where you say “angry”, or “irritated”, or “amused”, or something like that —
SAM: Actors hate that, by the way.
JIM: They hate that. It’s the first thing you do in a production script is cross all those out, because they don’t want to be told how to act the part.
SAM: Yeah, it’s insulting to them.
JIM: But if you’re trying to read a script, or if you’re writing a spec script you want to send in and have people read it — I mean, we’re writing a spec script right now — like, how do you tell the reader what they need to know without overburdening the script with a bunch of stuff that gets in the way?
SAM: I think you just act it out for them. (Laughs) That’s the only way you can get it across. And you know, just so we’re clear, there is no right way, because I can write a scene where I’m like, “How can this be interpreted any other way?”
JIM: And then I’ll read it and like, “Why did you write a comedy scene when this guy’s killing the other guy?” And you’re like, “This isn’t funny!” and I’m like, “I know it’s not funny, but it looks like you’re trying to be funny.”
Getting serious — I read a pilot for a young writer not long ago, a new writer, and one of the first things I noticed was that when he first introduced the characters — you have this golden opportunity when you introduce a character. There’s a standard in TV writing where it’s like, you know, whatever, you say three or four words about the character in a little parenthetical, give their age, whatever. Or you can take a line, or two lines, and actually introduce us to the character. You know, I remember in a very early script of ours, we introduced a guy as “someone who never met a get-rich-quick scheme he couldn’t slow to a crawl.” And you come out of that with a really strong impression of who this guy is, you have a sense of the character. And as you read deeper in the script, you have some idea of who he is when he’s in a scene even if you’re not saying anything about him.
SAM: You know, you wrote that line, and I remember laughing my ass off when I read it, but now I wonder if that’s too clever. And that goes into another idea —
JIM: It was a dramedy.
SAM: It was a dramedy.
JIM: That was the tone of the script.
SAM: Right, we were trying to make people laugh. And sometimes the tone is, it’s, you know, it’s incredibly violent and humorous at the same time, but most often it’s not, it has its own tone of the show, and you have to match it. But, man, that is the hardest part, you know? And the worst thing you can do, I think, is start someone off and you explain every single thing that’s happening, ‘cause then it counts. You’ve done it. “Hey, I said it, you can’t argue with me.” And I’m like, “Yeah, I can argue with you. I did read that paragraph, but I wasn’t paying attention to about half of it because I wasn’t emotionally connecting to the story, and it didn’t land.”
JIM: Right, right — I don’t need to know what color the wallpaper is, I don’t know what kind of cheese is on the plate on the table, that has nothing to do with what’s going on in the scene. All I care about is that emotional piece. What are people feeling.