Thursday, November 30, 2006

Writing for the small screen

I haven't seen this show -- I don't watch much TV -- but I keep hearing it's really good. One of these days... Anyway, this is a very interesting peek into the process of scripting a weekly television show. Executive producer Ronald D. Moore has made available unedited podcasts of about four hours' worth of writing-room sessions, via iTunes, in addition to various audio commentaries for each episode, and the results sound fascinating:
But the podcasts are about more than geeky plot points. While the BSG writers break the story, they also bare their souls. And it's here that the podcasts move from a peek at the sausage-making process to great, almost intimate, radio drama. I don't recognize any of the writers' voices except for Moore's, but it takes all of 20 minutes for their personalities to shine through. One falls back on Hollywood shorthand, blazing through a string of references to other TV shows and movies—The Right Stuff, The Getaway, and so on. Another turns to military history for inspiration, referencing Royal Navy traditions and heavy drinking among Vietnam-era pilots. (So that's why Starbuck, one of the main characters, takes that crazy, boozy dive off a barroom table.) Family stories get told, like how a writer's salesman father superstitiously avoided ever putting his hat on a hotel-room bed. The writers have all become characters in their own story, the particulars of which dribble into the episodes.
Slate's "TV Club" also recently hosted an ongoing dialogue featuring David Mills, one of the brains behind HBO's superb show The Wire:
The big difference, as you suspect, is the absence of commercials. A decade ago, on shows like "NYPD Blue" and "ER," you divided your story into five pieces: a teaser (before the opening titles) and four acts. Today, the broadcast networks generally demand a teaser and five acts, because the commercial breaks between acts were getting so painfully long. (I would guess that, over the last 15 years, the average "story length" of a given drama episode has shrunk from 47 minutes to 43.)

So, now you're chopping your story into six pieces. Which means you can't go more than seven, eight minutes without slamming on the breaks. So, you try to end each act in a way that'll keep viewers watching, and then, at the beginning of the next act, you're working to build up another head of steam ... only to slam on the breaks again.

The ability to tell a tale from start to finish without interruption allows for much denser, much more nuanced writing. The viewer is presumed to be paying closer attention. Multiple plays during the week are another benefit of HBO and Showtime. I happily check out episodes of "The Sopranos," "Deadwood" and "The Wire" twice, confident of catching things I'd missed the first time. Broadcast TV will never be a home for shows like these, just as Top 40 radio was never the place for Coltrane.

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