The Expository Friend

Over the last two days, I’ve seen the Expository Friend everywhere…in books, TV shows and movies. I’m thinking that, for the sake of good writing, the WGA should put a ban on the Expository Friend into our next contract with the studios and networks.

The Expository Friend is the character who exists only so the hero or heroine can reveal what they are thinking and feeling, what they are conflicted about, and what they intend to do about it.

The Expository Friend also comes in handy for telling the hero things they already know  that we, the audience, do not (the big clue is when the Expository Friend starts any sentence with the words: "As you know" or "As we discussed," or "Remember when we," or "You realize that if you do this you," etc. etc.).

The Expository Friend is usually the frumpy single or married best friend/co-worker/next-door-neighbor/sibling of the romantic lead and is, in every case, a completely pointless character that could be removed from the movie/tv show/book without losing a thing.

Any time you see the Expository Friend, you are looking at tangible evidence that the screenwriter is either incredibly lazy or doesn’t have the talent to reveal character in any other way except, well, to have them step up and tell us directly who they are and what they are feeling.

The Expository Friend violates the basic rule of good screenwriting: Show don’t tell.

The Guy Hanks School of Screenwriting

The Guy A. Hanks Screenwriting Program, established by Bill Cosby at the USC School of Cinema and Television, is starting it’s 12th year and accepting application this summer. The press release says:

This non USC program has single handedly
brought more successful African-American Writers into the entertainment industry
than any other program of its type.
It is designed to assist writers in completing a television or feature script, while examining African-American  history, culture and images in the media. Participation is free to those
selected. The program is not designed for beginning level writers. They are seeking writers who have taken the initiative to formally study television or feature writing. In an industry that
is extremely competitive, the program has found their greatest success in
assisting those who have a strong writing foundation in television or
screenwriting. Alumni from the program have
excelled in the entertainment industry and have been honored by organizations
including the NAACP. The program’s work has been recognized by the state’s
Governor, Senator and the Los Angeles Mayor’s office.

I’m a 1995 graduate of the Guy Hanks screenwriting program, only then it was called "The Cosby Mysteries" and Guy Hanks was the name of the detective that Cosby played. 

I was a supervising producer on the show and one of the invaluable screenwriting lessons I learned was that scripts don’t matter.  The best television is when actors throw out the script entirely and completely improvise scenes regardless of story continuity (or, in the case of whodunit mystery, the clues) or what what shot before… so that when the show is cut together, nothing makes sense.

MystlogoI only got one piece of screenwriting advice directly from Mr. Cosby. He called one day and said he thought it would be great if  some ninja assassins cartwheeled through the window in the finale, which was  shooting the next day (which also was the final day of production on the episode).  We mentioned it might be odd to see ninjas in the finale since there were no ninjas  in the show at all. As I recall, he said: "There are now."

We wrote the ridiculous finale, but after he read it, he refused show up for the scene at all because he felt we didn’t put our heart into what we wrote. So instead, we get a piece of amazing improvisation: The two villains not only get into a martial arts battle for no reason, they also explain to each other between blows how the murder was committed and how Guy Hanks might have put the clues together (since Guy Hanks isn’t there to tell us himself).  I was surprised they didn’t read each other their rights and arrest themselves. As it turned out, the police show up and slap the handcuffs on them after the fight…and, if I recall, there’s a silent shot of Cosby sitting in the car looking pissed.

A short time after THE COSBY MYSTERIES was cancelled, Cosby went on THE TONIGHT SHOW and blamed the show’s failure on the scripts.

I don’t know if there’s a real Guy Hanks and if the character, and the screenwriting program, are named in his honor. But I like to think that there isn’t, and that it’s Cosby’s way sticking it to the writers on the show one more time… 

Writing the Treatment

Bryon Stedman  asked me this question in a comment to another post:

I have a situation where a broadcast entity claims they want to hear my idea for
a boxing series or made for TV movie. The characters belong to my family from a
comic drawn by my father.

If a narrative is they way to go, what are the key points to include? Do I go as far as dialog and cameas shots and locations or simply text with main characters CAPITALIZED? Advice requested and appreciated.

A series treatment and a TV movie treatment are very different. A series treatment sells the characters and the franchise of the show…the relationships and format that will generate stories week after week. A TV movie treatment sells a story.

If the studio is already familiar with your Dad’s comic, I don’t know why they need you to come up with a series treatment…the strip itself sells that or they wouldn’t be interested in the first place.

A series treatment isn’t about telling a story…it’s about describing the characters, how they interact within the unique format of your show. Who are they? What do they do? And how will who they are and what they do generate 100 interesting stories?

For a TV movie treatment, you’re selling the characters and their story.  At this point, you’re trying to sell the broadstrokes…they can pay you to work out the rest. Write up a punchy over-view of what happens in the story, as if you were writing a review of a great movie (only minus the praise). You want to convey the style and tone of the movie. But don’t go into great detail. Keep it short, tight and punchy.And whatever you do, DON’T include camera shots or dialogue.

Don’t fixate on treatment format, because there isn’t one. Tell your story in the style that works best for you. Don’t worry about whether the character names are in capitals or not (it doesn’t matter). Concentrate on telling a strong story.

A Day in the Life

Yesterday was a typical day for me…when I’m not writing/producing a TV series.

While dealing with the business of writing (exchanging emails with my editors & agents, watching a pilot for an upcoming staff job interview, arranging a book signing for August, etc.) I worked on writing several things all at once — one for pay (P), the rest speculative (S). 

1) My second MONK novel (P)
2) A series pilot treatment for a producer/studio to pitch to the networks (S)
3) A TV movie treatment for a production company  tailored for one particular network (S)
4) A series pilot treatment that Bill and I are going to pitch to the networks (S)

At the end of the day, when I emailed yet another revision of the pitch/treatment to the production company, I realized that three quarters of my day was spent on speculative work. Then I started thinking about just how much of my time and creative energy goes into writing punchy pitches & treatments that never go anywhere.  I would guess that Bill and I, together and individually, have probably written hundreds of pitches & treatments over the last 2o years, and out of all of them, maybe two dozen have led to non-paying options and a little more than half that number have led to actual paychecks for writing the script (and/or producing the project).

That’s a hell of a lot of spec work…most of which led to absolutely nothing. 

On the other hand, I’m sure every other screenwriter/TV writer/freelance writer probably has roughly the same experience. A good portion of a professional writer’s time is spent managing the work you’re doing now, promoting the work you’ve already done, and hustling for the work you’re going to need tomorrow.

And most important of all, somewhere in the midst of all that, you also have to write.  Speaking of which, what am I doing blogging? I’ve got work to do!

Do TV Scribes Write Differently than Movie Scribes?

Screenwriter John Rogers believes TV writers have "a fundamentally different relationship with story than film writers do."

This difference between TV writers and film guys is pretty common,
actually. As one of the relatively few guys who flips back and forth I
think this is because in film, a plot’s something you move your
characters through to change them. In TV, generally, your characters
inhabit the plot, but don’t really change.

That’s true, for the most part.  People want the same show, only different, every week. No matter what trials and tribulations they endure, they will, in the end, be the same person they always were. Captain Kirk was the same guy at the start of his five-year-mission as he was when cancellation came in year 3.  D.A. McCoy on LAW AND ORDER may be getting older, but his character hasn’t evolved.  Matt Dillon got craggier over 20 years of GUNSMOKE but he never changed…and neither did his relationship with Miss Kitty. Gil Grisson on CSI is the same guy he’s always been…even if he went through the mini-ordeal with his hearing loss.

That said, we’re seeing characters change and evolved with thee narrative arcs built into shows like DEADWOOD, SOPRANOS, THE SHIELD, BUFFY and NIP/TUCK. But I would argue that most of the characters on primetime network shows are still pretty much locked in place, even in shows with an arc.

Is a Story Really Necessary?

Today, I spoke at the San Francisco Writers Conference about screenwriting and breaking into television. Afterwards, I was cornered by a senior citizen who showed me his scrapbook from his days in Hollywood and rambled on endlessly about all the stars he met. I don’t know why he wanted to share this with me…but we had to go through every single page, clipping and photo. Then I mingled with the attendees,  got asked some incredibly stupid questions and had some bizarre conversations. Here’s a sampling…

"I’ve written a novel and everyone tells me it’s a script," one woman said. "How do I turn it into a script?"

"Well, you write a script." I said.

She stared at me. "How do I do that?"

"You get a book or take a course, learn the principles of screenwriting, and then you write a script."

"That’s too much work," she said. "Isn’t there software that can do all of that for me?"

"Yeah," I said. "The same way Microsoft Word wrote your book for you."

* * * * * *

Another person came up to me and asked me if I wrote for television. I said yes.  She then asked, "How do you do that?"

"You mean, how do I write for television?"

"Yes," she said.

"I write screenplays," I said.

"Which is what, exactly?"

"The story, the action, the words that the characters say," I replied.

She stared at me. "Somebody writes that?"

"Yes," I said, resisting the urge to strangle her. "It’s like a writing a play, only for the camera instead of a theatre audience."

She shook her head.  "No, it’s not."

* * * * * *
"I’ve written  a book but everyone tells me it s a TV series," the man said.  "How do I make it into a TV series."

"You can’t, " I said, and gave my standard speech about how ideas are cheap and execution is everything, how networks go to people with TV experience, or who have written hit movies, or who have written bestselling novels, blah blah blah.  And when I got done, he stared at me. I got stared at a lot today.

Hee said:  "How can I get around that?"

"You can’t," I said.

"Why not?"

"Because you haven’t established yourself  as a writer in any field," I said. "Why would a network, studio or producer buy a TV series idea from you?"

"Because I’m smarter and more talented than they are," he said.

"It’s not going to happen," I said.

"Is it because I’m black?" he said. "That’s it, isn’t it. It’s because I’m black."

* * * * * *

"Did you have to sleep with a lot of people to get into TV?" a woman asked me.

"Just my wife," I said.

"You were lucky it wasn’t someone else," she said and walked away.

* * * * * *
"I have a great idea for a movie," a woman said to me. "What’s the market like for true stories about black lesbians in the 1880s?"

"I don’t think studios are looking for scripts to fill that particular niche," I said, "but there’s always a market for good stories that are told well."

"Oh," she said. "That’s going to make it a lot harder to sell."

* * * * * *
"Mysteries are hard work,"  a man said to me. "Could I write an episode of a mystery show but leave out the mystery for someone else to do?"

"No," I said.

"But my talent is character and I’m brilliant with dialogue," he said. "I really don’t know how to plot a mystery."

"Then don’t write a mystery," I said.

"But that’s what’s selling," he said.

"Don’t try to write what’s selling," I said. "Write what you enjoy. Write the story you want to tell."

"The thing is, I don’t know how to tell stories," he said. "But I write killer dialogue. Is a story really necessary?"

"Yes," I said.

"You people in Hollywood don’t make it easy, do you? That’s  the problem with the Industry. They are constantly creating obstacles so people can’t get in."