ALLIGATORS IN A HELICOPTER

a pro script reader ponders movies, reading, writing and the occasional personal flashback

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Writing It Short, or Writing It Long

So the only new TV series I've been watching this year is "Heroes".

I was watching "Jericho" for a while, but it just got depressing, especially since every episode was the same - bleak post-apocalyptic stuff, and then a contrived mini-drama in which Skeet Ulrich (ugh) saves the day. Every week.

The good thing about Heroes is that it's the kind of stuff I like to write. Character/action/drama, with a supernatural twist. Real people put into extraordinary situations, to see what they will do.

The problem with Heroes? It's the kind of stuff I have written.

Every week, the series becomes a little more like my Nicholl semifinalist script.

No wonder none of these people who requested it have gotten back to me.

I knew there were some similarities early. My Nicholl script is also about a group of people with special abilities; generally smaller abilities than the ones at play in Heroes, but still. And one of my supporting characters is a guy who can draw the future.

But as Heroes has gone along, the story has become more about these people on the road, and the plot is increasingly becoming about their stopping a killer who is targeting people with special powers. Which is... pretty much what my plotline is.

I'm not saying they stole it; they obviously didn't. My script also has a lot of stuff that is completely different; the plotlines ultimately aren't all that similar.

Similar enough to torpedo the script? Probably. Sigh.

The fascinating thing, though, is that in my script I tell a fairly-involved story in two hours. Arguably, you could boil Heroes down to a feature too, though they are revelling in the fact that they don't have to; they get to tell it long, and that's very freeing.

Figure a season of a TV drama is about 22 episodes. Scrape out the commercials, that's about 16-17 hours to play with. That's a lot of time.

The main difference is focus. The way I crammed my story into two hours is by picking a main character and telling the tale entirely through her. It's her tale; everyone else is just along for the ride.

Heroes sprawls. It has about a dozen main characters; there are episodes when some don't even appear. The pace can be slower; they can linger over character moments. They can hang around comparatively-minor characters for longer periods of time, and give them mini-dramas that don't drive the central plotline in any way.

Of course, this is also problematic in that they need to pad a lot of stuff out; even telling a multi-character tale like this could probably be done tightly in 6 hours, so 16 is stretching it. The story tends to be a bit repetitive; we get not 1 or 2 scenes of the cheerleader healing herself after an injury, but 8 or 9.

The funny thing is that a while ago I tried to turn my script into a pilot; I had a minor "we like it, though we don't actually want to give you money" interest from a prodco. So I specced it into a pilot, and that was when I discovered the whole hunt-for-a-killer plotline that it evolved into, and then I backed it back out into a script.

Oddly, though, even the spec felt like a feature, because it still focused almost entirely on my main character. I hadn't really let it sprawl; I hadn't taken the opportunity to move other characters into the forefront.

Ultimately, I think there's interesting aspects about both writing things short or long. There's a definite tightness and structure to getting things down to feature length that is satisfying. But there's no denying that a lot of TV series are currently having fun just letting the characters and situations breathe.

Of course, in other currently-depressing news, I'm also becoming increasingly aware that my new supernatural thriller feels way too much like a very-special episode of The Ghost Whisperer. There really are only about 29 plots in the world.

12 Comments:

At 1:11 PM, Blogger deepstructure said...

29 is overstating it...

"they get to tell it long, and that's very freeing."

omg. way too freeing. we tried watching the first few episodes and got. so. bored. anything that could be 6 hours but is 16 should just be buried.

 
At 4:00 PM, Blogger Patrick J. Rodio said...

I'm still on-board with Jericho. Agree to a point about the Skeeter, although he did not save the day in the last episode. I like its grit, and it does have a nice, bleak outlook. One episode ending with missles launching in the distant night was a bit too darn realistic.

And I've been there with the whole "they stole my story thing." I posted about it a few months ago. Sucks ass.

 
At 4:12 PM, Blogger Averyslave said...

I feel your pain. I had a story idea hit me so hard one night that I flew out of bed in the wee hours just to blurt out page after page of a scattered outline.

Then Heroes came out, and it's even closer to my story than it sounds like it is to yours. Every time I read about Heroes or catch an episode, I wince a bit.

Damn viral thought.

 
At 6:41 PM, Anonymous Leif Smart said...

Scott, just curious is TV writing is something you were interested in also? Maybe send your script to Heroes and land a staff job?

I must admit that I prefer Jericho to Heroes so far, but I like the premise of Heroes more. It just seems to me that so far Jericho is a little more polished and better put together, where as Heroes has a lot of little things that annoy me and stop it from being truly exceptional.

 
At 10:12 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The second screenplay I ever started to write is a biopic about someone fairly obscure. I had started writing it and had gone to the internet to double check a minor historical detail. At that point I discovered that Richard Kiel (actor from two James Bond movies, and lots of 60s t.v. shows) has been writing a screenplay on the same person for over twenty years. Sucks ass, indeed.

 
At 10:18 AM, Anonymous Blair said...

I have had ideas that were sort of like Heroes, and I would've killed those at this point, had I already not buried them.

Heroes has many elements from the comics, mostly, more recent storylines, such as J Michael Straczynski's Rising Stars, and has the beginnings of other classic comic stories, like Alan Moore's Watchmen.

Nothing I've seen on screen, really, but everything I've seen in comics.

 
At 3:49 AM, Blogger Steve Axelrod said...

This is why, generally speaking, you're better off writing something personal, even something with an autobiographical engine (it doesn't have to be exactly what happened ... maybe what you wanted to have happen). First of all, the things that affected you in an intimate way are more likely to affect other people ... if the wrting is there, if it's executed properly. The one script of mine that has been constantly under option for years, (basically paying the taxes on my actual income) is the most personal one I ever attempted. No one's actually made the movie but the interest is undeniable. Whereas my gimmicky, commercial-minded projects seem to go nowhere. Another key point about the personal work -- you're much less like to see a version of it on TV.

 
At 11:58 AM, Anonymous danny said...

A confidence boost:

The similarities to Heroes could be a blessing in disguise. Sure, you haven't heard anything yet, but people are slow. Heroes is a proven hit, and I'd think a lot of producers would want to jump on the Average Joe gains superpowers bandwagon.

Every hero movie we've seen over the past ten years is based off a long-established franchise. But Heroes shows the public is willing to give unknown, um, heroes, a chance.

In other news, i've realized that i cannot get into serial television. I watched the first five episodes of Heroes, and thought it was good, but i probably won't keep watching. Can't get into Lost, Jericho, or any of the others, either. Never thought of myself as having a short attention span, but i guess i need resolutions more often than in one or two episodes a season. Who knows.

 
At 12:15 PM, Blogger Jeff said...

I feel you, man.

I don't think there's anything more depressing than putting so much into an original idea only to find out it's been done or that it's being done.

And if that's not the case then you end up worrying if it's going to be done by somebody who's in a much better position than you.

Shit sucks. All I can say is stick with it.

 
At 1:21 PM, Blogger Naila J. said...

I think there are 30 plots in the world.

But yes, Heroes... amazing. The one show I can't stop watching. My new ALIAS.

 
At 4:42 PM, Anonymous Joe Valdez said...

I think Steve made a really good point. I'd imagine that the more personal or original your vision is, the easier your life will be in the long run, for a whole bunch of reasons.

Even if "Heroes" hadn't come along Scott, you probably would have been litigated or possibily stalked by some screenwriter who felt you stole his idea, so, maybe you can consider this a blessing in disguise.

 
At 8:11 PM, Blogger Naila J. said...

Thought you might like this: http://www.tvsquad.com/2007/03/18/nbc-sued-over-heroes/

 

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