Watch 90210 to “Understand Everything”

A Twitter follower, @hootz, got in touch to ask my opinion of writing “boot camps.” I don’t really have one. My take is that if you’re a person who needs that discipline, then go for it. I don’t know much about boot camps.

His response was that he’s “looking for help starting to study form and structure.” This is a great idea for anyone to do, but you don’t need a boot camp to do it. You need something on which to watch TV shows. Something like this:

50s tv

She seems to like it.

In pod #37 I talk about how Acker and I were raised on a steady diet of Buffy and the West Wing. More than any other show (or, frankly, book or class), these two programs taught us how to write television. An argument could be made that, structurally, as network shows, they’re a bit dated today. Both consist of four acts rather than six, the current fashion. (I’ll write some other time about the great advice both David Fury and Javi Grillo-Marxuach had about attacking that six-act structure).

But to learn structure, to learn how story is doled out in the shows you admire or want to emulate, sit down with a number of those shows and take them apart. I’ve done this with Buffy a number of times. (If I can find the notes I took during one of these sessions, I’ll post them). Exposition is so well doled out on that show, as are action and the emotional arc, that I’ve found deconstructing them invaluable (and fun!).

I’m not the only one. Glen Mazzara (showrunner of The Walking Dead) talked about needing a second spec script after his ER had gotten some attention: “So NYPD Blue is the big cop show at the time, and I just said I’m never gonna be able to write that-the David Milch speak, I’m never going to be able to do a credible job of that. So there was this other show, Homicide, that—I’m sorry to date myself, but there were no DVDs, there was no downloading—so I had to join the Museum of TV and Radio and watch video tapes. And I studied that show, and I wrote a spec Homicide.”

Michael Green, who created Kings and The River, “sat there transcribing a Friends episode and was like, ‘There’s an A, B, and C story!’ I literally sat there with a VCR, like rewinding, going, ‘Wait a minute! And then there’s this D runner! What do we call that! A runner!’ Literally transcribing the episode, which is something a number of writers talked about too as a way of—often subconciously—understanding story structure. (One of my favorite of these stories comes from Doug Petrie, who said, “I knew I was a writer when the ABC Sunday night movie was Diamonds Are Forever. I would tape a James Bond movie and then transcribe it, you know, because you just had to own the James Bond movie in some way. And then you’d read it and be like, ‘Oh! That’s a witty exchange!’ or ‘Ooh, that’s dirty!’ or whatever.”).


I just like this poster.

Some people also like to do this with scripts, rather than watching the shows. Green refers to that as the upside to the “shitty job” of being a script reader.

In doing my Buffy homework, I looked at “typical” episodes (ie, not “Once More with Feeling” or “Hush,” though those are so eminently re-watchable). As I recall, I also took from earlier seasons, before the show could rely on known traits of the characters or serialized elements to drive the story. (I think I did this when we sold our pilot to USA, so it was not supposed to be a very serialized show). In my notebook, I broke down how each plot thread—A, B (usually emotional to Buffy), C (emotional to a tertiary character), D-E (if present)—was introduced and then doled out, writing down roughly what happened or moved forward in each scene. I looked at act-outs and how the climax was achieved. It’s a good way to separate structure from dialogue, the latter of which is often the real appeal to writers.

Liz Tigelaar, who went on to create the terrific Life UneXpected, was given her first opportunity to write a freelance script when she was a script coordinator (or maybe writers’ assistant) on Dawson’s Creek. About which, she says, “It was terrible. The opportunity was wonderful. The episode is terrible.” (She later calls it “the bad boat race episode”). Smartly, Liz had the awareness not to pat herself on the back too much for having written an episode. Upon—shortly thereafter—leaving Dawson’s, she says, “I… watched the entire season of 90210 for six months on the money I had gotten from my episode. That’s when it was on FX, twice in the morning and twice in the afternoon. I was like, ‘Okay. Now I understand everything.’”

beverly_hills_90210-original-CastThese guys get it.


2 thoughts on “Watch 90210 to “Understand Everything”

  1. I’m a big fan of the west wing too. I’ll write notes on how story unfolds and specifically pay attention to tone as the scenes cut from one story to the other. I refer back to the building blocks of S3 of The Wire a lot. How a wild shot at change brings an amazing result, all to fall apart “for legal reasons” shall we say.

    There is much to be learned from studying good TV. I love it so much!

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