Sunday, February 26, 2006

Six scenes

No, not a typo.

There have been some excellent posts from some fine scribes in the last week or so about getting started on a script. DMc has, so far, run two excellent posts about preparing to take a run at a spec script - yep, preparing, he hasn’t even got to the beat sheet yet. Jane Espenson, to whom we listen, brothers and sisters, when she speaks, has had plenty of useful things to say on the topic of spec scripts.

But the most helpful post of the week, in the “oh my God, how could I not have known that, what the hell do I think I’m doing here,” sense of helpful, came from John Rogers, whose great writing related posts have been so sorely missed, replaced as they have been by media analysis and comics promos.

Firstly, he lays bare, in the plainest of terms, the template for every SF/genre show in existence:

1.) Wow, have we got a problem. It is Very Bad.
2.) Whoops, no, we have an entirely different problem, and it's far worse.
3.) That problem? Yeah, that's going to kill us.
4.) Solve the problem. Marvel at the emotional wreckage. Prep for next week.

and then he says the thing. That caused me to look upon my outline and despair.

Really, you've got 48 minutes. 6 two-minute scenes an act. TV isn't haiku, but it's damn close.

Waitaminute. Six scenes? No-way. I’ve been watching TV a long time, and I swear there’s more than six scenes between ads. I’ve got fourteen in my first act outline and I struggled to keep it to that few. He’s got to be joking.

But no, the monkey’s kung-fu is strong. I pulled out my script books this afternoon and went through four episodes apiece of West Wing, Babylon Five and Freaks and Geeks, and damnit if they don’t average six scenes per act. Usually four or five in acts one and two, and ten or more towards the end of the script.

With two sentences, Rogers has finally got me to understand what a script should look like - for some reason, reading them never did that. For ages, I’ve had scores of scenes and storylines floating in my head, and no way of knowing how to arrange them, and parcel them out. Now I can see my script. It’s not written yet, but I understand its geometry and it is beautiful.

John’s is the kind of statement that illuminates. That flowers in the mind and enlightens. It says here, this is what you need to do. No more thrashing around in the dark, just write six scenes. Four times. And you’re done (like it’s ever that easy, but you know, it’s good to have a guide). It’s all I needed to know, and it’s the blinding obvious knowledge that’s escaped me so far.

Six scenes.


Category: Writing


  1. Are you doing specs for US telly, then? Or a new pilot?

  2. Trying to write a pilot, just for the practise, really.

    And I tell you, it hasn't been a four day bugger either.

    Look at this. And this. And this.

    Not so much slow, as utterly clueless. And slow.

    Where's that lash?

  3. Yowsa. I'm in the middle of a post about this sort of thing, and the ideas that can just kick your ass for years, sometimes. Some of them are easy, most are hard, some are nearly impossible. Bastards.

  4. Oh, look, someone knew fell off the lorry... i mean, the wagon.

    Spec scripts? Just write the bloody thing, then, go back and see what an arse you've made of it. Hairy or otherwise. And that's my Canadian 2 cents worth.

    And I just might post some of my own crap as a visual aid for you all to see what not to do. That sounds like stripping in front of an open iCam. Yippie, all leave the room now!

  5. Hey, this is my house. There'll be no stripping unless I'm supervising.