Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Get It Right the First Time (ish)

Over the weekend, I participated in a horse show (don't worry, this will be relevant in a minute).  Like nearly every one who rides or participates in any sport of any kind, I left the ring feeling like, "that was ok, but I could have done so much better."  It's a pretty common feeling -- I should have thrown the ball farther, or I could have played that poker hand just a little bit smarter, etc.  That's all fine and good in certain aspects of your life, but writing isn't one of them.  

Don't get me wrong; there is a time for rough drafts and "Hail Mary" takes on an idea or a script.  The adage about writing being mostly re-writing is as about as true as any saying can be.  Heck, I've already re-written this blog post 5 times and I'm not even close to being done.  Try out a version, give it to your writing group to get some feedback, play with the characters to see what feels grounded and real.

However, the script/pages/pitch that you hand in to a producer, agent or whoever that final destination for it might be, better be the best darn version you have in you.  Period.  End of story.  If you need to take a couple more days to feel like this is the best version you can give, do it.  Because the odds that you'll get a second read out of someone are slim to none.

The only exception to that rule is if the person/studio/network you're giving the project to has a vested interest in reading it and giving you notes until they think it's right.  Guess what?  If they feel like the draft you gave them was anything less than the best you can give, they're going to be peeved.  Even if you're doing work on an if/come basis for someone, what they are investing is their valuable time and they will be equally peeved if it feels like you're wasting it with half-baked plots or undeveloped characters.

What CAN happen is that you turn your draft in, a draft you've sweated blood over, and the recipient responds with notes. Maybe a ton of notes.  They liked your general concept, but the specific plot doesn't work.  As the writer, you can discuss it with them, listen to their concerns and engage in a dialog about how to fix it.  What you CAN'T do is say, "I hear you, let me try to make that better".

I know, it sounds like a good thing to say, right?  You think you're telling them, "I'll do a better version of that story or character now that I know what you want."  But you're really saying (whether you know it or not) is, "I didn't give you my best work because I wasn't sure you'd like that idea.  Now that I hear that you don't like it, I'll do a better job of writing that exact same thing, certain that when I give it 100% you'll see that I was right and love this as much as I do."

BZZZZ!  Sorry, wrong answer.  You had your shot before you turned in that first draft.  If there were things you weren't certain about, call the people you're working with.  Really listen to them, don't do that half-listen thing you do when you ask someone a question to be polite and really don't care what the answer is.  Once you've turned it in and the person tells you an idea, plot or character isn't working, don't keep hammering at it with the idea that if you write it better they'll get it.  Right or wrong, for better or worse, not only will they not get it, they may very well get pissed that the very thing they didn't like it back on the page in front of them again.

Be bold, be daring, go for the high fences as you write and rewrite, but be sure that whatever you give to the network or studio is the absolutely best you can deliver.  If they don't like it, file it away in your "ideas to come back to" file and come up with something new that will work for them.  Because promising to write the same idea but better next time is like promising sex will be better next time; it leaves your partner wondering what you were holding out for in the first place.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Multi-Camera Or Single Camera, That Is The Question

Despite what Shakespeare (or whoever was writing his plays) said, the real question these days in TV sitcoms isn’t to be or not to be – the success this year of several shows prove that comedy is back in style.  These days, when you’re pitching your half-hour comedy idea, the question that you will invariably be asked is, “it is a single or multi-cam?”  Answering that it can be either one can show a certain amount of flexibility on your part, but consider carefully whether your idea really is better suited for a multi cam or single cam environment. 

There are a few things you should keep in mind before deciding the format of your show.  Type of humor, casting, and style are all key elements that should influence your choice.  Knowing the difference between the two is vital to picking the right format.  (While there are a few successful hybrids out there, most comedies are strictly one or the other.)   


Multi-cams are shows that are shot in front of a live audience with multiple cameras shooting the scene all at once (hence the name).  They usually air with a laugh track that is (hopefully) made from the actual live audience’s reaction, often sweetened and edited to make the show appear as funny as possible to the viewing audience at home.   Typically they take place in limited locations (home, office, cafĂ©, etc.) that are easily created on a sound stage. 

The common industry belief is that multi cam shows tend to play to a broader audience.  The pacing of the show tends to be a bit more set up & joke, set up & joke than a single cam.  Staff writers aren’t sitting around the table writing sophisticated jokes to make each other laugh; they’re writing jokes for the tourist from Peoria who will eagerly file in to be part of a studio audience. 

Because they are shot in front of a live audience, shooting time is limited to just one day, although the day can go for as long as it takes to get every single shot.  Some talent will be attracted to that schedule (for instance, an actress who wants to spend time with her family) while others will either like or dislike the idea of performing in front of a live audience.  It’s not a huge factor in deciding the format for your show, but being aware of it can help you avoid some pitfalls like not getting that perfect piece of casting that you wrote the entire show around. 

In the past few years, multi cams were considered old-fashioned and out of style.  They appeared predominantly on CBS, while “hipper” networks like Fox and NBC preferred the slicker look and feel of a single cam.  This fall, however, has proven to be the come back of the multi cam.  The ratings success of new shows like “Whitney” on NBC and “2 Broke Girls” on CBS may have networks rethinking their preferences. 


Single camera shows are shot more like dramas.  There is no live audience so typically they air without laugh tracks.  They can go to multiple locations and have a greater flexibility as far as lighting, camera use, etc. 

The comedy of a single cam show is believed to be a bit more sophisticated.  The humor can take its time to develop; there aren’t any pauses for the studio audience laughter to die down so the rhythm and pacing of the show is completely up to the writer and director. 

The shooting schedule can span over a number of days, can take place outdoors or indoors, and although ideally it will stick to a set schedule can still be grueling on talent and crew alike.  Again, when casting a single cam you want to be careful to choose actors who don’t require the energy of a live studio audience to play off of in order to be funny. 

In the past, single cams like “Community,” “The Office” and “Parks and Rec” had been the domain of NBC, but hits like “Modern Family” and “The Middle” on ABC and this season’s first proclaimed hit, “New Girl” on Fox have shown that there is an audience for this kind of humor across the boards. 


Before you sit down to your computer and bravely spec out your comedy script, keep in mind that the two different styles have completely different script formats.  Multi-cams have the dialog in 1 ½ line spacing, and often the description is written in all caps.  Their page length (because of the spacing) tends to be longer, around 50 pages or so.  Single cams are written in regular feature format and tend to run around 35 pages.  Programs like Final Draft have templates to choose from that will clarify and simplify your options. 

Resources: has a pretty comprehensive list of the comedies on the air and what type they are, as well as the new comedies that have been put in development. has excellent samples of various script formats.