What Happens Next?

When I wrote my book, ELEPHANT BUCKS, back in 2006, I was trying to do for aspiring sitcom writers what I felt Blake Snyder had done for aspiring screenwriters with his book, SAVE THE CAT.  I wanted to show a simple, logical, basic structure for telling a story using the half-hour format.  I introduced The Seven Plot Elements – my version of The Blake Snyder Beat Sheet.  I hoped these guidelines might help aspiring writers to understand traditional sitcom structure.

If you read the book and then watch half-hour comedies on TV today, you might be confused. Where are The Seven Plot Elements in sitcoms that are on right now?  The plot elements are still found in some episodes of some series.  I was able to give lectures in Toronto just a few years ago on The Seven Plot Elements in episodes of The Big Bang Theory and New Girl.

As I’ve worked on MOM, I haven’t even tried to look for The Seven Plot Elements in our stories. The Seven Plot Elements aren’t used on MOM.  And I didn’t see them on Silicon Valley.  I’m not as up to date as I could be on the other half-hour comedies on the air, but since I no longer recommend that you write a spec episode of an existing series as a sample of your talent, and instead advise you to focus on writing spec pilots, it’s time to offer some additional guidance on how to structure a half-hour story.

When Chuck is in the room with us on MOM and we’re beating out a story, a question that he asks frequently is, “What happens next?”  If we’ve outlined a scene where Christy just found out that her daughter is pregnant, what happens next?  What would Christy do?  Where would she go?  Who would she talk to?  What action would she take in response?  What would happen in real life based on who Christy is as a character?

It is easier to ask “What happens next?” if you are familiar with traditional sitcom structure already.  Experienced half-hour writers, like the ones I work with every day, know that a story must have a beginning, a middle, and an end.  The main character is going to be striving for a goal or reacting to a problem.

How the main character proceeds in pursuing a goal or solving to a problem is based on who that character is.  I said this in ELEPHANT BUCKS.  Stories for half-hour comedy series spring from the premise of the series and the personality of the main character.  On MOM, I’ve seen that hold true.  Our stories spring from the premise: A newly sober single woman tries to raise her two children while attempting to repair a difficult relationship with her newly sober mother.  Christy is good-hearted, strong, and resourceful, but she is also impulsive, insecure, poorly educated, and prone to lying and looking for the easy way out.  Bonnie is tough, street smart, and brassy, but also selfish, self-absorbed, and morally flexible.  Stories on MOM spring from these two complex and highly flawed characters and the simple but compelling premise about recovery from addiction.

One of my favorite stories from Season One of MOM was the story in which Christy meets her father.  The back story is that Bonnie had always told Christy that she had no idea who Christy’s father was.  This back story had been established in previous episodes.  Also established in previous episodes, Bonnie had lost her apartment and her job and was sleeping on Christy’s couch.  When Bonnie’s cell phone slips between the sofa cushions, Bonnie discovers that the couch is a fold-out bed.  Bonnie had been sleeping for weeks on the uncomfortable sofa when she could have slept on a comfortable bed.  Christy confesses that she kept the fold-out bed a secret in the hope that Bonnie would move.  An argument ensues.

We had this much story, and it felt like a rich area, but we didn’t know what happened next? We tried a number of plots.  Finally, with Chuck’s help, we outlined a scene in which Christy and Bonnie admit they have been lying to each other all of their lives.  They agree they need to change their relationship.  They start revealing secrets.  Bonnie confesses that she knows the identity of Christy’s real father.

What happens next?  Christy drives to Chico to meet her real father.  In a coffee shop across the street from her father’s business, Christy learns the real story of her birth from Bonnie.  It was one of the most powerful scenes of the first season.  Christy goes across the street to her father’s body shop on the pretense of getting her car repaired.  She learns that he has a wife and two grown children.  She decides not to tell him who she is.  The episode ends with Christy and Bonnie feeling closer to each other than they ever have.

This episode turned out to be one of our best, but the story was a challenge to break.  We spent days on it.  Looking back on it, what we really did to break this story was to keep asking “What happens next?”  We followed a logical course of action based on the personalities of our two main characters.  We started with the notion that Christy hadn’t told Bonnie about the fold-out couch.  We had no idea the story would end up with Christy meeting her real father.  We just kept asking, “What happens next?”

How Much Do You Want It?

I was on Stage 20 at Warner Brothers Studios yesterday.  We were doing pre-shoots for the season premiere of MOM.  During a break, I found myself sitting next to my colleague, Adam Chase.  Adam has a long and impressive resume as a television writer and producer, including several years on FRIENDS.  Since we had a few minutes to chat, I told Adam about this blog.  I asked him what advice he gives to aspiring TV writers.  Adam offered two pieces of advice immediately:

1)  Don’t show your first draft to anyone in Hollywood.  Adam said that when he was trying to break into TV he saw too many aspiring writers show first drafts of their work to agents or other people who might possibly help them.  Adam said, and I agree, that almost all first drafts are terrible.  Show your first draft to your friends or to a teacher, but don’t show it to anyone who might be in a position to help you get a job.  Adam said that people in Hollywood should only see your twelfth draft.  You write “First Draft” on the title page, but it’s a draft you’ve been rewriting for a long time.  This seems like obvious advice, but Adam reminded me that too many writers are impatient and blow perhaps their one and only opportunity for a break by offering a script that still needs lots of work.

2)  Write something original.  As I’ve stated many times before on this blog, a spec episode of an existing series is no longer useful in getting a job.  You have to write a spec pilot.  Adam said that he broke into TV over twenty years ago with a spec episode of THE SIMPSONS.  But he confirmed what I have been telling you.  Spec episodes are no longer accepted as an example of your work.  Adam said he regretted this change because he feels the spec episode is often the best way to show you have the talent to be a TV writer.  But the business has changed, and spec episodes are out of fashion.

Adam shared with me the story of how he broke into the business.  He was a student at Northwestern University majoring in theater.  He gave up acting while still in college and turned his energies to writing and directing.  After college, he and a friend packed up all their belongings and moved to Los Angeles,  Some other Northwestern alumni were already here. Through friends Adam found an employment agency that placed people in temp jobs in the entertainment business.  He got a job at a small but prestigious Hollywood talent agency as an office boy. He started reading any and every script that came into the agency and learned from what he read.  While at the agency he heard about an opening as a personal assistant to a Hollywood producer and director.  Though dozens of people had applied for the same job, Adam delivered his resume in person.  He ended up getting the job.  Adam told me he decided he would become the best personal assistant he could possibly be.  Adam said that when the director would ask for a beverage he would run to get it and run back.  He worked extra hours and did everything he could think of to impress his employer.  At night he worked on his spec scripts.  After over a year working for the director he was able to get someone to read one of his scripts.  Even after the director read his script and liked it, Adam had to wait another year before the director gave him a writing assignment.  But the assignment finally came, and Adam’s career was launched.  In the eight weeks that I have been working with Adam I have been impressed with how hard he works, even now that he has made it big.

Which brings me to the question that I posed as the top of this post: How much do you want it?

Adam Chase worked his ass off for years to get his lucky break.  He moved to LA.  He took whatever job he could find.  He used his imagination and all of his energy to get himself noticed.  He was patient and tenacious, talented and resourceful.

Adam wanted success and he got it because he knocked himself out to get it.

How much do you want it?

Starting Again

Let us consider this the first official post of the rebooted Elephant Bucks Blog.  This will be Elephant Bucks Blog 2.0.  I lost one post and took down a couple of others, so let’s remember this post as the first of the second era.

I never dreamed when I started this blog seven years ago that I would still be writing it today. I enjoy writing this blog, and for the ten or twelve people out there who read it, I am happy to keep writing.

I didn’t start using a computer until I was in my thirties.  That is my excuse for my fear of computers and my resistance to using new software  That is my excuse for why my blog got all screwed up over the last few weeks.  I didn’t even know my blog was screwed up until a former student and current blog reader alerted me.  Thank you, Gabe.

Amanda, the bright young woman who designed this site for me seven years ago, was able to contact GoDaddy and find a new way for me to write my blog.  Last night, my daughter was able to customize this page in about five minutes.  I had worked on it for a couple of hours and completely screwed it up.  Through the whole experience I sat fanning myself in a hyperventilated state like Blanche DuBois.

Many people my age work their computers very well.  My wife, for instance, has largely mastered her computer.  She works with what seem to me to be hopelessly complicated programs like ArchiCad and Revit.  I don’t know how she ever learned either one of these programs since I am still baffled by the Mac version of Final Draft.  I finally had Final Draft down on my PC, but now that I have switched to Mac I can’t figure out how to write anything on Final Draft anymore.  I’m embarrassed to go to Sam, our extremely talented and patient writers assistant on MOM, and ask him for the ten thousandth time to show me how to write again on Final Draft.  (Sam, if you read this, it is not meant as a manipulative way of getting another tutorial out of you, but I suppose, if I’m honest, this is a passive/aggressive request for more help.)

One can overcome obstacles if one asks for help.

One can also overcome obstacles by calming down and trying a little harder.  I am better at the first than at the second.

My entire life seems to have been one continuous lesson in patience and tenacity.  I am emotional.  I get frustrated easily and temperamental in an instant.  But life keeps giving me new opportunities to grow.

Now that I am back working on a sitcom staff I have worked mightily to be patient, positive, and humble. These are virtues I seldom utilized in the past.  I don’t claim to have mastered any of these three virtues, but I am much better than I once was.

Life has given me opportunities to start again and try harder.  Every day I find another reason to be grateful for new opportunities.  I am discovering daily that I can now accomplish things that I couldn’t or wouldn’t have accomplished in the past.

Losing my blog for a short time was another opportunity at growth.  I would feel better if I had solved this issue on my own.  I think if I had stuck with it a little longer I could have solved it, but I was smart enough to ask for help before I threw a hissy fit.

Now that the blog is up and running again I can go back to my struggle with Final Draft.  Maybe I ought to start by actually reading the tutorial that comes with the software.  With Final Draft, as with this blog and with so many other issues in my life, it’s time to start again.