writing down the sun

my adventures in spec script writing, part un

Posted in tv, writing by annie on June 7, 2008

So, I’m writing a House spec script. What this means: I write the script in full without payment. Unlike real Hollywood TV writers who, once established, get hired (read: PAID) to write such a thing, I’m writing it “speculatively” — i.e., speculating on something else happening. The catch in my case: the “something else” I’m waiting for isn’t a writing gig on House* but a breakthrough on my novel. So, you might say I’m “speculating” that this endeavor will reassure my shaky choice-shy psyche that yes, it’s OK to finish the novel.

And to start it all off, I’m watching/rewatching old episodes with an eye towards sussing out and understanding the structure. It’s like playing TV detective! (Not “detective on TV” though. That’s something else entirely.)

And as it turns out, your favorite TV shows have a secret life all their own. You think you know — you don’t know! Here’s what I mean:

Normally, House follows a very predictable structure. Teaser – 2 minutes or less. Titles. Act one – six to eight scenes, normally 60% less than 1 minute long, the rest from 1 to 2 minutes long. Hardly ever does a scene go over 2 minutes. Act two has a similar structure; three as well but it’s shorter overall, four is more like three, maybe a bit shorter, and then the last scene sometimes lays a foundation for the next episode.

I haven’t seen ALL the House episodes yet – nor have I analyzed all the ones I have seen. But I feel pretty comfortable stating that they fall within this structure, more or less.

If you’re a regular House watcher you may have felt (as I did) the first part of the finale — “House’s Head” – felt …. different, somehow. Not just the whole “House is the patient — whaaa?!” thing or the amnesia or the hallucinations and hypnosis — something about the whole “feel” of the show was different.

Turns out, there was a very good reason for feeling that way: The structure got turned on its head. The teaser was the same, but then there was an immediate cut back into Act One, after titles, and from that point on all hell broke loose. SEVEN Acts, not four! First act waaaaaay longer than usual! Number of scenes per act decimated! TWO scenes in one of the acts! Average time per scene something like 3 minutes, much longer than usual! Whoa, nelly. What in blue blazes is going on here?

But watching it, you’d never single that out and say “Oh yeah, they changed the structure.” (Unless you were some script nerd, as I fear I am becoming.) Yet the structure completely changed the way you experience the episode. Made it more intimate and at the same time uncomfortable – like you stayed too long at the party and watched the host and hostess get into a crockery-throwing, obscenity-hurling smackdown, yet you just couldn’t NOT look …. or something.

I’m telling you, there’s like this whole secret life of television shows you think you know — you don’t know until you break out the stopwatch! It’s so cool. I never really got into “technique” before — I was more focused on being creative (to varying degrees of success, I might add). This is pure technique and as such it’s very interesting and new.

Also makes me think “What the hell did I agree to do?! No way I can keep all this together!”

Which then makes me think “The hell you say … just watch me.”

Which, when you get right down to it, is The Whole Point.

*Ironically, were I writing this as a wannabe TV writer, and not for creative treatment, I’d be looking for a job on any show other than House, actually. Show runners never read spec scripts for their own shows for legal reasons. I am told.

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