by Justin Ross
The reason or reasons why a certain script gets made and another does not are vast and various. A lot of those reasons are beyond the scope of you, the writer, such as timing. Like most arenas of life, timing is, while perhaps not everything, certainly very important in the film and TV business. Another that is beyond your control is a network or studio mandate, e.g. “more dinosaur comedies, please.” Well, maybe not that one exactly…
What then is the writer’s, responsibility? One is to tell well-crafted stories. Since my suggesting, “tell good stories” is largely subjective – especially before a script is actually made – I want to avoid referring to anything that has to do with a value judgment here. Instead, I want to focus on the three things that are equally and absolutely necessary to make a script excellent. You know them already, but oftentimes, in the depths of the hermetic writing cave, it is easy to lose sight of one or more of them. They are:
MECHANISM (for a feature, we could say “plot”)
The mistake I read a lot of writers making, especially for shows, is a strong focus on the “World” of the series to the detriment of the Mechanism or Plot. Besides its high production costs vs. viewership numbers, I wonder if that is the failing of “Minority Report,” for example? The World of the show is amazing (the not-so-distant future), and the plot for the series stems from the fascinating book and excellent Steven Spielberg film of the same name. But was the mechanism, which I define as “the reason why an audience is compelled to watch,” chosen for the series itself the most compelling? Was it engaging enough to stop a viewer in their channel surfing? What if the show focused on the pre-crime unit itself and was more procedural in nature? Would it then have lasted beyond a single season? Of course any of us arm-chair quarterbacking after the fact is easy; I am only using this show as an example, but I wonder.
Perhaps the bigger question in hindsight is: Should the film have been made into a series in the first place or, said differently, is there enough depth in the plot (mechanism) to tell in “Minority Report,” the series?
To expand on this a moment, let’s look at “Game of Thrones.” The world of the show is rich and magical, yes. But, when it comes down to it, hardly any of us are really watching just to see a fire-breathing dragon. You see it once or twice and it begins to lose its wonder. Why do you think they haven’t revived “Airwolf”? If we were waiting for dragons, and they or any of the other magical elements was the sole strength of the show, we would quickly get bored. The truth is, we tune in week after week for the characters and the near operatic machinations of the storyline. The world is the icing on the proverbial cake. In a similar vein, the 60’s costumes and sets on “Mad Men” are gorgeous, but who would tune in and spend an hour watching only pill box hats and Polyester skirts?
Character also seems to come in tied or dead last as well. Even a somewhat thinly written character like John Wick has a propulsive and human emotion that urges him out of hiding and retirement: Those *&#$-ers killed his dog! And while the world of the New Mexico desert was a perfect backdrop for “Breaking Bad,” it was Walter White’s decent into darkness that was the key to the show.
Specifically, when writing a series, ask yourself WHY. Why people would want to tune in week after week (or binge all in one weekend depending where your show lands)? Why does this story lend itself to multiple episodes and not a compact two hours or so? Is there more to explore in these characters and how they relate to not only one another – but the series overall AND to the world that the show is set in? If you come up with a thorough answer to the question of “why,” you are on the right track for an excellent script. Just remember that you need all three components working together.
Lastly, a good producer or director can take a script’s intriguing characters and clever, exciting mechanism and set it in a world you can barely imagine on the page. But no one wants to fill an amazing (and likely expensive) world with flat characters who have little or nothing to do or move us towards.