Here we are again. Another guest blog entry. And I’m very excited about this one. This one is from a NEW writing friend, Eric Loo. He is a fellow member of the Playwrights Union. Recently, he and I were out and about in lovely West Hollywood, to chat. I was struggling with a new spec pilot, a piece I have been working on for months. Eric gave it a look and gave me his thoughts by email. And ONE of those thoughts made me say: Oo. This is a good one. I want to hear more about that. I twisted his arm and made him write a blog entry for me.
The Rules are the Same (or Writer’s Amnesia)
by Eric Loo
When I started writing as a kid, I wrote about things I knew: the crush I had on the cool bad boy who lived across the street and got arrested for making LSD in his garage, the crush I had on my best friend from high school, the crush I had on Andy from Facts of Life. When I got to college I wrote about lounge singers, getting revenge on the adult I had an inappropriate sexual encounter with as a teenager, and the crush I had on my best friend in college. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve written issue plays, identity plays, plays about my personal multiculturalism. In other words, I’ve always written about things that matter to me.
When I came out to LA, I was pressured to write the dreaded spec script as a writing sample. I wrote specs for Will and Grace, Sex and the City, The Bernie Mac Show, Entourage, Two and a Half Men, The New Adventures of Old Christine, 30 Rock, The Office, and Modern Family. Yes, I tried to infuse some parts of myself into those specs. But they were about (in no particular order) things like faking being a cancer survivor to help your boss (Jack Donaghy) spy on a rival or having everyone in the office (The Office) switch jobs for a day. Some specs were good, some were brilliant and a few never got sent out. But none of those things ever happened to me.
And even when original pilots became the fashion…I never started an internet porn website with my husband that starred the PTA moms at my kids’ school. I’m not a single dad who joins a support group for single dads because he’s afraid he’s going to screw up his very precocious 7-year old daughter. Again, there were parts of me in there. And I was even interested in the subject matter, but none of that felt as personal as the plays I’ve written. All were well written. All had excellent act outs and were formatted correctly. The dialogue was sparkly and the characters felt three dimensional. However, none of them have gotten me work yet.
The simple solution would be: Send out some of your plays as your samples. And this does happen sometimes. But some of the decision makers don’t always have the ability to see how plays translate into good TV writing unless they see something that’s formatted for television. I have read great plays by people and then read their spec pilots which show no imagination whatsoever.
Why is it that we have amnesia when we hop from playwriting to TV writing? We forget what makes us great playwrights: our ideas are well executed with characters whose pathos hits us smack in the gut because we identify with their story. The playwright does that. We often get ourselves into the trap of writing the thing we think we’re supposed to. So we leave out what’s good about our writing and we play to what would sell or what people would understand. We give them what they know, instead of what they need. We wouldn’t do it in our playwriting (well, some of us are getting bogged down by the need to write four character plays that can be produced easily…to those people I say, “Stop it!” There are enough limitations on us in Hollywood). But we seem to do it when it comes to TV.
I hope it’s not because we’re dumbing down our writing. If you still view TV as a lesser medium, put on your Cosby sweater and hop in your DeLorean…because you’re living in 1985. But that’s another blog post.
This is the thing. If I’m going to write a TV pilot, it has to have the same impact as one of my plays. It has to be good, but it also has to show that I’m in love with what I’m writing. And look at the great examples. The pilots of: The Shield, Mad Men, Desperate Housewives, Roseanne, Frasier, Modern Family, and any other show that grabbed you from the first episode. And if you’re not reading pilots to to study how they set up a premise, get you envision what the series will be, and introduce fully fleshed characters in a believable way right from the get go, then you’re not doing your job (again, another blog post).
As playwrights, part of our job is to keep people in seats. As TV writers, we need to keep the pages turning. And that involves everything from a great title (to make sure they pick it out of their stack of 200 scripts), to the first 5-10 pages, to characters, plot, structure, act breaks and a great finish. IMPACT. We may think we have more freedom as playwrights, but ultimately the goal is the same: Keep ‘em interested and wanting more. We can’t waste one word. And if the pages keep turning, then eventually we’ll go from staff writer to showrunner. And again, our job will be to keep people in seats, whether those seats are on an airplane, at a desk, a bed, or a couch.
But that only happens if you do two things: Write the thing you want to write. And show off how into it you are by writing it in a way that has impact.
Eric Loo was born in Los Angeles, attended college at Santa Clara University and has an MFA in Dramatic Writing from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. His play On the Subject of Lillawas a finalist for the O’Neill in 2011 and a semi-finalist for the Princess Grace Award in 2011. His play The Snake Charmer had a workshop at Pacific Resident Theatre in Venice in June 2011. His plays have been developed and produced in both New York and Los Angeles. Eric has also developed TV pilots at various production companies. He’s also an adjunct professor at Santa Clara University, where he is one of five directors working on “What a Stranger May Know”, a series of play readings commorating the 5th Anniversary of the Virginia Tech shootings (April 2012). In his spare time, Eric does P90X, Groov3, Insanity and takes hip hop dance classes to get rid of his writer’s body.
His excellent blog: http://iambacktolife.blogspot.
And follow him on twitter: @LooLooLicious