Saturday, July 20, 2013

Weaving the Tapestry

Had dinner last night with a group of friends from a show I worked on a few years ago.  Being on a show is like Summer Camp, or like University, in that there are lots of circumstantial friendships -- you like each other, you're in the trenches together, you chat and you share meals, but then you don't see each other again until the next show.  But when you're lucky, there are a few people you stay friends with, and see on your own time.  If you're very lucky, someone in the group is an organized producer-type who makes the gatherings happen.

In discussing the challenges of writing serialized shows with a couple other writers/directors/showrunners around the table, we were talking about the changed expectations that have come about in the last decade or so.  We're all old enough to have begun our careers in a more episodic time, when the process was suited to the content: The writers would move one episode at a time along a conveyor belt, from concept to index cards ("beats") on the board to outline to first draft, then hand it off to production and turn their attention to the next script in the sequence.  This works great for episodes with standalone A-stories and minor internal histories to weave in along the road from ep 1 to ep 22 (because yes, 90% of the shows I have worked on had 22-episode seasons, not the now-standard 13).

But these days, the 13 episodes tend to tell not 13 stories (or 12 with big 2-part finale), but one story, broken across 13 hours. Instead of climax and revolution at the end of a given episode, false resolution of a single issue comes midway in the hour, followed by the set up of a new escalating problem, and episodes end on the kind of cliffhanger that used to be an Act Break. 

I don't think the underlying stories are that different, in terms of how the characters are tested and put through their paces.  But the structure is different.  The 25 or 30 index cards that would once have been the skeleton of, say, episode 5, are spread more thinly across the canvas of the season, with those beats stretching from episode 3 to episode 7, with maybe a foreshadowing card back in episode 2.  Meanwhile the cards from other stories, that in the old system might have been sequestered as episodes 6 and 8, are interspersed and overlapping and co-mingling.  It starts to look less like a grid of neat lines of cards, and more like a word cloud or like this image of  Verified Twitter Connections

Which all seems completely reasonable, if you have the luxury of breaking all 13 stories on 13 whiteboards, and then swirling the index cards around like marbleizing a batter.  But you don't.  You only have a few weeks of writing before filming begins.  You know the overall arc of your season-long story, but you only get to fill in the detailed beats of the first episodes before cameras start rolling.  That means that you're filming what would have been Act One of the old-school episode 5, which is now scattered throughout episode 3, without having written Act Three.  By the time you're wrapping up that story a few weeks later, you're already filming the beginning scenes of what would have once been a stand-alone season finale.  

As one of the dinner companions said, it's like weaving a tapestry from the bottom up, without any reference art.  You're making feet -- hopefully finely crafted feet -- without having mapped out the rest of the image. You know, or think you know, what the faces are supposed to look like, but you don't have a Weaver's Draft to keep all the threads on track.  And that doesn't even take into account the midstream course-corrections -- whether organic to the story, or arising from external forces -- that mean somebody's knees are going to take a weird-ass bend to get them where they need to be. 

This is when experience gets tested.  Because when you have to make your best guesses on incomplete information, it helps to have been through it before.  

This is also where a lot of TV veterans quit to go write novels, where you can have the unbelievable luxury of writing the last chapter before publishing the first.  


DougM said...

Fascinating analysis, thanks! I recall an early variation of this on Smallville, where acts I-IV resolved the freak-of-the-week, and act V dealt with advancing the Clark/Lana/Lex arcs. As you point out, this is now a more difficult, interwoven process.

Marton Meszaros said...

This resembles my line of work. I create software. My success lies in embracing and understanding uncertainty. What we have is a vision, or a set of goals we believe we'd like to achieve. We start off somewhere and iteratively discover our domain (using user stories, index cards, boards, etc). We build the product bit-by-bit, capability-by-capability, and we re-evaluate our understanding of the pursued outcome and the steps we've taken so far. Sometimes we pivot the vision, sometimes we discard solutions.

I wonder how much you (could) use from Agile / Lean methodologies we use in software development. If you have the time to read up on it a bit, I'd love to read a post of your findings.

GH said...

Marton, thank you for the insight and I would love to read up on that methodology, do you have any pointers for where to start?

Marton Meszaros said...

Ah, I didn't get notified by a reply!
So here it goes.

The overview of the whole thing is somewhat described in

A typical SCRUM board for us is something like:

When you transcend into this whole mindset and start to think about software as delivering value to people (I see entertainment as value too), you'll end up with thoughts that are well described by Liz Keogh:

There are several books I'd recommend, but most relate way too heavily to software. There is however one that might be worth checking out, as it's unique in many ways:

p.s.: is there a way to get notified of replies? :D

GH said...

Thanks for the links! I'm intrigued.