Tuesday, September 25, 2018

24 really good ideas from Matthew Federman

This Twitter thread from TV writer @MatthewFederman has a lot of very helpful things to remember
(his reference to "room" is the writers room, where the writers of a TV show work)


I think #23 is crucial to remember for the pages you include in a query.


1) Work big to small storywise: You're building a house. Don't start working on the fixtures until you're sure that's where the bathroom goes.

2) You'll know ideas work because they inherently spin out smaller, interesting character moments.

3) Good story creates more story. When you're going in the right direction track starts to lay out in front of you.

4) When you're going in the wrong direction it feels like a slog. If you spend a suitable amount of time grinding gears, reassess.

5) Problems for the character are good, problems in the story are bad. Don't confuse them.

6) If you find yourself bending over backwards to steady a weak piece of story, replace it.

7) Logic problems are often opportunities to examine character motivations, or lack thereof.

8) When you are holding on to something that you need to pretzel the story around to make work, let it go. This might not be the right episode for that idea.

9) When stuck, ask what the character would do next based on what they know and what we know about them.

10) Have fun! (I'm kidding...slightly...but use passion and enjoyment as indicators of whether or not the story is working. If you're bored, the audience likely will be as well).

11) Action scenes are not distinct from "character scenes" but a chance to test your characters' mettle, chart their growth or challenge their moral compass. Whether they succeed or fail we'll learn more about them.

12) Use every part of the buffalo when developing set pieces. Rather than just a chase or generic gun fight, pick specific concepts and locations with action and character choices that could only be made there.

13) Understand the expectations of your audience based on the genre you're working in. Surprises, twists, etc. work best when the audience *thinks* they understand the story.

14) Once the patterns of the show become evident, subtle permutations keep it fresh. Switching up normal character pairings can reveal interesting new dynamics. Larger form-breaking episodes often announce important shifts in story.

15) It is great to have a show bible as a road map but don't let it keep you from finding more interesting destinations along the way.

16) If character backstories aren't giving you story going forward they aren't engineered correctly.

17) Character conflict is strongest when it comes from differing points of view than when one character is obviously right.

18) When characters are complex plots can be simple.

19) Assuming organizations/groups think monolithically takes away options for plot and conflict.

20) Encourage the writers to NOT come in when under the weather. One bug can take down the whole staff. Don't be a hero.

21) Every room has a version of the phrase “a hat on a hat” or “bananas on bananas.” It’s a comedy phrase but applies to drama as well. Beware of diluting what already works by adding more to it.

22) While it is great and necessary to have flawed characters in drama, not all flaws are created equally. A Hero can be unfaithful, they can be wrathful, they can be stubborn. One thing they can rarely be: incompetent in their chosen field.

23) As with a first impression in life, character introductions have outsized importance. Often when an arc doesn't work it's because the character isn't introduced properly. The best introductions are a microcosm of everything you need to know about the character.

24) Think about character "chemistry" not just as sexual but as how any two characters, like chemicals, change or affect each other when in contact. Combine characters in scenes whose personalities create the most organic and explosive interactions.



22 comments:

Sarah said...

Wow. These are amazing. Thank you!!!

E.M. Goldsmith said...

These are fantastic. Great stuff. Thanks, Janet.

Jeannette Leopold said...

This is incredibly helpful. Thank you so much!

Brenda Buchanan said...

Such a great compilation of valuable tips, Janet. Many thanks!

KariV said...

Tip 11 is my favorite.

11) Action scenes are not distinct from "character scenes" but a chance to test your characters' mettle, chart their growth or challenge their moral compass. Whether they succeed or fail we'll learn more about them.

Action scenes should test your character. Action scenes should test your character. Action scenes should test your character.

Melanie Sue Bowles said...

This is great. I love #17 & #18. Thanks!

Amy Schaefer said...

FYI, if you scroll down his Twitter page, you'll find a continuation of this list (parts 2 and 3.)

Julie Weathers said...

Thank you for posting this.

I agree about #23 for the query.

I also like #2. That's the way it always works for me. They're all good observations.

Sometimes, as Hemingway says, "There is no rule on how to write. Sometimes it comes easily and perfectly; sometimes it’s like drilling rock and then blasting it out with charges."

Sometimes you have to write through something and sometimes the reason it's so hard is because that scene doesn't belong to that character. The boys in the back often know more than we do about what's going on.

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

25) When your story stalls, your character deflates, and your plot flows from page to page like molasses, buy Nyquil and plead #20.

Craig F said...

It would be nice to have all 57 of them together. Just these 24 have addressed 85 or so percent of the speed bumps and potholes that have gotten my wheels out of round.

Thanks for bringing this to our attention.

Beth Carpenter said...

Good information. These are the sorts of things I know instinctively and yet need someone to point out. Although when I saw #22, I immediately thought of Stephanie Plum. She must be one of those rarities.

Stacy said...

Great list! When I think of #23, I think of Toby Ziegler's introduction in "West Wing." Everything you need to know about him is in that intro--from his insisting on working when he's told to turn off his phone, to his line where he didn't get his peanuts.

Claire Bobrow said...

Great list! It went straight to the printer tray. I'm going to have #7 tattooed on the back of my right hand, where I can see it as I'm writing. Thanks for sharing, Janet!

Ashes said...

This was great! #12 was eye-opening for me, and I'll be chewing over #18 for a while.

But I do take issue with sentiments like #4 and #10: "When you're going in the wrong direction it feels like a slog..." and "...use passion and enjoyment as indicators of whether or not the story is working. If you're bored, the audience likely will be as well."

This mentality, to me, leans dangerously close to the idea that writers need to be *inspired* (chorus of angels) to write. It has been my own experience that whether a scene comes easily and enjoyably to me, or if it was like pulling teeth to get it to work, my critique partners and beta readers cannot tell the difference.

The idea that everything you write should be exciting and easy, in order for it to be good, is a dangerous fallacy. Or as TheAngryViolinist puts it: F*ck Motivation (NSWF language in image)

Sam Mills said...

I agree with Ashes on #4 and #10. It *can* be true, but I also remember nodding along when Neil Gaiman said some days are easy, and some are hard, and later he can't tell which bits were written on which day. (I wish I could find it, alas, I suspect it was a passing Twitter conversation.)

Those are more true for me during editing. If I'm bored REREADING my saggy baggy middle, then that's a bad sign. But it's harder to tell during the day-to-day rough draft word count.

Colin Smith said...

These are great tips. But, as the immoral... I mean IMMORTAL Jeff Somers points out in his epic best seller (okay maybe not officially but it should be) WRITING WITHOUT RULES, there are no rules, so don't take these tips as rules. If you're stuck, or wrestling with a problem in your work, try one of these. It might help you. Alternatively, a bottle of Sapporo might work. :)

Jen said...

Thank you for sharing. I've already passed the link on to several writer friends AND have found multiple places in my WIP to sharpen, thanks to these.

Lennon Faris said...

This is great! Thanks, Janet.

#11, #12, and #24 are my favorites. I love it when stories mesh every scene into a really unique interaction between characters, action, and location.

Jennifer Mugrage said...

These are gold.

Beth Carpenter:
I also immediately thought of counterexamples when I saw #22. Monk, and Doc Martin. But then ... both of them are extremely good at *certain parts* of their chosen field, and that somehow makes up for the crippling anxieties, obsessions, phobias that give them such poor social skills. I love those characters because they are there for all the social anxiety sufferers to identify with, and to experience vicarious triumph through.

Stephanie Plum is almost the opposite. She's cute, sexy, has decent social skills, but consistently makes a fool of herself on the job. I don't find that as fun because it means I'm constantly experiencing vicarious humiliation through her ... but I admit the books are darned funny, more for the colorful characters around her than for Stephanie herself.

Now that I think about it, Monk and Dr. Martin are both conflicted-hero-in-insane-world, and Stephanie Plum is more sane-person-in-insane-world.

Anyway, I do notice that in all three cases we mentioned where failure on the job is a regular feature, the story is a comedy.

OK, sorry all, ramble over.

french sojourn said...


Very nice contemplative post.

Cheers.

Beth Carpenter said...

Jennifer, you're right. It's the comedy that makes it work.

Her Grace, Heidi, the Duchess of Kneale said...

L o v e.

Shall tuck this away for NaNoWriMo. Deliberately not thinking of NaNo while I finish prepping three books for launch next month.