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Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The Unspooling

As most of my readers know, much of the last six months here in the Casiello home have been spent turning it from a dust-ridden bachelor pad, into a co-habitable home for me and The Beau. As such, there's been lots of cleaning and digging into old boxes and closets, trying to make room for the crap he and I have accumulated over the years.

In the process, I've come across some real gems - a few long stories I've collected from various shows over the years. Some of them are long stories I've actually told as a member of the writing team - and others are copies of old long stories written by previous head writers and long since buried in the back of a writers' assistant filing cabinet. Some of them were approved by the network and made it to air - and some of them were quickly thrown out, and left to collect dust underneath a pile of old mailing labels and manila envelopes. (One of them was written by Doug Marland, and once I get through all hundred and fifty pages of it, I'm definitely going to blog more about it for all you Marland/Oakdale aficionados - did you all know Holden Snyder's original name was Clem Holden?! CLEM?!)

It's interesting looking at the spectrum of styles used in all of these long stories. The Marland long story is EPIC. I mean, every detail is laid out, meticulously logged from one chapter of the story to the next. As I flipped through it, I was so impressed at the way the stories weaved in and out of each other. I haven't seen a long story written out like this on a soap in years.

And then I started to think about why.

Many fans would say it's due to the fact that head writers now are "lazy hacks". That's probably a vast over-simplification. I don't think writers these days want to devote that much time and energy into writing their long stories, because inevitably you end up with what I call The Unspooling.

Here's how it works:

A) Head writer crafts detailed long story, writes it all out, single-spaced - every move, every reveal, every pay-off, for three months (Thirteen Weeks).
B) Network approves it whole-heartedly. It's "just what we're looking for!"
C) Breakdown writers begin the first few chapters of the story. Everything is great - it's playing out at exactly the pace and the proper tone as the head writers' original document.
D) Somewhere in Week Three, the network doesn't like how something plays. It's "a small section of the story", and they "just want to tweak it."
E) So the scenes get tweaked. Only suddenly, pulling out a thread of the Story in Week Three means you can't play another detail in Week Six, and then the reveal in Week Thirteen has to change slightly. But it's all good. We're professionals. It's what we do. Moving on.
F) Week Four begins, and things are back on track. Only this time, there's an actor vacation that was approved eight months ago. Crap. We don't have our leading lady for the next two weeks. Okay, so we postpone what's supposed to happen in Weeks Four and Five until Weeks Six and Seven, and we'll just highlight another storyline in Weeks Four and Five until we get her back.
G) Oh, but wait. If we postpone Weeks Four and Five into Weeks Six and Seven, then the rewrite that took place (in Step E above) in Week Six has to be changed to Week Eight.
H) Do-able. We'll make it work. It'll take a lot of planning, but we should be able to get everything back on track by the reveal in Week Thirteen during Sweeps. We don't need that beat in Week Ten anymore, so we'll just cut that and move right to Week Eleven, and then we'll still have the reveal by Sweeps. Just pull that thread out.
I) We're writing Week Six now, and suddenly realize the plot movement in Week Six was supposed to be build-up to the beat in Week Ten - you know, that beat that we just erased from the long story from Step H earlier! Well, what's the point now? So Week Six it out the window - Week Six that was originally Week Four, and now serves no purpose to the reveal.
J) Then the executive producer enters the room. Guess what? These two actors hate each other and refuse to work together after a big blow-out a few weeks ago. Damn. There goes your Week Eleven love-making sequence. It's okay though (everyone sighs, exhausted) - we'll play it off camera. Just pull that one thread out, the rest will be fine.
K) Only it's not fine. You're now playing beats from Week THREE in Week TEN, the threads you pulled to appease the network earlier you now realize you need in Week Eleven - because you can't play what you originally wrote in Week Eleven. And crap, we're now two weeks away from Sweeps and you have to rush the story to get to the big reveal. And just then...
L) The network steps in and realizes they don't like how the story's been playing on-screen (since Week One of the story just started to air), and want to completely change the ending. Let's go dark for two weeks and come up with a whole new Sweeps. In the week you're writing the Week Thirteen Reveal.
M) Writing team drinks heavily and throws in the towel.

Okay, this is basically the Perfect Storm of events, and I'm exaggerating slightly. But it's not that far from the truth. The head writer who holed up in his or her house for two weeks straight, drowning in a sea of index cards and dry erase boards, now has watched as one thread after another is pulled out, and the entire quilt completely unspools. As they struggle to pull the pieces together, try and come up with a logical ending to this quagmire they're in that will somehow make everybody happy, it hits them - "This is the story that will make me a hack. Why oh why did I plan this down to the tiniest detail, when there's so much that can go wrong?"

On the other hand, I've seen plenty of head writers turn in "bullet points" for a long story. Two pages (tops!) of half-sentences, with just a list of beats. "Boy meets girl." "Boy loses girl." "Girl sleeps with boy's brother." "Girl gets pregnant." "Baby has mystery disease." "Brothers team up, find out girl has long-lost twin sister, who donates bone marrow to save baby." "Baby lives, boys end up with girls."

Once upon a time, I thought this was just the easy way out. A head writer's net income has six or seven zeroes, all for a two-page beat sheet?!

But after seeing the way so many of these detailed stories have been picked apart, dissected, and ended up un-spooling on-camera? I have to wonder if maybe that isn't the only way to go these days in order to preserve some sanity. This way, if a detail is pulled apart, it doesn't take your whole long story with you.

Don't get me wrong. In my perfect world, the head writer would have an incredibly detailed long story, where all the beats are carefully laid out, and your Sweeps periods for the next YEAR are planned on January 1st. The network has signed off on a year's worth of story, and instead of constantly shoehorning in changes, the head writer is now free to focus on the characters' voices, the smaller (more emotional) beats in each episode, the subtext and working with his/her team of breakdown and script writers to create the best possible show. And sure - life gets in the way, and you'd have to make changes for actors/directors/EP's, etc. But in the end, all the notes were incorporated before the story even hit the breakdowns, and all are happy with the direction of the show for the year.

Ah, yes. In a perfect world... but that is not the reality of writing for television.

The clouds swirl around you, the threads are pulled out one by one, and at the end of the day? You're going to have to make changes anyway. So why spend the energy rewriting a two hundred page document, when you can just rewrite a two-page beat sheet?

Having been away from daytime for the last year, and gotten a little perspective, I can see the pros and cons to both methods. The beat-sheet writers tend to have a much easier time at their jobs... their stories roll with the punches, and they tend not to be as stressed out. And therefore, they tend to stay in their jobs longer. While the ones who detail out their long stories? They tend to get more frustrated, spend a lot more late nights working, and inevitably, end up in arguments with the higher-ups and don't last long. Gone are the days where Head Writers own a part of their show, and had the final say. You can't fight City Hall, so how do you write the perfect long story when you know what inevitably will happen?

In an industry so hell-bent on writing by committee, I've come to realize that my naivete in terms of the auteur's vision on daytime may be wonderfully idealistic (and something MarkH did a really interesting blog about recently) , but it's not the way a show can thrive. Not in this day and age. I marvel at the head writers who somehow manage to find middle ground - who so tirelessly write enough long story for their breakdown writers and script writers to not feel like they're lost at sea, but also write the LEAST amount of story to give to the networks, so the whole process doesn't get picked apart. A breakdown writer once said to me in my younger days "The more you write, the more they'll note you". True enough. Ergo, writers started writing less.

Still though... I read these old long stories stacked up in my bookshelf? And that naive part of me that started in this business ten years ago re-emerges. I get lost in the details of a beautifully crafted long story, and think back to my childhood, watching the way these stories played out on-screen and wondering what it would be like to one day be the one spooling the stories in the first place.

And what it was like to write for the sake of writing, and not to avoid the noting.


Richard said...

Thank you for the fascinating tour of the behind-the-scenes world of soap writing. I will try to keep all these twists and turns in mind when something in a storyline doesn't seem to work quite right!

bl said...

Tom, I'm very interested in any tidbits you share from these finds.

I do have a question for you: If the story summaries from the head writer are so short, does that make things easier or more difficult for those on the writing staff?

MsT said...

Thanks so much for this detailed insight. It's a very concise and simple explanation for my board members!

Michael Khan said...

Thing is...? "Clem" actually makes more sense for a Midwestern farmboy than does "Holden".

VanHanFan said...

Thanks, Tom!! As a writer I can see how the "Good Old Days" of soap writing are so vastly different from today's writing. I often wonder "what were they thinking" when I see scenes that just don't make sense, and now I know... Thanks for the insight!!
I can't wait to read more about this story you uncovered!

John said...

This is so interesting. Thank you for confirming - and offering a logical explanation for why - these soaps are not the same product I grew up watching, and that I wasn't just too young to know better. It makes me think of that urban legend about someone who met Agnes Nixon decades ago and said she was leaving the country for a year and was distraught because she wouldn't find out what would happen on All My Children, and Agnes told her, and sure enough she came back a year later and wrote Agnes a letter saying she was right. Clearly even someone like Agnes would not be right today, and that makes me so sad. In any other genre, deus ex machina is bad writing, plain and simple, but in daytime I guess that's all we've got. I guess we are not watching real storytelling anymore.

I don't mean to be naive... I know published novels get messed around with by editors and changed for reasons that have nothing to do with improving the writing. And I've heard of movies being filmed with multiple endings and tested with focus groups so the studio can decide which ending to use. (No shock that this is not generally considered a golden age of literature or cinema either.) But at least in those genres there is a chance - even if it's not always logistically feasible - for the finished product to be revised so that it is coherent. Even primetime shows, which never used to have the longterm continuity that soaps do when they attempted to do long-arc story threads, have at least some episode-long story arcs that are self-contained. But daytime drama is unique in that the finished product is disseminated in bits and pieces, and it seems like this lack of commitment to creative vision has been particular detrimental because of that. I can think of very few true stand-alone soap episodes that managed to pack a dramatic punch without in some way building on what has been happening leading up to it, and/or the promise of what the fallout will be in the weeks/months to come. Many producers and writers have tried, but I wonder if that's not feeding the cycle - as sweeps months rely on increasingly over-the-top special effects, instead of organic outcomes of emotionally based stories, production costs rise and even more money people become involved in approving stories.

It so makes me wish that GL, which by most accounts is not going to live for another decade, could just commit to a story - any story - for what may be its last six months, and be left alone to tell it the best way that they collectively know how. Ideally they could hire one of those head writers who writes those epic story outlines and have such an especially hard time of it in today's climate to do it. But beggars can't be choosers and I actually do think some(?) of its head writers (how many are there now?) have shown promise. I wonder what would happen if a show produced on such a shoestring budget managed to tell a compelling story that got enough people to tune in to turn a profit? Not the numbers soaps used to bring in, but enough to bring in more of a profit than any viable alternative. I actually think the new GL production model - except for the New Jersey aspect, which seems to alienate cast members who don't like the commute and be designed to get around using unionized crew - could be replicated successfully if the writing were there to back it up. And a soap that looked like an indie film that used its budget wisely would certainly not look any worse aesthetically than most of what airs today.

Anyway, thank you, Tom, for this post as well as all of the insights you have shared. I don't think I ever commented on your Myspace page because I'm not a big fan of that site's format, but I have been reading faithfully.