Researching and writing The Circle

Question MarkI just finished reading both episodes of The Circle, and I was wondering if you could answer a few questions about writing for television.

  1. How much time did you spend doing research for each episode?
  2. How long did it take you to write an episode?
  3. Seeing as how you created the show, but would have not written every episode during the season how are the episodes handled by other writers?
  4. Do you as the creator set an outline for the season as to what each episode would center around and where you wanted to show to go?

Thanks for your time, I enjoyed reading them both.

Federal Way, WA

I probably spent three weeks researching Alaska for The Circle, most of that before I started writing the pilot. By the time I started working on episode 2, there really wasn’t anything new I needed to research.

Television scripts are short, at least by feature standards. An hour-long drama will clock in below sixty pages, so it’s no big chore to write one in a week. Unfortunately, in the real world of television production, you often have to write one in a weekend, and that’s where it gets ugly.

Since The Circle never went to series, we didn’t end up hiring a writing staff, although Matt Pyken and Michael Berns did pen a follow-up episode. Had the show been picked up by ABC, we would have hired an executive producer to ultimately take the reins of the show. Although I would stay on to consult, he would have supervised the writing staff, setting the course for each episode and the series as a whole. This would include meeting with the writers (both individually and as a group); approving beat sheets, outlines and scripts; and rewriting scripts as needed.

This executive producer would be considered the showrunner, since all the creative decisions would ultimately rest with him. I knew this going in. I deliberately created a show I felt could flourish without my day-to-day involvement. Although I love TV, I prefer features. That’s where I make my living, and the time table is much more relaxed.

More D.C. stuff available in the Downloads section

DC logoChris Landa of Salt Lake City, Utah, wrote in to say:

I just finished reading your scripts of D.C. Do you have a series bible that you could put on your site? I’m trying to find examples of series bibles and would love to find out what happens to the characters of D.C.

A series “bible” is a document that’s usually created at the start of a television series, which contains all the vital information about the characters, their history, and relationships. The idea is that you update it as you go along, so that in season four, you don’t have a character saying something that conflicts with something in season two.

Apparently, some showrunners go much further, and really do map out years ahead. J. Michael Straczynski is said to have plotted out all of the seasons of Babylon 5 before even starting to shoot the pilot.

All this said, I’ve never even seen a real series bible. Perhaps that’s because I’ve never worked on a show that lasted more than three episodes.

But Chris’s question brought up a point I keep trying to make: a writer’s job doesn’t start and end at the script. Particularly in television, a writer needs to be able to write a lot of different kinds of documents, many of which are designed to get others to share his or her vision for the show.

I’ve added five examples of this from D.C. in the Downloads section. Included you’ll find:

  1. the initial pitch I made to the WB
  2. the outline for the pilot
  3. a template for a “normal” episode
  4. and an exercise in which I look at God from each character’s perspective.

Also included is the pilot presentation script. In order to save money, the WB asked all its drama pilots to shoot a 30-minute version of the show (called a “pilot presentation”), rather than the whole hour. To do this, I had to omit a bunch of scenes, and rewrite some others so that it would all make sense. If it sounds like a difficult task, it was. When we got ordered for series, the first thing we had to do was go back and shoot the missing scenes from the pilot.

Four Seasons, Five Season or just some fancy hotel

questionmarkMy question involves specific locations. How specific can I get without it becoming a problem? For example, what if instead of a murder in a “nice city hotel”, I set it in the Four Seasons Chicago, for example, is it legally alright for me to do that?

I’m sure the Four Seasons wouldn’t appreciate a memorable murder scene set in their hotel lobby, but what’s my other choice? Create a fictional prestigious hotel called the Five Seasons to give me total creative license?

–Matthew Bradley
Chicago, IL

Standard advice applies: do whatever works best, and don’t worry about it. Let the lawyers decide whether it will need to be changed before production.

If it’s crucial to the scene, just say The Four Seasons. If you simply need to indicate that it’s a luxury hotel, say luxury hotel. Either way, remember that the burden is still on you to give enough flavor in your description.

You’re better off coming up with your own name for the hotel if a lot of your story will take place there. This way, you’re not competing with the reader’s expectations, and have wider latitude in creating the logistics you need.

Backing up is hard to do

questionmarkI just had the unfortunate happen: the dog pulled my laptop off the table by tripping across the power cord. Yeah. Anyhow, I lost a bunch of screenwriting materials because the fall damaged my harddrive beyond repair. I’m learning the VERY hard way that backing up is not just a good “insurance policy” but a MUST. I thought it might be a subject you might shed some light on from your personal experience.

– Eric

Like flossing, stretching, and updating your will, backing up your work is one of those unquestioned Good Ideas that’s pretty easy to ignore. It’s the law of delayed consequences: people tend to put off work that doesn’t have immediate gratification.

Honestly, I don’t back up nearly as much as I should. Or, “should.” If you read any computer magazine, they’re constantly harping on you to back up every night to a redundant RAID, then weekly to a tape drive, with off-site storage and whatnot.

Bah. My philosophy can be summarized in six words: What’s the worst that could happen?

It’s a revelation that came to me the last time I switched to a new computer. I dutifully dragged my files onto an external hard drive, ready to migrate them to their new home, when I realized that pretty much everything I needed on the new computer was either…

  • already installed, or
  • would need to be redownloaded for the most recent version.

The only item that needed to make the move was my “Projects” folder, a mere 500 megabytes. So why was I bothering with everything else? It was time to apply my new philosophy.

What’s the worst that could happen if I didn’t back up my applications and system software? Well, it would take a little more time to re-install them. But, I’d be saving a lot of time by not bothering to back them up every day/week/month.

What’s the worst that could happen if I didn’t back up my old projects? Well, I’d hate to lose them; they’re like old friends frozen in 12pt Courier. Beyond the emotional cost, I do occasionally need to refer back to them. So it’s worth the effort to periodically grab the folder off the server and copy it to my local hard drive. Likewise, every few months I burn a copy of the whole thing onto a CD-ROM and mail it to my mother in Colorado, figuring that if an asteroid wipes out California, at least future generations will be able to read what SCOOBY-DOO was like before they cut it down to a PG rating. (Answer: much funnier.)

What’s the worst that could happen if I lost the current version of the project I’m working on? This is probably the worst-case scenario, because I’m generally on deadline and working for people with very little patience for technical difficulties. If I’m using my Powerbook, I’ll often email the file to myself as a backup, and also save it to my keychain drive. When I’m at home, I’ll often do the email trick, or copy items to my .Mac iDisk.

And then there’s the backups you don’t even plan. In Guns, Germs and Steel, Jared Diamond makes a convincing argument that the best place for a tribal chief to store his surplus food is in his neighbor’s stomach. The same is true for data. (Go with me here.) Most of the scripts I work on these days travel around as .pdfs. One side benefit of this digitalization is that for any given script, some friend or assistant will invariably have a copy sitting in her mail. I sleep a little more soundly knowing that I could simply ask her to send it back.

In conclusion: Backing up is a waste of time, except for the few items for which it’s crucial. So worry about those, and not the rest.

My schedule for the Austin Film Festival

As I mentioned previously, I’m going to be one of the panelists at the Austin Film Festival this October 14-17. I now know my schedule, so I can at least pretend to be prepared to talk about the following topics of interest.

(Standard caveat: everything is subject to change.)

Saturday, 10/16

10:45AM – 12PM
Writer’s Block
When your mind and screen go blank. The painful struggle of writer’s block and how to overcome it. An inside look at how professionals stay focused and get the writing juices flowing.

2PM – 3:15PM
On Writing: Action/Adventure
Do you have to follow the formula? Does anyone even buy spec action scripts anymore? Or are they all studio-generated? Writing action-filled, violence-laden, explosion-stuffed films that don’t sacrifice story or characters. At least not their development.

Sunday, 10/17

9:45AM – 11AM
Editing Your Script
Congratulations! You’ve finished your screenplay. Now it’s time for the real work: Editing. How to take an objective look at your script and edit your own writing.

If you’re headed to Austin, maybe I’ll see you at one of the panels. And if you do decide to go, remember that they’ll give you a 10% break on the registration fee if you tell them I sent you.