ATTN JMS: Dialogue writing

 Posted on 8/4/1995 by to

Let me just start off by disagreeing with your thesis, that the
length restrictions and format of TV writing tend to mitigate against good
writing. By that same token, sonnets (which use a very strict formula or
format) can't be good, or haiku, we should toss out iambic pentameter
altogether, and short stories, often considerably shorter than a half-hour
TV script, must also be unable to contain quality writing.

The form doesn't matter. It's what you bring to the table.

Similarly, the issue of rushed writing...many of the classic SF tales
of the 50s and 60s were written as fast as humanly possible because back
then writers were paid a penny a word, and you had to really crank the
stuff out there to make any kind of living. It was quite common for writers
of many of the SF magazines of the time to go into the publisher's office,
see the cover for an issue a few months down the road, and on the spot come
up with a title, a story premise, go home, write it, and bring it in the
very next day.

We're talking here margins. Margins aren't important. It's what you
choose to fill the margins, the care you exercise, the passion you bring to
the page, that makes the difference.

Yeah, a lot of TV writing is pretty marginal. Sturgeon's Law: 90% of
everything is crap. How many novels are turned out each year that sink of
their own weight in zero time? How few novels are really and truly
substantial? How many short stories? Out of all the SF novels and short
stories and short-shorts and novellas and novellettes published each year,
how many will survive on the shelf 5, 10, or 15 years from now?

Mark Twain said, "If you would have your fiction live forever, you
must neither overtly preach nor overtly teach; but you must *covertly*
preach and *covertly* teach." That, to me, is one primary ingredient; it
must, at its root, be *about* something more than car chases and bomb
blasts and shootouts. On some level, however cellular, it must instruct
and ennoble and elevate and enrich, make us question or consider.

Then there is the basic level of writing style, but that is a very
personal flavor. Hill Street had an elegance of simplicity, the writing
was often raw and piercing on a sheer gut level. I loved it. When I sit
down to write, I tend to drift toward a somewhat more literary-sounding or
theatrical style, probably because of my own influences.

It comes down, really, to whether or not you have the inclination to
sit down, whichever style you use, and stare at the screen for half an
hour until you find just the right word, the mot just, that serves better
than any other possibly could. Some writers will do that, some won't.
David Kelly does it on ER and Picket Fences and other shows. So do the
folks on The Simpsons. And many other shows. A lot of folks dump on TV,
ignoring similar failinlgs in literary SF or other genres, but like any
exercise in accepted cliche, the reasoning is flawed and often (though
not always) unjustified.

As for my personal list of writers whose work I admire...Kelly, as
noted, definitely. Mainly, though, I grew up on the genre TV writers of
the 50s/60s, like Rod Serling, Charles Beaumond, Richard Matheson, Robert
Bloch (that should be BeaumonT, not Beaumond), Ernest Kinoy, Harlan
Ellison, Joe Stefano, and though he was fading from view by then, Arch
Oboler, and the kinetoscopes of Paddy Chayefsky, Reginald Rose and others.
Later, I added Norman Corwin to the list, as a chief point of inspiration,
stylistically. (There are a number of writers who call or consider
themselves "Norman's Kids" in that we've learned much about writing, and
the integrity of writing, from Norman Corwin...including Ray Bradbury,
Charles Kuralt, Walter Cronkite, Stan Freberg, and many others.)