Carin Besser on Writing for TV: “You’re Going to Say the Dumb Things Out Loud”

Clouds over Mt. Timpanogos in Utah. ©Sundance Institute | Jonathan Hickerson

Carin Besser

In my short career as a co-writer of pilot scripts, I have struggled to explain the importance of “not-writing” to the writing process. Especially to my writing partner and husband, Matt Berninger. He is somehow always writing when he writes, by which I mean (and he does too), typing out scenes.

Some of these scenes are pretty good. Last year, we had an idea for a show inspired by Matt’s brother, Tom. (Tom directed the documentary Mistaken for Strangers, a film about his relationship with Matt.) The show we all had in mind was about a budding filmmaker newly arrived in Los Angeles who is tormented by self-doubt. Matt wrote six episodes in two weeks. “This is pretty easy,” he said.

He’d just downloaded Final Draft and started writing, but it turned out he was working in the wrong format, one that automatically double-spaced everything. Still, here’s what we discovered when we sat down to work and squished it all together: it was the length of about three episodes. Not bad. (I know what you’re thinking: Why doesn’t everyone just use the other format? We don’t know.

Several drafts later, we’d turned the story about Tom into a story about our whole family, or sort of. This is the story we brought to the Sundance Institute Episodic Story Lab.

When you tell people you are going to a Sundance lab, their faces radiate a special kind of light. A playwright I know told me, “Those Sundance people are amazing.” And I knew he was right. I never doubted it. The people who run these labs, who work so hard to bring the creative advisors, industry mentors, and fellows together in a beautiful spot, manage a very hard-to-describe magic.

Everyone feels it. And the love of making of stories, watching stories, interrogating what makes stories work—it’s so palpable while you’re there. I think it’s the closest I’ve been to seeing a group of adults safely reignite a feeling from childhood.

On our first day, we gathered in a screening room for a talk about introducing characters—each advisor had brought a clip for us to watch, and as a group we discussed the many things you can learn about a character’s desires just from watching her behave. The next day we broke into our one-on-one sessions (in our case two-on-one) with our creative advisors.

We went through the story Matt and I were trying to tell in the pilot, talked about what was coming across and what wasn’t, and also about the nuances of tone. During these sessions, and then later in the writer’s room, our advisors prodded us to think deeply about the choices we were making in the pilot—specifically about our characters—and how they would play out over a season and beyond. I got a sense of someone looking in at our script from the other end of a very long tunnel.

Some things I learned from these meetings:

  1. Episodic television eats story. Think hard about which characters are story engines. Don’t hold back.
  2. On the other hand, the story of a pilot might be something very simple. What you think is your pilot might become your second episode (or not). It happens.
  3. The character based on Matt in our script should be a bigger dick. (Purely for comedic purposes.)

Things I discovered on my own:

  1. Say only smart things in the writer’s room; don’t say the dumb ones out loud.
  2. You’re going to say the dumb things out loud.
  3. If you get a chance to watch Jenny Bicks, Jenni Konner, and Rich Appel do what they do in a writer’s room, trying to help you with your story, you really shouldn’t complain about anything else that happens to you in your life.

On our last day, fellows, advisors, and the members of the Sundance team all gathered in one of the meeting rooms. We were asked what we would take with us from the experience. Guess what? That was a bunch of the most heartfelt responses to a question you could hope to hear—there were confessions, compliments, some loving glances. The bonds of affection were strong by this point.

When it was Matt’s turn to talk, he started with something so big it risked incomprehensibility for a few seconds: it involved humans on a globe, and misery, and war. But then he said what I think everyone was feeling but didn’t know how to express: “I think about those aliens up there watching this one group of humans on a mountain somewhere trying to figure out how to tell each other stories, and I just think they’d know that this was something we were doing all right.”

So, yeah, back off, he’s my writing partner. Which brings me back to the non-writing while writing thing, which actually isn’t a joke. I once met a neuroscientist who explained the brain at rest to me in great detail, and I wrote it all down. I can’t find that notebook but here’s the gist: no one knows what the mind will spit out when you least expect it—not scientists just yet, and not artists either.

If you create the conditions of receptivity, you might get lucky. You might also get a few pained looks from your writing partner who truly dies a little bit inside when he sees you opening book two of My Struggle instead of your shared Final Draft file. We can’t always explain ourselves to each other. God bless us for trying.

Carin Besser attended the 2015 Episodic Story Lab with her husband and writing partner Matt Berninger. She previously worked as a fiction editor at the New Yorker before moving to Los Angeles with Berninger and their daughter. She co-produced and co-edited the documentary Mistaken for Strangers, which opened the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival.

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