Friday, September 14, 2007


At 6:30 on Thursday nights, as part of the whole robowriter deal, Joe Janes typically does a writer's workshop for anyone interested in getting feedback on their writing. People are welcome to show up, bring whatever they have or even just sit in, and get feedback on what they've written. Typically, people bring in comedy sketches, although people are by no means limited to that. He then asks for a $5 donation to help pay for renting the space. It's a good opportunity for you young writers out there to get the expertise of a Second City writing teacher for pretty damned cheap. I'd highly recommend at least coming once to check it out.

Last night, however, Joe could not run the workshop because he was performing in a show called Soiree Dada: Blind Esel Hopse. Chris Othic, who's one of the other robowriters working on our show and who has a weird obsession with the New Age artist Enya, ran the workshop and I decided to sit in with him so that I could ruin the developmental process for other young writers with my uninformed ramblings. I'd like to think I messed up a couple of people.

While there, I noticed a common issue that I run across occasionally as well while writing sketch, so I'm going to talk about that today.

(Please note, I'm about to offer uninformed rambling writing advice. For qualified writing advice, check out Joe's blog.)

Back in my early college days I wanted to be an architect so I did a lot of pencil sketching. When I think about writing sketch, I think about when I used to have to draw sketches for class. You use your penciled lines and broad strokes to flesh out your subject; you use a little bit of shading to give the picture a little depth, pop it out a little bit. It's not a photograph or a painting, though. If you overload the drawing with too much shading or too many little details, pretty soon the graphite runs together and the sketch becomes messy. Your work needs to fall somewhere between a stick figure and a Caravaggio painting.

I feel the same way about writing sketches, particularly when writing a first draft. If you overload it with too much information, too many details, too many layers it becomes difficult to read and difficult to watch. It's not a full length play, afterall. When I first started writing sketches I would try to do too many things at once and as a result a lot of what I wanted to get across did not read to an audience.

When you're a beginner (and I'm closer to that end of the spectrum than the master comedy writer end so take all of this with a grain of salt) I think it's important to focus on one thing that you want to accomplish. Sometimes, you'll hear writing instructers ask you "Whose story are you telling?" What they're asking you to do is find the main thrust of scene and focus in on it.

In the early stages of the Second City Training Center's comedy writing classes there is a lot of emphasis on structure. While taking those classes I occasionally felt frustrated that they were making me write to those structures instead of allowing me to just write what I wanted to write. I realize how valuable those early sketches are now that I'm actually writing from inspiration. They're the outline upon which you hang your story. You don't need to adhere to the strict guidelines of what constitutes, say, a "fish out of water" scene but you do need to know how to structure a scene so that you can shape your ideas into something cohesive.

This is not to say that good sketches don't have layers or don't have a lot of details or a lot of different ideas on the page. The best sketches can do a whole lot within those five pages. But I think when watching a really good sketch you'll notice that there's almost always a solid clarity that comes from the writer knowing where their focus lies.

Once you know that the outlines are there, you can shade in the details and the witty dialogue.

And then, end on a killer penis joke.


GW said...

Good thoughts, Nat. My own beginner thoughts: Oftentimes you find lots of good ideas in a first draft (which is why it's good to let your writing lead you and not the other way around), but eventually you have to separate the good from the bad, and if you have too many good ideas in one scene, it might need to become multiple scenes. Picking one idea is the first step in choosing what THIS scene is about.

The Beatles wrote a spectacular riff in Hey Bulldog, and a beautiful melody in And I Love Her, but it's probably good they saved them for two different songs. (Although Cirque de Soleil might tell you otherwise.)

If this post doesn't get Chris Othic posting comments, nothing will. We may have to resort to posting those photos. (To make the analogy above more Othic-friendly, one might mention that Enya wrote a killer chant in "Na Laetha Geal M'oige" and a lovely lullaby in "Dan Y Dwr", but it's a good thing she didn't--oh wait, all of Enya's songs played simultaneously would still sound like a pretty good Enya song. Nevermind.)

Joe Janes said...

Good rambling advice, Nat. Quite often, my feedback to scenes in the early levels of the writing program is that someone's scene really has two or three scenes crammed into it.

And I'm glad my advice to end on a killer penis joke has finally gotten through to you.

Anonymous said...

She is watching, boys.

Seoulcially Akward Nessie said...

Grandpa B told me that I had the mind of an engineer, like him, only my passion is biology. I think Grandpa T would tell you that you have the mind of an architect, like him, only your passion is writing.

Anonymous said...

3=====), now that is good humor.