Despite the title including the word “comedy,” I will forewarn you that it is a bit more serious than my usual fare and is one of those “Things I Have Learned” kind of posts. As it is a very specific topic that entails a bit more than just what I have learned in the creation process for the Hearst Castle Ghost web-series, I have opted for a separate entry all on its own. As with most things, it is best to start with the basics and move forward. In this case it is the screenwriting software.
Over the years the various dramatic industries have developed a standardized method for writing and formatting a script. Whether the script you are writing is for theatre, television, the big screen, or even a simple web comedy series, there is an industry standard in place for how your script should look and behave. While I am not going to even attempt to explain all the dos and don’ts for writing a script, I am going to tell you to use a screenwriting software package to do it. I am also going to tell you to read the various formatting instructions and other such articles that the screenwriting software package has available.
There are plenty of screenwriting software packages out there, several of which are free. If you are willing to pay for one and can afford it, Final Draft is pretty much the industry standard and what we use on Hearst Castle Ghost. To be completely honest, the software is a bit clunky and in need of a UI overhaul, but despite that it works and works well. Ultimately, the reason we chose Final Draft is because of the number of articles on their website detailing everything script writing from A-Z. As they were kind enough to effectively put together what amounts to a free online course in screenwriting, we decided supporting them with a couple of software purchases was the least we could do.
On the subject of standards comes the major part of this blog post: uniformity of story, aka continuity. There are two parts of this that we deal with in writing our web comedy series, the first being what I call canon.
For Hearst Castle Ghost there are a few things which we consider facts and are not open to debate or interpretation. That John Doe, aka the Ghost, is a deceased vagabond is canon. No matter what actor we put in the role of the Ghost, that fact is not going to change as it is the very basis of the video series. Brad’s life before becoming a docent is canon, the premise for the first three seasons revolves around slowly revealing that past life. If we changed these things, we change the show’s foundation and it is no longer the Hearst Castle Ghost, but instead some other random show.
The second bit of uniformity in script writing that needs to be carefully crafted in each story is the actor’s interpretation of the character. You brought specific actors into your production for a reason and they each have their own method or style of portraying their character. As that style fleshes itself out, a good writer will include these changes in future scripts. An even better writer will do a read with each actor to incorporate changes up front to the initial scripts.
As writers we need to learn to not get butt hurt when an actor changes the lines we lovingly crafted. It doesn’t matter how funny a line might have been, if the actor doesn’t feel the connection with the line it will just come off dull. So be flexible, except when it comes to canon. In those cases – where a line change conflicts with the story’s canon – the actors must be a little flexible as well. Good actors will accept that.
When you are a solo writer for a show, keeping most of these things straight is relatively easy. Even if it is all jumbled around in your head, the continuity is there. When you are working with additional writers it becomes a lot more difficult. Note cards and the sharing of them become a must. A full write up of all things canon, including character motivations and backstory, is also required.
While it might be true that you do not want to include too much character direction for your actors, as it stifles their creativity and the talent they are bringing to your screenplay, the same is not true for writers. There is no such thing as too much information, too deep of a backstory, too many descriptions, or too in depth of a plot summary. And all those write-ups should continue to grow as the story does because it helps keep future stories on track and, yet, provides a way to keep it from getting dull.
The other side of the coin is that you, as a writer, must be willing to read and absorb the backstories and character biographies penned down by the story’s creators and other writers. You might have some brilliant ideas for expanding on someone else’s universe, but the creators and previous writers included physics for a reason. You need to respect that. After all, no fan has ever accepted “We changed writers” as an answer to why a story suddenly and completely changed directions (*cough* Star Trek Discovery *cough*). Just saying…