SPEAKING WITH… D.C.FONTANA

PART TWO

One of the reasons I began this column was to find out how other folk I admired write. I think it’s important that all writers, no matter how long they’ve been working professionally, sit back on occasion and remember what it is they do and to learn things they may have either never known or long ago forgotten. Because Dorothy Fontana is such a good writer, a teacher of writing as well as a sweetie in person, I figured I could impose on her and figure out what the hell it is I’m doing. Dorothy’s teaching skills are apparent as you read her entire interview. If you haven’t picked up something by the time you finish all three parts, then start all over again from the beginning; the fault is yours.

And now, onto the second part of the D.C. Fontana interview…

MW: WHAT ARE YOUR GOALS WHEN YOU SIT DOWN TO WRITE A STORY?

DF: When pitching a story, I have a fairly well worked out idea of beginning, middle and end, who the characters are, what the problem is and so on. (In television a writer has to present several ideas at the same meeting. A feature writer might pitch one or two.) Once the producer says yes, then the real work starts for me. I like to sit down with a yellow pad and pen to work out the dramatic beats. Usually I work at home, but sometimes this is done in the producer’s office, working with the producer and/or story editor. Once those are in place, I again sit down with a yellow pad and pen to write the script. I find I work better if I manually write the first draft. I have a better sense of scene length and act length if I do that, and I can cross out and insert and fool with the dialogue as much as I like. Then I copy the script into my computer, still changing things as I go along (mostly dialogue). I print that out and sit down with it again on paper to make changes. Back to the computer and inputting – and still refining dialogue. The “first draft” the producer sees is usually a third draft for me. I have written directly at the computer – always due to a time crunch – but I still print it out a couple of times and make changes before I turn in a draft to the producer.

The method of approaching the story varies by situation. If I’m staffing on a show, I know the characters well and all the shows we’ve done and shows we have planned. What I usually start with is a plot problem tied to a major character’s problem. If I’m freelancing and pitching to a show, I’ve tried to do all the homework I can, including watching as many episodes as possible, getting scripts or at least plot synopses of past shows and/or a copy of the format/bible. (Most shows will provide these to professionals who ask either in person or through an agent.) Then I start thinking of an unusual character or situation to introduce and a major character’s problem. Some shows defy that approach – the LAW AND ORDER shows, for example, don’t go too deeply into individual character problems. There is a crime to solve and a criminal to be brought to justice. Their main characters are the implements of that story, and they seldom delve into who those characters are.

MW: HOW DO YOU RECOGNIZE WHEN A STORY ISN’T WORKING AND WHAT DO YOU DO TO FIX THE PROBLEMS?

DF: On material of my own, if it isn’t working, it’s clear to me very early on. If I can’t advance the story and the characters aren’t well defined, especially in their actions, I know it’s not happening. A story that is working flows from point to point, and writing it is comparatively easy. But if it won’t go down on the page with relative ease, I know I’m forcing it. If I can’t solve the problem, I know that story’s not as good as I thought it was. If I can see the problem (such as I started too early or too late into the story), I can go back and fix it. If a character’s not working, I have to be able to determine why and make him/her different. If there’s a problem in the middle (the hardest part of any story), I have to discover whether it’s character or plot-related and sort it out. Sometimes an idea just won’t work, and that will usually show itself in the story-writing part of development. If it’s on assignment, something has to be done to make it work. A good story editor or writing producer can often help get the writer back on track because he or she is standing off and looking at the story from a more removed perspective. If it’s a spec script and it’s not working, I usually put it away and forget it for a while. Sometimes you can come back to a problem script and see what was going wrong. Sometimes you never can make it work.

MW: WHAT IS THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN A FIRST DRAFT AND FUTURE DRAFTS?

DF: The first draft of either story or script is the groundwork, the foundation. As I said earlier, my first draft (story or script) is usually a third or even fourth draft. In script, I tend to write long in first draft, usually because I’m trying to get all my thoughts down and cover all the bases the producer said he/she wanted. (Rarely do I have to pad out scenes.) After that, the second draft and polish are trimming, refining, honing character, dialogue and incident.

MW: HOW DO YOU GO ABOUT CREATING A CHARACTER?

DF: In series television, the characters are already defined and developed, not only by the writers, but also by the actors playing the roles. What can be done there is to find interesting or provocative aspects of the characters not yet revealed and the story line that will bring them out. For me, creating an original character is first about the story and how the character will serve it. For instance, in JOURNEY TO BABEL, I first had the idea of the pivotal conference at Babel, then the fact there should be at least one important Vulcan, then that the Vulcan should be Spock’s father, accompanied by his mother. There had been a couple of references to Spock’s parents in earlier episodes, but nothing to build characters on, except that Sarek was pure Vulcan and Amanda was human. I began to speculate what kind of Vulcan would marry a human, what kind of relationship did they have to each other and to their son. There was plot conflict between the different ambassadors to Babel; conflict between Spock and his father was imperative or the personal story fell flat. Because I knew so much about Spock at that point, it was easier to build the characters of Sarek and Amanda in relationship to him. And hey – didn’t I get lucky with the casting!

Creating characters from scratch, I usually go to their strengths first and then their weaknesses. Every hero should have vulnerabilities and flaws. Perfect people may exist – somewhere – but I never met any. Every character has to have a need for something, and every character has to have some kind of conflict in his/her life. (Don’t you?) Sometimes I base parts of characters on people I’ve known or possibly just observed, but that’s what makes the audience relate to them more. Do I worry about their backgrounds, education, family? On occasion. Sometimes I don’t need to know that much about the character until later when the story requires it.Next week we conclude the D.C. Fontana interview with such topics as how you deal with characters, other people’s playgrounds, and story editors and producers. You won’t want to miss it. Once again I’d like to thank Dorothy for taking the time and effort to let me ask her my annoying questions.

Take care and see you all in seven.
-Marv Wolfman

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