SPEAKING WITH… SHARI GOODHARTZ
Part Two

Welcome back to What Th--? And part two of the Shari Goodhartz interview. Besides being a friend and a really great person as well as a Yoga guru who has been trying (so far unsuccessfully since, though I actually want to exercise, I’m lazy as a dead fish) to get me into her classes – yes, she writes and teaches Yoga, too - Shari Goodhartz is an Emmy- and Writers Guild of America Award-nominated writer whose produced credits in film and television include: Dragonheart: A New Beginning, Aeon Flux (pilot), Young Hercules, Gargoyles, Star Trek: The Next Generation, Bonkers!, Disney’s Raw Toonage, ExoSquad, Wing Commander Academy, and this season’s Galidor: Defenders of the Outer Dimension.

MARV WOLFMAN: KNOWING WHAT YOU KNOW NOW, WHICH OF YOUR MORE FAMOUS WORKS WOULD YOU REDO IF YOU COULD. WHY AND HOW?

SHARI GOODHARTZ: I wish I’d come up with something more clever for the end of “The Most Toys,” when Data is whisked away from Kivas Fatjo by a too convenient initiation of the transporter sequence. And it still feels overly facile to me that Riker can filter out the disrupter beam that Data fired at Fatjo. By the way, on the set I asked Brent Spiner whether he thought Data purposefully pulled the trigger or not, and he was adamant that Data did fire the weapon, which was my intent as well, but the powers-that-be wanted that kept ambiguous, so it was. If I had a chance to do it over, with all the experience I have behind me now, I would argue passionately for Data’s actions and their consequences to have been clearer, and hopefully more provocative.

MW: DO YOU CONSIDER YOUR AUDIENCE WHEN YOU CREATE A STORY?

SG: When I’m writing for hire, I have to. It’s part of the job. Especially since so much of my produced work has been for young audiences. I believe I have a responsibility to be conscious of the messages I’m putting onscreen for kids, and this includes messages hidden in subtext. All too often, unhealthy (please note, I’m not using the word “wrong” here) behavior and ideas are presented to kids as being fun, and more importantly, without negative consequences. Please, don’t misunderstand, I’m not looking to create a bland fantasy of perfect kids on TV. Real people make mistakes and do things that hurt themselves and other people, it’s all part of being human and this stuff belongs on TV. In my opinion, those of us writing and producing shows for kids have a responsibility to be aware of our unspoken assumptions about how people “should” behave, especially assumptions that promulgate and enforce stereotypes, because this is one of the ways this poison is passed along from one generation to the next. We need to consciously decide whether our messages are life-affirming or not, and be respectful of the power that our messages have when they’re onscreen.
All that said, when I’m writing on spec, I write for myself, which is probably another reason why the three unproduced spec TV scripts I referenced earlier (Last week’s column – Marv) are among my favorites.

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

SG: I pretty much don’t write anything until I think I’ve got a great ending, so that’s very early in my process. I believe that even really effective storytelling can be undone by an unsatisfying ending. By great ending, I mean “surprising, yet inevitable,” which is getting harder and harder these days because there are just so many stories being told in the visual media. And since I believe that compelling beginnings are easier to come up with than clever endings, I do the hardest work first. Another goal is giving the story it’s own integrity – it has to feel “whole” as well as honest. I’d prefer no extraneous elements, no out-of-character conveniences added because I as the writer can’t make the story work without them, and no “holes” that leave the audience way ahead of the characters they’re watching. Working from theme is a big help in this process, since I can usually find answers to plot and character problems by going back to the basic ideas of what I’m trying to say and why I’m choosing to say these things. Theme allows me to connect up elements that appear to be unrelated (if these elements really are unrelated, then they’re arbitrary and unnecessary, and I’d cut ‘em out). Theme takes me deeper into the world I’m creating – plot-wise, character-wise, visually, and even musically. There’s a visceral sweetness that happens when the writing has this kind of deep integrity, it’s hard to describe, but I believe it’s a goal always worth working towards.

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

SG: I trust my gut reactions, since they’ve been honed over a long period of time. But to fix a problem, I first have to identify exactly what the problem is and often I’m too close to the material to figure that out by myself. So I talk with my collaborators (when I’m working alone, I talk with a trusted writer friend) and try to figure out why the story isn’t working. As I mentioned earlier, going back to theme is usually helpful because off-theme elements will stand-out as unnecessary, and thematic connections will arise by giving them specific thought.

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

SG: Since I mostly write episodic television and I do massive amounts of research on every show I write for, I try to write producable first drafts (this goal is much more elusive in film, where I don’t have produced episodes to mimic). One way to do this is to write very specific outlines, that pretty much cover everything that will be in the script except dialog. When my bosses know how to work from an outline, writing a producable first draft is much easier, because everything except the dialog has already been approved. There aren’t any big surprises, because structural changes were addressed at the outline stage. So, in my experience, revised drafts are usually written to tweak my work into alignment with ongoing changes in the overall series, and with the often unpredictable realities of physical production (production rewrites are usually done by someone working on staff, so when I work freelance, I don’t do those passes). Usually, I get notes like, “please change this word to that word,” which is my favorite kind of note, because it indicates that nothing global is being changed. I’m generally happy to accommodate lots of small changes, which allow everyone working on the script to feel like they’ve contributed something. But, if huge chunks of my script are arbitrarily rewritten, I’m probably not going work with those people for much longer – not because I’m such a perfect writer, but because I believe that it’s my bosses’ job to convey to me what they want me to do and to work with me through the process – it’s not my job to read their minds.

MW: WHAT ARE YOUR GOALS AND WHAT ARE YOU TRYING TO DO WHEN WRITING IN OTHER PEOPLE’S UNIVERSES?

SG: Respect their vision while including my own, not vice versa. And just like fixing story problems, this means I have to have a conscious understanding of what I think the creator’s vision is, as well as my own. If I’m lucky enough to be able to talk to the creator, I can usually get this information directly from them because I’ve learned what questions to ask. The most dramatically successful creators, in my opinion, can articulate this stuff pretty easily, because they’ve given it lots of thought. And since I really like exploring nuances and playing with them to generate story material, rather than boldly taking stories and characters in new directions, my attitude has been very helpful during my career in episodic television, which is by nature, “writing in other people’s universes.”

MW: HOW DO YOU DEFINE YOUR RELATIONSHIP UP FRONT WITH YOUR EDITOR/STORY EDITOR/PRODUCER/THE WRITERS WHO WORK FOR YOU?

SG: I give respect to everyone, and I expect to get it from everyone. That includes talking about respect and what it means, up front. I no longer tolerate contempt in the workplace, which is so toxic and so common that it seems many people don’t even notice it. I used to believe I had no choice in the matter, but I’ve decided that basic human respect is not negotiable, or even earned. It’s a given. When I’m in charge, the office is clearly established as a contempt-free zone (and that includes my not being able to belittle anyone or bully them into agreeing with me). When I’m not in charge, I first take some time to assess whether my co-workers can handle being told that their behavior is hurtful to me. If I decide to confront, I’m quite direct. But if I’ve witnessed, first-hand, patterns of behavior that indicate my superior(s) won’t or can’t hear that kind of message, I’m either quiet for as long as I can stand being in the room, or I remove myself from the situation. If I catch myself in contemptuous behavior, I cop to it as soon as possible, and apologize, neither of which is all that easy. However, I figure if I want to write deeply and honestly about characters who have courage and live with integrity, then I’ve got to have courage and behave with integrity, especially when the stakes include my livelihood.
If you want to learn more about writing from Shari’s adventures in Hollywood, check out the archived craft interviews with her on the Writers Guildwebsite: www.wga.org. You can access them by typing “Goodhartz” into the search window at the top of the homepage.

***

Shari is probably the first writer to talk about respect in the workplace, respect she gives to others and respect that she expects back as a human being. I know Shari well and this is a deeply rooted belief and it’s both totally right and yet totally non-Hollywood where so many people are nice to your face while stabbing you in the back during a meeting of the Humanitas Society, a highly regarded group dedicated to bringing human values into writing. Shari’s beliefs infects her writing, and when we all get together to discuss writing, she is the one talking about how people in stories need to deal with other people as human beings where the rest of us discuss plots and how best to blow up someone. Again, Shari, thanks for your time and words.

See you in seven,
Marv

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