This Week’s Script Cavalcade: La Bamba

This week on Script Cavalcade, we’re plumbing the mythological subsurface of Luis Valdez’s La Bamba (1988). The rollicking musical biopic celebrates its 30th anniversary this year with a handful of different screenings around LA and beyond. Writerly fans of La Bamba will be pleased to know that the WGF Library has two drafts of the screenplay in its collection – and one of them is signed with encouragement by the maestro himself.

The film tells the story of early, pioneering rocker Ritchie Valens of Pacoima, California, who died at 17 in the same plane crash that killed Buddy Holly, but not before changing the face of American popular music by adapting a traditional Mexican folk song “La Bamba” into one of the most enduring rock hits of all time. A one-time migrant farmworker, Valens (whose birth name was Richard Valenzuelas) is a fantastic example of Mexican-descended influence on roots music and early rock ‘n roll. By telling Valens’ story, Valdez reveals an under-explored aspect of music culture, creating a folk icon for everyone, but especially for those who don’t get nearly as many opportunities to see themselves presented as nuanced heroes of their own big-screen narratives.

Luis Valdez, known widely as the “Father of Chicano Theater,” isn’t so much a screenwriter or playwright as he is a mythmaker. When we think of mythology, we often think of deeply traditional narratives and sacred stories that seek to explain the origin of the world, death and human nature. Such stories are often about Gods, heroes, animals or personifications of natural elements like mountains and sky. Valdez’s gift as a writer is his ability to make commentary on everyday life and the present-day social order by spinning it into myth. By reaching for the mythic underpinnings in his stories, Valdez elevates his narratives to the highest level of storytelling. That’s why his writing feels universal and endures.

This week, I present you with one simple scene. In La Bamba, like any great hero, Ritchie must look inward and connect with his roots to discover his power and his identity. In this case, Ritchie finds himself waking up hungover in Tijuana with a bizarre, old medicine man. The drama is laden with symbolism and has a kind of ancient subtext eking out of its pores. These are ideal study pages for writers looking to unearth the macro/mythic/universal-level themes in their personal stories. It’s motivation for all of us to study and connect with our own ancestry and culture – wherever it might originate — in order to draw from it in our work.

As a writer, seeing things on a mythological or cosmogonic level involves stripping away modern formality. In contemporary society, we often define ourselves by our professions, i.e. – “I’m an attorney;” “I’m a football player;” “I’m a sales technician,” etc. Writing at the mythic level involves looking beyond certain contemporary social constructions like one’s job title. Many ancient peoples believed that individuals had specific destinies—to become warriors, healers, wanderers, teachers or storytellers and that it was an individual’s job to realize one’s destiny and to journey to become it. If we look at life as though it is a myth and we view our own experience as though we’re heroes and heroines on a journey to discover who we are, we find certain universal rites of passage and we encounter people who initiate, instruct and heal us in different ways. If there don’t appear to be healers and shamans in modern society, it’s only because we’re not looking hard enough. The best writers—like Valdez—are not only able to see them, they’re able to reveal them in their writing.

Knowing that his lead character dies in a plane crash, Valdez is able to shape his script with the benefit of hindsight. He shows us Ritchie’s continual nightmares about his own death. By including a scene where Ritchie encounters a Curandero, or healer, who seems able to see into his soul and his fate, the writer makes a comment on existence in general, that it’s bigger than we could possibly understand and that death is an innate part of it, but also that death is a portal into something much, much larger and more infinite. This is more than just a musical biopic; it’s writing that makes us feel less alone and afraid because it taps into timeless aspects of personhood that affect every single human.

These are just a few things for you to contemplate the next time you sit down at your laptop.

If you’re looking for more scriptly wisdom to be inspired by, check out some of the library’s newest acquisitions.

  • Black Mirror’s Emmy-Winning “San Junipero” written by Charlie Brooker.
  • The Florida Project written by Sean Baker & Chris Bergoch.
  • The Glass Castle written by Destin Daniel Cretton & Andrew Lanham based on the memoir by Jeannette Walls.
  • Scripts from 2008’s TNT series Leverage, seasons 1 and 2.
  • The entire 1st season of NBC’s Marlon.

This Week’s Script Cavalcade: Bed, Bath and Beyond

Will & Grace is I Love Lucy… if Ricky Ricardo and Fred Mertz just happened to be queer. It’s a genius variation on the traditional sitcom that, in its day, helped to broaden the types of people and friendships that could be depicted on the small screen. Despite its sometimes exaggerated characterizations and decidedly un-PC humor, Will & Grace helped to make gay culture more visible and accessible to contemporary America. And let’s face it, it did so by making us belly laugh.

Deep, gut-based cackling is ultimately the point of the situation comedy, or “sitcom,” which I will go ahead and define as:

a series in which a fixed set of characters find themselves in a new comedic situation during each individual episode.

Because the format requires a consistent set of characters to get into shenanigans week after week, it’s no surprise that many sitcoms are about families. Of all the sitcoms to revive for our current times, Will & Grace seems, in my mind, a great choice. This is because, in addition to all the laughter, it helps to remind us of the types of chosen and non-nuclear families and support systems that can be found out in the world.

The WGF Library has almost the entire original run of Will & Grace scripts. I’m writing this blog post because – revival aside – the show provides an ideal study for writers looking to understand the mechanics of sitcom writing, especially the kind with one foot in tradition and one foot in attempting to push the format further socially. They’re scripts that offer basic instruction to those who read them on how to mix belly laughs with sweetness and feeling.

Let’s dive in to a script from the fourth season of the show called “Bed, Bath and Beyond.” Written by Jhoni Marchinko, this episode aired November 8, 2001, a time when America found itself turning to sitcoms for comfort in the immediate aftermath of 9/11.

Like a good gift, the best television episodes often come in the most plain and simple of packaging. “Bed, Bath and Beyond” and other episodes of its ilk are fantastic for reading because they utilize no guest stars. The story is also confined to just the main location of the series (in this case, that’s Will and Grace’s apartment). If you’re a writer trying to churn out a spec script for a sitcom, these will often be the tools or basic elements at your disposal.

In its 38 pages, this script tells the story of how—after expecting a marriage proposal from her boyfriend Nathan, but instead getting dumped—Grace is so full of misery and self-pity that she refuses to get out of bed. Beginning to worry, Will tries everything he can to get Grace up and moving and back out into the world.

That’s it. There’s one situation and one clean line of action to resolve it. The comedy in the episode comes particularly from Jack and Karen’s inability to help Will achieve this task in a helpful and sensitive way. Bedridden and sad, Grace plays “the straight woman” to their outrageous antics.

Watch how Jack tries to cheer Grace up by singing a medley of songs…

…but he only makes her feel worse.

Watch how Karen resorts to demanding help from Rosario…

When Rosario gets into the bedroom with Grace, she’s forced to play the straight woman as Grace inundates her with slides from her childhood, trying to determine where it all went wrong and delivering this tour de force monologue:

Running out of options, the gang eventually resorts to tossing Grace into the shower to “wash that man right out of her hair” but she counters by slipping out of their grip and telling them that she’s just not ready, that she must allow herself to be sad in her own way before she can feel better. In doing this, she tells each of them that she’s just not as strong as they are, inadvertently reminding each of them of the things in their lives that they could be heartbroken about.

She bums them out until they feel like going to bed and never getting up.

One of the final images—Will, Grace, Jack and Karen all lying in bed together—gives rise to the ultimate lesson of the episode. Crises and periods of woe are easier to bear when you have friends and family who understand what you’re going through and stand by you.

In polarizing and challenging times, this is the heart of the story that rears its head underneath the laughter. It’s a message that resonates.

While you’re at the library reading up on Will & Grace, be sure to check out some new additions to the collection, including:

  • A handful of scripts from The Bold Type created by Sarah Watson
  • Scripts from The Carol Burnett Show from the recently acquired Arnie Kogen collection
  • Scripts from 1996’s Early Edition created by Ian Abrams, Bob Brush & Patrick Q. Page
  • The feature screenplay for Logan Lucky Written by Rebecca Blunt.

For more scripts, please search our ever-expanding library catalog and follow the Writers Guild Foundation on Twitter.

This Week’s Script Cavalcade: St. Elsewhere’s The Women

I don’t know about you, but I find the culmination of Emmy season to be a time of great reflection. When yearly TV accolades are handed out, I can’t help ruminating on all the best shows and episodes I’ve witnessed in my life and on everything I love about the medium.

For me, the best TV does a handful of things:

  • It follows the recipe for its genre or format, but adds new and emotionally challenging ingredients to give us an experience that’s recognizable and relatable, but ALSO surprising and cathartic.
  • It revels in characters and their flaws.
  • It finds unexpected humor and poignancy in tragic situations.
  • It is often about disparate people coming together as a community, family or team.
  • It feels like the best theater.

One show that tends to exemplify all these things is St. Elsewhere.

Today, we don’t think twice about equivocating television series to other storytelling mediums like literature or theater, but TV hasn’t always been held in such high esteem. In the 1980s, shows like St. Elsewhere and its predecessor by one season, Hill Street Blues, (both airing on NBC and produced by MTM Enterprises) helped to lift the television drama—and especially the television procedural—to a new level of artistry and credibility.

During its seven-year run, St. Elsewhere became known for its mold-breaking episodes that challenged its own pre-existing promise and structure. Thanks to a generous script donation from Ed Begley, Jr., who played Dr. Ehrlich on the show, the library has many of these scripts in its collection.

My recommended reading for this week is an episode from St. Elsewhere’s second season, entitled “The Women.” It won the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Writing for a Drama Series in 1984. I’m recommending it not simply because it won an Emmy but because it’s a great study episode for writers, packing tightly into one 60-page script all of my aforementioned tenets that make for great television.

Written by renowned playwright John Ford Noonan with a story by John Masius & Tom Fontana, “The Women” feels like a free-standing play within a series. The main characters in the episode are three female patients, all different ages and in the hospital for different reasons, sharing the same room. Over the course of the story, they bond, making their own micro community and helping each other to heal.

The episode is innovative in how it’s the guest actors who take the front seat, never to be seen again after this one episode, while the series regulars—the doctors—fill the supporting roles. Read how one of the patients, the 80-year-old Evelyn, interacts with Doctors Westphall and Craig:

Naturally, reading any produced television script can help a writer to hone their taste, preferences and ability to distinguish great writing from not-so-great writing (even though it’s all very subjective). If you’re like me and taking the time to reflect at the end of this Emmy season, why not stop by the library to read scripts from nominated shows?

We have everything from The Handmaid’s Tale to Atlanta to The Crown to that delightful “Thanksgiving” episode from Master of None. But while you’re reading those, why not also pick up scripts from classic Emmy award winners like St. Elsewhere, which can be seen in many ways as an influence on today’s contemporary shows?

Whatever your taste might be, you can always find both classic and contemporary series by searching our library catalog and stopping by for a visit.

And if I’ve piqued your interest about St. Elsewhere, you can also watch our Writer Speaks oral history interview with one half of its creators, Josh Brand, conducted with The Archive of American Television.

This Week’s Script Cavalcade: Adam’s Rib

Lauren Bacall gives Humphrey Bogart some side eye and he grins. Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan argue about orgasms at Katz’s deli. Yammering Paul Newman talks a mostly silent Robert Redford’s ear off in the wild west in the late 1800s. Basically, two characters come together as partners on screen and if we’re lucky, their interactions and friction produce this happy spellbinding effect.

We call it chemistry, but often in the business of creating movies and television we treat it like it’s magic… as if it’s elusive and very difficult to conjure and we shouldn’t talk about it too loudly because we don’t want to squelch the enchantment.

Here’s a question for you.

What if we treated chemistry as what it is?

That is to say, a science.

The physical science of chemistry focuses on the properties and change of matter. Two substances are put together to create a chemical reaction. Their interaction transforms them together into a new substance.

Chemists create and study new substances by following a written formula, i.e. two hydrogen atoms put together with one oxygen atom create water (H2O).

What if we looked at screenwriters as chemists whose job it is to experiment and lay out a formula for the director to follow with actors?

People often define acting as reacting, which hints at its chemical nature. With a proper formula, actors—like elements—can come together to create a new and thrilling substance.

Just as there are endless ways to combine elements on the periodic table for a reaction, there are endless ways to combine different characters.

Professions, genders, races, classes, attitudes, ages, places of origin, abilities, modes of speaking—the list goes on and on. If you put together people who reside on opposite ends of any kind of spectrum, odds are they’ll complement each other in some way to create a satisfying kind of traction and momentum as they mitigate their differences and transform into something new. Think of one character as hot and one character as cold. When they join forces, they make a balmy breeze that we can’t get enough of… or perhaps they’re carbon and oxygen, combining to make something deadly and destructive, but still captivating to watch.

If you’re studying chemistry, you study the work of Marie Curie, John Dalton or Louis Pasteur. If you’re a screenwriter, you study how Nora Ephron, Spike Lee or William Goldman lay out character and story elements in a formula on the page.

It’s with these ideas in mind that I make my script recommendation this week. I’m excerpting a few pages from 1949’s Adams’s Rib, written by husband-and-wife writing team Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin, then eventually acted by the ultimate partners in chemistry, Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy.

This is an earlier draft of the script, written before the characters’ names were changed to Adam and Amanda, respectively. In the movie, they’re both lawyers. She’s a well-spoken “We-can-do-it!” kind of woman and he’s a by-the-books, meat and potatoes (or is it po-tah-toes?) kind of guy. As the story goes on, they find themselves as prosecutor and defense attorney for a case in which a woman has attempted to murder her husband. The case draws their principles into direct conflict with one-another.

This is the first scene in which we see the two characters interact. Notice their cross objectives and tactics. They’re both looking for information. She would rather read it in the paper. He would rather get it out of her.

Down to the nuance in the spelling of the characters’ nicknames for each other (Pinky vs. Pinkie), the script for Adam’s Rib proves that chemistry can very much be written before it is played.

You can read more about Adam’s Rib writers Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin on the last page of the newest addition of the WGA’s Written By Magazine, which features another husband-and-wife writing team Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon of The Big Sick on its cover. If it’s not out at the point of your reading this, it will be soon.

Find great examples of chemistry-oriented writing in The Big Sick script and these other titles at the library on your next visit:

His Girl Friday. Screenplay by Charles Lederer based on the 1928 play The Front Page by Ben Hecht & Charles MacArthur.

Out of Sight. Screenplay by Scott Frank based on the novel by Elmore Leonard.

Thelma & Louise. Written by Callie Khouri.

You’ve Got Mail. Screenplay by Nora Ephron & Delia Ephron based on the play “Parfumerie” by Nikolaus Laszlo.

And in the meantime, you can always search our catalog. Or perhaps you say catalogue.




This Week’s Script Cavalcade: Norma Rae

This week, the WGF convened a panel called Women Warriors: Writing Strong Female Protagonists, which means I got to listen to Amy Berg, Liz Flahive, Allan Heinberg and Moira Walley-Beckett—all of whom have created or added dimension to some of the most commanding female characters in very recent memory—discuss the fictional (and non-fictional) women who have had a profound influence on their writing. They brought up everybody from Mary Tyler Moore and Carol Burnett to Anne of Green Gables, Buffy, The Bionic Woman and Nancy Drew to the women of current TV shows such as The Handmaid’s Tale, Insecure, Fleabag and Catastrophe.

As they conversed about the female characters who’ve inspired them, I began thinking about the female characters who’ve inspired me… and thus I began this blog post about one of my favorite characters of all time.

Her name is Norma Rae Webster. She’s a scrappy, working woman, toiling away in a cotton mill in a nameless town in the American south. The titular character of her own film (Norma Rae, 1979), she grows to become a principled and deeply inspiring hero.

If Summer of 2017 has taught us anything, it’s that we really respond to female heroes. They compel us to stand up, take action and be better people.

As screenwriters, the question then becomes how do we create such heroes?

In my mind, Norma Rae provides a kind of heroism rubric for those writers trying to give any character—female or otherwise—more guts and agency. As we learned in the panel on Wednesday night, it’s characters who get up and TRY in the face of adversity, rather than those who remain passive or those who force themselves into our consciousness.

Norma Rae was written by famous screenwriting husband-and-wife team, Irving Ravetch and Harriett Frank, Jr. Their work is sweat-soaked southern storytelling at its very best. The other film of theirs worth checking out is 1963’s Hud. While Irving has since passed away, Harriett just celebrated her 100th birthday this year. Talk about a woman warrior.

The writing team finds their inspiration in Crystal Lee Sutton of North Carolina, a worker who helped mills to unionize in 1973, losing her job in the process of standing up against unfair wages and treatment of her fellow workers. Norma Rae Webster is a fictionalized version of her. The ultimate underdog heroine, she’s characterized as a promiscuous single mother of two who occasionally takes a backhand from the men she sleeps with, who still lives with her parents and is probably kept down by low self-worth more than she cares to admit. Her whole family works at the mill and has never seen a raise. In fact, it seems like their treatment on the job continues to get worse and worse, and something just no longer sits right with Norma.

What makes Norma a formidable contradiction is her big mouth. While the people she’s surrounded by seem almost sedated into submission, tolerating being worked to the bone, Norma has an almost heightened sense of empathy. She speaks her mind and is an unrelenting bulldog in seeing workplace injustices called out. She’s the textbook definition of a diamond in the rough—a hero waiting to emerge from a so-called riffraff-y veneer.

When a labor organizer named Reuben Warshsawsky, a leftist from New York City, comes to town, he sees the potential in Norma and tries to get her to join him in starting a union at the mill. He’s committed to giving more say to workers and holding the powerful bosses accountable. He’s come down to sell the mill workers on unionizing. However, as a Jewish, liberal intellectual with a big mouth of his own, he does not fit in with the small southern town where he’s been sent. In a sense, he needs Norma to connect with her fellow mill workers, knowing that she can relate and reach them in a way that he cannot.

Reuben and Norma are opposites, whose character traits become more well-defined when they are paired with one another. It’s fantastic to watch his cultural snobbery at odds with her salt-of-the-earth panache. At the end of the day, Reuben helps Norma to realize her moral imperative to help give the mill workers a voice. Once Norma feels empowered, she literally DOESN’T STOP.

It’s all the more stirring to witness as she’s not a hulking prizefighter like Marlon Brando standing up to mob bosses in On the Waterfront… she’s a tiny, little woman. She’s Sally Field.

When Norma begins to stand up, speak out and push back, things don’t get better for her, they get worse. But what ensues is elucidation a-plenty for anybody looking to write a female protagonist who TRIES.

When the sweet husband she’s managed to snag over the course of the story doesn’t approve of all her time being taken up by organizing…

She keeps going, regardless. When she and Reuben aren’t taken seriously by other employees, particularly the male ones…

She persists. When the local church insinuates that what she’s doing might be uncouth, she doesn’t abandon her faith, but she temporarily walks away from the institution until it can come to its senses…

When the corrupted mill management makes things worse for all the employees, doubling down on them due to their organizing, trying to punish them into ceasing, many of the mill hands forcefully tell Norma and Reuben to quit…

… but they don’t. When the labor union itself comes to town and tells Reuben to stop working with Norma because she doesn’t fit with their definition of what a good labor organizer is…

… she doesn’t cower away. She keeps striding toward her objective anyway.

When leadership makes the white workers think the black workers will take over the union if they form it…

… Norma raises her voice and speaks louder. Maybe that last point is worth reiterating again. When leadership makes the white workers think the black workers will take over the union if they form it, Norma raises the volume on her voice and speaks louder, refusing to cease calling out leadership’s scapegoating.

Finally, when management threatens to fire her and have her taken away by the police, Norma hops up on a table and holds up a makeshift sign that reads union, inspiring everybody in the mill to stop working and stand with her. It’s the kind of scene that jerks at the tear ducts the same way that the No Man’s Land scene in Wonder Woman does. Here is a woman who has been told no and stop six million different ways, but she stands up on the pedestal; she charges across the trench anyway. Only here, after her triumphant moment in which she finally gains the unwavering support from her fellow mill workers, Norma isn’t pulled away for photographs or hailed as a hero. Instead, she’s arrested and taken to jail.

Often after we win a little bit in our struggle for justice, there’s something even more menacing and unexpected around the corner that knocks us back a few steps or drags us away.

Here, Norma’s friend and colleague Reuben won’t let her give up on herself, especially at this low point, not when they’ve managed to get this far.

He proves to her that while standing up for what’s right isn’t always a walk in the park, a person doesn’t have to do it alone.

I won’t say what happens next because I think you should come to the WGF Library and read the script, but in the end, for her persistence despite major obstacles, defamation and personal setbacks, Norma gains more than just the camaraderie and protection of a union. By stepping up and being a hero, she gains the knowledge and confidence that she IS a hero. She’s more than just a waste of space or piece of trash. By acting to make a difference, she sets herself free.

2017 has been the year of Wonder Woman, GLOW, handmaids, Anne of Green Gables, cold war spies with impeccable combat skills, soon-to-be-tellings of Billie Jean King whooping Bobby Riggs’ tush and so much more. It’s all nothing short of emboldening and a big step forward.

But it’s also been a year and especially a summer that’s shown us both how necessary and how difficult it can be to stand up to corruption, prejudice and hatred. Standing up can come at a great personal cost. If we push hard enough, it can practically ruin us, but relentless protagonists like Norma Rae prove that we can.

Characters always reflect a bit of ourselves, and it’s worth it to create those we aspire to be.

It starts with the writer.

And if you need a bit of inspiration, you can read this script and The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Insecure, The Handmaid’s TaleCatastrophe, GLOW, Wonder Woman, the pilots for Fleabag and The Bionic Woman and many other scripts that we, the library staff, will be thrilled to recommend to you.

This Week’s Script Cavalcade: Blossom Blossoms

It was the TV decade that brought us Boy Meets World, My So-Called Life, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Freaks and Geeks and everything in between. It was the 1990s – and the same poignant, truthful focus that John Hughes brought to movies about teens and growing up in the 1980s seemed to gradually make its way to small screens. From sitcoms to one-hour dramas, TV shows from the 90s took a Hughes-ian cue and treated the subject of coming-of-age not with exaggeration, but with subtlety and seriousness, often finding honest humor as a meaningful by-product. Perhaps this is why those of us who literally came of age during the 1990s often look back on the decade with fondness (whether it was actually a great time to be alive or not).

Shows like these help us to recognize the lessons inherent in our own experience and offer us instruction on how to face the newness and scariness of getting older.

A particularly phenomenal example of “lessons-in-growing-up” TV is the second episode of the series Blossom. Entitled “Blossom Blossoms” and written by Racelle Rosett Shaefer, it was the first episode of the show to air when the show was ordered as a mid-season replacement by NBC in January of 1991. (Its pilot had already aired in July of the previous year). As a part of the 90s theme we’ve been exploring on our social media channels this week, I want to implore you to check out this script the next time you’re in the WGF Library.

The general gist: Blossom, an adolescent girl, being raised by her single musician father and two goofy older brothers starts her period… and she can find nobody to provide her with the understanding and instruction that she needs as she cycles out of girlhood and into womanhood.

The episode draws attention and gives gravitas to the uniquely feminine part of growing up, which up until this point was very often under or misrepresented or made out to be some kind of horror show (Carrie, anyone?). In fact, the subplot finds Blossom’s brothers, Joey and Anthony, making horror videos for school about things that can incite violence. As the story progresses, the episode lovingly references and subverts “The Carrie trope” and we learn with Blossom that one thing that isn’t violent or scary, but completely natural is getting one’s period – and it’s okay to talk about it.

I write in a previous post on this blog about Lisa Simpson trying to find somebody to understand her struggle with sadness and how her mother steps in to empathize and help at the 11th hour. What’s interesting about Blossom is that she doesn’t have a mother to give her instruction during this time. She has her father, her brothers, her best friend and an older woman named Agnes, who lives next door, but there’s nobody to give her the kind of support she really needs (or so she thinks). With her father and brothers, she’s afraid to even broach the subject.

It’s up to Blossom’s Father, Nick, to step in and zoom past his socially prescribed role and offer a kind of compassionate mothering to his kid. When Blossom gets up the nerve to tell her Dad she got her period, he sits her down and talks with her while attempting to braid her hair. He vocally celebrates that his daughter is getting older and encourages his sons to do the same. It’s sweet and almost revolutionary to see a rock star Dad avoid falling into the pitfalls of storytelling banality. He’s not on the road, having abandoned his family. He’s more than there for them.

With television writing like this, a critical part of growing up is not only brought to light, but championed. Girls get reinforcement that their experience is valid, learning that it’s okay to talk about their periods and ask for help when they need it, that it shouldn’t be something catastrophic, or to be ashamed of – and perhaps fathers, mothers, brothers, friends and chosen families too can find an example of how to support each other.

If you want more 90s teen-focused TV, be sure to peruse our catalog. Along with The Fresh Prince of Bel Air and Sabrina the Teenage Witch, you can find:

A newly acquired draft of The Fifth Element by Luc Besson & Robert Mark Kamen,

Season 3 of Starz’ Power,

and many, many episodes of 1980s detective procedural, Remington Steele.


On June 2, 2013, the WGA announced its list of 101 Best Written TV Shows as voted on by the Guild’s membership. On April 28, 2017, one of our amazing library patrons Christina Irion finished reading at least one script from every available show on the list. After giving her a moment to rest her eyes and brain, we asked Christina to tell us what she learned from the experience. In this post, she shares ten highlights, offering a glimpse into TV storytelling, network history and how to make exceptional use of your friendly Writers Guild Foundation Library.



by Christina L. Irion

Every time I popped into the WGF library I noticed a list hanging on the wall by the front glass doors. With 101 titles, these television shows were voted the best-written series of all time. Seeking to broaden my knowledge and challenge myself—with zero awareness of the commitment I just made—I decided to read the entire “101 Best Written Series.”

Over countless hours (with encouragement from the librarians and forced coffee breaks), I tackled the list from 101 all the way down to number one. Reading the pilot, or the earliest materials I could find from each show, I also created my own nerdy chart to track each script. Below are the top 10 things I learned.


1.   Cha- Cha – Cha – Changes

The top 101 series are categorized by top-voted writing before June 2013. This meant that in one day I could read scripts with a wider age gap than Gloria and Jay on Modern Family. In reading scripts from different decades, I found it interesting to see how scripts and shows have changed over time.

From teleplays in the ’50s to HBO dramas in the late 2000s, I found discrepancies in the amount of dialogue and number of act breaks in the scripts. Specifically in comedies, I noticed a change over time that resulted in more act breaks per episode and a quicker pace.

For example, Family Ties (Multi-cam) and Modern Family (Single cam) are both ABC comedies set decades apart. Structurally they are very different. While Family Ties is broken into only 2 acts with about 3 scenes in each act, Modern Family’s pilot is broken into 4 acts and a tag with about 9 scenes in each act. As a control in this experiment, I also tested this structure-change with scripts from Friends, comparing scripts from Season 1 to Season 10. I noticed that while each Friends script is broken into two acts, there are more scenes in Season 10 verses Season 1.  

Going back to comparing Family Ties and Modern Family, there is a huge difference in scene length. In the Season 2 Family Ties episode “Not an Affair to Remember” the script is comprised of far more pages and dialogue per scene – usually about 7-10 pages of dialogue. Modern Family has a quicker pace with most long scenes lasting between 2-3 pages.

I think this shows the shift in the way people absorb media and possibly indicates the added time for commercial breaks around the story.


2.  Top Producers and Writers – Starting To Make That Web

One of the best things about reading the scripts was learning about key players in the history of television. I knew my favorite writers and executive producers from my top shows—Tina Fey, Michael Shur, Ricky Gervais—but the list allowed me to branch out and discover more. With each series, I kept digging. I learned about different producers and writers and gained an understanding of projects they previously worked on, their collaborators and their sensibilities.

For example, one of the most-represented writers on the list was James L. Brooks. He dominates the top 101 with three hit shows, two of which I knew, the third of which surprised me. I knew of him from hit comedies like Taxi and The Simpsons. I was surprised that he also topped the list for The Mary Tyler Moore Show. I had never looked into his filmography in depth, but I quickly hopped onto IMDB and saw that his other credits ranged from The Tracey Ullman Show to, surprisingly, Terms of Endearment.  

As I read the top 101 list, my own list of favorite writers and producers grew. I began to understand a larger network of show creators and developed a web of their work.  If you want to be either a writer or development executive, the top 101 list and the WGF library can help you study the top influencers throughout TV history.


3.  Whoa, This Used To Be Like That?

A few of the top shows on the list have been on the air for decades. What is on screen today looked a lot different 25 years ago. Like looking at your mother’s old high school yearbook photos, I found it fascinating to read past scripts and compare them to the present-day version.

Saturday Night Live, Sesame Street, and The Muppets stand out the most with this phenomenon. Over decades, writers change, society shifts, and comedy transforms, so it is not surprising that formal writing style fluctuates because of this. I will say, though, that side by side – the comparison is jarring. For example, the older generation of Sesame Street seems like a slightly weird cousin to its current version.

Comparing a Sesame Street episode from the ’80s to the 2000s, there is an obvious change in how the segments are broken up and who is highlighted in those segments.  In the 80’s version, there were shorter segments and less dialogue (the font was MUCH larger) while the 2000’s version was comprised of long scenes with more emphasis on the celebrity guest. Perhaps Sesame Street made its programming longer to combat quick-paced programming that encourages shorter attention spans.

Comparing these scripts from different decades was an interesting way to see how shows can morph over time to better appeal to a current audience.


4.   Which Network Reigned Supreme?

One of the biggest draws for me to read the top 100 list was to track the shows and their networks/cable companies. If anyone is development-driven, reading and studying the top 101 shows is a great way to see what types of programming each network/cable channel is known for, which production companies/writers they have worked with, and how each show fits into overall brands and missions.   

It was no surprise that NBC, CBS, and ABC had the most top shows (they have been around the longest, to be fair), but their show genres differed. NBC’s best-written series consisted of large-cast comedies and procedurals like Cheers, 30 Rock, ER and Law & Order. CBS’s top shows tended to be variety shows surrounding comedic actors like The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Carol Burnett Show and The Bob Newhart Show.  

Knowing the history of each network and cable outlet seems like an extremely helpful tool when shopping scripts and ideas. By doing research, a writer can show that their outline or script will fit well with what the cable/network strives for in their shows.


5.   “Young, Attractive Female..”

When reading the list, I tried to read mostly pilots. I wanted to get a good idea of how each show introduced its story. This meant reading hundreds of character introductions. One character introduction that became way too familiar was “[INSERT NAME] a young, attractive female”.

Repeatedly this was how background, secondary, and main female characters were introduced. While I saw this dissipate in the newer scripts, it was jarring to see how often appearance had to be added as a qualifier for women in these scripts. Not to say that “attractive male” wasn’t also seen, but there was a definitive, overall sense that the female characters had to also be “attractive” to be interesting and catch the eyes of the characters around them.


6.   New Found Favorites

The top 101 list has a LARGE variety of genres, formats, and styles and is a fantastic way to broaden one’s taste in scripts. I found gems I never thought I would enjoy. The list opened my eyes to new genres and shows I would not have read otherwise.

Northern Exposure, The Dick Van Dyke Show, and Playhouse 90 were all fantastic shows that previously slipped under my radar or were set aside in favor of familiar shows and genres. Each show featured amazing writing that I look forward to sitting down and scrolling through again.

7.   Script To Screen – “That Seems…Different”

Only by reading material from the top 101 list did I notice that that the screen and script versions of certain shows could seem vastly different.

For example, on the page, the pilot for Twin Peaks seemed like a fast-paced mystery. When I finally watched the show, I was surprised that on screen it felt slower, more dramatic, and reminiscent of a soap opera.

It goes to show how much power a director (or maybe just David Lynch) has in carrying the script to the screen.

8.   “This Is The First Draft ?”

Because scripts go through many drafts from first pitch to pilot, characters names may change, there can be different exposition, even characters’ actions can be changed. Many series at the WGF library have at least two versions of the pilot available. For my favorite shows like The Office (U.S) and Game of Thrones, I read both versions and wow, they were different.

The first version of The Office (U.S) is very similar to its British predecessor, which makes lovable prankster, Jim, look like that creepy jerk at the party. In all honesty, first-pilot Jim wouldn’t have fans rooting for a Jim-Pam romance.

Game of Thrones was rewritten and reshot after the first filming of its pilot episode. The focus of the beginning is pretty different which should make any super-fan curious to see what the earlier draft looked like.

It was eye-opening to see first-hand how development notes can change the pivotal beginnings of our favorite shows. It makes one wonder how the series would look if it weren’t for those notes.


9.   Which Came First: Culture or the TV Show?

In the top 101 list, there are shows that take place in varied cities with characters of different races, religions, social statuses, sexuality, and identities. One of the most interesting parts about reading through the list was diving into a different world with every script. I think a lot of the shows were chosen because they had a social commentary to make within their 22 – 60 pages that was not explored in previous shows.

From The Wonder Years to Roots to The Wire, the series’ writers show their audience different viewpoints of history and also put a spotlight on characters and societies overlooked in mainstream pop culture.

For example, when Roots was released in 1977, it was a cultural phenomenon hitting some of the highest Nielson ratings at the time.* The multiple night, mini-series was unexpected and families across the United States tuned in every night to see the story of Kunta Kinte and the generations after him. Roots was an example of a different take on Black television that unapologetically showed the harsh reality of American History. The onscreen portrayal of America’s brutal past in Alex Haley’s novel was a stark difference from the other African American sitcoms at the time. A Newsday Review article from 1977 praised Roots’s educational approach to black culture and ancestry by stating Roots goes deeper into explaining black family life than “What’s Happening.”

It really behooves any reader of this list to read some of these scripts and contemplate: “Did culture influence television or did television influence culture?”


10.   Off to the Races

Time to sound like every ’50s TV mom giving a life lesson when I say, “Like any other muscle, the brain also needs a bit of practice and exercise.” Whether you read scripts for a living now or want to in the future, reading this list in its entirety quickens reading speed and helps you gauge your reading time. Soon the mountain of scripts will seem a lot less daunting.

It became easier to read more scripts with each visit to the library. With thousands of pages to read, there’s not only speed to be gained but brainpower to be strengthened by taking on the Top 101 challenge.

Overall, reading the top list was beneficial in so many ways. I feel like I broadened my mind, became a better reader, and got to understand so much more about the industry I love. I would highly suggest reading down this list as a personal challenge to continue learning and growing.  

Whether you decide to tackle the list or read your favorite show, know one thing: the librarians know best. There are hundreds of episodes to choose from and it can be overwhelming if you don’t know what exactly you are looking for.

Javier, Hilary, Lauren, and the rest of the librarians are happy to share fan favorites as well as their own. Don’t be afraid to ask for suggestions because you can find some of your favorite scripts that way. I know that was true for me. 

This Week’s Script Cavalcade: Horton Foote on the Big Screen

Johnny Cash cited FRANKENSTEIN (1931) as one of his favorite films. Speaking of his empathy for the title character, he claimed to be fascinated by a man/monster “made up of bad parts but trying to do good.”

Not coincidentally, tales of men and women “made up of bad parts but trying to do good” run completely rampant through the lyrics and musical leitmotifs of roots and country music. From Johnny Cash to present-day artists like Kacey Musgraves or Chris Stapleton, the genre is filled to the brim with self-loathing average joes, small town loneliness and alienation, the idea of disappointing one’s mama, trying to burn out personal demons and pain through vices like whiskey and beer, then the quiet desire found in a tank of gas and speeding along down the road to move on.

Right now you might be thinking: I’m a screenwriter. This is a blog dedicated to film and TV writing. What on earth does this post have to do with me?

A quote often attributed to Hank Williams is that country music is simply “Three chords and the truth.” Could it be that film, TV or any other form of dramatic storytelling isn’t all that different? Just substitute the word “chords” for “acts.” It’s on this note, that I’d like to put forth a contention that hopefully doesn’t seem too outrageous.

If Johnny Cash can be inspired by and draw on ideas presented in the movies, then screenwriters can be inspired by and draw on ideas presented in country and roots music. Of course, this can be achieved by pulling out Waylon Jennings, Staple Singers or Emmylou Harris records, listening to the lyrics, aching pedal steel solos and cyclical banjo breaks that conjure images of dirt roads and juke joints, but it can also be achieved by studying one of country music’s greatest screenwriters.

His name is Horton Foote. You might know of him as the two-time Oscar-winning writer of TENDER MERCIES (1983) and TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD (1962), but in this blogger’s mind, he’s actually a country musician who deals in sluglines instead of baselines.

Horton Foote, photo by William B. Winburn (Backstory 3: Interviews with Screenwriters from the 1960s by Pat McGilligan, University of California Press.)

Well, actually, he considered himself more of a playwright who occasionally wrote for TV and film.

Indeed, he was prolific in his work for the stage, winning a Pulitzer Prize for his play The Young Man from Atlanta (1995). Perhaps it was in the theater, with its emphasis on cycles and revisiting certain themes again and again where Horton Foote developed the ideas and flourishes that would come to make his particular kind of storytelling so recognizable on screens big and small.

When one sees certain impressionistic paintings, one probably associates them with Monet… When I see certain quiet movies that put across the same pain and authenticity as a good country song, I think of Horton Foote.

The Trip to the Bountiful (1985), Screenplay by Horton Foote based on his play

Born in Wharton, Texas in 1916, Foote eventually settled in New York City, where he became a dramatist after studying method acting. Even though he wrote plays, TV and movies, like any great country/roots musician, he never shook his small-town, southern home and it became something he tried to explore and stay connected to through his writing. Home is a repeated theme throughout his work. Like William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor or John Steinbeck, he tended to write about the same place in his stories, eliciting in his audience a sense of longing for the heart of Texas or Alabama – even in people who never visited those places. It’s a feeling similar to that which comes from hearing Merle Haggard or Dolly Parton.

“Foote weaves his melodrama into the plain cloth of everyday events,”

wrote New York Times Theatre Critic Ben Brantley in a review in 2010. His stories often follow damaged, rejected people looking to flee or redeem themselves from some misdoing, demon or detriment, then finding makeshift families and a sense of community to get through that dull sense of alienation that often goes hand-in-hand with small-town existence.

To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), Screenplay by Horton Foote, Based on the novel by Harper Lee

Fascinated by what he called the “dailiness” of everyday life, his characters are gas station clerks, farmers or store owners – people who are meager of word, but overflowing with feeling and unspoken dreams and wants. He focuses on the scar and how the character tries to heal it rather than over-saturating us with the event that left it there. It’s not difficult to view his plays and films as the living, blood-fueled embodiment of the characters put forth in a Johnny Cash song – sutured together from bad parts and trying to be good.

Tender Mercies (1983), Written by Horton Foote

His plain cloth, personal but rural style of playwriting proved to be a natural fit for a new, burgeoning medium called “television” in the 1950s and 60s. Because of television’s smaller budgets and need to shoot quickly on sound stages, it was predicted that writers with scaled-back, character-based proclivities would meet with success – and that’s just what happened for Foote and his contemporaries like Paddy Chayefsky and Tad Mosel.

It’s compelling to think that the same seeds that influenced the storytelling in American roots music might – by way of writers like Horton Foote – have sailed their way into the genesis of American television and, later, American film… then later still into the gelatinous hybrid of forms that’s found on streaming platforms today. I think that, in some roundabout way, country music helped solidify what we view as tenets of any kind of great American writing.

See these tenets in action with UCLA Film & Television Archive’s screening series “Golden Age Television Writers on the Big Screen.” The little-seen, Foote-penned TOMORROW (1972) is showing Sunday, August 6th at 7pm at the Billy Wilder Theater. The series is co-presented by the Writers Guild Foundation. WGA members get free admission.

Tomorrow (dir. Joseph Anthony, 1972)

Until there exists a book or Screenwriting course based entirely in country and roots music, watching Robert Duvall as a soft-spoken farmer who takes in a young pregnant woman in Mississippi (based on a William Faulkner short story and Foote’s play of the same name) is the best place to experience exactly what I’m talking about.

Oh, and as always, stop by the WGF Library to read the newest additions to our catalog. This week we’ve added the script for summer’s most wonderful superhero flick WONDER WOMAN and the Netflix Original Series GLOW, unofficially making us the coolest non-circulating library in town!

This Week’s Script Cavalcade: Dick Tracy on the Radio

He wears a bright yellow fedora and trench coat, has razor-sharp intuition and, working with a merry band of sidekicks, employs gadgets (including his famous two-way wristwatch radio) to track down wrongdoers and miscreants in the wake of violent crimes.

He’s Dick Tracy, of course, and since his creation by Chester Gould and subsequent debut on the newspaper pages of the Detroit Mirror in 1931, he’s been the subject of all manner of serialized storytelling including films, live-action and animated TV series, radio shows and, first and foremost, comic strips. He’s one of America’s most recognizable and longest serving private eyes.

With all his recurrent sleuthing, we might contend that Tracy is a kind of grandfather to the modern-day, long-running detective or cop procedural. It’s this contention I’d specifically like to give pause to this week. The WGF Library recently processed a small bounty of radio show scripts from the mid-1940s. Many of these scripts, including The Dick Tracy Show, were written by Sidney Slon, who also famously served as head writer for the gritty and seminal pulp radio series, The Shadow.

Listeners could hear Dick Tracy’s adventures on the radio starting in 1934. The gumshoe’s grizzled voice continued to emanate over airwaves through the 1950s with the show switching networks, sponsors and lengths throughout its audible existence. The scripts in the WGF Library are specifically from 1945 and 1946 when the show aired on ABC in 30-minute segments and was proudly sponsored by Tootsie Roll.

Dick Tracy and The Case of the Perfect Alibi (1946)

In our world of over-saturation with all kinds of media vying desperately for our attention, it can be an informative relief to step back in time and examine a very direct, uncluttered mode of storytelling like radio. Library patrons with the ambition to create distinct, enduring characters whose exploits audiences continue to care about for decades, will find fundamental writing lessons exposed in the pages of these serialized radio capers.

On a warm Wednesday last week, I decided to peruse one of these scripts and found several things worth sharing, which hopefully will spur your imagination when you sit down to create your own nail-biting drama, whatever the form may be.

Dick Tracy and The Case of the Perfect Alibi (1946)

Just like today’s most compelling cop, detective, medical and other procedural shows, each Dick Tracy episode starts with a BANG! – usually literally.

It’s a bang we’d like to see resolved by the end of the episode – and it’s usually carried out by an obscenely un-likeable criminal or thug. It’s characters like Dick Tracy who provide us a kind of wish-fulfillment – that when bad things happen, we can figure out not only whodunit and how it happened, but also bring the morally in-the-wrong party to satisfying justice. In fact, the more unjust the situation at the top of the episode and the meaner the villain, the more truly gratifying it is to see the hero step up and fix things.

Dick Tracy is a unique kind of detective hero. He’s somewhat of a mug himself, which is why (tactically) he’s able to get inside the heads of the criminals he’s tracking and take them down. He might have the Al Capone look, but his heart and sense of making things right make him different and endlessly fascinating.

Dick Tracy, Mystery of the Wooden Bullet (Comic)

However, a radio hero can only be contradictory and compelling insofar as he has other characters to talk to. A common practice in the radio serial is to give the main character a sidekick or someone to explain things to along the way, so that the listening audience not only has a sense of the story, but also of the feelings of the protagonist. A necessity in radio is to make the characters speak and sound differently enough so that the audience can easily distinguish which character is talking. This is a tenet worthy of consideration even if you are writing for a visual medium. The person reading your script won’t have the visual cues to tell your characters apart, so it’s helpful to give even the smallest of characters a unique voice and cadence.

See the following examples featuring Tracy’s accomplice and a woman selling newspapers from The Case of the Nightclub Singer (1945)

Finally, Alfred Hitchcock used to famously explain that a scene between two people talking at a table will become infinitely more suspenseful if the camera pans down and we see a ticking bomb underneath the table. What do you do if you’re writing for radio and you want to generate the same amount of suspense, but you have no camera to show the bomb? In radio, verbal threats and contracts become integral to raising stakes. The hero and the villain make declarative statements, such as “If you don’t bring the money to this place, by this time, this person will be hurt,” etc., setting up anticipation of a horrible event or showdown in the audience’s mind. The characters then must continually verbally remind each other how time is running out.

Dick Tracy and The Case of the Perfect Alibi (1946)

There’s a smattering of Dick Tracy Show radio scripts sitting behind the main library desk, see? And if you don’t get here before we close today to read and learn from them, your script will suffer… gradually and painfully.

Well, maybe not, but you should still browse our catalog, stop by and read newly processed scripts including:

  • Every episode from every season of Girls.
  • Screenplays from The Nutty Professor (1996) and Anchorman (2004).
  • A few episodes of Freaks and Geeks.

This Week’s Script Cavalcade: Moaning Lisa

New amongst the WGF Library’s collection of TV show bibles and development materials is a thin packet entitled,The Simpsons: Episode Guide and Storylines (Season 8).” While this 1997 packet consists mostly of brief synopses of every season 8 episode, it also features vivid character profiles as well as rules for writing the show. Looking over this document, I internalized one thing — that the creative possibilities for The Simpsons are literally endless so long as the characters are true to their nature and to their relationships with one-another. In fact, it’s this particular notion that inspired my cavalcade of musings this week.

As any prolific writer knows, having a solid understanding of as many stories as possible can be supremely helpful. Why? Cultivating a reservoir of plot points, characters, arcs and themes that move you can only give you more to draw on when you embark on your own pen-wielding excursions.

The Simpsons is proof of this. Using their titanium-solid characters and staying true to them, the writers have been able to draw on myths, legends, other TV episodes, plays, tabloid stories, hearsay, current events and anything else you can possibly think of to create their own funny and poignant episodes of television (and for nearly thirty years). The idea of creating sturdy, compelling characters and putting them through a wealth of tried and true plots and stories is what I really want to focus on here.

For me, a script that really illustrates the power of this phenomenon is Moaning Lisa.

Written by Mike Reiss & Al Jean as a part of the show’s first season, the episode dates back to when the series had an imperative to, in addition to lampoon current events, establish meaningful relationships within the Simpson family.

The first beat of the first scene tells us exactly what this particular episode is drawing on.

Using the bleakness of Ingmar Bergman, the writers weave the tale of an existential crisis. What makes this episode inventive is the character experiencing that crisis. I’m not sure how many sitcoms about families up to this point ever featured a 2nd-grade girl in a funk over the emptiness of the American dream or life’s ultimate meaninglessness, but in this episode, Lisa Simpson has some big weighty questions getting her down — questions that nobody in her family or at school can seem to answer.

This blogger appreciates centering the story around a young girl who is experiencing depression — and not just depression over something like being rejected by a boy or failing to be popular — but a real experiential pickle, which young women can experience just as acutely, as, say, men approaching mid-life.

The episode finds movement in how Lisa fails to stumble upon anybody who can help her. The kids at school think she’s strange; the teachers don’t get her desire to be-bop on the saxophone during band practice or her inability to dodge balls in gym class. She eventually meets the great Springfield jazz musician Bleeding Gums Murphy who encourages her sax playing, but can’t offer her a cure for her blues.

As in any great coming-of-age story, it’s the character who seems to understand the least who ultimately ends-up helping out the most. Marge, at first, has advice that seems hopelessly destructive to what Lisa is going through:

What’s brilliant about this monologue is that even as we’re reading it, we can tell it hurts Marge to say these words and that perhaps she relates to Lisa on a greater level than she lets on — that she doesn’t believe this advice even though it was passed down to her from her mother. What a fantastic screenwriting lesson that Marge never outrightly states: Lisa I know what you’re going through. Rather, we as the audience infer it. We especially infer it in the action that Marge takes next.

She watches how offering a fake smile and repressing her true feelings actually hurts Lisa when she interacts again with peers and teachers. With not an ounce of hesitation, Marge whisks her daughter back into her car and offers her some of the greatest parenting ever:

And that’s the essence of rock-solid character — doing right by somebody else even if it runs counter to the philosophies that were imprinted on you when you were a young Marge.

Oh, and Homer experiences his own Bergman-esque version of playing chess with death as he keeps getting pounded by Bart at a boxing videogame, leading him too to contemplate getting older and his own mortality.

Moaning Lisa is the perfect read if you have but 30 minutes to spare in the library for it inspires asking big questions of yourself like: If I were going to write my own version of an existential crisis story, who would be my subject and what would they learn? Who would they learn it from?

The WGF Library exists to help you do what The Simpsons does so well — develop your own poignant, true characters and draw on a pantheon of stories and storytelling to create relatable adventures to put them through.

Search our catalog and stop on by, won’t you?

Here’s what’s new:

  • The complete first season of Animal Kingdom on TNT
  • John Carpenter and Nick Castle’s Escape from New York
  • A handful of scripts from Disney’s Doug
  • Season 2 scripts from HBO’s Ballers