I took a big step this year in my TV writing career and pitched my first few shows. It was… a learning experience. I have a long way to go but one thing I realized right out of the gate: my writing needs to move people more.
Comedy writers go for the joke. It can be easy to forget we’re supposed to be writing human beings. Who, you know, are full of emotions.
All of my favorite TV and movies characters are incredibly emotional. We feel their frustration. Their anger. Their panic.
When it came to pitching my shows, I wasn’t connecting with the people I was pitching to. I needed to balance my tendency to go for interesting and impressive ideas with the more fundamental (and human) need to be moved.
Because that’s why we watch! We all want to feel something on some level. From the urbane to the uncouth, we want to feel less alone and more connected to our humanity.
Writer/actress/creator/everything Phoebe Waller Bridge sums it up perfectly in this fantastic interview:
Just write and write and write until you make yourself react. Don’t try to impress an audience that doesn’t even exist yet.
You are the first audience member. If you’re bored, the audience will be bored. If you find joy, they will find joy. Someone. Somewhere. Anywhere. Probably?
Audiences smell fakes. They know when we’re being inauthentic. When we’re trying to impress. We are wired for it. It’s why The Polar Express is an uncanny nightmare. Our lizard brain knows that’s not Tom Hanks.
I’ll admit I felt pressure going into pitching. I think I got away from how I approach story and character. I wanted to be impressive. Adored even. I wanted to sell that shit.
That’s how you end up picking ideas that are “interesting.” You focus on the things that will “sell.” You tell yourself you’re not being derivative or fake. You’re “following market trends.”
This thinking gets reinforced. By LOTS of people. Producers ane execs can point to five shows that work and ask for just five more of that, please and thank you. (Conversely, they just as often say they have too much of that. Can you do something like that, something that feels like that, but is not that? Great thanks.This is a weird business. Nothing is real).
So what’s the way through?
Prior to Fleabag airing, PWB had this to say:
I was hugely anxious before it came out. I didn’t know if people would like it. I had to remind myself that my job is to move people, not impress them.
Its a tricky thing, “moving” people. You never really know what is going to connect. Well, some people do. That’s why they’re writing and directing Star Wars shows for Disney+.
The weird thing is you may take something for granted that moves someone else. Or the thing that you know will connect with audiences on a gut emotional level might land like a fart.
You can’t control how your work is received. You can’t “impress” people. I mean, you can. But this focus is a path toward misery.
Because being authentic to yourself and your weird is connecting with the things that move you.
I try to focus on the ideas that make me laugh. The ones that I can’t wait to tell a friend about. Any dread I might feel around an idea is a sign that something is amiss
I find the relatable emotion of the scene, episode, and series. What is a fundamental human vice that can manifest itself in different emotions?
I ask myself what my character wants and why they can’t get it. How I would feel if I was in this situation? I compare my answer to how my character would feel. There’s always a piece of humanity there that I connect to.
If I’m really stuck, I think about a time in my life that when I think back I physically cringe at it. A gut-level UGH feeling. Shows like PEN15 are built around these cringe moments. We all lived through those middle school tragedies and now have the distance to see how and why they were funny. These moments are relatable, real, and visceral.
It feels counterintuitive to our achievement-oriented culture to not want to impress. I mean, literally this is why social media exists.
But creating impactful writing is about so much more. It’s about characters who we connect to. As writers, we place them in frames and interesting worlds and confounding situations. But are works is about those characters and their humanity.
Those are the moments that move us and the ultimate reasons why we watch.