Saturday, July 18, 2009

Ideas- Crazy Writer Terminology

I mentioned something about writers and executives loving obscure terminology when talking about ideas, so my friend Steve Williams sent me this list of sayings he banned from a movie he directed for disney. I added a couple of sayings I've heard over the years too. I'd love to hear more from your own experiences!

If you have any story bibles for cartoon shows, they'll be chock full of crazy talk.


"Let's run it up the flagpole and see if it sticks"

"We need a Scooby Beat here"

"We need to lay in a pipeline..."


From Steve (also known as Spaz):

"This is bald, but..." (the whole idea isn't there yet, but here's a start...)

"what's the story arc" ( supposedly all characters need an "arc";
beginning/middle/end; and apparently so does the story)

"internal logic" ( the public won't get it)

"it's a buy" (idiots sign off on it)

"it has no payoff" (who knows; I still can't figure out if it's a gay term)

"yelling is never funny, spaz" (this is what a Disney exec told me)

"it needs a turn" (the story is linear and needs a twist; why? don't ask me)

"I'll knit it together" (put 2 paragraphs together)

"it dovetails nicely" (segues into another idea)

"if you pull that string, it all unravels" (gay term again, about dangling ideas')

"too much pipe" ( this one always got me; i think it means the opposite of "it needs a turn")

"it's just chuffa" ( a hebrew term for "fluff")




Anyway, this kind of talk is a way to avoid directly coming up with actual specific and fresh ideas for a story. Actual creative people don't have trouble just presenting their story ideas in English but phonies do. Phonies need a secret language to hide the fact that the story is all formula.


Actually once in a blue moon, an executive - if he wants something really specific that doesn't depend upon committee approval, he will
actually use pure undiluted English - as in this famous quote:
"Aladdin needs to be more F#$@able"

29 comments:

Zoran Taylor said...

"It dovetails nicely" - two ideas work together well. The only thing wrong with saying that is that those who do are rarely right.

Trevor Thompson said...

"it has no payoff"

I've been told this and a friend who will remain nameless heard this once too, but we feel they meant different things.

When I heard it, it meant that a certain part of the story ( a device Hitchcock called the 'McGuffin' ) didn't go anywhere. The reason for it's existence was to deter the viewer from guessing the ending, so it didn't need a 'payoff', or a conclusion.

In my pal's instance, they were telling him that his movie wasn't selling in certain parts of the country and that their deal with him and the distribution house had 'no payoff', meaning they weren't going to be making any money from it.

I wonder if producers and executives in the forties had some kind of similar jargon.

- trevor.

Gus said...

You bad-mouth writers quite a lot. Yet, I know you continue to work with them and have hired some of the same people from time to time. I'd love to hear from you what they CAN and DO contribute.

HemlockMan said...

I have a clever retort for at least one of those:

"I got yer pipe right here!"

J.R. Spumkin said...

"( supposedly all characters need an "arc";
beginning/middle/end; and apparently so does the story)"

Didn't you prove them wrong in "The Cat Who Laid the Golden Hairball" when the Ren, Stimpy and Bubba went out of the cartoon dancing (probably the best ending ever)?

JohnK said...

Hi Gus

I'm not sure who you are talking about. Cartoonists wrote my cartoons. Just like the old days.

On storyboards.

Jorge Garrido said...

"Let's run it up the flagpole and see if it sticks"

Bob Clampett made an entire cartoon about this phrase! It's called "The Mad Isle of Mad-hattan," and it's a devastating parody of "Mad Men."

Gus said...

I'm thinking of Richard Purcell, John. Don't mean to be antagonistic or anything.

Zorrilla said...

Internal logic isn't really that. It's the rules of a story.

ex: if Tom breaks one more thing, he gets kicked out of the house.

or: Superman can fly because he has a cape or whatever.

You explain those rules, and then people will expect them to keep consistent.

Jorge Garrido said...

I forgot this list of comedy writer phrases from Ken Levine and Mark Evanier:

Callbacks -- Doing a joke based on something already mentioned in the scene.

Hey May – Supposedly from Carl Reiner and the old DICK VAN DYKE SHOW. It’s an act break so great that a husband yells to his wife in the kichen: “Hey, May, you gotta get in here!”

Swinging in on a rope -- A side character enters the screen, delivers a joke, then leaves. We used to do that a lot with Carla on CHEERS. Sam and Diane are having a discussion. She swings in, takes a shot at Diane, and keeps moving.

Button – Final joke of a scene.

Blow -- Same as button but sounds more “street”.

Pipe – Exposition. We had a character on ALMOST PERFECT whose basic function was to come into the room and deliver pipe. So we named her Piper.

Clam -- Overused joke.

Sheboygan – A joke too over-the-top.

B story -- A subplot. Often ensemble shows resort to these to give cast members not involved in the main story something to do in the show and keep them off the writers' backs.

Beats – events that occur in a scene.

House number -- Supposedly from the Norman Lear days. Pitching an idea or joke that’s more of an example than the actual pitch you intend to go in the script. You use it to preface your pitch. It’s a good disclaimer in case everyone in the room thinks it’s a stupid idea and you’re an idiot.

Savers -- Damage control jokes right after your real joke pitch dies a horrible death. It was Johnny Carson's best friend.

Captain Obvious -- Pointing out a problem that even the craft services guy could identify.

Grammar police -- Writers whose only contribution in rewrites is correcting grammar. You want to dangle their participle over a lake of snapping alligators.

Proofer’s Challenge – Some technicality you come across during a rewrite that’s not worth everyone’s time to settle. What food should be on the table? What was the year of that Superbowl? It’s left to the person proofing that night.

Throwing a bone -- Giving an actor a joke because he doesn’t have much to do in a scene or you don’t think he’s very good but have to service him anyway. Usually it's the actor the network forced you to take.

"This Week Joke" -- That's a joke that's topical and if may be hilarious but it probably won't be by the time show is rerun.

"Out" -- A line or event that feels like the end of a scene so that it can be the end of a scene, as in "We need an out here."

"A card" -- This was a cruel practice at some sitcoms of the seventies. Some writer would say something that was so stupid that even he or she would realize its inanity. Someone would yell, "That's a card" and then they'd roll a 3 by 7 card into a typewriter (this was back when we had typewriters), type out the quote and then the person who uttered the line would have to sign the card, after which it would be pinned up on the wall. Some writers were known to sneak in a few days later and quietly remove their card from the wall if they could do so without being noticed.

John S. said...

My favorite was some moron writer once referred to a running gag as a "Double beat".
Also, no matter the quality, ANY time a story artist contributed dialogue, this f*ckstick deemed it "Flat".

Another idiotic term :"Long dark night of the soul".
THis means different things to different people. I think they just want the character to moan and groan about their problems in a really faggy theatircal way. Whenever someone brings it up, I get excited and think of Batman, then I get irritate when they say "the soul".

Craig said...

One genius once said "my Muppet sensibility says we need a beat here." So I beat him.

Jack G. said...

"what's the story arc" ( supposedly all characters need an "arc";

Pure comedy doesn't need story arcs for the characters. The Max Brothers never learned anything, grew, or matured in any of their comedys.

I think Seinfeld proved you don't need character arcs and all that for contemporary comedy.

alexkirtoon said...

I'm a little sketchy on whether we're attacking the buzzwords or the concepts themselves. Do we have to throw all problem-solving guidelines out the window with the rest of the bath-water? I'm not sure how saying a character needs a stronger arc is any different than saying he needs a stronger silhouette. I'm quite sure there are situations where neither are appropriate, but are we saying it's invalid to ever use rule-of-thumb formula as a fine-tuning device?

If we're just critiquing obnoxious phrases, then I'll add
"Isn't that jumping the shark?"
and "Isn't that a little too Bob Hope-in-a-Beatles- wig?"

Zoran Taylor said...

John, can you clarify Richard Pursel for me? I've been confused ever since you alluded (in the Powdered Toast Man commentary) to telling him that he would understand your objection to one of his gags "if (he) drew". I've been wondering what that comment meant. So is he a cartoonist or not? (Or did I mishear what you were saying?)

JohnK said...

I never heard Richard use any of these terms or phrases and yes he draws too.

Trevor Thompson said...

Hey Jorge,

yer AIM break or somethin'?

mike f. said...

My favorite writer-speak term is Toy-etic (adj.)

It means the idea has great marketing potential. (This used to be known as "putting the cart before the horse.")

Full disclosure: As a licensing cartoonist, I have nothing against appealing consumer tie-ins. But those concerns come later; at the story stage, entertainment should be the highest priority.

For instance, notice how few of these terms relate to the creation of character comedy, which you'd think would be the main topic.

BTW, I think "Let's run it up the flagpole and see if it sticks" is a bastardization of two completely different clich├ęs that mean essentially the same thing: "Let's run it up the flagpole and see who salutes," and "Let's throw it against the wall and see if it sticks."

Niki said...

This is actually pretty hilarious, most of those term make me think of sexual references. As when they say, "We've got too much pipe!" "We need to lay a pipeline... How about you lay in my pipeline!"

Niki said...

Something bad has come to my attention, I remembered that I actually like plays on words and that coming to mind I believe I'd end up being a bit of a hassle on the industries language. I really hope it doesn't come to that but it's still there. I'll just try and keep it to a minimum but it'll definitely tear up the speech. Should I really be this worried?

Ger Apeldoorn said...

You left out the reason these terms we bqnned fromm meetings... m quess is, that they form a sort of 'no' instead of an idea to help the creative process. But if they are sed to introduce an idea? "Here's something that will dovetail nicely into the B-story..." Than the idea can get juged on it;s merits or used by someone else to get another idea. In editing the work of my writing partner, I have come to use a compleely jugdement-free: "Here's my suggestion." I often know why I came up with the suggestion and what bothered me about the bit it needs to replace, but I don't lead with that. If he gets the suggestion I have made my point.

Rick Roberts said...

Anyone who has watched the episode of The Simpsons entitled "ITCHY SCRATCHY & POOCHIE" knows it's a perfect illustration of what you speak of John. Though they give cartoon writers only a relatively mild scathing in that episodes, they have the executive down to a tee. They are a collection of stupid people who don't understand what people want and they use buzz words like "pro-active" to feel smart.

"Aladdin needs to be more F#$@able"

I am keeping this one. XD

Chip Butty said...

I was watching one of the dvds for the 80s ghostbusters cartoon and they actually brought in one of their head writers, Chuck Menville, whose name I used to be dimly aware of when they'd slap it proudly across the text-only "title card" of each episode. He pretty much seemed like an unhappy old man without a spark of life or purpose, he certainly wasn't excited to be talking about this thing he had a hand in. He's probably a wealth of Crazy Writer Terminology and has no one to share it with, not even the people who paid to listen to him on dvd. I'd probably feel the same way if I'd been using phony phrases to make my living since Will The Real Jerry Lewis Please Sit Down?

Johnny Mastronardi said...

I don't know if you've seen TV Tropes , but it's a rather interesting (and addictive) analysis of formulaic writing, albeit from the perspective of the viewer instead of the writer.

Jay said...

"Turn on the animation hose"

Means - animate as fast as you can. Implies that quantity is more important than quality. This came out of Vancouver, North America's quick n' dirty animation capital.

Kaiser Fate said...

I find most of these terms profoundly retarded. People who talk like this only do it to sound more intelligent, the lingo itself is "fluff" (for all you non-writers, this means you can discard it painlessly).

"Story arc" I can understand. You need those when writing certain kinds of stories (i.e. narrative-driven as opposed to gag-driven). Even that is up for debate but at the end of the day, I will nod and probably agree if someone points out I have a story arc that has a beginning and middle but no satisfactory ending.

What I really don't get is that in the script writer's circle, apparently a 'beat', a 'pause' and a 'long pause' are all specific amounts of time. But different people use the term 'beat' very differently - I know one person who uses it to describe when the plot changes direction. Why?
What the hell is a beat, anyway? Is that like in music? If so, what BPM? Molto moderato?
I don't understand why everyone is so afraid to say "he should look at Joe for about half a second, then react".

Joel Brinkerhoff said...

I did a little on that movie with Spaz. He was great to work with and was very willing to make a funny film. Some of his stories involving the executives bordered on the surreal.

The best thing to come out of the situation was meeting William Shatner who didn't use buss words and was totally real. Mr. Shatner added creatively and was a rare example of a qualified creative.

Enough name dropping for one day...

Alvaro said...

"Aladdin needs to be more F#$@able"

So wrong in so many ways.

Freddie A., said...

What is a "gay' term?

Do you mean it slang used by gay people? Or do you mean it is a stupid term?

Thanks