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Q&A with Rebecca Stay

Updated: May 10, 2023

I read somewhere that wisdom = knowledge applied, so for me there was no one better than the honorable showrunner, Donald Todd to talk to about the craft of writing. You may be familiar with some of Donald's work. Among his many credits, he created the Netflix limited series, Florida Man, the ABC comedy series, Samantha Who? starrring Christina Applegate, which won an Emmy and a People's Choice Award, was an Executive Producer on NBC's This is Us and a Consulting Producer on ABC's Ugly Betty and Fox's Sleepy Hollow. I love his honesty, wit, dry sense of humor... and his no-holds barred look at our industry.

RS: Has your process changed over the years? If so, how?

DT: I bought a cork board. I want to see the WHOLE STORY, with different colors of cards for characters' stories, and how it all feels together. Once it's digital, it just feels -- and I know this is counterintuitive -- set. Digital is still my last step.

RS: Do you have any pet peeves when it comes to formatting?

DT: How much time do you have to argue about double-spacing after a period? I've given up fighting it, but not given in: I double-space because that's how the Bible was written. Or something. I can't remember. But there's no reason to stop. Besides that, I just tell people, find a script and make yours look like that. It's not hard. And here's one that baffles me, but I see it a LOT: don't just end your script or act without putting END OF ACT or END OF EPISODE or whatever. All the time, I read scripts where the scene just stops. Is there another page missing? I don't know.

RS: What's a mistake writers make when it comes to action lines? What should you not include? Is there a tip you can give in order to make them succinct?

DT: The answer to this one depends on what the script is for. If it's a spec, then it's a sales document, and you have to consider the reader. What is the tone you want them to get from your action lines? I was raised to use as few descriptions as possible, but executives are less able to imagine, so you need to really set the scene. Use exactly that many lines, not more. If you're trying to show how smart YOU are, cut it out. Show how smart the characters are. Shane Black is a helluva writer, but he introduced that smart ass, "we both know you're reading a script" glibness that infected every spec afterward. As if that's what got him the million bucks, not the story. So keep it simple, but do not assume the reader will do any work.

RS: Once you're sold on what your next project is, how do you proceed? How do you organize your initial scribblings?

DT: After letting myself write down every single thing I can think of about the idea, in no order, I begin to prepare a pitch (this answer supposes that I have to pitch this to sell it; for what I'd do if I was just going to write it, skip forward a bit). This stage is organized by: how can I explain this idea so someone buys it? It's a sales tool, very simply, and designed to get you to what you want to do.

If the question is, how do I begin once I begin, that takes me to the notebook again, but now we add INDEX CARDS. In my scribblings about every single thing I can think of about the show, are scenes and lines and thematic ideas and random bits, and everything goes on a card. Scenes go on white cards. Ideas that might be IN scenes go on another color card. Me, I use a cork board. With push pins. If I'm in a writer's room and there's money for a magnetic white board with magnetic cards, awesome. But at home, it's index cards and a board. I need the visual feedback of seeing the story in front of me, in space. Structure forms from there -- asking what do I KNOW I want, where do I KNOW I want it... then I fill in.

RS: What's some advice you wished you had gotten when first starting out?

DT: Write shorter. Start later in the scene. Be less in love with the dialogue and more conscious of the emotional core of each scene. Also, more practically: the executives or producers are not out to get you, or make the script worse. Their notes might not be the way to make it better, but their intentions are positive. So listen to find the intention, and if it's unclear, ask. Then try your best to do the note, if it's not obviously bad. There might be -- generally is -- a better way to get to where you're going that you wouldn't have found without trying the note.

RS: With all of your experience, what's both easier and still difficult to navigate as a writer?

DT: What's still difficult, and always will be, for any real writer, is to do the work: to craft a story, to outline it, to give the characters genuine human motivations, to do the work. It's just hard. I guess once I realized that, that made it easier, paradoxically. I didn't automatically assume that because I was stuck that I was terrible at this. I mean, I am, but I don't assume it anymore.

What's easier -- but only a little -- is believing that when I'm stuck, I WILL figure out a solution. That just comes from having done it enough; it's based on observation and memory.

RS: What does the perfect pitch include? What should it not include?

DT: The perfect pitch is one that paints a picture for the buyer of just what your show is. They have NO IDEA what's in your head, so make them see it. Why do you want to write this? Or need to? That matters a lot. Why now, that an audience can hook into? What else is it like, so I understand the language we're speaking here? What is the key character dynamic? What is the tone? What will they care about? That's the big one: make the buyer feel the emotion. A perfect pitch makes the buyer say of course we need this, I'm surprised we don't already have it.

RS: If you're writing a script on spec and no one is waiting for it or you don't have a studio or network involved, how do you know when it's fully baked to your satisfaction?

DT: It's been awhile. But I can say that I know when it's done when I can say this was the intention. It can take any number of attempts to find an expression of your intention. You might change your intention in the looking for it. So it's done when you can support it and defend it and not apologize for it or make excuses or belittle it at all. When you can say, 'This is it, this is what I want you to read." The only spec drama script I wrote (which is the first thing of mine YOU read, "The Night") took two weeks from idea to first draft, and the polished first draft is what I sent out.

It just came out that way, and I was happy. Well, as happy as I get, anyway.

Rebecca Stay is a veteran Development Executive and Script Consultant who is also a Dramatic Lab Westport Advisor.

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