Liz Meriwether, creator of the hilarious show New Girl starring Zooey Deschanel, hit the forums and answered your questions. As the screen writer of No Strings Attached, Liz knows a thing or two about writing for the screen, whether it is small or silver. Check out her responses below, and then build your own New Girl music video here.
Elizaveta: What’s your advice about keeping the action moving as well as sticking in the funny little details?
Great question. I think you hit on one of the biggest challenges to sitcom writing: What’s more important—story or jokes? With only 21 minutes for each show, we have to cut jokes that don’t move the story forward. Really funny jokes actually stop being funny when they feel like they have no connection to what’s happening in the story or they are slowing the action down. However, I’ve always thought that people don’t ultimately watch sitcoms for amazing plot twists, they watch for the “funny little details” as you said. So it’s a give and take. My advice is to keep the story simple enough to allow for as many jokes, detours, and details as you want.
Elaine Harlington: Do you re-write a screenplay a lot? Even before the day of taping?
We re-write constantly. Our staff of 11 writers “breaks” or outlines the story together, then one writer goes away for a week and writes the first draft of the episode. He or she then revises the draft based on notes from me, other producers and other writers. Then the entire writing staff “beats” jokes throughout the script together. “Beating jokes” essentially means the group of us sit around a table and try to come up with better jokes than the ones in the first draft—sometimes we can’t, and sometimes we’re just looking for alternate jokes or “alts.” We always try to have a lot of alts on hand in case a joke doesn’t work while we’re shooting it. Then, when we’re shooting the episode, the script changes a lot. We rehearse a scene with the actors, and we immediately see cuts or adjustments that need to be made. We also encourage the actors to improv lines or moments as they’re playing a scene, so sometimes what ends up in the episode is something the actor just came up with in that moment. The next stage of “rewriting” is actually in the editing room, when our editor, Steve Welch, will re-arrange scenes, cut dialogue, and perform magic digital feats that make things that haven’t been working work. I think the editing process is fascinating—it’s writing with images instead of words. Basically, the writing staff, the actors, and the editors are all a part of “rewriting” the script, and that collaboration is one of the best parts of writing for television.
Forrest Oak: Do you have any tips on writing convincing dialogue in a screenplay?
TV and film are so visual–a mistake I always make is writing too much. I’d suggest taking a look at a scene and seeing if there’s a way to have the same story points come across with fewer words. Can you get an idea across by just describing a look that one character gives another character? In real life, people are rarely able to say exactly what they’re thinking or feeling. Sometimes I write out what I need the character to be saying for the story and then I go back and try and make it “messier” until it feels real. It’s always a push and pull between trying to be as clear as possible about what’s happening in a scene and never letting a character actually say what’s happening.
Another thing to remember (obvious but easy to forget) is that dialogue is supposed to be spoken out loud. When I worked with Ivan Reitman on my movie “No Strings Attached,” he’d read a scene I’d written back to me before giving me notes on it. It was agonizing to sit through, especially if the scene was no good, but hearing it out loud always made me realize what was and wasn’t working. Read what you’ve written out loud or get some friends to read it out loud. It can be painful, but writing comedy is an exercise in pain.
A.R. Lee: How does it feel to watch your writing come to life?
Plays, movies, and episodes of TV are collaborations between the writer, the director, the actors, the designers, and the people with the money—by the time we’re actually shooting a scene, it doesn’t even feel like “my” writing anymore, which isn’t a bad thing at all—it’s actually one of the best parts. The excitement of seeing something you’ve written “come to life” is the moment when it takes on a life of its own, apart from just you in front of your computer.
Ellie Shayna: How do you know if a joke for the show is funny, weird, or a combination? Do you ever test them out on people?
It’s tough to know, especially working on a “single camera comedy,” where we don’t shoot in front of an audience. (“Big Bang Theory”, for example, is a “multi-camera sitcom” that shoots in front of an audience. You can hear laughter after the jokes. On our show, there’s no laugh track.) I try to have a lot of options for jokes on set, so we end up shooting probably 5 extra jokes for every joke that ends up in the show. Sometimes a joke will really make laugh when I read it, but then when I hear it in the actor’s mouth, it’s just not as funny. And, on the other hand, sometimes I’ll be uncertain about a joke on the page, but when I hear it out loud, it cracks me up. I have to trust my instincts, and a lot of the time, I’m just wrong. But the more I get to know the actors and the voice of the show, the better I get at knowing when a joke is going to work and when it won’t.
The most frustrating and, okay fine, wonderful part about writing comedy is that you can work on a joke for 30 minutes and try and figure out the perfect combination of words, but what ultimately matters is what the actor does with it. Sometimes it’s hard to ditch a joke that you’ve lovingly slaved away on, but you have to remind yourself that what actually ends up being funny most of the time isn’t perfect joke construction, but the reality that the actors bring to the characters and the stories. Luckily, the actors on New Girl are so ridiculously talented that they are capable of bringing life and truth to the weirdest sentences and moments and that’s what makes them funny.
Something I’ve noticed–funny often starts out being uncomfortable. Push your characters and your writing to places that make you feel a little mischievous. The best writing, for me, comes from the moment when I’m asking myself: “Can I get away with that?” Or when I read what I wrote and think: “I can’t believe I just wrote that. Am I crazy?” It’s the stuff that I’m a little embarrassed to show people that always ends up working the best. Unless it doesn’t. In which case, it’s just embarrassing, and I hide under a table for a couple hours.
MJ Helm: How did you come up with Schmidt? He’s a really great character.
I wanted to create a character that was able to say the most offensive things possible and get away with it—mostly because I just love characters like that, and I love writing for them. What I didn’t understand until I heard Max Greenfield read the part was that, in order to get away with that kind of character, the audience had to “see through him”–had to understand his flaws and vulnerabilities or else they’d hate him. Max brought this amazing neediness to Schmidt from the first second he read the part. Watching his audition, I realized that Schmidt was just a guy who needed to be loved so badly that he was willing to do anything to get attention. When Max found Schmidt’s emotional center, I found it too, and weirdly as soon as I genuinely like a character, I can make him say and do more horrible things than I ever imagined.
Teresa Jusino: What was your first television writing room experience like?
How did you know you were ready to create, pitch, and helm your own show?
This is my first TV writers’ room experience. And I wasn’t ready to helm my own show, and I’m still not ready…
Clare White: Are there good jobs to try for after to college to help a screenwriter break into the business?
What did you do, to succeed as a screenwriter?
Write as much as possible, but try to be a part of a community of writers and actors and directors—whether or not that’s in your high school, your college, or the city where you live. Write something and then try and get it on its feet with actors as soon as possible—don’t agonize over every little word because that’s not what writing for theater/tv/film is about. And don’t wait for a magic wizard to come and give you millions of dollars to produce something. Make an internet video, organize a reading, put on a play in your backyard, because that’s when you really learn how to write. Help other people put their work up, and they help you. Act, produce, build scenery, move lighting equipment, just get involved with the process of making a movie or putting on a play, and it really will help your writing. There isn’t a career path that makes any sense—it’s just not that kind of a job…I would just say—start making things and try and do it with writers and actors and directors who are smarter and more talented than you, and, after that’s over, just write your face off.