First, tell the story. Then, rip it apart.

Proving once again that the A.V. Club is one of the best sources out there for studying and understanding the awesomeness of the NBC show Community, the A.V. Club just ran the first entry of creator and executive producer Dan Harmon’s walk-through of Community Season 2. Below is a quote about how the writers handled the episode “Messianic Myths and Ancient Peoples.” In it, he describes the struggle they had trying to tell a story about two characters, Shirley and Abed, agreeing to make a movie together about Jesus.

So I told Andrew, “Break the story, break the hacky, low-hanging-fruit version of the story, and we’ll do all the bits about how he made the budget last six days instead of three days; oh, he walked over the Hollywood equivalent of water. We all know it’s going out the window, but let’s use that as a framework, and then let’s twist it. Now let’s run it through Shirley’s story, and let’s make them both simultaneously Jesus and both simultaneously Pharisees and really make the first sitcom episode to address the topic of religion in a while that has no opinion about it, except for it’s a sin to second-guess your friends.”

I think the great lesson here is – if you want to write something great, but all you’ve got so far is a blank screen (or piece of paper), there’s no need to start from scratch. Go ahead and write the most boring, awful, contrived, cliche-driven thing ever. Then fix it.

We all want to be original, but sometimes it helps to come up with the most obvious version of a story you can tell, and then find the right spots where you can subvert the standard and stick your own unique voice into the material. This can be especially helpful when, in an effort to come up with that terrific, new story, you end up going in ridiculous directions that conflate the plot with too many conflicting ideas, and you end up losing that precious emotional resonance that all stories need to survive.

Also, Dan Harmon is a genius. This whole interview is chock full of some of the finest comedic and storytelling analysis in television today. And “Messianic Myths” also happens to be one of my favorite episodes. You can check out the whole interview here.


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