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Episodes: The second thing


Emily VanDerWerff

Mar 09 2016

5 min read



It was Fargo's 20th anniversary today! Happy 20th anniversary, Fargo!

As with every time there's a major pop culture anniversary, there were a ton of pieces that were basically the same piece, over and over again. (Here was mine. At least I quoted from other people!) And that can start to feel like, hey, aren't we all ripping each other off?

I mean, yes and no. The thing I've learned working at a news site, where you have to churn through stuff as quickly as possible, is that the number of different things you can say about any given topic is very, very finite. You can have an original idea, but it's pretty rare. As with storytelling, most writing of any kind is going to be a rough variation on an already familiar form. What makes it different is the style or substance.

You know all that! But I think what happens to a lot of pop culture sites is the idea that originality is everything. Back when I was at AV Club, we spent a lot of time fretting over other sites stealing our ideas. And who knows? Maybe they did. I like to think we were pretty clever, and that we had good ideas. And it's not like we could copyright them, because they were pretty big, basic templates. So maybe they were being stolen left and right.

But there's also just the possibility that the thing you think is a wildly original idea is the same idea everybody else is having. Again, there are a limited number of things you can say about any given topic, even if we account for the entire variety of opinions you could have. For the most part, opinions boil down to "yes," "no," and "maybe." There are variations here and there, but not much.

The thing I always do in these situations is something I stole from Jane Espenson's old blog. (I think it's defunct, but you hopefully know who Jane Espenson is: she was a writer on Buffy and Battlestar and all kinds of great shows, and she's currently on Once Upon a Time, among others.) She always said that when you're writing jokes, you need to look beyond your first impulse, because your first impulse is the same one most people will have. And the second your joke is completely predictable, the more you're running up against our natural desire for humor to surprise us. (There are exceptions, especially on television, but let's not get into that right now.)

So Espenson's advice was to think of the second thing. And once you got past that, go on to the third and the fourth and the fifth, until you had something that was uniquely you. The structure of the joke would probably be something familiar, be it a pun or a reversal or an absurdist twist, but the actual content would be all you. The further down the list you go, the more likely it is that what you're saying is something not everybody else has already thought of.

I don't know that you need to go down five things when you're writing an essay for the 20th anniversary of Fargo. (Since you're probably writing, "This is a good movie!" on some level -- it's rare to do counter-intuitive takes on an anniversary -- there probably aren't even five different ways to say that!) Skip past the first thing you want to say -- which is probably, like, Fargo is great, or maybe something about Marge (because she's the best) -- and look around for something else. The odds are somebody else will be writing about that, too, but you have less competition, at least.

I mean, you don't have to. But the second thing is usually the place where you start to figure out what it is what you really think, and where you'll have fewer other pieces to battle with. You'll thank yourself later.

(A note for all my freelancer pals: This goes double for the sorts of things you pitch on. When I was accepting more freelancer pitches at AV Club, I sometimes felt like all I got were pitches on Breaking Bad and Mad Men, two shows I had more than enough coverage of already. If you wrote in with a pitch for Deadliest Catch -- even if your clips weren't as superb as somebody pitching Breaking Bad -- I was much more engaged, because I hadn't seen that pitch a million times. In almost every situation, the first thing you want to say is rarely the best thing you could possibly say. Is all I'm saying!)


Episodes is published at least three times per week, and more if I feel like it. It is mostly about television, except when it's not. Suggest topics for future installments via email or on Twitter. Read more of my work at Vox Dot Com.

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