5 Easy Ways To Write Glee

Can a man with nary a note in his head write a musical show? Should he? Dare he? Something else he? I don’t know, and I certainly didn’t know when I first thought about doing this blog in the way back when. But I’d watch Glee, and I’d be infuriated by Glee, and occasionally moved and occasionally disappointed by Glee.

And as a writer, it is one hell of a show to watch – sort of like waking up on Christmas morning with a K’Nex waiting under the tree (or menorah, or atheistapler, or whatever object you feel like). There are all these lovely parts to play with,  vivid characters and a willingness to push boundaries and tell stories that many shows just don’t get to tell. And music! That the creators of Glee can be a little uncaring with these toys is evident, shoving them into holes where they just don’t fit, but the sandbox itself is enticing.

Which is not to say that I could write it, but just to say that I wanted to. Going about the whole thing became a little more difficult.

1. Moments & Images

I said before that the writing process at the beginning is always about striking a balance between the overarching plot and these “moments and images”. When it came to Glee, and its psychotropic nature, it was all about these flashes of something. So I buried my head in some classic tunes for a week or so, sketching out all of these moments.

Something about Mercedes, use of The Chain by Ingrid Michaelson, Artie being operated on, Emma unlocking her door for Will, Brittany “getting it” during Now We Are Free by Lisa Mitchell – and it’s criminal, by the way, that that song isn’t an acapella standard.

But all this melange of stuff went into the melting pot. The melting pot, by the way, is a notepad document, which when it’s sufficiently morphed into something larger, is copied over to Open Office (screw you, expensive MS Office).

Getting this melting pot to gel was a different barrel of kettles. I was tempted to find some kind of coherent central, “bottle episode” style that would get all the various plot machinations moving as one, but it proved nigh on impossible.

So I went instead for the tried-and-tested A, B, C storyline – with a little bit of modified A in the Mercedes work (focusing on her disproportionately even as she was a bit player, so that there would be some focus on her by episode’s end).

A – Artie’s leg (switch to Merc. by end)
B – The blood drive / Sue’s deception
C – Emma and Will

From there I just started putting together building blocks on how this would all work.

2. Anatomy Of A Glee Episode

It helped that I was still half-heartedly watching Glee, but I was in no way a keen fan or obsessive when I started writing these. So I did what I normally did when trying to glean the tone and style of a particular series: watch the pilot, second episode (where the format is generally much clearer), finales and episodes leading up to finales, special episodes (bottle, holiday or two-parters) and any top-rated episodes on sites like TV.com or the AV Club. I also scoured the Internet to see if there were any PDFs of the shooting scripts; in this case I managed to get my hands on the pilot, but it’s not always possible.

Once I’d done that, a couple of things became clear:

– 5-6 songs per episode, featuring at least one mash-up.
– The use of internal monologue is entirely welcome.
– Episodes tend to have a collective goal the students must achieve, while other plots move on a sideline.
– The show, and its characters, are often blind to the lack of motivation for what they’re doing.
– The overall message of Glee, similar to Community, is that groups and pairings of disparate people are stronger for it.
– It has a cruel streak a mile wide when its humour is at its best.

All of the above, and probably more, became apparent over my watch time. So then I just had to sit down and wri– OH WAIT.

3. Songs In The Key Of Madness

I wouldn’t call this section fun, but it was definitely interesting. And it’s not like I went into an episode of Glee forgetting about the musical element; it was part of what I was looking forward to doing.

But writing music this specifically is something I’ve never done before – if you’re writing screenplays or stageplays you’re rightly advised to stick with sentences like “Batsheba turns on the radio, a Britney Spear-type up-tempo pop song comes on”. Because Britney Spears may break your bank, it’s just not good planning to include a specific song.

However, in Glee’s case, it’s all about picking the songs, and even going to the point of inserting the lyrics and actions to go alongside.

This whole thing began with an image of Brittany on stage, singing part of “Now We Are Free”, so I knew that was going to be near the end – and juxtaposed with Artie’s operation.

Probably the most interesting aspect – apart from getting to use “The Chain”, a song which I am apparently incapable of getting sick of – was the mash-up of “Love” by Nat King Cole and “S&M” by Rihanna. It involved me sitting at my desk, marking out beats and trying to see how the songs would fit together. The end result worked well for me, though obviously isn’t exactly clear from the script. Part of me is tempted to do a YouTube video where I sing it, part of me realises that the Internet isn’t ready for that.

4. Scraps To Solids

The next step after I’d decided what was happening, when it was happening, who it was happening to and where it was happening, was to break it out, and down, and freestyle somewhat.

By which I of course mean the structure of the show. I have “writerly” friends who are probably spinning in their well-appointed deluxe graves at the idea of the structure I need to put together before writing a word, it being something that looks like this:

What I say to them, however, is that when you’re going through the natural and necessary ebbs and flows of television writing you can often get sideblinded by act breaks (the details and timing of which I’d already extrapolated from scripts and episodes), and that’s not fun for anyone.

So I made my structure.

5. Write The Fucking Thing, Alan

Easy as pie. I seem to remember hunkering over my laptop for ages at a time, listening to various songs. A definite semi-orgasmic feeling by the time I got to The Chain and, therefore, the ending.

I need to record that part of the process better.


About alfla

Playwright, screenwriter, sometime improv enthusiast and full-time television lover. You know, in THAT way.
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