A Conversation with Jane Espenson

Saturday morning, this reporter arrived a few minutes late to the panel, “A Conversation with Jane Espenson.” Luckily, I arrived in time to see the short video clip from Husbands, a web series written by Jane Espenson and Brad Bell about a male couple who wake up drunk-married in Vegas. As an added bonus, Brad Bell and Sean Hemeon, the two actors who play the married couple, also appeared on the panel.

The audience was filled with self-proclaimed fans of Espenson, asking her a variety of questions about the writing process, working as a writer in Hollywood, and her past collaborators.

When asked about the experience writing with Joss Whedon and Ronald D. Moore, she said one’s process was top-down and the other’s was bottom-up, respectively. “With Joss, the ideas came from him,” she said, and Ron was aiming for “inclusion,” not only taking ideas from the writers, but also using feedback from the actors on the scripts.

She also spoke about working with Russell T. Davies, a Welsh producer and screenwriter, who worked with more of a “European System. He would give us the broad strokes of ideas,” she said, and then the writers would go off and write. When they would get back together, they might work through eight or nine drafts before the final product.

Espenson tweets about her “writing sprints” which last 60 minutes, during which she encourages other writers who follow her to join in the fun. At the end of the hour, her followers report on their writing successes. When an audience member asked what she writes during her sprints she listed a variety of projects including Husbands and Once Upon a Time.

On the topic of web series versus television series, Espenson said, “the distinction between television and the web is slowly going away. Television was considered ‘global’ but it’s not. Web content is bigger, it’s global.” She said she loved working on Husbands and wants to keep making internet content. Then she added, “Maybe we called the wrong thing television. Maybe this [points at an iPad] is television.”

On the notion of writing a “How to Write Guide” she mentioned her blog, which she no longer updates but the content is still available. “Go through the archives,” she said. “There’s tons of good stuff there, but you might have to dig for it.” She said that given an “unstaffed year” she could organize the content on the blog into a writing guide, however, “apparently they don’t sell well. But they sell forever.”

She spoke of how she writes and thinks in an auditory way, as if she is almost writing a radio play. “I don’t listen to music when I write,” she said, “because then I can’t hear the voices of the characters.”

Concerning writing that she was particularly proud of, she explained the “Bechdel Test,” a writing test developed by Liz Wallace that became more widely known after Alison Bechdel featured it in her comic.

The test takes a close look at female characterization in a script. Passing the test requires:

  1. The script has a scene with at least two female characters and no male characters.
  2. The two (or more) female characters are speaking to each other.
  3. The conversation must be about something other than a man/men.

Espenson said she was proud to say that many of her scripts would pass this test.

Overall, the hour provided much insight into a writer who has worked on so many television shows that we Dragon*Con attendees love, that she is, as one person said, “practically a God.”

[Photo by Joe Lombardo]

Author of the article

When Suzanne Church isn't chasing characters through other realms, she's hanging with her two children. Her short fiction has appeared in Clarkesworld, On Spec, and Cicada and in several anthologies including Urban Green Man and When the Hero Comes Home 2. Her collection Elements: A Collection of Speculative Fiction is due out in spring 2014 from EDGE Science Fiction and Fantasy Publishing. She is a three time finalist and 2012 winner of the Prix Aurora Award in the Short Fiction category.