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Less is More: Writing ‘So-Called Life’

Updated: Dec 24, 2019

In which we marvel at the voice behind all those voices on MSCL.

My So-Called Life
'Because, that’s probably all that… you know. Matters.' / 'To who?'

After nearly 20 interviews I think it’s fair to warn you that there are two things you’ll hear more than once in the book ‘So Beautiful it Hurts’:

  1. The description of the 14-year-old Claire Danes as “an old soul.” (This is literally the phrase that nearly everyone who worked with her on that show has come up with – independently – so far.)

  2. Winnie Holzman’s writing is nothing short of sublime.

While few of us knew Claire at 14, we can all evaluate Winnie’s writing*, or at least the lines and situations that made it to air.

The funny thing is that if you do have the good fortune to come across a shooting script, the thing that strikes you immediately is the stark economy of words on the page. This is not Gilmore Girls with its paragraphs of dialogue delivered lightning fast in the spirit of ‘30s-era screwball comedies; this is something much more restrained, deliberate, rare.

First, there are more ellipses (…) in one MSCL script than you’re likely to find in an entire season’s worth of scripts today. These mark the pauses between words in the actors’ lines, and are as instrumental to an episode’s success as the words themselves.

Take one of the most heartbreaking moments in the entire series – the very last scene of the very last episode, "In Dreams Begin Responsibilities." Here Angela gently confronts Brian about his being the writer of a note given to her by Jordan, Cyrano style:

Brian (very softly): You liked it, though. Right? It made you… like… happy?

Angela: Yeah.

Brian: Because, that’s probably all that… you know. Matters.

Angela (very close to him): To who?

Brian (risks looking at her): To - - you know. The… person. Who wrote it.


[At the moment you can actually watch this episode, and all of the episodes, on ABC's website, which is really pretty awesome. The scene above begins around the 43:13 mark here.]

The script deliberately refrains from having Angela and Brian tell each other what they’re feeling. Instead, they give us just enough dialogue to move the scene along. The words, combined with the actors’ nuanced delivery of them, as well as the editor's penchant for lingering on a shot rather than quickly cutting from one to another, all compel us to fill in the blanks for ourselves. As with horror movies, emotional scenes are most impactful when the audience is forced to come up with the details on their own.

The MSCL writing style puts me in mind of something editor Scott Allie wrote in his introduction to the book The Art of Hellboy, discussing the idiosyncratic style of comic artist Mike Mignola:

“When he lays down those big patches of black, those thin, unadorned lines, he commits to the drawing in ways other artists avoid by screwing around with a lot of rendering, texture, and noodling. If you really know the shape of the object…you lay down shadow in solid black chunks; you commit to the shape of your shadow, the shape of the object.

I can’t think of a better way to describe the writing style of My So-Called Life, and especially that of Winnie Holzman.


*Or can we? This is actually something I’m trying to better understand at the moment: the complex relationship between the writers credited on screen for each episode, and Winnie’s vigorous rewriting process on that show. As Winnie herself remarked to me about the television making process in general, when it is working at its best, everything – directing, cinematography, writing and acting – all come together in such a way, you can't really tell where one person's contributions begin and another's end. That, essentially, is the magic of television.



'So Beautiful it Hurts' is neither endorsed by nor affiliated with ABC, The Bedford Falls Co., or anyone involved with the making or distribution of "My So-Called Life."  


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