Complications Ensue: The Crafty TV and Screenwriting Blog
Complications Ensue:
The Crafty TV and Screenwriting Blog

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Sunday, November 16, 2014

Nate Silver is a baseball stats geek who turned himself into one of the most accurate interpreters of political polls. He nailed the 2008 and 2012 elections while Republicans were deluding themselves over "skewed polls." I wasted nearly as many hours reading his columns during elections as I have recently enjoyed wasting playing Europa Universalis IV.

Silver has expanded his site FiveThirtyEight to cover Big Data analyses of politics, economics, science, sports and culture. Walt Hickey recently posted an analysis of spec scripts. Which genres of scripts get the highest ratings? The data come from The Blacklist, a site that offers evaluations from pro script readers for a fee. They're the people the exec will give your script to first. What do the Blacklist readers like?
First-time writers tend to go one of two ways, said Kate Hagen, a former reader who now oversees the hundred or so readers at The Black List. They write a deeply personal, pseudo-autobiographical screenplay about nothing in particular. “Everybody basically writes that script at first,” Hagen said. “You have to get it out of your system.” Or they swing for the fences and go in the opposite direction, thinking, “I’m going to write a $200 million science fiction movie,” and plan an entire universe and mythology. Those scripts, Hagen said, tend to fail for entirely different reasons.
However, Big Data are not necessarily useful to a screenwriter. If you consider the odds against becoming a professional screenwriter, you'd be mad to try. But, "never tell me the odds." I don't think I know any pro screenwriters who took the odds into consideration. We just kept writing, and got enough encouragement (words, followed by checks) to keep at it. It takes heaps of arrogance to figure you're better than the other ten thousand would-be writers. But then, a screenwriter is someone who creates people, families and worlds, so a certain megalomania is practically a prerequisite.

I would be very wary of Big Data. If you think you're a comedy writer, you should write comedies. Your first will be terrible. Possibly your first ten will be kinda bad. But that doesn't mean you should write dramas, on the thinking that dramas "do better." The question isn't whether dramas do better; the question is whether your drama will do better.

It won't. If you don't love what you're writing, no one else will love it either.

By the same token, don't avoid science fiction because it doesn't "do well." The first script you write isn't going to do well anyway. You're still learning your craft.  Write that science fiction script. Hey, a vampire script got me into the UCLA MFA program. (It was terrible! But, I guess, promising in some way. And here I am.)

In fact, the flip side of it is: if you are, at heart, a comedy writer, then you are not likely to write a better drama than writers who love drama. But you might, with practice, write a better comedy than other comedy writers. If what you love is SF, then you're more likely to break in with an SF hook that no one else thought of, than with a drama that you wrote because you thought you ought to.

"Write what you know" doesn't necessarily mean "write stuff about people like you." It means "write stuff you know in your heart."

On the other hand, stretch your muscles. Don't write drama because it "does well." But do write a drama because it will force you to write strong, dynamic, dysfunctional relationships -- that you can then put into your comedy scripts, which need heart, too. Write a drama because a great science fiction movie isn't just about the science fiction -- it's about people, in strong, dynamic, dysfunctional relationships in a science fictional world.

By the same token, if you're a drama writer, try writing a comedy. Maybe it will loosen you up. Can't hurt to try. My creative writing professor, Kenneth Koch, made the very good point that no one is born with a certain number of words. You won't run out. So rather than dithering for a month about what to write, write something.

You level up by finishing missions, right?

The reason people call this sort of writing expedition an "exercise" is because exercise is what makes your muscles strong.

What you can use the Big Data for is to get insight into the minds of script readers. If they find most SF scripts annoying, make sure that you're not falling into the same errors. Make sure your SF script has characters and heart, not just whizbang.

This gets back to "addressing notes." All feedback is valid feedback, and you ignore it at your peril. If script readers don't like something, there's something wrong with it. They are often wrong about what is wrong with it. But if they think something is wrong with it, you better fix what is wrong with it, or you're not going to go very far with it.


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Sunday, November 02, 2014

“The single-most important thing was the art of working in the studio system,” Nolan told me of his experience with “Insomnia.” “It takes time to learn how to take notes. In the corporate structure, the people giving you the notes are not responsible for the final product. You are. It’s not their job, it’s yours. When you’re taking notes, it’s possible that you’re having an interesting conversation with a very smart individual and everything they’re saying is correct. But they’re wrong. So you have to go back and approach it from a different angle.” He continues to treat executives as, essentially, representative filmgoers. At a development meeting — at, in other words, a conference-room table — before “The Dark Knight,” he had to explain the Joker’s motivations. “Execs are very good at saying things like, ‘What’s the bad guy’s plan?’ They know those engines have to be very powerful. I had to say: ‘The Joker represents chaos, anarchy. He has no logical objective in mind.’ I had to explain it to them, and that’s when I realized I had to explain it to the audience.”
Via DMc

And so occurred the fabulous "some men just want to watch the world burn" speech.

Notes can be excellent. There are two kinds of notes: notes from people who understand story, and notes from everyone else. Everyone else can often include people with power over you and the money to fund your thing.

If someone who understands story gives you notes, then you might benefit from executing them.

If your note-giver is not someone who understands story, then executing the notes might make your script worse. The solution is not "doing" the notes but "addressing" the notes. . "Addressing" the notes is harder. It means finding out where the gap occurs between your vision and the reader or viewer's experience. Note-givers usually focus on where their experience is bad. "This scene is too slow; trim it down." The scene may be too slow, but maybe it's because we don't care enough about the main character; making him more compelling 20 scenes earlier fixes the scene. Or maybe it's because the scene never really gets to the meat of the drama. Sometimes it needs to be longer, not shorter, to build up steam.

Unless you are independently wealthy, your creative career will always depend on your ability to address notes successfully, without always executing them as is.


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Saturday, November 01, 2014

I've been having a bit of back and forth with a pro-Gamergate colleague, and here's my take, fwiw.
But [Gamergate] isn't, and has never been about [harassment of women]. That's the point. You're making it about women game developers feeling safe, but that has nothing to do with gamergate's positions. Gamergate has condemned harassment from day one, and has never wavered. But I don't think you'll ever understand that until you do more research, because it's easy to buy in to the world view that gamergate is a misogynistic movement. It fits the narrative you more generally associate with (as I do too).
My problem is there seem to be two groups of people who call themselves gamergaters. One is a small group of people who'd like games journalism to be more, y'know, like journalism. The other is a vast warren of trolls [hmmm, what's the noun of congregation? a grunt of trolls?] who jumped on the bandwagon in order to harass women.
[Philip Wythe's article on The Flounce, "Harassment, Abuse, and Apologism: Sanitizing Abuse in Social Justice Spheres "] is interesting because the "neckbeard, virgin gamer" type harassment is being thrown around so much yet isn't getting reported on. Do you not understand why that is a problem? If social justice (and by extension the gaming media) continues becoming the bully, then it will lose all the momentum it has begun to achieve. That's what this article is about.
I take your point that if games critics want social justice, then mocking gamers by using social stereotypes is not OK. But getting the majority to feel victimized is always the first page in the right-wing playbook. I mean, why now? Folks have been calling gamers neckbeards and virgins since -- well, at least the 70's? D & Ders didn't have a big social reputation at my high school. Any why, particularly, aim at "social justice warriors" mocking gamers, when almost everybody mocks hard-core gamers.

I suspect that what's really going on is that young, socially inept gamers now feel their "gamer" identity is threatened by soccer moms who play Farmville at the field. And they're transferring that fear onto a small number of "social justice warriors." (People who make that an insult worry me. It's like people who use the word "feminazi.") Because obviously they can't do anything about the soccer moms, who either don't even know they exist, or cook dinner for them.
And, I think, gamergate may be the tipping point in the industry for that, because people are sick of being bullied by having their identities attacked.
Really? I think mainstream society is always going to poke fun at geeks. When I was an active witch, neo-pagan geeks were always complaining about portrayals of witches in the media. C'mon, guys, you use the word, people think of you in a pointy hat. Bondage geeks complain that people (especially Jian Ghomeshi) don't understand that it's all done with carefully negotiated consent.
  What seems to have got 'gators up in arms are some silly articles about "gamer" as an identity being "over." The very premise of the articles is ridiculous. They remind me of the sort of "trend" articles the New York Times prints whenever a reporter knows three friends who are doing some new thing. The NYT had an article about how beer bellies were becoming sexy. Um, what?

"Gamer" will be an identity so long as people self-identity as gamers, the way "queer" will be an identity as long as gays and lesbians share political needs.

I don't believe there ever was a "conspiracy" against the "gamer" identity. I know journalists, and they talk, and they're usually desperate for something to write about. If there were 10 articles, I can believe a few emails were passed around, but that's in the nature of a meme. A meme in the sense of "what are we going to fill our column inches with this week?" That's laziness, but that's not Dr. Evil. I don't believe a meme is the same as a conspiracy.
Your sympathies are important (no one disagrees with you about creating great work environments for [female] developers), but compassion has to go to both sides...
Okay. Good point.
  But I think Gamergate projected a heap of frustration onto a tiny number of previously unknown people. Who ever heard of Zoe Quinn before? That was not constructive. The real question is not "what do we do about some minor female devs and/or anthropologists whom we feel insulted us," but "how do we deal with our precious identity being submerged in a vast welter of games that are not made for us."

If that's a real question. I mean it's not like we're never going to see another Grand Theft Auto game if Zoe Quinn gets her Kickstarter funded.

And, in return, the 'gators riles up a bunch of trolls, who in turn got mainstream feminists like Joss Whedon to come down on the whole Venn diagram with mockery.

Which, in turn, solidifies the gamer identity by defining the social borders better. The quickest way to answer the question "who are we" is to create a ruckus that crystallizes everybody into "us" and "them."

Kai Eriksen wrote a fascinating sociological book (that's not an oxymoron) called Wayward Puritans. His theory was that the Puritans were used to being an out group. But then they came to the New World where they had no neighbors to compare themselves to. (The Natives didn't count, obviously.) They had no "us" and "them."

So they created the witch trials, so they'd have a "them." It was subconscious -- Cotton Mather really through he was fighting the Devil -- but deep down they needed an enemy.

#Gamergate might have accomplished a subconscious purpose. I submit to you that a bunch of white, male, socially inept kids had "gamer" as an identity. Then along come soccer moms who play "Farmville" and call themselves gamers. And people make games about coming home and discovering your sister is a lesbian in the 90's. And the game press jumps all over these games, which are not actually very good games, because lesbian content practically guarantees a good review. (When was the last time you read a seriously negative review of a lesbian-themed film outside of the gay press and the Westboro Baptist newsletter?) And you hate Gone Home and you don't want people who like Gone Home to call themselves gamers, because "gamer" is your identity.

Or even worse, you proudly self-identify as a geek, and now all these mundanes come along and say, "Hey, we're geeks too!" And they're better looking than you, and go to the gym, and really spend very little timing geeking out. Where previously nerds were proud underdogs, now mainstream society fawns on Bill Gates and cosplay has its own reality show. Your culture is not your own any more.

So, you, as a group, pick a fight with some women developers and feminist intellectuals. There's no point picking a fight with Kotaku or Ubisoft, because they won't pay attention. But if you hurl abuse and death threats at some women (or give other, crazier people who share your politics the excuse to hurl abuse), you will provoke a lot of people to come to their defense.

In short order, you and your buddies are the laughingstock of the Internet. People are calling you neckbeards and virgins, and making memes, and #Gamergater becomes an ironic Hallowe'en costume.

But all that, perhaps, is full of win. Your identity is secure. Once again, it's clear who is "you" and who is "them."

The point of #Gamergate, subconsciously, was to provoke a witch hunt. But not against feminists. Against themselves.

Deep down, perhaps, the point of #gamergate was to provoke a witch hunt in which they were the witches. 

Now, I have no idea if the above is true, and it's unfalsifiable if it is. But I think it's an interesting way to look at it. A retcon, if you will.

And that's my take on #Gamergate after my conversations with my articulate colleague.


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Friday, October 24, 2014

I want to send one of my stories (6 page of containing outline, show summary, story headlines, characters directions and derivations, show themes that lead the entire series ) a "Tv concept idea" contest in L.A. 

I get some script consulting about it such as " it will be not a bad idea for TV " from a reputable blogger .He says that the core idea is interesting and the concept has some potential for future episodes, but the only thing is my language barrier . 

I know my english as a second language will not be sufficient to write in english like an american fellow even I know all about TV show business ; ... Would you suggest me to get another idea from another guy of business or stick the consulting and suggestions of him ? at least before sanding my outline for the contest. 
I am also work for TV time to time in my country, I know everybody says lots of things, usually of non sense to make money esp. in this business. 
I want to learn what is the criteria to have "story by" credits, especially on tv. ...
Realistically, the only way for someone to sell a TV concept if English is not his or her first language is to make the series in his own language and then sell the format. For example, the Israeli series PRISONERS OF WAR (חטופים) became HOMELAND; the Israeli series בטיפול‎ (IN THERAPY) which became IN TREATMENT and a dozen other series in different languages; the Dutch series BIG BROTHER which became a metastatized cancer afflicting the entire television medium.

If a paid evaluator says "This will not be a bad idea for TV," I think they are maybe taking your money. That's about the smallest possible thing someone can say about a TV concept. On the rare occasions I read something that really could work, I say, "I think this really has a shot."

(Though generally when I'm evaluating other people's material, I don't say whether it's good or bad; I generally say how to make it better. I don't think it's helpful to say, "This stinks." If you want me to tell you if it's good or bad, you have to ask. The truthful answer, however, is usually, "It's not good now. If you do everything I tell you, and do it well, then I think you have a shot.")

The criterion for getting a guaranteed "Story By" credit in the US under WGA rules is to have written the first draft of the pilot. ("Story by" is the irreducible minimum credit for the original writer.) If you're not a native English speaker, or Vladimir Nabokov, the odds are they won't let you write any draft of the pilot; and they won't read your spec pilot, either. However if you write the pilot in your native language, and sell the format, then you can negotiate something like a "Based on the series PRISONERS OF WAR created by Gideon Rafi."


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Monday, October 06, 2014

So, Compulsion Games will soon be hiring a community manager. This is a full-time contract job in our Montreal office keeping up with the people who play (or might play) our games. That means writing back to gamers when they have questions, posting on forums, responding to posts on forums, tweeting and generally making us look awesome. It's about engaging with our community to better understand what they think and feel about our games and help us make better ones. 

There will be some dealing with the game media. There might theoretically be a bit of game writing, if you are so inclined, but that's not the priority. 

The ideal person is witty and irrepressible. S/he plays a lot of video games and likes to talk about them. S/he probably reads the game press (Kotaku, RPS, etc.) S/he understands social media. We're not looking for a degree in marketing, but we would be impressed by your clever and provocative Twitter feed and your mob of followers. 

Compulsion is an indie game company of about a dozen really dedicated developers. Our previous game, Contrast, was a PS4 launch title, passes the Bechdel test, and is shortlisted for 10 Canadian Video Game Awards. Our new game may blow your mind.

If you think you might be the right person for this, email my buddy Sam Abbott at


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Saturday, October 04, 2014

A reader writes:

Q. I'm wondering how fast I should write screenplays if I want to be successful. I want to hit that sweet spot. I understand that pieces of string come in varying lengths. My first took me two months, my second took me two weeks, and my third has taken me two months already and I'm only on page 19. It's probably just a bad story idea and I should probably move on, but I know that in TV writing you are forced to do things you don't want to do. 
I've got several non-starters like this. If I were to force myself to finish any one of them, do you think the material would come out best if I went with a fast (2 week), medium (1.5 month), or slow (>3 month) speed for the first first draft? By "best" I of course mean most sellable. I understand that you offer no guarantees, etc. You have advised to plan for a better story in advance, but I do indeed feel pressured to tell a certain (original) story a certain way and would like to just plow through it, I'm just unsure of the speed guidelines.

Every writer is different. Robert Towne takes a year to write a script. I have no idea how he manages to spend a year on a single script. I'm assuming a lot of golf is involved. I usually write a feature first draft in about 24 days. I spend time conceptualizing and outlining, then I write the first draft pretty fast, and then rewriting takes however long it takes. Years, sometimes, with long gaps in between while producers look for money or I wait for perspective.

Both my wife and I find that having a completed script makes rewriting much easier and less stressful. She calls her first draft the "vomit" draft because she just wants to get it out of her system, and it doesn't look pretty.

Joss Whedon writes all the fun scenes first, then writes the scenes that connect them.

If you're on page 19 after two months, something is wrong with your outline. Go back to index cards, or better, go back to telling your story out loud.

The amount of time you spend on a first draft has nothing to do with how sellable the script is. The script is sellable if it has a great hook and good implementation. The hook is in the outline, and the implementation is in the first draft, and the second, and the third, and so on.

The key is that you don't climb a mountain. You take one step up. Then another step up.

You don't write a script. You write an outline. Then you write pages. By pages, I mean scenes. You only write one scene at a time. 

Look at the scene you're writing. Who wants what? Why does the other person not want to give it to him? What does the first person say or do to try to get it? What does the second person want? Why won't the first person give it to her? What does she say and do to try to get it?

If you can answer those questions, you ought to be able to write the scene. If you can't answer these questions, there's why you're hung up on page 19. 

Sometimes the reason you can't write the scene is that it's boring and doesn't need to be in the movie. Skip it and see if you miss it. Maybe you're telling it wrong. Maybe find another way to present the story elements in the scene. Try writing the scene as a silent movie. Try writing the scene as a phone conversation. Try writing the scene as a scene from a novel. Try having one character refuse to talk. Rewrite the scene as the couple arguing while they're at a cocktail party. Try having the scene happen offscreen and we only find out about it in a conversation with third parties. Try writing the scene with a different outcome than you expected and see if that feels more truthful. Rewrite the scene as all subtext, with everyone saying exactly what's on their minds. Now rewrite with no one saying any subtext at all -- they're refusing to talk about what they mean and want, and talking about anything but.

Get some actor friends to do an improv based on the scene. If you don't have actor friends, do it with your own friends. If you don't have friends, take each person's part and see what they say.

Why does that scene need to exist? How does it move the plot forward? How does it reveal character? A scene should ideally do both. If it's sagging, it's probably either not moving the plot forward, or you've written it so that the characters are saying and doing the things any normal people would say and do, rather than things only those characters could say or do.

I'm a big believer in finishing scripts even if they feel like they suck. Around page 40, they almost always do feel like they suck. But I would never write a script without writing a solid outline first. That's like getting in the car and driving without a destination. You think you're going to wind up some place you never expected, but you usually end up at the supermarket.

Good luck!



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Monday, September 22, 2014

Let's suppose two characters are talking. We go in close on their hands. One character speaks.

Is that line of dialog O.S. (offscreen) to make clear that we're not seeing her talk?

  • SALLY (V.O.)
  • (holding out the ring)
  • Take it. Please.
Or not, because at least part of her is on screen?

  • (holding out the ring)
  • Take it. Please.
How would you format this, fellow pro monkeys?


Yeah, yeah, I know. We're not supposed to put in camera direction in scripts.

However, in this case, I'm the narrative director of a video game, and I'm writing a cut-scene that will be pre-rendered. (It'll be generated in the game engine and then treated in various ways.) We need to know how much facial animation we'll have to do, which means I need to write in the camera direction so we can determine whose face is on screen, and for how long. There isn't going to actually be a director as such -- just a narrative director and an animator (plus a game designer and a concept artist, and several programmers and environmental artists).

In a movie script, it occurs to me that (O.S.) is the wrong way to go because a sloppy production manager might think the actor doesn't need to be there.


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Thursday, September 18, 2014

Ingrid Sundberg has posted a nifty color thesaurus on her Wordpress blog. Here are her colors of red:

ῥοδο-δάκτυλος Ἠώς? Find it here.
Handy, huh?

There are a few misspellings, and a few colors readers might not recognize (admiral blue?). But most of these are quite accessible.

Also handy if you're reading YA novels and you're not quite sure what "teal" looks like. Or if you run across this:

A tl; dr
tl; dr
Check it out.


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Sunday, September 14, 2014

I've noted before how valuable it is for writers to play poker. Not anything to do with writing, but everything to do with learning how to negotiate. Poker is all about negotiation. Or, negotiation is all about how you play your hand. You can bluff. You can semi-bluff. You can call a bluff. You have to guess what the other guy's reaction to your bet will be.

Tonight, we played Cards Against Humanity. It's a fun game about trigger warnings. (It's billed as "the party game for horrible people.)

One player picks a black card with a phrase ("What ended my last relationship?"). Each other player throws down one of their ten cards to try to come up with the funniest way to fill in the blank. Say one player throws out "unfathomable stupidity." Another might play "kamikaze pilots." A third might play, "Nazis."

So you have to exercise your comedy muscle. And, since you only have ten cards at once, you have to find the clever juxtaposition. "Nazis" is the horrible, funny answer to lots of black cards, though probably not to "Daddy, why is Mommy crying?" So you don't want to use it until you've found a really clever context.

Generally, true connections are not that funny. ("Why is Mommy crying?" "Nazis." Not that funny. "Why is Mommy crying?" "BATMAN!!!" Better.) Better are weird, trangressive connections. But the funniest are weirdly true, transgressive connections. ("What ended my last relationship?" "The Underground Railway.")

This is great practice for writing comedy.

Also, it's a lot of fun.

I wasn't actually playing with fellow writers this time. So I can't guarantee that it's actually fun to play with fellow writers. They are bound to be really funny, but they might take it really seriously. First one to leave the room sobbing hysterically has to buy the whisky next time, I guess.


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Saturday, September 13, 2014

We saw GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY, which was an odd combination of mild goofy humor and an epic save-the-galaxy story. It was in 3D and D-Box. D-Box gives you a seat that vibrates and tilts according to what's going on onscreen.

I've never been a fan of 3D. I feel it doesn't add anything to the experience. I perceive 2D films as 3D. There are a slew of clues aside from stereo perception. Perspective, obviously. Plus objects not in focus are behind or in front of the object in focus. Plus, cinematographers love to slightly fog the atmosphere, so you can always gauge how far something is.

Sound, obviously, added to the film experience in a huge way. Color added important information. 3D adds no information.

But D-Box adds proprioception. As the spaceship arcs in for a landing, your seat actually tilts. When stuff goes boom, your seat vibrates. It's a little bit like being in a 3D motion simulator at a theme park, except much less extreme, of course.

D-Box costs more. In our theatre it added $10 per ticket. And, clever boys, they only fire up the seats you bought tickets for, so no one can sit in a D-Box seat and get the D-Box experience without shelling out.

Lisa thought it was definitely worth it. One of our ongoing questions is, what does seeing a movie in a theater add to the experience? Why shouldn't we just wait for the Blu-Ray? I suspect the main reason the studios keep pushing 3D out there is it's much harder to pirate, and most people don't have 3D on their TV's. D-Box is another reason to go to the theater, and it's currently impossible to pirate.

I doubt I'll be rushing out to see the next D-Box movie. D-Box doesn't make up for a ridiculous rollercoaster plot. I'd rather see a movie with a great story and great dialog. I'd rather see THE AVENGERS in 2D than GUARDIANS in 3D D-Box. But it's worth checking out.


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Saturday, September 06, 2014

Is it fair to review the first five minutes of a TV show? Well, why not?

We had high hopes for DOMINION. It looked cool. And: angels. I haven't seen much in the way of scary angels. Not since the excellent 1995 Christopher Walken B-movie THE PROPHECY, I think. ("You have become evil. And evil is mine.")

Unlike werewolves, vampires and zombies, angels are not seriously overexposed in movies. And there is so much you can do with angel mythology. Full disclosure:  I developed an angel TV series for several years for The Movie Network. I wrote four episodes, I had springboards for nine more, I was in no danger of running out of cool stuff you could do with angels.

So we turn on SyFy's DOMINION series and ... angels are basically flying zombies. In the teaser, the hero (I'm assuming he's the hero -- he looks a lot like Matt Damon) shoots one in the head, drives off, gets attacked by another, plays patty-cake with it, and then it's shot out of the sky by a computerized anti-aircraft gun.

If you can shoot an angel in the head and kill it, I'm going to say, it's a flying zombie.

I haven't seen LEGION, on which DOMINION was based. But I bet the writers had lots of ideas on interesting directions to take the series, even if the movie was this dumb. After all, the reboot of BATTLESTAR GALACTICA was a zillion times better than the original. And the original BUFFY: THE VAMPIRE SLAYER movie was nowhere near as interesting as the first ten minutes of the TV pilot.

But I can't help thinking the network wanted another WALKING DEAD. So:  flying zombies.

Of course, maybe it gets better. Maybe it gets a lot better. Maybe I should watch episode two. Sometimes pilots are the worst episode of a show, because they get too much input, and there are two many notes asking for everything to be made crystal clear.

But when a series about angels has nothing interesting to add to angel canon... I'm not going to watch it.

There are series that find their legs, or their wings. 30 ROCK didn't really hit its stride until episode 8 or so. If the show had stayed at the level of the pilot, I wouldn't have been a devotee. We really need a phrase that's the reverse of jumping the shark...


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Wednesday, August 13, 2014

On NPR, a Chinese playwright was talking about going to see a production of Gilbert and Sullivan's 1885 comic opera THE MIKADO. Her issue was yellow-face. The D'Oyley Carte company was all Caucasians made up to resemble Japanese courtiers:

We don't tolerate blackface performances any more. Not only don't we tolerate Amos'n'Andy style sterotyped Stepin Fetchit blackface, we generally expect that black characters in drama will be played by actors of color. Laurence Olivier could not play Othello these days.

So if we don't tolerate blackface any more, her question was, why tolerate yellowface?

That's an interesting and fraught question. I'd never thought of THE MIKADO making fun of the Japanese. I've thought of it as a parody of Meiji era Japanese mores and culture — arguably a stealth parody of Victorian mores and culture dressed up as a parody of Japanese court culture.

I would be happy to lose Mickey Rooney's horrible bucktoothed Mr. Yunioshi in BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY's. But THE MIKADO?

No doubt it would be offensive to have European actors in actual yellowface. But from what I can see from Google Images, D'Oyly Carte doesn't seem to put any kind of pseudo-Japanese makeup on its actors. In some performances their actors just look English, in Japanese clothes. In others they're wearing Kabuki makeup. (Whiteface!) Is it still offensive to have Europeans playing nominally Japanese characters, if not made up to look Japanese?

On the other hand: do we really need the kimonos to have the opera? You can dress your singers in sort-of European garb and Kabuki makeup, but still have characters called Nanki-Poo and Pooh-Bah, the Lord High Everything Else. Is that better?

I guess part of the reason I never felt offended personally by THE MIKADO, while I find blackface offensive, is that no oppression is involved. The English were not oppressing the Japanese, especially not Japanese courtiers, in 1885. The Japanese were simply outlandish strangers that everyone wanted to know more about. (W. S. Gilbert conceived the opera after looking at a Japanese sword he'd picked up. Japanese stuff was all the rage in London in the early 1880's.)

But there's still that nagging question. Is it always bad if a white guy plays a non-white guy?
I love LAWRENCE OF ARABIA. Alec Guinness is wonderful as King Faisal and Anthony Quinn plays Abu Ben Tayi with great gusto. But they're both white guys playing Bedouin Arabs. (Omar Sharif, at least, was Egyptian.)

They play Bedouins with great respect. But is that enough?

There's a sort of vague consensus in Hollywood that, I think, goes something like this: any Asian can play any Asian. Any brown person can play any other brown person. (I have an Armenian friend who mostly plays Arabs.) Only black people are allowed to play Black people. Only Natives and Inuits can play Natives and Inuits.

And white people can play anyone except Black people. Because all we only have white and Black stars.

It gets confusing at the borders. Is it okay if Angelina Jolie plays Mariane Pearl, who was of mixed heritage? Is it okay if Fred Armisen plays Barack Obama, whose mom was white? Some Black people still subscribe to the "one drop" theory: if you have any African heritage, you're black. Jolie got a lot of criticism for playing Mariane Pearl. Halle Berry says she considers her daughter to be black, even though her daughter is mostly of European descent (and, I'm guessing, Halle Berry too). Ironically, "one drop" was a white racist rule from slavery days. Sally Hemings was 3/4 white, but Thomas Jefferson's slave; her children were 7/8 white, but they were still slaves until Jefferson legally freed them.

(Of course, there would be an uproar if you cast a white actress to play Sally Hemings. But it might not be a good artistic choice, anyway. Virginians would have seen her as Black, even if she probably didn't look it.)

I'm not sure how to frame this consistently as a moral issue. I can't think of a logical moral argument why it's okay for an Armenian to play an Arab but a Mexican can't play an American Indian. It would be considered ridiculous for Danish actors to object when Hamlet is performed by Englishmen, or for Italians to complain that Romeo and Juliet makes them look like a bunch of hotheads. As a Jew, I don't feel that the Merchant of Venice should only be played by a Jew.

But there is a sense that it is unseemly for white people to play non-white roles. Especially when there are so few decent ones. 

And maybe there is sort of a calculus of oppression. A Mexican can't play a Native American because we've oppressed the Native Americans so much. 
European ambassadors (black caps) meeting
a Moorish king (white turban), who does not look
like Laurence Fishburne.

To further confuse the issue, some racial casting is based on faulty assumptions. In America, Othello must be played by an African-American. But the Moors were Mediterraneans (Berbers and Arabs), not sub-Saharan Africans. Should Arabs complain when Laurence Fishburne gets to play a Moor?

And of course, every time some white chick plays Cleopatra, Facebook explodes with people complaining that she should be played by an African-American. Cleopatra was Ptolemy, meaning a Greek descended from one of Alexander the Great's generals. We have lots of coins with her face on them.

And then there's Ridley Scott's new movie EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS, where he cast white people in all the leads, and all the villains and servants with Black people. This is wrong both ways. Moses and Ramses were almost certainly not white, but they weren't Black either.

Egyptians riding chariots, attended by Nubians.
The ancient Egyptians probably looked more like modern Coptic Egyptians than like Ethiopians or Southern Sudanese. Ancient Egyptian art makes a clear distinction between Nubians, who are painted in dark pigments, while the Egyptians themselves are painted in reddish pigments.

On the other hand, there are some statues of Ramses that have vaguely African noses.

All of which is to say: I'm confused. I can understand how a Japanese person could feel insulted by THE MIKADO. But I hope she wouldn't be. And I think it's a bit of a stretch for a Chinese person to be insulted by THE MIKADO. But then, I'm not an Asian person watching THE MIKADO. One of the best definitions of privilege that I've heard is "when you don't think something is a problem, because it's not a problem for you."

Is there any valid criterion, other than "this feels uncomfortably racist, and that is just silly"? I can't stand Mickey Rooney in BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY'S and I'm not going to rent SONG OF THE SOUTH. But LAWRENCE feels okay. And I'd really hate to lose "I am so proud." Why do I draw the lines here and there? Should I draw them somewhere else?

All I can say is:  I hope we get to the point where it no longer matters. In Shakespeare's day, Italians and Danes really were foreigners. One day, maybe no one will feel insulted by THE MIKADO because they don't feel that the show is in any way directed at them, and they can enjoy the three little maids who, all unwary, come from a ladies' seminary.

What do you think?

Next post:  I babble on about the Ukrainian crisis. 


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Sunday, July 13, 2014

I've been playing a couple of neat iOS games.

UsTwo's Monument Valley is a beautiful puzzle platformer inspired by the works of M. C. Escher. The world is full of impossible 3D objects; you can rotate and slide some bits of them. The clever idea is that if something looks like you can walk across it, then you can walk across it. So if something is impassible at one angle, you turn it until it looks passible. And then it is.

For example, you need to get the princess up to that button there (SPOILER):

Which means you'll have to get her on top of that yellow totem. But how? She can't climb.

But suppose you put the totem there. It's just a trick of perspective that the top of the totem looks like it's level with that pillar on the left there.

So it's snap to get on the totem now...

And then you can get to the button. 

Crazy, huh?

It's also beautiful in a minimalist way. Lisa, who never plays games, tried a level, and decided she better not continue, or she'd fall into it.

It is a short experience -- maybe 3 hours? And there's not a lot of replayability. But for $3.99, it's terrific.

Meanwhile, DragonBox has a new game. They did a lovely job with DragonBox Algebra, which teaches your five-year-old to do algebra. Elements is teaching my 10-year-old to solve geometric proofs. How do you prove that square is square?

Both of these games try to do one thing, and do it super well. They are fun and elegant at the same time.

It's funny, but though I'm a narrative designer, I don't necessarily need a story. Elegant gameplay does it for me, too.

Even if you don't have a kid, you might dig these. If you have a kid, I think you'll definitely dig these.


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Wednesday, July 09, 2014

Friend of the Blog Mauricio Fernandes interviewed me for his blog. Since he translated me into Portuguese, I reprint it here, in English.

Oh, by the way, sorry about the World Cup, Mauricio...

Q. If you could pick just one, what would it be: Character, Plot or Theme? (an unfair question, but it is good to know the focus of the writer)

Of course a great movie has all of them, but: plot. You can have a successful movie without a theme. (What was the theme of HARD DAY’S NIGHT? Unless it was, “Aren’t the Beatles fun?”) You can have a hit movie without strong characters (TRANSFORMERS). You can't have a successful movie without a plot. Except in France.

By "successful movie," I mean butts in seats, not critical success.

I’m sure people can come up with counter-examples. I prefer to use the word “story” rather than “plot.” Story includes the main character(s). You need a story. (Except in France.) I start from the story, and work my way into the characters. I think most pro screenwriters do, too.

Q. An American or Canadian movie to be read, re-read and studied.

I'd cite ALL THAT JAZZ and ANNIE HALL. Both of them tell difficult, complex stories, yet you're never lost, and you always have an emotional reaction to what's going on.

Q. A foreign movie to be read, re-read and studied.

DAY FOR NIGHT made me want to go into the film business. However, I was 20, and I figured I was too old. Seven years later, I went into the film business.

Q. For you, writing a scene, what´s the most frequent thing to arise: an image, a dialog or an action? In your opinion, is there a hierarchy?

I'm more structural. Who wants what? Why can't they get it? Why should I care? (= David Mamet’s crystallization of the 3 questions of drama.)

I try to figure out what the characters are trying to get from each other, and why they won't give each other what the other person wants.

I write the scene long, and then I trim down to the minimum. Get in late, get out early. Leave'em wanting more.

Q. What were the maximum number of drafts that you wrote for a screenplay? What was the problem with it?

"Drafts" is kind of a meaningless concept on a computer. Writers talk about doing a "pass," but sometimes I just do a surgical intervention to address a specific note. I might only look at the scenes involving a certain character. Is that a "draft"?

I consider all drafts a first draft. Except the shooting draft. I mean, suppose you've done 20 drafts, and then you realize the main character should be a woman? Or the hero is really a villain? Do you not do the change because you have a 20th draft? Of course not. You have to always be willing to throw out as much of the script as you have to in order to make it better. Sometimes you have to write 20 drafts in order to realize that you have a horrible structural flaw.

And by "structure," I don't mean act structure -- I mean story structure. A story is

(a) a character we care about (b) with an opportunity, problem or goal (c) who faces obstacles, an antagonist and/or his or her own personal flaw (d) who has something to lose (jeopardy) (e) and something to gain (stakes).

Any time you realize how you can strengthen one of those, it's time for a new draft. Or pass. Or whatever.

I rewrote a script of mine from 2006, when I optioned it to Cirrus, to 2013, when they finally decided not to do it. How many drafts? Who cares?

On the other hand my total intervention on BON COP / BAD COP was five weeks. I came in on the end of pre-production, and shortly after I rewrote it, they shot it.

Q. When you have a writer´s block, what do you do?

I think professional writers don't have the luxury of writer's block. Do cabinetmakers have "cabinetmaker's block"? Screenwriters are craftspeople, not "artistes." (Except, possibly, Charlie Kaufman.)

Shakespeare was writing to deadline, for a rep company. He had to put in stuff for his actors to do. The Gravedigger is probably in Hamlet so he’d have something for Will Kemp to play. Turned out pretty good.

About 40% of the way into any script, I usually hit The Sucky Point. That's when everything sucks. I don’t stop writing. I keep writing until I have a script, and then go back and look at it. It's never as sucky as I thought, and I can start trimming and restructuring, which is less nerve wracking since I'm almost always making the script better.

However, pro writers use tools. For example, one tool is to go back to the structure. What is the opportunity, problem or goal? How can I put the hero in a situation where his flaw gets in his way?

Sometimes when a script isn't working I take the whole thing back down to index cards and rebreak the story.

Or take it back to the one-line pitch. What goods do I have to deliver? What's a scene the audience really wants to see, given the one-line pitch?

Whenever Raymond Chandler didn't know what to write next, he had someone bust in the door with a gun. Then he'd figure out who the guy was and why he was there.

Q. Do you have someone who reads what you write before everyone and in whose opinion you trust? If yes, who´s it and why did you choose him (or her)?

My wife is a writer. I chose her because I have been madly in love with her since we were kids. However, she is also a superb writer. She has a very different perspective on the world, and she is also a very different writer. She has more of a talent for coming up with weird and fresh new things, while I'm more Structure Guy. We discuss almost everything and read almost everything the other person does, regardless whose name is on the script.

My first wife wasn't a writer, but she had a lot of input on everything I've done.

I had a co-creator and writing partner on NAKED JOSH, my TV show. She, too, was better at coming up with ideas and maybe I was better at judging and shaping them. It was a good creative relationship and a nightmarish interpersonal relationship. At its worst, a writing partnership can be like a toxic marriage, without the sex.

Q. Do you have the habit of doing research? In what consists your research?

I don't usually do a lot of research, except when my story provokes me to go look something up. However, I read a lot, so I'm already carrying around huge amounts of utterly useless information which sometimes turns out to be useful. For example, I’ve been carrying around the formula for bronze for decades, and finally got to put it in something I was writing.

Q. How many time (weeks, months, years) do you take to have a final draft of a screenplay? If depends on the screenplay, please give me one example.

How long is a piece of string?

The only thing I can put a time limit on is the amount of time it takes to write a first draft feature screenplay. That's usually about three weeks. But the outline takes as long as it takes, and the rewriting takes as long as it takes. The best answer I can give you is: much, much longer than you think when you're writing it the first time.

However, there's a lot of fallow time in there. I wrote KIKI WILDER from 2006 to 2013, but that was only one of dozens of scripts, pitches, outlines, treatments, and games that I wrote in there. You learn a lot when you look at something you haven't seen in months.

I don't recommend rewriting only one thing endlessly. Write something, go write something else, come back to the first thing. Your first idea may not be your best. I hear about people who've been writing the same script for years, and I can't understand that impulse. Is that the only thing you have to say? Really?

As an exercise, take a script you've been writing for a while, put it on the shelf, don't look at it, and one month later, rewrite the outline from memory. Compare. The new version will be better: more streamlined, more memorable. That's because anything that wasn't memorable, you don't remember.

Q. What are the best traits for a screenwriter? And the worst?

The best trait for a screenwriter is the inability to go more than a few days without writing. For most of us, it's a jones. An addiction. I just don't like myself if I'm not writing something. Writers write. If someone says they "want to write, but just don't have a lot of time for it," I’m not sure they’re a writer.

The worst trait is the inability to finish. You have to finish things.

Q. What´s the best "school" for a screenwriter? What was your "school"?

Showbiz. I don't recommend school. I recommend writing stuff and getting it out there. You need feedback from people in the biz.

Writing groups are good.

I haven't had a really great writing teacher for me. I've had teachers who were terrific writers, at least one of them Oscar-nominated, but I haven't had terrifically enlightening writing teachers. Maybe they were good for other students, I don’t know.

However, I did learn a hell of a lot about writing from an editing teacher, Oscar-nominated Richard Marks, and from an acting teacher, Joanne Baron. And from an African-American Studies professor at Yale, Robert Farris Thompson. I would say you learn the most from people in adjacent disciplines.

Q. If you could cite just one book about screenwriting, what will it be?

Well, that's a gimme, since I wrote one! CRAFTY SCREENWRITING: WRITING MOVIES THAT GET MADE!


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Tuesday, June 24, 2014

FAR CRY 3 has a spectacular case of what Clint Hocking calls "ludo-narrative dissonance." That's a fancy phrase for when the gameplay is at odds with the story. The story is about a callow college boy who is out to save his friends, who have been kidnapped by bandits. The gameplay is about destroying bandit camps so you can clear out more territory and get better weapons, and hunting wild animals so you can upgrade your ammo pouches.

The gameplay is really tight and the bandit camps become puzzles: how do you knock off the maximum number of bandits without alerting them to their danger? The problem is that you are in no hurry to liberate your friends. In fact, you do the story missions last. That way, you'll be maximally geared up when you do them. To heck with your friends! They'll still be there when you get to them, right?

 In Mass Effect 3, I recall, the LND got so extreme that I realized that whenever the game told me that a given mission to save the galaxy from the Reapers was super-urgent, that meant I should absolutely not do that mission until I'd done all the sidequests. Many of the sidequests went away the moment you did the story mission.

 In this Game Informer interview, Mark Thompson, the Narrative Director, says they're going to try to sync up the player's motivation with the player character's motivation. Sounds like a good idea, eh?

In related news, Tom Abernathy and Richard Rouse III made some good points in their GDC talk "Death to Three Act Structure". Their point is that game players experience story differently than movie watches. They remember characters and moments better than they remember plot:
MS User Researcher Deborah Hendersen did a study a couple of years ago that might help to answer that question. She discovered that players really hardly remember the specific plots of the games they play. When asked “tell me the plot of your favorite game” players were unable to talk at length or with much accuracy. However, they were *very* able to recall the plots of movies and TV shows they loved.
And, of course, in open world games, it's not really possible to tell a three act story -- you have no idea in what order the player will encounter your narrative material.

So, focus on great characters and great moments.

The more I know about story, the more I realize that it isn't everything.

Both the interview and the GDC talk are worth checking out. 


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Friday, June 20, 2014

Q. I am trying to get in touch with Bill Prady and it appears from some Google searches you know him.

I have 6 scripts attached for The Big Bang Theory. They would be 6 of the best episodes ever, and the one entitled [snip] will win an Emmy for Mrs. Cuoco. I implore you to just start reading it, it encompasses everything the Big Bang Theory is about.

I realize you folks hear this a lot, but Chuck and Bill really needs to see these. I have a lot more where those came from and many more ideas.

Wow, so many things wrong with this email!

One, do not send attachments to someone who hasn't asked for them. No one practicing good Internet hygiene will open them.

Two, do not send attachments to someone who hasn't asked for them. It is extremely rude. Ask if someone wants to read your spec, then send if they say it's okay. They might ask you to sign a release. They might not read other people's material. I do not read the material of strangers unless they sign a release and pay me for an evaluation. It's not my job. I'm a writer, not an agent or a producer. I occasionally read scripts of writer friends of mine.

(See, "No, I Will Not Read Your F#@%ing Script" by Josh Olson for only some of the many reasons why.)

Three, Bill Prady does not want to read your Big Bang Theory scripts. Bill Prady has an office full of writers generating Big Bang Theory scripts, based on conversations he's had with them about the specific needs of the show. You, on the outside, do not know what these are. Your scripts will read spectacularly wrong to him, no matter how close you think they are.

If your scripts are really excellent, then send the best one to an agent. If she likes it, she'll ask for a spec of a different show, or possibly a spec pilot. No one wants to read more than one script from a show from you. If she likes your two scripts, she might be able to get you work on another half hour sitcom.

Star Treg:TNG famously bought spec scripts from the Cloud, but I've never heard of another show doing that.

Four, just because I wrote up a talk that Bill Prady gave a few years ago, that makes you think I'm on a script-giving basis with him? Oh, if only. I would indeed give him a script I thought was amazing. My own. My wife's. If I thought he was receptive to more than that, I might give him the occasional script by a friend I think is really funny. I might give him one every, oh, five years. You don't want to wear out your welcome. Generally you get one shot.

A friend of ours from high school, for example, is a big deal agent in a specific market niche. We have never sent him a script, because we didn't have anything we thought was perfect for him. We did not want to waste his time. (As luck would have it, he noticed she'd won her second Writer's Guild Award this year, and emailed her.)

Five, never send someone a whole bunch of scripts. What if they read the worst one first? Send the best one. If they want to read more, trust me, they will ask.

How do you know I even watch Big Bang Theory? How would I know if your spec was good or bad? If you asked me to critique your BBT scripts, I would have to refuse, because I don't know the show well enough to judge them.

Six, no one wants to read your spec script without a release. You know why? Because if we were ever to read your script, and didn't have a release from you, and later on we wrote a script that you, for some reason, thought was full of your stolen ideas, then you might sue. You would almost certainly lose the suit, but it would still cost a month and $5,000 to get the lawsuit thrown out of court. I would rather spend that money on Zinfandel.

So I did not open your attachments, and I have deleted your email.

Good luck, eh?


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Saturday, June 14, 2014

One of the standard bits of advice that the successful give to the aspiring is "write for yourself, and the money will follow." (Well, except for these guys.) It's a specific case of the broader platitude "Do what you love, and the money will follow."

It's wonderful advice for the successful to follow. Pretty much every breakout success happened because someone believed the world needed something only he or she had -- a personal computer, a better way to index the Web, a story to tell.

And for many people, it is excellent advice. Me, for example. I never really considered the odds against becoming a pro screenwriter. I just kept at it until I could support myself. (And I never had to be completely indifferent to the market; people encouraged me all along the way.) Took longer than I had planned, but now I look at my high school classmates who are doctors and lawyers and bankers, and a lot of them are trying to get out of their business. A friend of mine who's a surgeon is trying to put together a singing and acting career. On a larger scale, while I've made a good living (and sometimes a great one) for, let's say, 14 out of the past 15 years, so many of the businesses that were supposed to be safe turned out to be much sketchier. Who ever thought you could bust your butt for years to become partner at your law firm and then the partners could fire you in a downturn?

The problem with this bit of advice is that you almost never hear from the failures. For everyone who follows their bliss and makes it big -- or makes a living at it, at least -- there are uncounted numbers who follow their bliss and fail horribly. 

I get emails from people who have written all thirteen scripts for the first season of their TV series. Unfortunately, they have no credits, and that's not how you make a TV series. 

The truth is, "follow your bliss, and the money will follow ... if your bliss happens to be something that everyone turns out to want." 

See, the problem is, when Matt Weiner writes MAD MEN or Marc Cherry specs DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES or Sylvester Stallone turns down $100,000 for ROCKY after he's had to sell his dog -- they have something that, in retrospect, the market wanted. What they loved and believed in, other people came to love and believe in, too.

I bet, as well, that a lot of people told Stallone he had a pretty amazing script. And people worked with Marc Cherry to help him make his spec amazing. And Stephen King's wife encouraged him to keep writing, and rescued the manuscript of CARRIE from the fireplace. 

"Follow your bliss" is not a blueprint for monomania. The truth is, nobody succeeds alone. Creating something good and new is a tug-of-war between listening to yourself and listening to everybody else. 

I'm sure Marc Cherry had nine other ideas he would have loved to write in addition to DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES. But he had a sense that DH would make it. I'm sure Matt Weiner has a folder full of ideas crazier than MAD MEN. Even Sylvester Stallone had another idea -- about a troubled vet in a small town with a mean sheriff -- that didn't get picked up till he was a star.

It is true that you have to write what you love. If you're not loving what you're writing, probably no one else will like it either. (Unless you're a neurotic genius who never likes their own work, but it's really good anyway. But that's rarer than you might think.) If you're bored, the audience will be, too. And life is too short to write stuff you're bored by. Why go through the trouble of being a writer if you're bored? I've never turned in something I hated. 

But I have sometimes had to figure out what I loved about a project. Most pro writers rarely turn down work. That doesn't mean we're whores or hacks. It means we have a talent for finding what we truly love in the material we're hired to work on. 

That's what I do when I consult on story: I try to find what I love in the other guy's work, and help him or her carve it out of what is ordinary and stale. It's not my job to say, "Well, I woulda done it this way." 

(And, by the way, "hack" isn't the insult you might think it is, not among pro writers. I think most of us respect the ability to hack it out -- to turn in something that's at least shootable, on time, regardless of whether the Muse is taking our calls.)

But you have to learn how to listen. As Rabbi Hillel said, "If I am not for me, who am I? If I am not for other people, what am I?"


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Saturday, June 07, 2014

I have a strange brain. Scansion sets me off. Today I saw a cheese knife at the Atwater market, and immediately an old pop song popped into my head. See if you can figure out what it was. It went something like, "I like a cheese knife, I like to boogie..."

This happens all the time. Every time I see the phrase "Philadelphia cheese steak," I hear a song by Elton John. With slightly different lyrics.

Philadelphia cheese steak, I luh, uh, uv you, yes I do.

I suppose this is what comes of writing poetry in high school. Or possibly this is why I wrote poetry in high school.


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Monday, May 26, 2014

Whitney:  "Did you see that video I sent you a link to?"

Me:  "Er, no. I, uh, might have played, like, 24 hours of Crusader Kings 2 this weekend."

Whitney:  "Good for you, man!"


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Wednesday, May 14, 2014

The other observation I had watching HUNGER GAMES:  CATCHING FIRE was that women make much more interesting action heroes than, say, men. Why:

Women are allowed to be really upset. They can still shoot the bad guys full of arrows. Katniss Everdeen spends a lot of time being really really upset. And then she shoots some people full of arrows, and then she blows a lot of stuff up.

Women heroes can kick bad guys in the balls. They can be really, really effective spies. But, then:

I mean, theoretically, guy action heroes could have feelings. But most of them are all, yippee kay yay, mother f***ers:

I much prefer writing female action heroes, frankly. More interesting for me as a writer.

It's not like this in every culture. The French Canadian show 19-2 has cops who talk about their feelings. 

But, in English, it seems like it is very unmanly to have feelings, unless your buddy has just had his head blown off, in which it's okay, so long as you then go into a rage and make them pay.

So, there you go.


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Yep, we watched it. And it was a lot of fun.

I would like to point out that this is a movie starring a woman, that grossed $424 million domestic and $864 million worldwide. So, given the right vehicle and the right franchise, women can be action stars. They make a different kind of action star, but that's my second post.

This post has to do with story vs. spectacle. So that means it has a SPOILER, k?


The Latin phrase deus ex machina means "god from the machine." In many ancient Greek plays, it seems, various complications would ensue and ensue, until in the end it looked like nothing was going to get resolved. Then a god would descend from Mount Olympos and put everything in its place. The "machine" was a contraption that allowed an actor to be flown out over the stage using a crane.

Hence, ἀπὸ μηχανῆς θεός, which translates to "deus ex machina."

In HUNGER GAMES, CATCHING FIRE, our heroine, Katniss Everdeen, is unwillingly dragged back into the Hunger Games. Philip Seymour Hoffman, playing the world's worst public relations man, has convinced the evil President that they can destroy her as a symbol of revolution if they can first get her to kill all her buddies.

Naturally she spends a great deal of time being upset about this, and then spends a good deal of time in the games trying her best not to kill anyone. And then she suddenly figures out how to blow up the fancy high-tech arena in which the Games take place, something on which she has spent absolutely no apparent thought until the last reel of the film.

Just as the roof is caving in, you might be thinking, well, how is she going to get out of this? But no worries! Because it turns out that Philip Seymour Hoffman is part of the revolution! And he is descending out of the sky in a rocketship to rescue Katniss! Yay!

Philip Seymour Hoffman ex machina.

I bring this up not to complain that HG: CF is a bad movie, or even a bad story. Structurally, it does have a big problem. The heroine doesn't seem to have a positive goal or a plan throughout the movie, just a point of view ("this sucks!"). And she does not motivate the ending.

But the kids seem to like it, to the tune of $865,000,000. (It made another million while you were reading this post.)

What does the movie have? Well, it has a character we really like, with a serious problem. It has a hate-able villain. It's got a romantic triangle. It creates a world that is recognizable as a dark reflection of our own. There are horribly rich rich people, terribly poor poor people, and bread and circuses. (As the Romans said, panem et circenses; why do you think it's called "Panem"?)

It has spectacle.

Movies are spectacles at least as much as they are stories. A movie can survive on spectacle alone. See the TRANSFORMERS franchise, and the STAR WARS prequels, both of which had far, far worse stories than HG: CF.

What I'm suggesting here is really that we, as writers, need to be a bit humble about story. I personally care a great deal about story. I even think that human beings are genetically hardwired to interpret the world in terms of story. But story is not only what happens. It is also who it happens to and where it happens. And if you have enough scrumptiousness in where it happens and who it happens to, you can sometimes get away with serious flaws in what happens.

After all, if you give us the building blocks of story -- the characters and the world and the predicament -- we can make up our own stories. We imagine ourself in the world, not mimicking the heroine's moves, but performing our own. What would we do if we were Katniss? Etc.

I'm told that part of the attraction for women watching SEX AND THE CITY was imagining oneself in Carrie's shoes but not screwing up relationships with perfectly adorable guys like Aidan.

Hence fan fiction.

That's also why I agree with Richard Rouse III and Jill Murray that story in games does not have to be a linear story. It can be presenting the player with a rich world and rich characters and a predicament, and letting him or her tell his own story through gameplay. (But that is also another post.)


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Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Jim Henshaw over at The Legion of Decency has a wise post about "The Scene You Don't Write," referring to a particularly shocking scene in the last Game of Thrones but one, involving what went down in a tomb. Also, there was a similar scene he was asked to write years ago, which he refused to write, because it would have destroyed the hero as a character.

(There are not, technically, spoilers in what follow, but clever readers will probably figure stuff out, so if are you are behind in your GoT watching and zealously avoiding social media, read not on.)

I've noticed that certain directors and certain network execs have a very different point of view than I do about what we're putting on screen. I'm all about the story and the characters. I want to tell a story that moves the audience. I've noticed that many directors want most of all to thrill the audience. They want wow factor. They want spectacle. They pay lip service to story and character, but what they really want is cool moments, especially if they can put those cool moments on their reel. How those moments figure into the story is sometimes secondary.

"Why? Because it's cool, that's why."

I'd like to say that these directors' movies don't turn out well, but it's not true, depending on your definition of "turning out." Just about everyone I know thought the STAR WARS prequels were embarrassing, but they made Panamax-sized boatloads of money.

What happens between Cersei and her loving brother is not in the novel. So one wonders what was going through the writers' heads as they wrote the scene. Was it a dictum from HBO? Their mandate is basically, "stuff you can't put on TV":

Well, you certainly can't put the Cersei/Jaimi scene on broadcast TV, now can you. So that is all win. Right?

Of course, it does make Jaimi despicable, which the writers address by having the characters never, ever bring up what happened ever again, sort of like the Supreme Court and Bush v. Gore. That's what makes me suspect that the scene didn't come out of the writing room, but was a network dictum. If the writers had come up with it, they'd have run with it.

Oh, and Jaimi is superdecent to someone in the next episode, maybe by way of apology?

So what do you do when a director or a network wants to have a character do something that is horribly out of character, and will damage the story edifice you have carefully constructed?

This is a problem that every pro writer deals with constantly; because, unless you're writing a spec, you are responsible to whomever hired you. But you are also responsible to the story; and if your credits are a bunch of crap movies, it's unhealthy for your career (though it is healthier than no credits). It is hard being a good servant to two masters. You can attempt to explain why it's a horrible idea. You can threaten to quit (not recommended). You can actually quit (definitely not recommended).

Or you can try to modulate the bad idea in some way, and twist it so that it's not a bad idea.

The two best things you can do are (a) find the good version of their bad idea, so that you are indeed giving them the scene they want, but in a context where it is not a bad idea; or (b) offer them something equally or more spectacular that obviously will not work with the bad idea, so they have to choose one or the other.

If you can do either of these, people will love to work with you, and you won't feel like a hack or a whore.

I generally find that there is a good version of most "bad" ideas. Figuring it out starts with really isolating ad crystallizing what exactly it is that the client wants. They usually want to fix something they perceive as broken. Try to find out what's behind the bad idea, even if it's lonely-puppy syndrome. ("You haven't given me enough toys to play with, so I'm going to chew on the couch.")

If you have to write the bad scene, then write it so that it can be taken out of the script without damaging anything. I.e. don't put any important exposition or plot development in it. Maybe, with luck, it will get taken out in post when your exec or director realizes what he or she has done.

Always, always respond to a bad note on a different day than you get it. In the morning, it may not be such a bad note. That's why the phrase "I'll have a look at that" is your friend.

Of course, there are some situations, like Jim H's, above, where you really have to choose between a rock and a hard place. That's where you get to decide whether you want to be a righteous, proud writer, or a rich one. Up to you. "Pride, plus a sack, is worth a sack," as the Ferengi say. But, as we say in New York, if you can't live with yourself, it's going to be hard to find an apartment.


If you want to see how the series lines up with the books, here's a handy article and chart


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Sunday, April 06, 2014

The people at Final Draft were kind enough to send me a review copy of Final Draft 9, their snappy new edition of the software.

I've been using it on my current show; I'm not a big fan of Screenwriter's not-very-intuitive interface. I haven't run across any really dandy new features, except that Script Notes are now organized. I'm sure there must be other features; I was going to look them up next week.

However, now I've got a more basic problem. After, originally, activating the software with no problem, FD9 has now decided to deactivate itself. No problem, I put my customer number back in.

Nope, this time, it won't activate. I get a buggy error message:

No problem. I call up the activation hotline. I get a message saying FD9 can only be activated online. And here's where it gets serious:

The activation people only work Monday-Friday, during Pacific Coast work hours.

Uh, what?

Y'all do know that screenwriters work on weekends? And nights?

Are you effing kidding me?

In this era of 24-7 Bangalore help centers, it is really inexcusable to have a help desk that only works 40 hours a week, Pacific Standard Time.

They really, really need to fix this.

Oh, well. Back to FD8.

(Yeah, yeah, DMc. I know.)

UPDATE:  Final Draft 9 will also not update itself unless it thinks it's been activated. That's just dumb. Doesn't matter though; even if I update from outside the program, it still won't activate.

UPDATE #2:  Called the Activation Hotline. Something's wrong with that. It's the usual "press one for Final Draft 6 through 8..." except it doesn't wait for you to press a button before telling you "I didn't get that" repeatedly.

UPDATE #3:  This post solves the activation problem.


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Tuesday, April 01, 2014

According to FiveThirtyEight, the domestic Return on Investment of movies that pass the Bechdel Test is $1.37; for movies in which the women never get to talk to each other it's $1.22; movies that don't even have two named women, it's $1.00.
Since Hollywood believes that international markets don’t want to see women in film, we also broke down the median return on investment for films based on domestic (U.S. and Canada) and international box office numbers. We found that Bechdel-passing films still have comparable returns on investment when the movies “travel."

In other words, treating women characters as if they were human beings makes you money.


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Saturday, March 29, 2014

I thought this tweet was worth promoting:

Also, decide if their loglines would make a better script than yours, and rewrite your script to match.


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Thursday, March 27, 2014

Just got off the phone with a writer friend who's been offered a lousy deal for his pitch for a TV series. The deal boils down to some money if the show goes, but no "created by" credit and no guarantee of being in the writing room. If the production company actually shot a whole first season of the show, he calculated, he'd get a maximum of under $20K, and a very, very vague non-writing credit.

The production company, of course, wants to keep their options open. They figure they'll bring on a big-deal showrunner who will rewrite the idea and want a created by credit. He may not want to involve my friend in development. He may or may not want my friend involved in the writing room. There may not even be a writing room. So the production company says they can't give my friend a credit or promise to involve him in development.

By "can't," of course, they mean, "don't want to." Of course they can. They can give my friend a (shared) created by credit. They can guarantee him involvement in the development. He's not asking for control of the show. He's asking to be part of the process on a show that he originated.

This is why writers need agents. Not just agents, but agents who are willing to stick up for them. And are willing to walk away from a deal if it's a lousy one.

The fact is, most shows don't go. If writers had to live on working on their own shows in production, all but maybe two dozen of us would starve. Writers mostly live on (a) working on other people's shows and (b) developing their own shows. The key word here is development. Lots of scripts get developed. Very few pilots get shot. Fewer pilots get picked up. Almost no shows survive their first season.

So when you make a deal for your pitch, you need to get paid every step of the way. Obviously you get paid less for a pitch document than a pilot script. Obviously you get paid less, per hour, for a pilot script (which will have to be rewritten 99 times before it's a go) than for later scripts. But you need to get paid something at each step.

And you need to be creatively involved. If you're not a showrunner yet, you want second chair. If you don't qualify for second chair, you want to be on staff. If they can't put you on staff--

--they can put you on staff. They just don't want to. They can, if necessary, pay you to write 1 1/2 development scripts and then throw those scripts out if they hate them. It's just a cost of doing business.

They can give you a created by credit. After all, it's your idea. And any decent showrunner who comes on later will just have to understand that.

If I were taking over someone else's show, I don't think it would be a dealbreaker for me that they share a created by credit. After all, they created the show. Sure, I would rewriting lots of stuff. But I'm rewriting from what they brought. Someone who tries to erase their name is a bit of a jerk.

I once optioned a script from an amateur writer. I rewrote everything. New plot. New characters. Basically, I kept his title, because it was a great title that suggested a better script than he had written.

I could have just written my own script. But that would have been stealing.

("Good Army compass. How if I take it?" asks Sherif Ali. "Then you would be a thief," says Lawrence, understanding perfectly that Sherif Ali would not at all mind considering himself a murderer, but could not tolerate being thought of as a thief, even by a dead man.)

A good showrunner does not need to steal your credit. He's the bloody showrunner. It's going to be his show to play with anyway.

Here's where your power comes in. You do not have to sell anything. They can't make your series without your agreement. You can't ask for unreasonable things -- to be a showrunner if you don't have the experience, to get paid huge money up front -- but you can insist on reasonable things. And it is reasonable to expect that if someone makes a series out of your pitch, you get some credit and money for it. That's what writers invent series for.

You will lose a few deals by insisting, in the long run, yes. But in the long run, the deals you improve will more than pay for the ones you lose. And companies that are really serious about making your pitch will ultimately consider your demands just the price of doing business. The ones that can't stomach giving you anything, I tend to think, are not the ones who will get your series made at all, ever.


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