A query letter is a business letter. The purpose is two-fold
Entice the agent to read your pages/request the full manuscript
Demonstrate you are not an asshat.
QueryShark is a book agent. (Book agents call themselves literary agents, but so do screenwriters' agents, so there you go: book agent.) She critiques query letters on her blog.
Queries for novels are allowed to be longer than screenplay queries, which, I keep telling you, ought to be ridiculously short. However, many of the same do's and don't apply. Throw the hook out there, sell the sizzle, stop talking while they still want to read your goddamn manuscript.
Are doors you can open green and ones you can’t red? Is there trash piled up in front of doors you can’t use? Did you just remove the doorknobs and call it a day? [snip]
And then who does what:
Creative Director: “Yes, we definitely need doors in this game.”
Project Manager: “I’ll put time on the schedule for people to make doors.”
Designer: “I wrote a doc explaining what we need doors to do.”
Concept Artist: “I made some gorgeous paintings of doors.”
Art Director: “This third painting is exactly the style of doors we need.”
Environment Artist: “I took this painting of a door and made it into an object in the game.”
Animator: “I made the door open and close.” [snip]
The full post goes on at much greater length; check it out.
"Door" is not a metaphor. We spent a bit of time earlier this year talking about how the player would know which doors open, which are locked, which are locked and only unlockable with a special item, and which are purely decorative.
Oh, and Studio Cypher made the first part into a poster:
Q. I am filing a lawsuit against a movie studio who I believe stole my pilot for their movie [...]. I have a copyright from 2010, and the movie was released in 2012.
Would you know of any good entertainment lawyers...?
A couple of things to consider: If their movie was released in 2012, it was presumably shot in 2011, which means there would have likely been a script in 2009-2010. Most projects go through several rounds of rewrites; development typically goes on for years.
There are many many scripts with similar elements. Many writers have similar ideas. Some ideas are just in the air. Some follow from the subject material. Can you prove that any specific person at the studio read your script? For example, Art Buchwald was able to sue Paramount over Coming to America because they’d signed a contract with him to work on the project.
If you did submit a script to a studio, they almost certain had you sign a release form. Release forms are not 100% effective (they are arguably unconscionable), but they are written specifically to insulate companies from "you stole my idea" suits.
Actually, you can legally steal any idea. Ideas are not copyrightable. You can only copyright the expression of an idea: plot, characterization, dialog, unique action sequences. You would have to prove that their movie has so many specific similarities to your script that they surely must have used your script.
Bear in mind: movie studios have lots of very fancy lawyers on retainer, who do nothing all day but fend off lawsuits. Unless you can invest $100,000 in your lawsuit, you’ll probably get swamped by their legal team no matter what the merits of the case are.
We've been enjoying Jessica Jones on Netflix. After that, we have Man in the High Castle on Amazon Prime. Last month, we ate up Alpha House.
When HBO started making its own series, it had the slogan, "It's not TV, it's HBO." This wasn't just a slogan. It was an accurate statement about genre. A pay cable show has a different mandate than a broadcast or basic cable TV show.
TV shows are about ratings. The product is not the show, it's the ads. The show is there to get you to watch the ads. So TV shows are about (a) number of eyeballs, and, to a lesser extent, (b) demographics of the eyeballs. (Good demographics kept The West Wing on the air in spite of less-than-stellar ratings.) TV shows are built to keep you watching over the commercial break, and over the weeklong break between shows. They're all about cliffhangers and act outs.
In pay cable, the show actually is the product. HBO shows are successful when they cause viewers to subscribe and stay subscribed. HBO doesn't care if you watch all their shows, or just one show, in any given month, so long as you love that one show so much you're willing to cough up $15 to see it.
But HBO shows still roll out once a week. Eventually you can watch them all in a few days when there's a marathon, and after that there's the DVD, but they're built to be watched one a week. Even in a soap opera like Sopranos or Sons of Anarchy, each episode needs to work on its own.
Along comes streamed binge-watching. Netflix shows do not have to be built to be watched one a week. Who on Earth has that kind of patience? It's all I can do to watch only one Jessica Jones a night.
Now, Jessica Jones is written by (excellent) TV writers, so its episodes do work on their own. They reach an emotional climax at the end. The storytelling slows and the camera goes in for a closeup or out for a wide shot, and you know it's time to go make that sandwich.
But it doesn't have to be made that way. Melissa Rosenberg only has to keep you away from the remote for 20 seconds. If you just sit there, the next episode will stream. She doesn't have to tell an episodic story. She could just tell a 10 hour saga. That's how quite a few people will experience the first season of Jessica Jones, after all.
Network research shows that the average prime time TV viewer watches one out of four episodes of shows they like. So much as the writers like to craft a whole season, it's not being experienced that way. HBO is appointment TV (or non-TV) so it's more likely people will catch most of the episodes. But Melissa Rosenberg knows for sure that you're going to watch the episodes in the right order, and you won't miss any. She can also assume that you've watched the previous episode pretty recently.
Unlike TV, you are probably only watching one Netflix show at once. We'll watch Jessica Jones; then we'll watch Man in the High Castle.
We need a new name for whatever this form is. It's not TV, after all. A lot of millenials don't even own TVs. They watch their TV shows on their computers.
These shows have as much in common with really long movies on Netflix as they do with TV shows. If I were watching the Lord of the Rings movies, I'd probably watch them in 45 minute chunks, or maybe I'd watch them all over a weekend.
We need another word for them, or "TV" is going to become one of those odd words like "mixtape" that have lost their physical referent and just mean the function that that physical thing used to have.
Whatever we call them, they're going to change TV as much or more than pay cable ever did.
Oh, not really. He's an important figure in the history of video games. He's made important innovations and great games. We're lucky to have him.
But I disagree with Warren Spector's evangelism for blank player characters and against linear narrative in games.
For those of you who don't know the name (you're not in the game biz, are you?), Warren Spector is famous for the Deus Ex game franchise, which gave players different ways to confront each challenge. You can stealth your way through a Deux Ex game. You can shoot your way. You can talk your way through a lot of it. You can ghost your way through it, being so stealthy that no one even knows you were there. Point is, you have "problems" that can be solved different ways, not "puzzles" that you must solve the way the designer intended.
I met Warren yesterday because I was asked to interview him as part of his master class on Game Narrative. It was to some extent an expanded version of this GDC talk of his.
After the class, we got to arguing, a bit. Not unpleasantly so, because we both agree (as New Yorkers tend to) that the shortest path to the truth is an argument.
Warren believes that games should strive to give the players room to express themselves through their gameplay. So if you like killin' dudes, you should be able to do that. If you like stealthing, you should be able to do that.
And that's a great way to make a game. (Assuming the studio can afford it.)
But Warren draws the conclusion that, therefore, the game designer must not tell you too much about the player character. We can't say the main character is shy; what if he beds everyone he meets. Can't say he's kind; what if he shoots everyone? Can't say he's bloodthirsty; what if the player is doing a nonlethal playthrough? The personality of the player may be at odds with the personality of the player character.
Underlying his point of view is the axiom that the player character isn't really a character, he's you. He's a blank slate on which you write your own personality. So on Deus Ex, for example, the voice actor was literally asked to speak in a monotone, sort of robotic voice.
It is a common notion in games that the player is you. And therefore, in the last Dragon Age, although you are always the savior of the world, you can be different races and different character classes, and you can call yourself by different names, and you can make your character look more or less like you. Fallout 4, same thing, you pick a name and a gender, you pick or mold a face, etc. These games give you room to express yourself buy picking who you are going to be. So avoid giving you any information that might contradict that.
But I don't want to be the character. I want a relationship with the character. I want to know who he or she is. I'm not going to care about him or her unless I do.
The many successful narrative games with well-defined heroes suggest that I'm not the only player who'd rather have a relationship than "be" the main character.
Of all media, only games let you actively join the fun. You can identify with the hero of a book, but you can't change what he does. You can interpret that R2D2 and Chewbacca are the real heroes of Star Wars, but Luke is always going to blow up the Death Star. You can't change who Harry Potter is.
An axiom of Warren's, I think, is that because there are certain things only games can do, games should only do those things.
Now, Warren acknowledges that games that don't let you express yourself are not only common, but often very fun, and indeed, he likes playing Telltale Games' Walking Dead; he's the first to admit he has the Walking Dead games on his laptop.
But he doesn't want to make such games;and he feels these games are inherently inferior. He feels they're not doing everything that games can do. He calls them "Low Expression" games, as opposed to "High Expression" games like Madden Football and The Sims, where the outcome is all the player's.
I don't buy purist arguments in general, and I don't buy this one.
One way we engage with the main character in a game is by making choices for him or her. But it is not the only way. There is another.
See, in movies and TV we learn the exact opposite idea about main characters. They should be as distinct, and precise, and human as possible. We should give him or her specific flaws and a specific past.
But won't that alienate people who are different from the main character?
Why, no, because we have the capacity to engage with other people.
Normal human beings have what are called "mirror neurons." They fire when we see another human being go through pain or joy or injustice or whatever. When we see someone take a bad fall, we don't just intellectually know that's going to hurt; we actually feel a bit of the pain. We feel it, we don't think it. Our nerves are actually firing.
So when Indiana Jones gets the snot knocked out of him, we feel it. And when he kisses the girl, we feel it.
And when the very disabled kids in this video feel joy, well, I defy you not to feel it too. (Trigger warning: disabled people feeling joy.):
But our mirror neurons only fire when the individual feeling the feeling is real to us. We can care about a dog or an alien, but our mirror neurons don't fire when a ten ton weight falls on the head of a cartoon character. We laugh. Hah hah, ten ton weight!
The less distinct, and precise, and well-observed, and flawed, and real a character is the less we care about him or her. Cartoons make us laugh, but the more cartoonish they are, the less we are really moved by their predicaments. "Everyman" characters get tedious fast. Saints get tedious immediately, in a story.
That's why, in Casablanca, we care about Rick, not Victor Laszlo. Victor Laszlo is set up as a genuine hero. He gets the crowd to sing the Marseillaise. He's escaped from concentration camps. He doesn't get bent out of shape about how his beautiful young wife obviously had an affair while he was in one of those camps.
He doesn't feel real.
Meanwhile, Rick is wounded, and cynical, and angry. He sticks his neck out for no man. He's a bastard to the woman he loves; he calls her a whore (that's what that "tinny piano" crack means).
And we engage with him, and we care about him, not the hero-saint in the white jacket.
I submit that the reason The Last of Us worked so well was because both Joel and Ellie were very real, flawed people. Ellie was mouthy and sullen and ungrateful. Joel was cold and angry.
So when I played Joel, I cared about Joel. I am not Joel. I do have a daughter, but she was not killed by soldiers during a zombie pandemic. But I can relate.
And when I played the kid in Papo & Yo, well, I am not a kid from a Latin American ghetto. I'm a privileged white dude from the Upper West Side. But I had a relationship with that kid. He was real to me. I can relate to his worries about Papo.
So, I believe, even in games, Warren, we storytellers create emotional engagement by creating very specific and real and human-feeling player characters. I think when people play Arthur in We Happy Few, they're going to feel what he's feeling. They are going to feel engaged, not because he's a blank slate, but because he isn't one, and because Alex Wyndham brings all of his amazing wit and humanity to the role.
And I don't feel that much engagement with Corvo in Dishonored. I don't feel his pain. I enjoy the fantasy of being a magical ninja, but how many players feel the pain when their character is shot up and bleeding? I don't really engage with Captain Shepherd in Mass Effect because he's a heroic stiff.
I think there are two ways to engage with player characters in games, and they are both one hundred percent legit.
I was in a Live Action Role Playing group in the 90's. Some people used their characters to play an upgraded, upgunned, richer, faster, sexier version of themselves. Some people used their character to play someone who was decidedly not themselves.
See, playing someone who is not you can be freeing. A lot of people play games for escapism. If you're playing a version of yourself, you're not escaping as far as you are if you're playing a well-defined character. Playing John Marston frees you to be an Old West gunslinger whose solutions to most problems is shooting someone. Playing Ezio frees you to assassinate people.
When you read a novel, you can imagine your way into Huck Finn's skin, or Ebenezer Scrooge, or Ishmael, or Elisabeth Bennet. Or you can watch a movie and imagine your way into Han Solo's vest, or Slayer Leia's bikini.
Why do you think people cosplay?
Warren's argument is that only games can allow you to be yourself in imaginary circumstances. But games can allow you to be someone else. Just because other media do this doesn't mean games shouldn't.
Games are becoming a dominant art form. By that I mean the form to which artists turn by default. In Shakespeare's time, if you wanted to express yourself, you wrote a poem or a play. In Jane Austen's time, you wrote a poem or a novel. In the early 20th Century, you wrote a novel or a screenplay. In the tail end of the 20th Century, you wrote a screenplay or a TV show. Now my writer friends want to write cable TV shows, and only if the idea doesn't lend itself to that do they consider writing a movie, and only if that's just not plausible do they consider writing a novel.
Sure, people still put on plays. But it's a niche form. You'd only write a play if that idea really only lends itself to people performing in a ritual space with the audience present.
In Shakespeare's time, people wrote poems at the drop of a hat. These days you'd only express yourself in poetry if that's really the only way you could communicate what you have to say. (Or, if you have very little to communicate, and you're afraid of being found out. Contemporary poetry is great for that.)
If you're working in a niche art form, you have to justify yourself. Why is this a play? Why is this a poem? If you're working in a dominant art form, you don't. In Shakespeare's day, of course you were writing poems. Every educated person did. Good Queen Bess wrote poetry herself.
Theoretically We Happy Few could be a TV show. Theoretically it could be a movie. But games are a dominant art form, so we don't go to TV first. We make a narrative game.
The underlying assumption behind Warren's argument is that games need to justify themselves by doing the things that only games can do. I'm saying games don't need to justify themselves at all. That's for niche art forms; for media that are past their sell-by. Sure, in some sense, The Last of Us could be regarded as a movie in which you kill zombies in order to advance to the next scene. So what? The guys who made it didn't want to make a movie. They wanted to make a game. Dominant art forms don't need to justify themselves.
And to the extent The Last of Us is a game, it takes advantage of that additional bit of identification we get with the hero that passive entertainment can't give. Because you do have a different relationship with a player character than you do with Mr. Hiro Protagonist in a novel. You are engaging actively in the gameplay, even when the storytelling is linear. So when Joel makes his big choice at the end of the game, you are a little bit closer to owning that choice yourself. Which makes it all the more shocking.
There is nothing wrong with games that are the artistic expression of the game maker, rather than the expression of the player. There is nothing wrong with Papo & Yo.
There better not be, because while We Happy Few will have expressive gameplay, the narrative is made up of things I wrote and directed and edited, and the player can't change any of them. The interlocking stories only end one way. The player characters are as well defined as I know how to make them. They make choices for you that I made for them. You will feel for them, you will be pissed off at them, you will identify with them, I believe, not in spite of their flaws but because of them. And maybe you'll identify with them even a little more because you play them.
A story is a:
Character we care about
who has an opportunity, problem or goal
who faces obstacles, antagonists, and/or a personal flaw
who has something to lose
and something to gain.
You can't tell a strong story if you refuse to tell your audience who the main character is.
So I believe we can call some games Player Expressive games, and some games Designer Expressive games, and they're both valuable and righteous and good.
So I call shenanigans on Warren, innovator and cool game-maker that he is.
On a muddy field in France, 600 years ago this day, St. Crispin's Day, 6000 English tradesmen and farmers armed with bow, war hammer and knife, and a few men-at-arms, faced 30,000 Frenchmen, among them the finest armored knights in Europe. King Henry sent his horse away so his men knew he would not abandoned them.
The knights charged down a freshly ploughed field. It had rained before. The field was mud. English arrows fell like rain. Horses fell; knights fell. More knights charged down the field, now churned to a wallow. Arrows fell; horses fell; knights fell. The French charged again, men-at-arms wading on foot through knee-deep mud. Some of them reached the English lines, strengthened by sharpened stakes hammered into the grass. They were cut down by the archers and the men-at-arms.
It was one of the greatest English victories of all time; perhaps one of the most astounding victories in the history of war.
The night before the battle, King Henry, fifth of that name, gave a speech, which Shakespeare imagined to go like this:
... And Crispin Crispian shall ne'er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remember'd;
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition:
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day.
If I didn't have my job, I would envy me. Videogame writers get to help create worlds. Unlike film, where breaking physics requires a massive CGI budget, videogames define their own worlds. Sure, a physics engine like Unreal 4 makes working within a naturalistic world much easier. With just a little coding, objects have weight and will fall; light bounces off surfaces. But it's just as easy to make an island floating over an abyss as a city park. Or a game like Monument, which uses Escher's rules for gravity, and you may be waving hello to the princess walking on your ceiling.
It would be truer to say, though, that as a video game writer, what I do is explain worlds. When I came aboard Contrast, the game world already existed. My job was to tell the story of why you're in this carnival world of shadows, and figure out who Didi was, and what her relationship with Dawn was.
Likewise, when I started working on We Happy Few, there was already a quaint English town out of Hot Fuzz, and we already had our weedy hero. When I came on board Stories: The Path of Destinies (I think that's what we're calling it now), we already had a fox for a hero, and a mad-looking rabbit. I had to figure out what his name was, and come up with stories for him to inhabit.
So from my experience, game worlds start as art. We Happy Few began as a collaboration between Guillaume Provost, our studio head, and Whitney Clayton, our art director. "What do you want to draw?" asked Guillaume, and Whitney wanted to draw Mod England. Everything flowed from there, and from a few axioms that Guillaume had for gameplay.
Game worlds first come to life in game art. Until then, they're ideas about gameplay (or possibly actual greyboxed gameplay mechanics) in a place that probably isn't special yet.
Matt Sainsbury's Game Art is full of worlds, from the original paintings that defined the pop-up world of Tengami, to Whitney's hallucinatory paintings for Contrast, to Demon Hunter, Lollipop Chainsaw, Final Fantasy XIV, and so on -- forty games, forty visions.
Obviously, it is a beautiful book. It is also a series of interviews with game creators, like Guillaume, and Mike Laidlaw, creative director of the Dragon Age franchise. (Dragon Age has some pretty nifty art, eh.) It would probably be worth reading even without the pictures.
So hey, check it out. Oh and -- readers of this blog can get a 30% discount! Go the No Starch Press site and use "COMPLICATIONSENSUE" at checkout...
TV writing has a disease at its core. It is the tyranny of the core cast member.
Lisa and I have been binge-watching season 4 of Homeland. Homeland is originally an adaptation of Prisoners of War a very gritty and naturalistic Israeli series about Israeli solders who have returned after years of captivity among their enemies. One of them may have been brainwashed. But what is his plan?
What sucked us into the first seasons was fraught situations, plot twists, characters with strong but hidden and possibly changing motivations, long story arcs and intelligent writing. Moreover, I felt a sense that the writers had consulted people who knew something about spy craft. It was a bit like Aaron Sorkin's years on West Wing, where things happened that bore some resemblance to what happens in the White House, as opposed to John Wells' years, where things happened that bore some resemblance to what happens on E.R. HOMELAND SPOILERS FOLLOW *
We're about six episodes into Season Four when everything starts to go to hell, in the sense that the writers start making random stuff up to be dramatic. Saul, the former head of the CIA, is tricked into entering an Islamabad Airport bathroom where he's knocked out and spirited off to the tribal areas. (Never mind that no one would send the former head of the CIA to any airport, let alone Islamabad, without a platoon of security.) No one notices that he didn't make his flight. Then, just as Carrie Mathieson, the CIA station chief, is about to order a Hellfire missile fired at a top Taliban leader, it turns out the leader has Saul prisoner. She orders the shot anyway. Her sidekick nixes it. The soldier at the controls doesn't fire.
Now, there are all sorts of things wrong with this. TV writers regularly ignore chain of command in their writing, even though they are acutely conscious of chain of command in their own career. If the station chief order the shot, the soldier takes the shot. Moreover, it is obviously the right decision. Saul knows too much. He's going to be tortured for his information. He himself would order the shot.
But, you see, Saul is core cast. He can't be killed.
There is a long TV tradition of risking the lives of the many to save one person that the star knows well. In real life, Saul is a dead man, but before he dies, he will give our mortal enemies weapons to use against us, and dozens or hundreds of people will die. But no, we can't kill Saul, because Carrie cares about him, and so do we.
What's tedious about this is that Carrie killing Saul would be really interesting. How would she live with herself after blowing up her mentor and father figure? Who would she turn to for emotional stability? She's become really hard and badass in this season; this would be her hardest and baddest moment.
Indeed, one of the strongest moments in Homeland is when Damien Lewis's character Brody actually does die and she can't save him.
The season goes downhill from there. After Saul escapes, and makes Carrie swear that he won't be taken alive, she betrays him, leading him into a Taliban trap, so that he won't blow his own head off. The consequences are a prisoner exchange in which the Taliban gets five top commanders back, which leads to a truly ridiculous series of events I can't even stand to outline. (Let's just say that no, when an RPG hits your car, you do not survive with a cut on your scalp, and no, under no circumstances does anyone send all the Marines out of the Pakistan embassy.)
As a writer watching this, I feel like two things are going on. One, the writers are choosing the biggest drama rather than the truth of the situation. Big Emotion is riding roughshod over the story. (The first season, the adage goes, the stars are working for the showrunner. The second season, they're working with the showrunner. After that, the showrunner is working for the stars. Actors like to big up their emotions. Is that what's going on here?)
But two, the terrible tyranny of core cast -- under no circumstances can Saul blow his own head off unless it's at the end of a season and he's leaving the show.
This kind of crap goes on all the time in American-told stories. American heroes regularly put the lives of many at risk to save one person. Captain Kirk will always ignore regulations in order to save a friend. If Homeland were on Japanese TV, I don't doubt that Saul would indeed blow his head off to prevent his government from giving up five top Taliban commanders -- and Carrie Mathie-san would have a beautiful moment with him on the phone, wishing only that she could be the one killing herself in his place. Hell, even on Canadian TV (see Flashpoint).
I sometimes wonder if it is only a reflection of the American character, or if the flaws of the film and television media actually feed back into American culture. What am I saying? Of course they do. After generations of heros saying "never tell me the odds," and "we have to risk it" and "I don't care what the experts say," you wind up with yippee-ki-yay foreign policy driven by politicians who haven't actually been to war, but have seen it on TV. We think of ourselves as invincible, because we think of ourselves as core cast. That's how we end up invading Iraq.
So ... what about Game of Thrones, you say? Or Sopranos? Yes, well, that's HBO. They mean it when they say, "It's not TV, it's HBO." About the only person you can be sure will survive to the end of The Sopranos is the point of view character, Tony. I suspect Tyrion Lannister will make it through to the end of Game of Thrones, because he's so much fun, but I never thought they'd kill off Jon Snow, what with him having a whole backstory set up for him where he was the Hidden True Heir and all. And they did.
And isn't that more interesting? When Joss takes away Jenny Calendar's immunity, or Tara Maclay's, doesn't that make us much more engaged with his other characters?
But more importantly -- isn't the story what's important?
Well no, not on TV. I interviewed Ron Moore about Battlestar Galactica in Banff years ago, and I asked him about some of the sillier permutations the cast of the show went through -- where fighter pilots became politicians and so forth. His answer was that, for him, the show is the core cast. Call it Battlestar Galactica all you like, but the show is not "things that happen relating to a warship," it is "things that happen to some people who were on a warship when the show began."
This is the tyranny of the core cast. I hate it. I hate it because when I watch TV, I know the writers are going to betray the characters and the story any time the alternative is killing someone with a season contract. That puts me in a foul mood all day.
Every medium has its flaw. In games and film, the hero has to motivate everything and make all the choices; you can't have a passive protagonist like Ishmael in Moby Dick. Plays, well, everything has to be resolved by talking.
Watch this now, before it's pulled down: http://blackandchrome.wordpress.com/.
UPDATE: Yep, it came down a day later! Hope you got a chance to watch it. I hadn't seen the movie before I watched it. I did not feel any need for the dialog I was missing; there wasn't much, anyway. The black and white was thrilling.
One can't help wondering who posted this. Since they clearly had access to the separate music, SFX and dialog tracks, it was an inside job. My guess is it would not have happened without the blessing, or contrivance, of Mr. George Miller himself. Thank you, sir!
One thing I have learned is that the audience is a terrible listener. They are pretty good at noticing things they see. But they don't listen so good.
So, first of all, if you want them to absorb a bit of information, it's probably a good idea to throw it at them a couple of times.
"The thing is ... she was thirteen." "Thirteen?"
Second thing is, the audience often seems to form visuals from the words you use before they process the grammar. So if I write, or say, "she's not a redhead," the first image that's going to pop into the audience's mind is a redhead. And that's what sticks. At the moment they hear or see "not a redhead," they may process the negative, but ten minutes later, they may only remember "redhead."
So I try not to use specific, visual negatives in dialog or in action description. For example, I'd avoid writing, "For once, San Francisco Bay is free of fog." That sentence is bad visually because half the audience is going to just read, or hear, or remember, "San Francisco Bay ... fog." Instead I would take care to write, or have a character say, "Across the bay, he could see the wind rippling in waves across the grass on Mount Tamalpais."
I mean, obviously there's no fog, who's even talking about fog?
This is why politicians are smart to change the subject rather than deny. We remember Richard Nixon's "I am not a crook," partly because he was a crook, and partly because the most powerful word in that sentence, the takeaway, is the word "crook." What people took away from that sentence, to some extent, was "Richard Nixon ... crook." Same thing is going on with "I did not have sex with that woman": aside from its deceitfulness, it makes you think about Bill having sex with Monica, which you probably didn't want to do. Clinton was much better in 1992 when he refused to confirm or deny whether "we've had our difficulties" meant that he was a hound dog; "I think the American people get it," is all he would say, and we did.
Don't put images in people's heads if you don't want them there; it's very hard to get them out again.
I played a game that did some interesting things with narrative, which I won't name, so hopefully I won't spoil anything.
The game is meant to be a narrative puzzle. Oddly, it is not a puzzle so much about "what exactly happened" or "who done it," but "what is the nature of the main character?" Are they who they say they are, or are they lying, or are they deluded themselves?
It's usually a rule that the protagonist of a story, or a player character, shouldn't know anything important that the player doesn't know. Otherwise it alienates the viewer/reader/player: how can they feel engaged emotionally with a character that's partly withheld from them. It feels like a cheat if the narrative holds back something that the story later hinges on.
However, in this case, the player character is not the main character. The player character is interrogating the narrative, but never appears in the game, while the main character is the person whose story the game contains.
So it's a legit mystery. The game is entitled to set the goal, and is entitled to set the obstacles to achieving that goal. It's okay that the player character has no way to establish something that, at another time and another place, could have been reasonably easily established. That's the setup. The narrator is entitled to define his or her terms.
What bugged me, I think, is a tone problem. Odd that a tone problem would mess up a mystery story, but I'll tell you why.
There are two main explanations of the narrative in the game.
One is that an extremely implausible series of events happened.
The other is that the main character has an extremely rare (and, some argue, nonexistent) mental disorder
But these two extreme, stylized interpretations come out of a series of gritty video clips of an actor acting in a naturalistic, human way. The actor isn't brilliant, but the performance doesn't come across stagey or forced.
So do I set my suspension of disbelief on "high" or "low"? I can look at interpretation one and think, well, that's an extremely implausible series of events. If I heard that in real life, I wouldn't believe it. I'd think I was dealing with a crazy person or a scammer.
But this isn't real life, this is a video game. I've believed crazier stories in video games.
So I go look at the other interpretation. If I met someone manifesting this particular mental disorder, I would pretty much assume they were faking something they saw on TV.
But again: this is a video game. Video games are entitled to heightened reality. And maybe the game makers don't know that this mental disorder doesn't look like they depicted it, and possibly doesn't exist at all.
After all, early on in the narrative we keep hearing about fairy tales, so maybe this is all meant to be interpreted as a fairy tale.
Okay but -- I'm supposed to be choosing between two interpretations, aren't I? So if I'm judging by the standards of fairy tales, how can I possibly call shenanigans on one interpretation and not the other? And if I'm judging by the standards of the real world, I have to call shenanigans on both, and then I got nothing.
So the lesson is: you have to define your tone. If something is meant to be a fairy tale, then you should introduce some magic into your story. It's dangerous to present your fairy tale as a completely naturalistic true-crime story, because it will get judged by the wrong standards. And the flip side of that is that if you intend your player (or viewer or reader) to call shenanigans on a character or a series of events, then you need to make clear that any inconsistencies are the results of the character lying rather than metaphorical story telling...
... or sloppy writing. When the audience doesn't know the story teller, they won't necessarily trust that everything in the story is there intentionally. Does the game maker know his mental disorders, really? Or is he just following what he's seen on TV?
Take Dexter, the TV and book serial killer who only kills Very Bad People. Such a person probably does not exist, but it's the premise of the series, so we accept it, and we also accept that we are not watching a truly realistic portrayal of a serial killer, we're watching a pay cable TV drama.
But that means you couldn't hang an episode on the audience suspecting that he's lying because he's showing empathy that a real serial killer isn't capable of -- because he's not a real serial killer.
And you really couldn't hang a spec episode on that, because how is the reader to know whether you are intentionally writing a character that is inconsistent with reality, or that you don't know what you're doing.
You have to ask yourself if your narrative depends on the audience being sure you know what you're doing.
This is where "hanging a lantern" or "addressing" the plot comes in handy.
If you have a character like Dexter behaving uncharacteristically for a serial killer, you could have two characters arguing about him. One could say, "no real serial killer has empathy." The other one could say, "this one does."
Now the audience knows that you do know what you're doing, and the inconsistency in the episode is intentional. Depending on where you take the scene, you can then leave us pretty sure that the Dexter-ish character is pretending, or that he really has a heart, or you can be ambiguous about it. But at least you're not being muddy.
Because of the way the narrative is told in this particular game, the game maker didn't have an opportunity to tell us whether he means his mental disorder to be a fairy tale mental disorder -- in which case it could be "real" or "true" within the world of the game -- or a real mental disorder -- in which case we'd reject that interpretation. And no actually impossible things happen in the extremely implausible series of events that is the other interpretation, so we can't tell if we're supposed to reject that interpretation as really unlikely, or embrace it as a fairy tale.
Telling a story isn't just about the story. It's also about who's telling the story, and to whom. You have to be aware of who you're telling your story to, and who they think you are.
(Trigger warning: politics! This here is a post about narratives in politics, so feel free to skip it if you came here for game writing or screenwriting.)
There have been an awful lot of articles in the press about how Hillary Clinton is a terrible candidate. They're making a lot of Hillary's dubious decision to keep her State Department emails on a private server, and her BS explanation that she didn't want to have to carry two devices.
Casting my mind back to the 2008 primary, my memory is that she blew the race in January and February, but by March, she'd found her voice and her message. She'd gone from I Am the Experienced Candidate to I Will Fight For You. She pulled huge crowds in Texas. Sixteen million registered Democrats voted for her. If she'd been that candidate in New Hampshire, with that message, she'd have won the primary, and crushed John McCain.
I doubt that after four years running the State Department, she's a less convincing presidential candidate than she was in 2008.
So where are these articles coming from? The simplest explanation is that journalists love a horse race. You won't get any column inches for writing that yep, the presumptive Democratic nominee is going to win the nomination, or that in a booming economy, she'd probably beat the Republican nominee, who will be a right-wing yahoo or another politically crippled "moderate," unless he is, yikes, Donald Trump.
But, seriously, keeping her emails secret is a pretty weak stick to beat Hillary with. My guess is that most independent voters are going to have trouble understanding what the fuss is about. My guess is that most Democratic voters are going to remember that the right wing has been hating on Hillary since 1992, and accusing her of all sorts of things (she had Vince Foster murdered! Benghazi!), and the attacks are just going to sound hysterical.
Which is kind of a shame, because it was naughty, and her explanation was unbelievable.
But boy, these journalists are repeating each other's talking points a lot. People thought Hillary was being paranoid when she said there was a "vast right-wing conspiracy" against Bill, until it came out that there was, in fact, a vast right-wing conspiracy against Bill. It's not hard to believe that there is some coordination going on behind the scenes. I don't doubt that Jeb Bush would rather run against Bernie Sanders than Hillary. There are probably a lot of Democratic bigwigs who hate on the Clintons, too, and they'd really rather hand this extremely winnable election to John Kerry (who blew 2004) or Al Gore (who blew 2000) or Crazy Uncle Joe (who has been losing primaries since 1988).
(In the absence of a war, presidential elections are almost always about the fundamentals of the economy. The incumbent party almost always wins them if the economy is good. Unemployment is at 5.1%. The market is at an all-time high. The dollar is strong. The economy is fundamentally good.)
So what is interesting enough about all this to talk about on a blog about stories? My point, as always, is the power of a story. Hillary being a weak candidate is intended to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. If enough people start telling the story, maybe she'll become a weak candidate. Certainly she won't have any serious competition until enough people start saying it. You'll notice there are, as yet, no Democratic governors running against her, but maybe one could be lured into the race if she seems crippled.
And now, there are polls to point to that say she's a weak candidate. That's the self-fulfilling part. Of course the polls are down, because there's been nothing but negative news about Hillary. But with the polls down, now you can have more articles about how she's crippled, and that will bring the polls down more...
So, what does Hillary need to do about it? She needs a story. So far, she's been playing defense. She's been issuing silly explanations of the emails thing (she didn't want to carry two devices? c'mon), and recently she apologized. That might make the emails story old news, but she needs to come up with something that is a new story. You can't fight a story by telling people it's a bad story. You counter a story with another story.
But how do you come up with a story? Journalists practically refuse to cover policy as a story, even though kind of the whole point of an election is to allow voters to choose between policies. To get any traction with policy -- to make a story out of it -- you have to say something really outrageously stupid, like "I'm going to deport all 11 million illegal immigrants" or "I think we should seriously consider building a wall along the Canadian border."
Or at least, you have to say something daring. E.g. Hillary says "I'm not only going to embrace and defend Obamacare, I'm going to extend it." "I'm not only going to defend investment in solar power, I'm going to double down. Because, y'know, it's a huge success, and nothing would be better for our national security if the Russians and the Arabs stopped making a ton of money selling oil."
(I'm a big fan of Democrats selling alternative energy as a national security issue, rather than solely as a climate issue. If the world didn't run on oil, Saddam Hussein would have been no more than an irritant, Isis would run out of money, and Russia wouldn't be able to afford to invade Ukraine. People are willing to spend bazillions of dollars to blow up bearded guys with AK-47's, why not spend some money bankrupting the real enemy? "Let's stop putting money in the pockets of people who hate us" is a better story to convince independents and even Republicans with.)
But I'm not sure it's even important what the policy thing is, so long as you can turn the story into "Hillary has a bold proposal." The message should be "I have opinions, I have guts, I have new ideas." Americans always want to hear that the candidate has guts and new ideas. Guts and new ideas are practically the American religion. That's why so many people dig Donald Trump. He's an irresponsible blowhard, and he really wants to stand on a balcony in front of a crowd, but at least he's saying what he really thinks, and he's not toeing the party line.
This is the other game I've been writing. Reynardo the Fox is a clever rogue, but not as clever as he
thinks. He’s got himself sucked into a Rebellion against a mad, wicked Emperor, and
he’s got fateful choices to make. Rescue his best friend, the master spy
Lapino, wield a gem dedicated to a dead god, or resurrect a legendary siege weapon?
He’s still in love with Emperor’s daughter, the sorceress Zenobia. He’s
got a million ways to screw this up. And, just maybe, he can figure out how to be a real hero and save the world...
Yep, this is sort of a tongue-in-cheek mashup of the old Renard the Fox characters with a Lovecraftian universe, with fun, Bastion-style narration tracking your choices and their consequences along a branching tree of mostly bad decisions...
In between the two games I'm writing (We Happy Few and Stories: The Path of Destinies), I've been perusing The Game Narrative Toolbox. It's written by a quartet of extremely experienced game writers from the world of triple-A, one of whom is my buddy Ann LeMay.
There are all sorts of hidden rules in game writing. For example, one of the challenges in writing We Happy Few for me, as a recovering screenwriter, has been our studio head Guillaume's insistence that the player's goal line up with the player character's goal. A character's goal in a story can be anything: to save the world, to lose his virginity before senior year in high school starts, to show up his father, to make the best cheese in the world, to win a dog show.
In a movie, all I have to do is convince you to care about the protagonist, and you'll automatically root for (or against) him or her achieving that goal. Few of the audience for Best in Show were dog fanciers.
In games, G's philosophy is, the player does not automatically have the same goal. Most game developers have heard of the four Bartle types. Players play to kill, to socialize, to explore and to achieve. Most of the console and PC games you've heard of try to hit three or four of these motivations to play. Witcher 3, for example, which I just finished, is about killing monsters, about exploring a world, and about achieving certain goals. I'm willing to bet that the developers considered making a multiplayer mode, too.
So, back to cheese. While Achievers might dig a game where you make the best cheese, what about Killers? What about Explorers?
So we need to make the player's goals line up. In a shoot'em-up, that happens more or less automatically. You play Splinter Cell because you want to kill dudes. The hero is a dude who kills bad dudes, and the story is about how there are all these bad dudes he has to kill. But what about cheese?
Say the next step in my cheesemaking challenge is to get a special kind of rennet (a cheese ingredient). The player probably does not have strong emotions around rennet.
But I can show the player a beautiful, high-security building he's going to have to sneak into in order to get it. I can warn him that his chief competitor, Aloysius B. Abernathy, is plotting to buy up all the special rennet. And I have cleverly been building lore about a secret society called Blessed Are the Cheesemakers that hopes to control the world through cheese. I can hint to the player that he will discover a Big Secret about Blessed Are the Cheesemakers inside that high security building.
Now the player has all sorts of game-y reasons to get that rennet. They are not the reasons that the player character has. He'd really rather buy his rennet on Amazon (just as you can, you know, buy the book on Amazon by clicking on the picture of the book). But I've made the player and player character goals line up.
It's particularly important because there is a significant subset of gamers that just don't care that much about story, just as there are moviegoers who are just there for the pod races. They want enough story to tell them why they're supposed to kill the Thing in the Sewers, but just enough. The reason the player character has for doing it is not at the center of the experience; it's an excuse.
It's been on my mind a lot, because I've been working on how to line up the player's goals in We Happy Few with the goals of [character name redacted] as he [redacted][redacted] the [redacted].
Well, triple-A games have more of these hidden rules than indie games do. First of all, in triple-A, the writer is one of a dozen people involved in narrative design, on a team of 600 people, to pick numbers out of a hat. That's a very different writing environment from mine, where I'm the guy writing the story and the lore and the dialog and even directing the voice actors. So communication is much more involved. There are way more memos and meetings.
THE GAME NARRATIVE TOOLBOX (remember? that's what this blog post is about) is all about these hidden rules. It is full of the things that you would not automatically know about AAA game writing, or game writing in general, just by consulting your common sense. How do you make an epic plot into a relatable plot? What are the elements of good quest-giving dialog? When can you give exposition and when should you never give exposition? What's the difference between the lore you can impart to a raid party of players who regularly play together, and the lore you can impart to an ad-hoc party?
Cleverly, since this book is pitched at beginning-to-intermediate writers, the book has lots of exercises you can do for practice, and to build your portfolio. I'll be consulting it too. Indie means you don't necessarily do things the way the big studios do them; sometimes because you're trying to do something interesting, more often because you can't afford, say, motion capture, or 20,000 barks. But you're wise to know how they do them, and depart from their ways only when you have a specific reason to do it.
It is a bitter joke among my screenwriter friends that the way you get a TV show is that you create a truly interesting character, in a fascinating environment, whose family has complicated, fraught dynamics... "and he solves crimes."
It is a cliché among high school drama classes that Hamlet is about a man cursed with indecision. What is up with that guy? If Othello had been in his shoes, he'd have killed off Claudius in Act One, scene 2. (To be fair, if Hamlet had been in Othello's shoes, he'd have laid a trap for Iago.)
A playwright and perfessor named David Ball has written a really brilliant book on how to read plays called Backwards & Forwards. He makes the interesting point that to understand a play you have to read it, yep, backwards and forwards. Going forwards, anything can happen. Hamlet could find out his mother's married his uncle after his father died mysterious, and bugger off back to Wittenberg U. Hamlet could avoid the poisoned blade. Hamlet could turn out to have ingested small portions of the poison over years to render himself immune to it. But if you notice that (SPOILERS) at the end of the play he offs someone important (HAH NOT REALLY), you can work backwards step by step until you see the train of consequences that gets him there from the Ghost's first speech. Only then can you understand how the play is constructed.
And, in doing so, he makes a much more specific point. Hamlet is not at all indecisive -- once he knows that Claudius is guilty of murdering his father in Act Three.
Well, you see, in Elizabethan times, if you saw a ghost, you had no way of knowing if it was your father, as it appeared to be, or a vision sent by a witch or a devil. Sure, the ghost says that Claudius murdered him. But maybe he's lying!
So, for the first three acts, Hamlet is a detective. He adopts a pose of madness. He organizes a play for Claudius to watch about a nobleman who snatches a crown by murdering his brother -- and then he closely observes Claudius's reaction to it. He gives a soliloquy about killing himself when he knows that Polonius is spying on him. (It is not, in fact, a soliloquy!)
He is not indecisive. He does not know the facts. He very decisively seeks to get them.
Shakespeare is a funny playwright for modern audiences and modern theatre companies. His language is some of the best poetry in English. His plays, however, are not "poetic" at all. They are not "art plays." Their subject matter is always something clear: power, love, money, love vs. money, love vs. power, power vs. power. They have fast-moving plots, with twists and turns.
And the damn things are well nigh bulletproof. If you put on a Shakespeare play as is, you have one difficult task: get the actors to understand what the hell it is they're trying to say, and then say it like that is the way they talk. If you can do that, the play will work. It will work in period costumes, it will work in modern dress, it will work with the city guards wearing Victorian bobby helmets, it will work when all the characters are women and Mercutio is mortally wounded with a butter knife.
If you can figure out what people are saying, it is not at all hard to figure out what is going on. (E.g. "Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this sun of York..." = war is over, we Yorkists won, times are good, I hate my life.) Someone will quickly tell you, often three times. Richard III starts his play by telling you that he is a bad, bad man. Romeo & Juliet tells you it's a play about lovers who are, from the first, fucked.
On the other hand, if the actors don't know what they're saying, or think they're presenting poetry instead of people trying to get what they want by talking to other people, then it becomes a morass of poetic syllables. Good poetic syllables, very good, very excellent good, and yet they are but so so, because but no one wants to sit through five acts of that.
Shakespeare is also a funny playwright because his characters are so much more immediate and straightforward than most fictional characters in the intervening Victorian period, that we forget that he is a man from a different time. When he puts witches in his play, he means witches. They're not a metaphor, they're not (just) a plot device, they're actual witches. Everyone knows witches are real! Likewise his father's ghost is not a plot device, it is a real conundrum (true ghost? devilish vision?) that must be solved before Hamlet can righteously assassinate his uncle, the King.
(Hamlet's audiences were also extremely wary of the notion of killing kings, as we are not.)
Backwards and Forwards is a very short book, under a hundred pages, practically a pamphlet, so you have absolutely no excuse not to read it, whether you are a screenwriter or game designer, because it gets to the essence of what storytelling is. Go on. You won't be sorry.
[Travelogue with some small-l liberal politics, so if you're just here for games and screenplays, this is maybe not the post for you.]
The Angle, Gettysburg National Memorial
So we went here yesterday.
About 150 years ago, a fellow named Bobby Lee thought it would be a good idea to send 12,500 of his bravest troops against the Union soldiers and artillerists behind this stone wall. It was a position that General Longstreet, who was responsible for the assault, felt could not be taken by any 12,500 men. ("Not with ten thousand men could you do this.")
The boys had to march from that line of trees back in the distance about a kilometer away to reach the Union boys behind the stone wall right in front of you. A few of them made it to the wall, and even across the wall, and then they broke, and they had to stagger back to the line of trees. Not quite half of them did make it to the trees. Pickett’s Charge has been called the high water mark of the Confederacy. In some ways, it was the beginning of the end of the Civil War.
The place has an amazing power when you are there. You cannot spill that much blood without leaving it in the ground. It is one of the few places I have been that really felt sacred. But then it has been hallowed by the dead, who fought "...that government of the people, by the people, and for the people shall not perish from the Earth."
Well, that was the North, anyway.
Gettysburg is a strange place, a Northern town populated by Southern tourists come to look at a field full of might-have-beens. Pickett's Charge was the doomed, impossible charge of July 3, 1863. Little Round Top was the all but impossible series of charges of July 2. At Little Round Top, a man told his two kids, who were carrying plastic swords and wearing little gray Rebel hats, that "If only we'd have taken this hill, the world would be a better place, and there wouldn't be so many liberals."
I don't think I could have had a fruitful discussion with him about, say, exactly when he figured the Confederate States would have freed its slaves and given them the vote. After all, the Civil War was about his rights.
It's not hard to feel that Pickett's Charge and Little Round Top are (they are, for they have become eternal) a kind of microcosm of a certain culture of the South. They are all about glory and guts, in defiance of the distance, and the incline of the hill, and the range and number and accuracy of the Union guns, and the number of rounds of ammunition they were carrying. (Little Round Top also failed because of the guts and glory of the 20th Maine, but that's another story, and a great one.)
I never felt quite at home in Gettysburg, or on the road down from Gettysburg. I couldn't quite tell why, until we got to DC, and walked around, and I realized that for a day I had been walking entirely among white people, and I am not used to that. I was only hearing English, and I have lived my entire life in multi-lingual cities. In DC it was Friday night, and all the young people working for the Obama Administration were out partying on various government lawns, where various bands were playing rhythm and blues here and there. We were back among our people.
Meanwhile there is this shooting in Charleston, SC. Various folks have noted that the state flies the Confederate Battle Flag on the capitol lawn, claiming it is about "heritage" and not, of course, about keeping its black people down. Never mind that South Carolina's heritage is precisely about keeping its black people down, and South Carolina started the Civil War precisely in order to be able to keep its black people slaves. And the flag, after being used as a flag of secession, was used in the '30's as a flag of terrorism, and in the '60's as a flag of segregation (it was put on the state capitol in 1962). Various people on the left have managed to connect the dots -- flag of white terrorism, terrorist who shouted "you're raping our women and have to be stopped" as he assassinated a black state senator -- while most of the Republican candidates have pretended it's just some crazy person attacking "religion." Yep, this is all about the war on Christmas.
[[UPDATE: Looks like the Governor and Republican-controlled state legislature of South Carolina got it after all, and the flag will go in a museum where it belongs.]]
We construct our lives out of stories. We live for stories. We live in stories of our own making. It is fascinating, strange and powerful to me to meander down into this particularly historic bit of the country to see, on the one hand, a place that is frozen in four days in July, 1863, and on the other hand, the kids working in the administration of our half-Black half-White President. Some stories work. Some stories cause harm. Some stories mend lives. A story is a powerful thing, for good or evil.