[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.
On our Kickstarter we've been getting a lot of questions about the sort of narrative we'll have -- the sort of narrative we can have in a procedurally generated world. We Happy Few is a roguelike, which means that each time you die -- and you will, a lot, at least till you get the hang of it -- we will generate an entirely new world for you. The Train Station will be over here instead of over there, the Fountain will be over there instead of over here; and there may be entirely different microscenarios in some of the houses.
Well, we are going to have a lot of traditional narrative in the game; we're just not putting it in the pre-alpha build that we're showing to people. We'll also have a lot of environmental narrative.
I have already written complete stories and dialog scenes for at least three playable characters.
What a traditional narrative in a procedural world means for us is: there are scenes out there for you to discover. But you have to go out and discover them.
For example, let's take the guy in the middle. His opening scene is going to give you a hint that you might want to find a guy who's living in the Train Station, out in the Garden District. (That's what the Wellies call the bombed-out areas of town. So jolly, our Wellies. Nothing gets them down.)
But where is the Train Station? You'll have to find it, won't you? Fortunately it is quite tall (and rather beautiful):
You can spot it from afar. Also, if you are as clever as I think you are, it occurs to you that Train Stations are often attached to train tracks.
When you get to the Train Station, a scene awaits you. You'll meet a character, and learn about their past together with you, and the world's past. And maybe they will offer to meet you at another location. If you'd like the story to continue, off you go to find that location. This one will be a little less easy to find, but still not that hard — except that simply surviving in our game is hard.
And so on through a few more scenes that tell you a complete story. You can also, at any point, abandon the story and simply craft the things you need to get out. That will be harder, but you never have to complete the story to complete a playthrough.
Once you unlock another character, you can play as him or her. He or she will have their own story, and different strengths and weaknesses.
So our stories are your basic linear stories. The "procedural" difference is you have to go out and find them, without a search radius painted in yellow on the minimap, or footprints illuminated in red because you used your Witcher Senses. And any given scene will be in a different place each time you play.
Also, of course, our dialog is more nuanced. People in our game never say exactly what they're thinking, or what they mean. They don't even necessarily say what they want. We have messed-up people in our game, whose flaws get in their own way.
But, as I said, we're saving all those yummy cut scenes for later. (And they are yummy. I've already recorded and edited scenes with Alex Wyndham (Rome), Charlotte Hope (Game of Thrones) and Allan Cooke, and they are some of the best actors I've ever had the pleasure to direct. I've also cast some amazing other actors we haven't announced yet.)
But in the mean time, there is quite a lot of environmental narrative.
There are Uncle Jack's broadcasts. You can't miss them. They're everywhere, except in the Garden District. We've recorded about two hours of Julian Casey's brilliant Uncle Jack, including some bedtime stories you will probably not want to tell your kids.
There are the "signs" you will see throughout. Graffiti in the Garden District. Propaganda posters from different epochs in the recent past. Useful items you can find or steal here and there that also tell you about the world and how it got that way.
There will be micro-stories, or scenarios, to discover in buildings throughout the various biomes we are creating. Some micro-stories will tell you about the overall history of Wellington Wells. Most will tell you about how the people who live in that house in the Village are dealing with life, or how life went wrong for the people that used to live in that house in the Garden District.
And, if all goes well with our Kickstarter, passive dialog. Lots and lots of passive encounters. We hope to get the Wellies talking among themselves. No promises, but I have written pages of conversations, including one which might be inspired by the Monty Python "Cheese Shop" sketch.
So we are planning a rich narrative, set in a procedurally generated world.
A lawyer contacted me to help him promote his services. He helps writers register their works with the US Copyright Office.
Huh. I wasn't aware screenwriters need help registering their screenplays with the copyright office, I sez. Isn't it just a Form PA? And the instructions are on the form!
Well, replies Mr. Lawyer Man, sometimes it is a form TX, and sometimes it is a "work for hire."
If it's a work for hire, sez I, then why is the writer handling the copyright registration, being as the person commissioning the work for hire owns the copyright?
Didn't hear back.
Folks, so far as I know, all you need to register your screenplay with the US Copyright Office is a Form PA. The form is super simple.
[[UPDATE: In fact, as faithful reader Eltan Loewenstein informs me, it's now online and only costs $40.]]
For what you need to know about copyright, you can check out pages 229 and following in Crafty Screenwriting. The prices have gone up a lot. The logic has not.
I don't see why you need a lawyer. Just register your script.
Frankly, I haven't registered a script in a long time. If someone were to steal my script, I'd call in my agent, and the 30 other people who read my script, to give evidence that it's my script. But if you're nervous, you can file your form PA.
You can also register your script online with the WGA. That costs $20, and lasts for 5 years. In five years, your script will probably have aged out, or you won't like it any more. However, registering a script with the WGA has important legal differences (outlined in my book) from registering it with the Copyright Offices. The Copyright Office is much better from a legal point of view.
I've been playing a bit of Witcher 3 (I'm up to level 15 I think). Beautiful open world. Fun combat. I love discovering new potions although I pretty much never use more than three of them.
The writing is really good and funny, on a moment to moment level. There is quite a bit of wit to some of the stories. There is the the dungeon of the guy who's been making magic using smelly cheese. There is the notice from a guy complaining that his donkey started to death between two troughs of food. There is the interview with the girl who complains that she never got to see Dandelion's etchings, though he always promised to show them to her. There is the battle that ends with "can we never talk about this again?"
And there is the lovely story of the Bloody Baron, who's a really terrible person and yet very human at the same time. He's well-written, and you keep having to remind yourself how awful he is.
My problem gets back to the ancient divide between story and gameplay. When I'm playing a game, I want to make choices. So when stories get too long without a choice, I get frustrated.
The Witcher 3 stories generally boil down to: talk to someone to get a quest; go to the area the questgiver suggested; use Witcher senses to find the clues (marked in red). Then Gerald will tell you what the clues meant, but it doesn't even matter, because your next search area is pinpointed on the map. Go there, search in the yellow circle, find the red things, click on them, have Gerald tell you what they mean.
In other words: the stories are completely irrelevant to the gameplay.
Now, at one level, story is bound to be irrelevant to gameplay mechanics. Story is where I tell you who your character is, what he or she wants, why it's important he or she gets it, what he stands to lose and what he stands to gain. In general, the more I control that, the better a story I can tell you.
But I'd like it better if Witcher involved me a little more in the story.
I'd like it if I had to do at least a little figuring out what the clues meant, or where they pointed. Even if the game is meant for players who just wanna kill a few dudes and not strain their brains, at least make me choose between three possibilities, two of which are actually wrong, but easy enough to rule out if I'm paying attention.
I'd like it if it were at least possible to fail the conversations with witnesses -- if there were dialog options that don't lead to me finding out what it is I'm going to find in the dungeon. So if I fail the dialog, I'm going in blind. I can still fight my way out, but I'm going to feel stupid if I applied wraith oil and I'm fighting trolls.
If I could fail the dialog encounters, then I'd have to play closer attention to what people were saying. I'd be more immersed in Geralt's story. But more importantly, I wouldn't be bored and frustrated that the dialog was taking so long. The cutscenes seem quite long. I don't want to click through them, because they're supposed to be my reward for all that fighting. But boy, they do go on.
I hope our cut scenes in We Happy Few aren't too long. On our budget, we can give the players really brilliantly voice-acted cut-scenes. We can't afford a lot of dialog options. On the other hand, building a roguelike with permadeath, we aren't afraid of giving you options that, should you take them, you will not be able to get a happy ending for that particular story. And you'll have to listen to what people are saying to be sure you're not about to screw things up. And to get the next bit of story, you'll have to find it by its description -- no map markers or illuminated clues.
The latest issue of The New Yorker has an article on ISIS and its poetry. It seems the ISIS members, when they're not blowing themselves up, or brutalizing people, spend a fair amount of time reading, reciting and writing very old forms of Islamic poetry.
The views expressed in jihadi poetry are, of course, more bloodthirsty than anything on “Sha‘ir al-Milyoon”: Shiites, Jews, Western powers, and rival factions are relentlessly vilified and threatened with destruction. Yet it is recognizably a subset of this popular art form. It is sentimental—even, at times, a little kitsch—and it is communal rather than solitary. Videos of groups of jihadis reciting poems or tossing back and forth the refrain of a song are as easy to find as videos of them blowing up enemy tanks. Poetry is understood as a social art rather than as a specialized profession, and practitioners take pleasure in showing off their technique.
They seem to like to think of themselves as medieval knights fighting the infidels:
Wake us to the song of swords,
and when the cavalcade sets off, say farewell.
The horses’ neighing fills the desert,
arousing our souls and spurring them onward.
The knights’ pride stirs at the sound,
while humiliation lashes our foes.
My immediate reaction was: good Lord, these guys playing in some twisted kind of LARP.
But, then, we all are. We think of movies and games and TV shows as entertainment. But the stories they hammer into us shape how we see the world. It matters that American movies are so often about the natural hero who trusts his gut over the smartypants scientists and corporate suits, who is brave without necessarily being smart or educated. It matters that Chinese movies so often show their heroes dying at the end.
The stories we tell ourselves are about what's important. They're not the only thing that shapes our behavior. The market shapes what we can making a living doing, or there would be no corporate suits after all. But stories are not just entertainment. Culture is not just a luxury good. It is the glue that keeps everything sticking together.
The culture of jihad is a culture of romance. It promises adventure and asserts that the codes of medieval heroism and chivalry are still relevant. Having renounced their nationalities, the militants must invent an identity of their own. They are eager to convince themselves that this identity is not really new but extremely old. The knights of jihad style themselves as the only true Muslims, and, while they may be tilting at windmills, the romance seems to be working. ISIS recruits do not imagine they are emigrating to a dusty borderland between two disintegrating states but to a caliphate with more than a millennium of history.
That is not to say that, you know, there is a direct connection between kids playing Grand Theft Auto and stealing (or downloading) cars. But the society that ignores the value of its culture, or doesn't tend its cultural garden at all, is taking a risk. The idea that entertainment and culture are not important is, itself, a story that we tell ourselves. Possibly a dangerous one. I'll leave you with a quote from Neil Gaiman in The New Statesman:
You know, I was in China in 2007, and it was the first ever state-sponsored, Party-approved science-fiction convention. They brought in some people from the west and I was one of them, and I was talking to a number of the older science-fiction writers in China, who told me about how science fiction was not just looked down on, but seen as suspicious and counter-revolutionary, because you could write a story set in a giant ant colony in the future, when people were becoming ants, but nobody was quite sure: was this really a commentary on the state? As such, it was very, very dodgy.
I took aside one of the Party organizers, and said, “OK. Why are you now in 2007 endorsing a science-fiction convention?” And his reply was that the Party had been concerned that while China historically has been a culture of magical and radical invention, right now, they weren’t inventing things. They were making things incredibly well but they weren’t inventing. And they’d gone to America and interviewed the people at Google and Apple and Microsoft, and talked to the inventors, and discovered that in each case, when young, they’d read science fiction. That was why the Chinese had decided that they were going to officially now approve of science fiction and fantasy.
We are gearing up to drop our Kickstarter for We Happy Few on June 4.
Getting ready for the Kickstarter is a little odd for me, because while we are talking a great deal about our gameplay, we are not revealing anything about our narrative. Well, almost nothing. I can show you three of our five playable characters, as painted by our amazing art director Whitney Clayton:
Each of them has their own story, which interweaves with the stories of some of the other characters. You start as the tall guy — I'm not even going to to tell you his name! — and if you play through his story you get to unlock two more.
As I think you can guess, they are not your usual videogame über heroes, not even the guy in combat boots. They are all reluctant heroes. None of them signed up for this. Each has his or her own secret, and that pushes them to do something urgent and difficult.
I can say that much, at least.
Also: you can play the whole game and ignore their stories. It is not necessary to play the story to complete the game. It might be a bit easier if you do, but if you don't like stories in your video games, well, you can take your coffee black.
Also: as planned, we will pass the Bechdel Test.
We have some fantastic voice actors. We had to go to England for some of them. Alas, when I say "go to England," do not imagine me staying at 11 Cadogan Gardens. I summon their voices from a studio in Montreal's Old Port, and they're in a studio in London.
Don't forget to take your Joy this morning!
However, the fabulous Julian Casey, our Uncle Jack, is a Montrealer, so I get to work with him in person. He's terrific. I've directed him on another, unannounced project.
But the Kickstarter is not about the narrative. We are talking about the world, and the gameplay, and the procedural generation of the world map, and most of all we are talking about our social blending game mechanic. But we are going to hold back the narrative until it's all done. The idea is that we will refine the gameplay over the course of development, in full view of our public ("open development"), and then pull the drapery off the narrative when we officially release the game.
"Social blending?" you ask? Why yes. In We Happy Few, we're trying to create a city that has its own odd rules. The main one is: act happy all the time. Take your Joy pills, and everything will be right as rain. Doing things you'd do in Witcher 3 upsets people. Running or crouching makes people suspicious. Brandishing a weapon alarms people. Breaking into houses to steal food is a sure sign that you are a Downer (off your meds). The Wellies will cheerfully beat you senseless and make you take your Joy, and then game over. (We Happy Few is a roguelike with permadeath, so you have to go back to Day 1, with an entirely new map.)
However, if you don't break into houses to steal food, you will starve to death. Heh.
So you have to figure out how to "pass" as one of the decent, happy, drug-bemused citizens of Wellington Wells, while rarely actually taking your happy pills. (You can take your happy pills — the Wellies love you when you're high! — but if you keep it up you'll overdose.) We haven't finished designing the whole social engineering dynamic yet. So far we've focused on building passive social blending. But active social engineering could go from simply saying "Lovely day for it" to people on the street, to wearing the right clothes for certain areas, to something like framing someone for murder.
It won't involve a great deal of contingent dialog; on an indie budget, that way lies madness. We're going to have to be terribly clever and inventive so people feel they're actively shaping the responses of the people around them, without being able to chat them up. One reason we're going for a Kickstarter is so we can spend the time and resources to deliver the goods on the concept.
If you want to know more about the game, here's our Kickstarter page. Come and join the fun!
A reader hired me to take a look at his query letter, which is something I do. A couple of paragraphs of the letter was about the story. The rest was listing screenplay competitions his script has been a finalist in, or a semi-finalist, or a quarter-finalist; and then listing positive comments that "coverage agencies" have given.
It's been a long time since I've been without representation, so maybe I am off base here. If you are a development executive, and you think coverage agencies and screenplay competitions are the cat's pajamas, please let me know. 'Cause I don't think they are.
Coverage agencies may provide a useful critique for writers just starting out. They can point out obvious flaws. But they are not professional readers in the industry sense. An industry reader gets paid by someone who wants to know which scripts he or she should buy. The reader provides a commercial judgement: this is or isn't something that I see our company developing.
Who is doing this coverage? This is a problem common to both industry readers and coverage agency readers. By the time anyone knows anything about critiquing scripts, they're not a script reader any more. At least, not a $50 one. Even my young friend Tommy Gushue charges a multiple of that for his excellent notes. You might get someone just out of film school. You might get someone who's in a film program at university.
Moreover, a coverage agency is hired by the writer. So they are going to tend to be really polite about the scripts they're hired to read. So I would never include a coverage agency's feedback in your query letter.
Meanwhile, a whole raft of screenwriting competitions have sprung up like mushrooms after a rain. As I've been saying in this blog since its inception, there is only one screenplay competition that really counts. It's called "getting your movie made." Entry fees are free. You just send queries to agents and producers, and if they like your ideas, they read your script, and if they like your script, they give you money.
There is, yes, the famous Blacklist, which is a poll of development executives on what they think is this year's best unproduced script. But that is not a competition you can enter. You have to already have an agent getting the right development execs reading your script. (There is also a website called The Blacklist, which has to do with scripts, but it is not the same thing at all, though I think it's the same people.)
All it takes to set up a screenwriting contest is a website. You make up a name, market a bit, and watch the money roll in. If you can get 1000 people to send in their scripts and pay a $50 entry fee, well, you have $50,000. I could probably winnow 1000 scripts down to 100 in a week. Hint: I'm skimming the first three pages. Takes about a minute or two, so I could, say, 25 in an hour with coffee breaks. If they don't sing, the script goes in the recycle bin.
The surviving 100 scripts might take another week to go through, because I've already trashed the really obviously bad ones. Maybe I read two or three an hour. Oh, who am I kidding. I read the first ten pages. Takes about six minutes. So I can read ten an hour. Ten hours, all in.
Now I've got ten scripts to read. Takes maybe a week to read them carefully and think about them. (It's really the thinking about them that takes the time. I read a script in 30-40 minutes.)
Hey, now I've made $50,000! Oh, sure, I could hire a "jury" and pay them something, and get them to do the winnowing for me. And marketing costs time if nothing else.
Oh, I probably have a $5,000 prize, and some runner up prizes, so I've really only made about $40,000, but still, not bad for a couple weeks' work. Too bad I can only have a competition two or three times a year, four at most, before I lost all credibility.
In case you're wondering: the reason I've never done this, in spite of having a couple of successful screenwriting books and a blog, is because I'd hate myself.
The point I'm trying to make is: what makes a screenplay competition legit? The people at the Blue Cat Screenplay Competition or Reel Writers or whatever may be very nice people, and they may have a passion for good screenwriting. But what qualifies them? What keeps absolutely anyone from setting up a screenplay competition?
There are legit screenplay competitions. They are associated with legit organizations. The Nicholls is the big one. It is run by the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences. The Writers Guild of Canada has the Jim Burt Prize for the best un-optioned script. But legit competitions are few and far between. Maybe the Austin Heart of Film Festival?
And here's the big problem: I think most of these evaluate scripts in terms of the reader experience. Is it a good read, the way a novel is a good read? Is it a movie they enjoy imagining?
As opposed to an agent reading your script, whose sole question is: can I sell this? And a producer, who is thinking can I get this made?
So a successful competition screenplay may be a movie that, in the abstract, might be interesting. It would get you an A+ in your film writing class. But it is not necessarily the kind of screenplay that is going to get optioned, set up, packaged and made.
Successful competition screenplays, I suspect, tend to be well written. Successful spec scripts have a great hook. Great execution is a plus, but it is not a requirement. Snakes on a Plane was not a spectacularly well written script, or even a good movie, but it got made. So Snakes on a Plane was a great spec. I doubt it would have won any screenplay competitions.
So, yeah: if you want to pay for critiques to make your script better, by all means, do it, especially if you don't know any good readers. (There are very few good readers.) Hire Tommy Gushue, or Victoria Lucas, or even me if money is no object. I would not recommend spending money to get positive coverage from a coverage agency; I don't think it will help. Do not spend money so you can say that your script is a "quarter-finalist" in the Bridges of Madison County Screenplay Competition and a "semi-finalist" at the Overlook Hotel Screenplay Convention. I don't think the industry puts too much stock in those things.
Get your writing to agents and producers. And go and write. Once you're good, you'll option something, and then sell something, and then something will get made. That's the real prize.
Two people's, actually, both of them playable characters for We Happy Few.
If you're writing non-blockbuster movies, you learn to pay attention to how much a scene is going to cost to produce. A conversation between two people in a room is cheap. A conversation between two people outside, in the day, is also cheap. A three-hander is more expensive, a dinner party is a lot more expensive, because you're going to want to shoot coverage of everyone who's not talking, so your editor can cut to their reaction shots. A conversation at night is more expensive, because the lighting package costs more, and the director is going to insist on wetting down the street, because that just always looks cool.
In video games, you have entirely different production concerns. In We Happy Few, I'm recording voice actors and then editing the audio into scenes. Our art director painted characters, a character modeller built them, and the animators rigged them. Once the audio is ready, the animators can animate the scene.
In a 3D, third person cutscene, the camera is independent of the virtual actors. So you can animate the scene and then change where the camera is without re-animating it. However, We Happy Few is a first person game, so we have made the decision to present all the cut-scenes in first person, so you never see the character you're playing.
Cut scenes take a terribly long time to animate. However, they are not the only way to get across narrative.
At the other end, simplicity itself, are things like journal entries. If I give a character a journal that the player can consult, then adding journal entries is essentially a matter of my writing the journal entries and then the level designer slotting them in. No muss, no fuss, no bother.
However, players don't tend to like to read text in a game. So, for slightly more effort and more money, I can have the actor read the journal entry.
That gets into substantially more money. We're using professional British actors and recording them in London sound studios, while we sit in a Montreal sound studio and I direct them. However, it is nothing compared to a cut-scene. A journal entry does not typically demand the apparently-wild-but-actually-quite-precise swings of emotion that a dramatic scene has. So the actor can get it right in a take or two, just reading a block of text.
Then the player can trigger the audio, and then go around doing his thing (looting, fighting, exploring, whatever) while the audio plays.
I can also make collectibles. These might be an old toy a character treasures, or a photograph of his or her parents. These are not cheap because they have to be physically modeled in the game world. That can get into a lot of world. However, collectibles can be made at the last minute and dropped into the game. Animation requires a whole pipeline. One of the last things I did on Contrast was write up a whole slew of collectibles. We didn't have time to make them all, but some of the players paid very close attention to them, and pulled out the narrative goodness we tried to put into them.
One of the paradoxes of the progress we've made in game design is that, as stories are taken more seriously, and budgets go up, the limits to story telling also go up. To have a branching narrative in a text adventure is just a matter of the writer getting to work. Add a narrator reading it, and it's expensive. Have Elias Toufexis act it in a mo-cap suit, becoming a fully rendered Adam Jensen, and you can only afford one or two branches.
All this stuff takes money, and as usual, more money than we hoped to spend when we started concepting this thing back in January 2014. So we're doing a Kickstarter, starting tomorrow, to supplement our resources. Watch this blog for more musings about We Happy Few, tomorrow at noon!
This same issue had come up in the Expanded Universe books and stories. You basically have the problem that
people identify with Jedi
they’re incredibly powerful
This meant that creators laboring in the universe had a few choices:
invent new stuff as powerful or more powerful as Jedi (which was done more than a few times — General Grievous, the Witches of Dathomir, the World Razer, a living planet called Zonarma Sekot, The Ones — OK, it was done a zillion times, which just proves my point).
tell stories with no Jedi in them, as in the original Han Solo books by Brian Daley. (Fun books, btw: The Han Solo Adventures: Han Solo at Stars’ End / Han Solo’s Revenge / Han Solo and the Lost Legacy)
Of course, the demands of games focused on Jedi also meant that the powers of Jedi kept having to go up, too! I mean, people actually complained when you didn’t start as a powerful Jedi in Jedi Knight II, and eventually, we got to the ludicrous heights of Starkiller in the Force Unleashed games: “sufficiently powerful enough to rip a million-ton Star Destroyer out of orbit and slap Darth Vader around like he owed him money.”
He goes on to explain various ideas that the developers had for designing the Jedi. They didn't want to make lots of weak Jedi; that would devalue the canon.
They had a crazy idea where you could develop Jedi powers, but the further you got along, the more trouble you would get from the Empire, until eventually Darth Vader is hunting you down.
And permadeath. Permadeath is, let us say, an acquired taste, and a marketing no-go in the mainstream game arena. (That must be why so many indies love it.)
So they had another idea where you could develop Jedi skillz, but doing that would be about as hard as it really ought to be. You'd have to accomplish a secret (hidden to you) series of tasks to become a Jedi, and the tasks would fall into all four Bartle types: Explorer, Killer, Socializer and Achiever. So you'd have to, say, climb the highest mountain, and fight X number of duels, and have a conversation with so-and-so, etc.
The Four Bartle Types
Only exceptionally devoted players would achieve Jedi status, and they'd deserve it.
And then they ran out of time, which is Why We Can't Have Nice Things in video games.
One of the things we learn in indie development is to do One New Thing. And to make it so central to the game experience that you actually Git R Done, because otherwise you'll cut it when it gets hard. There was never any danger of our cutting the shadow physics out of Contrast; that was the whole game.
Of course we are always tempted to do more than one New Thing. The danger is that it gets cut when money runs out, the way contingent dialog gets cut unless the entire narrative system is based on it.
In We Happy Few, we are going to have flawed characters. The player characters are all Slightly Terrible People. Fortunately, while that's newish for video games, it's hardly new to me as a screenwriter. On the other hand, we are doing something rather, we hope, clever with the intertwining stories, that will only become apparent after you start playing your second character. (And I can't tell you what it is yet.)
Our big new gameplay mechanic isn't purely new, but it is new in context. In We Happy Few you are loose in a city full of drugged-out happy people who will only attack you if you break the rules. So Social Blending becomes a survival skill. I don't think we've seen social blending in a survival horror game, or in an urban roguelike.
The bad thing about indie development is you don't have enough resources. If you decide to recast a character and re-record a scene (which we did), then that will come out of the budget for something else. The good thing about indie development is that, what little money you do have, you get decide how to spend. So there are no Powers That Be that will take the game out of your hands, at least until you sell it to a publisher. The people who made the features are the people who decide what features to cut. So there is a greater likelihood is that they'll cut fat before they'll cut muscle or bone, and that the game will come out as a coherent (if skinny) whole.
Our Kickstarter is coming up -- June 4. I wonder how many people will share our vision?
There's been a lot of back and forth about the latest rape in Game of Thrones: whether it was a rape considering the Ramsay Bolton-Sansa Stark marriage was arguably consensual; whether Sansa is a "strong woman"; whether the showrunners are putting rape onscreen gratuitously; whether it's "realism" or sexual assault porn or whatever else.
I have another issue with it. The rape seems to me the least interesting choice for both Ramsey and Sansa's characters. Ramsey is a vicious bastard because he's a bastard. Marrying Sansa strengthens his claim to be a legit nobleman. It could have been interesting if Ramsey actually treated Sansa decently because she is the only woman whose opinion matters to him. He's a sadist, sure, but he wants to be legitimate.
And then, of course, the show has some suspense. Can he keep it up? Or will he revert to habit?
Likewise, it could have been more interesting if Sansa had seduced Ramsey, owning her power and position, rather than just waiting for him to rape her. After all, she knew she was marrying the guy, so the sex can't have been a total surprise. Why not show some agency?
The rape is predictable and adds nothing to the story. Other choices might have added something new, and fresh, and compelling.
Is it gratuitous? The best sex scenes, like the best action scenes, are dramatic. They reveal character. They are about the characters trying to get what they want. If there is no change in the relationship, and no revelation of character, then the sex scene is gratuitous.
By that standard, Ramsey forcing himself on Sansa isn't, strictly, gratuitous. It changes the relationship. But he's done far worse things (torture, mutilation, treachery, hunting people down for sport) and Sansa has had worse things happen to her (murder of her entire family). The rape reveals nothing new about either character. A scene of aftermath in which Sansa reveals that she was raped, and what it means to her, might have been more revelatory.
But then, HBO's business strategy is not necessarily to make the best TV shows, but to make must-see shows that can't possibly be on network TV. From that point of view, we're talking about the scene, so it's all win for them.
So Austin Miller of The Art of Writing asked me a bunch of questions about Compulsion Games and We Happy Few...
Q. From the little I've been able to see (the masks, the irony, the drugs etc.) Happy Few seems to have a more "critical" voice to it, as if it has something to say about society and the way we live. Do you care to indulge us as to what that might be?
A. Sure! We Happy Few is inspired by, among other things, prescription drug culture — the idea that no one should have to be sad if they can pop a pill and fix it. It’s also about Happy Facebook culture: no one shares their bad news because it would bring everyone down. As a culture, we no longer value sadness.>
But hey, the narrative is much more than its theme. As Sam Goldwyn used to say a long time ago, “If you want to send a message, there’s always Hotmail.” We have other themes in there, like “what is truth?” and how people remember things that never happened, and how the heroic choices sometimes look like the cowardly ones, and how people can talk themselves into anything, and other subtexts and allusions and other good stuff in there, and we’re putting more in there every day, consciously and unconsciously...
I'm rewriting a script of mine for a producer. I always felt the script was a little soft -- too much travelogue, not enough story. As usually happens with some time away, the script's weaknesses are so much more in evidence. Time away is almost as good at giving you perspective as a great writing partner.
So, it's back to index cards. Just because you've written the whole script doesn't mean index cards can't help. It's hard to restructure a script with script pages. Even if you have that much floor space, you can't physically see the whole thing. So I generate index cards and start marking them up and moving them around...
On Contrast, we had the pleasure of working with the immensely talented, and tiny, Teale Bishopric. She brought our heroine Didi to life with her voice. She was such a pleasure to direct.
And now she's up for an ACTRA Award for Outstanding Perforance in a Video Game, alongside a whole bunch of industry veterans in AAA games!
At videogame dev conferences, I keep hearing how the voice acting process works in many AAA games. The actor isn't allowed to see the script until he's in the booth. Partly that is because of fanatic secrecy, partly because the writers wrote the script the night before.
This makes it very hard for an actor to do their best.
Guillaume, our studio head, and I, knew that a great performance from Didi would make the game, and a weak one would break it. So we rehearsed with her twice. I'm sure her father, Thor, who is a fine actor himself, rehearsed her a few times as well.
We also rehearsed all the other actors. We even got both Vanessa Mitsui and Elias Toufexis in the booth for the Kat/Johnny scenes, because we wanted the arguments to feel like real arguments. Sure, a good director can act the lines with the actor in the booth, and if I'm there in the moment acting with the actor, then I can tell if the performance is where I want it to be. But having both in the booth is more fun, and frees me to listen, and I think the performances show the results.
Yes, it takes time. And money. But actors love to rehearse, and if you give them the chance to rehearse, they will do whatever they can to make one happen. Rehearsing will save you time in the studio, which is far more expensive than rehearsal time, and you will get a much more human and compelling performance.
By the way, I don't really like to feed the recorded performance of one actor to the other, as sound engineers will offer to do, because I don't know how much time they're going to need, and the recorded performance will either cut them off, or give them a longeur to overcome. But I'm the writer, so I know what I want the lines to sound like, and I did some training as an actor, so I can modulate my own performance. If I want the other actor to get angry, instead of asking for an angrier reaction, I'll be more provocative. If I want the other actor to slow down, I'll slow down. Usually the writers are not the directors. And there's your excuse to take acting training.
Anyway, we're all so thrilled for Teale, and we hope she wins a shiny statue!
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This is almost as good as a free membership to My Father's Office, a fine Irish pub on Montana in Santa Monica. But they don't have Aeron chairs.
Back in my days as a development exec in LA, I nearly worked with both William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy. I was working for an Israeli producer out of his house in Tarzana; we were trying to make co-productions, to pick up enough money from this country and that to patch together a budget. Shatner signed on to be the star of our action movie, Warriors. We met him up at his house in the hills, and he had some really excellent points about his character's motivation. I went off and rewrote the script, and it was a lot better, and then foreign buyers nixed Shatner as the lead -- we literally could not finance a $2M movie with Shatner in the lead. So we had to apologize to Captain Kirk and cast Gary Busey.
That was before Free Enterprise, in which Shatner discovered that he could play a pompous buffoonish version of himself to great hilarity, which gave him Denny Crane, his brilliant Boston Legal character, and he became a star again.
The Gary Busey movie did not turn out brilliantly. I am not 100% sure Busey ever actually read the script. I'd guess he did not read it before we started shooting. But that's another story. (Actually Gary Busey is a whole flock of my stories.)
Later, we had a movie about the Israeli air strike on the nuclear reactor in Baghdad. Saddam was about to get the bomb in 1981 and the Israelis flew a bunch of F-16's across Jordan and Iraq and blew it up. They did such a good job of flying literally under the radar that the Iraqis thought it had to be the Iranians, until the Israelis admitted it.
Hollywood Pictures, a Disney film label, optioned the project. Soon, Leonard Nimoy wanted to direct it. So we had a lovely breakfast up at the Bel Air Hotel in Stone Canyon -- it's a series of bungalows nestled among trees -- and it was the first time that I'd realized that Leonard Nimoy was an old Jewish guy. He had smart things to say. He grokked the project. He liked my rewrite of the script.
And then Hollywood Pictures got excited about Jan de Bont, a Dutch cinematographer who wanted to direct, and they jettisoned Nimoy. I never felt that de Bont had any particular emotional attachment to the project, like Nimoy did; he just wanted to direct and here a studio was offering him a movie. Two years and $600,000 in rewrites later, Hollywood Pictures pulled the plug on the project. We had various conspiracy theories about why the only film label in town with no Jewish execs would do a movie about the Israeli Air Force; we found it interesting that they pulled the plug shortly after Disney successfully bid for Israel's second (or fourth, or something) broadcast TV channel.
So we never got to work with Kirk or Spock. Damn it.
It's interesting that in all the mourning for Mr. Nimoy, I don't hear the name of the guy who invented Spock, Gene Roddenberry. Nimoy so thoroughly inhabited the role over the years that we forget that Roddenberry invented Spock and the whole Vulcan species. It was Nimoy, though, who invented the Vulcan salute. It's a rabbinical gesture; the hand forms a "shin," the W-shaped Hebrew letter which stands for "El Shaddai," the Almighty: may God be with you.
"A life is like a garden. Perfect moments can be had, but not preserved, except in memory," was Leonard Nimoy's last tweet, and it is true, and profound. And it made me think of Roy Batty dying on the rooftop of the Bradbury building, saying words that David Peoples wrote and Rutger Hauer rewrote: "I've seen things you people wouldn't believe. I've seen attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched c-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in the rain."
I have something in my eye.
I wish there was a Vulcan "rest in peace."
May God be with you on the next step in your journey.
Q. ... although the Avengers did have killer dialogue, my problem with the plot was that all the action felt contrived - some really flimsy excuses for the heroes turning against each other, all the bad guys dying after they took out the controller, and so on.
Well, the heroes turning against each other was the answer to generations of fanboys' "do you think Hulk could beat Thor?"-type argument, so it was brilliant to have those entirely concocted fights in the movie.
The movie was an entertainment, eh? Audiences come to movies for multiple reasons. One is story, sure. But the other is spectacle. The pod racing in Star Trek I was gratuitous and sort of pointless, but the intended audience (kids who buy branded merchandise) ate it up.
Yeah, all the bad guys dying was convenient, but I think a the audience can figure out that without the controller, the aliens would eventually have been hunted down and destroyed like the orcs after Sauron's demise. No one wants to see a mop-up operation. Much, much better to end the movie with the superheroes getting shawarma.
I mean, a movie is a movie. I know you can't hack a computer or a network the way they do in movies, but it would be really super boring to watch real hacking, so I don't care.
I think a good rule is you can do something convenient in order to avoid something boring.
Q. I'm an aspiring author working on a novel, and have been doing so for some time. Recently a mass-market summer blockbuster was announced with several plot and thematic elements - and even one of the main character's names! - virtually identical to those in my drafts. What should I do? Should I scrap it immediately?
My immediate reaction is that if your story is so close to a recent blockbuster that you are thinking of scrapping it, you may not be leveraging the medium. A novel can have more going on than a movie. It can expand and contract time. It can get into the characters' heads. It can have a cast of thousands. It can talk about society.
Q. Alter it to be less like the movie? Wait for the film to come out and get a consensus of some kind? If so, is it better if it's a classic, a bomb, or decent and forgotten?
Well, a bomb, certainly, has less of a footprint. Our last game was known for its "shadow physics." There had actually been an unsuccessful game called, I think, Shadow Physics. But it didn't work well, I gather, so there was room for ours.
However, I'd consider writing something else that's fresher. If your novel is too similar to a summer blockbuster, that suggests to me that your plot is not spectacularly fresh, "a very ancient and fish-like smell, a kind of not-of-the-newest Poor John," as Shakespeare had it. Very few summer blockbusters have clever plots.
To get attention in a crowded market, you really need to do something that no one else has done well recently. For example, George R. R. Martin took the Tolkien tropes, took out most of the magic, and added outlandish sexual misbehavior.
As I keep stressing: your movie or novel or game has to be clever and original. Just because there are hugely successful unoriginal movies/novels/games out there doesn't mean you'll get rich writing one. Those things are commissioned by people with lots of money, and they have marketing budgets.
Q. I have read from multiple sources that producers and such are more interested in reading pilots over specs of existing shows in the past few years. Do you know if the paradigm has shifted this way?
This has been the case for a while now. Showrunners often want to see a spec script (to prove you can write their show) and a spec pilot (to prove you have an imagination and a voice).
Q. When writing a pilot, is it okay to use curse words, even if you're planning on showing the script to execs for more "family-friendly" networks like NBC, Fox, etc.? Or should I avoid cursing to make my script more accessible?
You should ideally have a different version for each network, to take advantage of their mandate. So if you're submitting to a broadcast network, your script should not contain the F word, and if you're submitting to HBO, it has to.
Walter White, you are ... despicable!
But it goes far beyond that. If you're submitting to broadcast, your main characters must be fundamentally good. (They can be good but irascible, à la House. They can also be selfish if it's a comedy.) Your villains must be fundamentally bad.
If you're submitting to HBO or AMC, then your main character should be despicable either visibly (Tony Soprano, Walter White) or internally (Don Draper).
If you're submitting to Lifetime, then your main character must be a woman.
If you're submitting to FX, your main character probably should be a man.
I forget which kid's network it was, but there was a time when you could not have too much slime.
Gone are the days where you wrote one pilot. Every network is looking for something particular. They often don't know what it is, and it changes all the time, but you can't submit your HBO pilot to ABC Family and get much traction, or vice versa.
However, the spec pilot you write to get hired on someone else's show can be more outré than the network. An HBO-style pilot can get you hired on an FX show. The goal of a spec pilot to get you hired is to be memorable and outstanding. The goal of a spec pilot to get set up at a studio is to be memorable and outstanding, and fit a network's mandate closely.
We watched JENNIFER'S BODY last night. Starring allegedly superhot Megan Fox and the radiant Amanda Seyfriend, this movie was marketed to the male horror film audience, and flopped.
It's actually a really intelligent, alarming movie. It adds nifty lore to the horror canon, and it is an insightful movie about a relationship. But the one thing it is not is a movie for young male horror fans who think Megan Fox is superhot.
JENNIFER'S BODY is a movie about frenemies. Amanda Seyfried is "Needy," the dorky childhood BFF of high school boy magnet Jennifer. (You can tell Needy is dorky, because she wears glasses. Only in Hollywood is the dorky girl played by Amanda Seyfried.) Then something happens to Jennifer, and Jennifer starts behaving, well, evil.
But they're still best friends, right? And Needy can't just give up her best friend forever, right? It is an insightful, brilliantly observed portrayal of a relationship. Sure, Jennifer may be evil, and super scary. But she still loves Needy. And Needy still loves Jennifer, to the point where people accuse them of being lovers. (They aren't. No wonder this flopped.) Which means there is a strong character/relationship reason why Needy can't Just Go to the Police.
(Every horror movie needs a good reason why the hero/ine can't just go to the police, whether it is Because She Is In a Cave, or Because There's Only One Way Out of the Valley, or Because They Are In a Simulation, or Because She Is A Wanted Criminal etc. Hopefully it is not Because the Police Don't Believe Him/Her, cuz that is boring and lame.)
You could consider this a movie about what happens when girls' urges for boys get in the way of their friendships. In a way, it's a horror take on Mean Girls. I think the best horror movies take something true about people's relationships and make it graphic and scary. They take something that would require a delicate novel to convey, and turn it into something you can watch in two hours and get it.
The movie also has fun inventing horror lore. Jennifer is not a vampire, and she's not a succubus in spite of the poster. She's something else.
In retrospect, it's easy to figure that boys were not going to recommend a chick movie about two childhood girlfriends torn apart by their attractions to boys. And girls were never going to go see a movie that claimed to be about Megan Fox being a sex demon.
A lot of beginning screenwriters figure that they can come up with something that mixes genres and get the audience for both genres. The reality is closer to only getting the intersection of the two genres: in this case, female horror fans. The genres are there for a reason.
The flip side is that, if you are marketing a movie that mixes genres, be up front about it. THE DESCENT did all right because it never suggested it was about anything but a bunch of women trapped in a cave system with some nasty critters. Based on the marketing, critics and viewers thought JENNIFER'S BODY was a terrible movie. Roger Ebert said it was "Twilight for Boys," entirely missing (I feel) the main thrust of the movie. Rotten Tomatoes gave the movie 42%.
Also, if you are making a movie that might confuse audiences, budget accordingly. The makers of THE DESCENT did not cast name actors. So the movie cost less to make, so "success" had a much lower threshold. JENNIFER'S BODY actually grossed $16M in the domestic box office ($31M worldwide); but for a studio film, that's a horrible flop. THE DESCENT grossed $26M domestic, but for an indie film, that's a huge hit.
Q. In the FAQ section of your site, you mention that it can be a little more difficult for older people to break into TV writing. I just turned 29-years old and am considering going into television writing. I know I am probably at a disadvantage compared to, say, people fresh out of college who are looking to break into TV writing.
My question to you is this: How much of a disadvantage, if any, is my age? I'm still willing to "rise through the ranks" and take on W.A. and P.A. jobs before becoming a Staff Writer and working my way up. But I know those types of jobs typically go to early- to mid-twenty somethings.
It depends what you've been doing for the past nine years. I started writing TV specs in my thirties and didn't get a TV episode on the air till my late thirties. On the other hand, I had a feature film credit, and a couple dozen feature specs, and I'd worked in indie features for years. If you started breaking into TV writing from being a TV agent, likewise, then 29 is not old at all.
Or, if you are Don Draper, it's not unreasonable, either.
If you were actually a soldier, cop, trauma ward surgeon, lawyer, or rich dilettante who solves crimes for the police, then you could parlay that into being the baby writer who actually knows something about the procedural world.
If you were, on the other hand, an accountant, then you would be, yes, a bit behind. But 29 is not outrageously old, if you're willing to pay the dues and work the ridiculous hours. I continue to think that the real issue for aging writers is not actual prejudice, but an unwillingness to eat all the crap sandwiches you have to eat to break in, or even stay, in the biz. (If you're successful, you get more bread to spread the crap on, which makes the sandwiches much tastier.)
There are also areas of TV where older people are more welcome. Kids' programming, ironically, is a haven for older writers, because they have kids.
But 29, for a writer? Not horribly old. (For an actor, 29 is horribly old. All things being equal, do not attempt to start an acting career at 29.)
Have you ever considered the possibility that print shops, email sites, the WGA/WGC, coverage services, et cetera, even the copyright office, steal non-copyrightable ideas? I recently joined Zoetrope Virtual Studio and realized that people just put their (albeit bad) screenplays up for everybody to read. If I wanted to, I could write ripoffs of these unproduced screenplays and get off scot-free. Likewise, agents can share ideas with their (other) clients, managers (especially the ones who are producers) can just steal stuff. Hell, what if an agent or a development executive or producer is also a screenwriter? It's not unheard of for production companies to do this, but what about other parties? All you need is a logline. Dinosaurs fight Nazis on the moon. Now you can write that screenplay and I can't complain about it.
I don't think print shops steal scripts. (What's a print shop, Grandpa?) I would be stunned to hear that the WGC or WGA registration services, or, Lord knows, the Library of Congress steal scripts. I would be stunned to hear they even read them. And there's no percentage in an agent stealing a script when he could just offer to represent it; and a producer won't steal a script when the writer would probably be only too happy to option it for a buck.
But writers? Especially non pro writers?
I have often wondered about sites like Zoetrope, where bazillions of nonpro writers post their loglines, and read other people's loglines. If you've got a really great hook, the only thing keeping other writers from stealing your hook is the knowledge that you've already written the script, so they're at least six months behind you. Is that enough? Usually it is. But if they have access to your script and find out that you've done, in their opinion, a really terrible job delivering the goods on our hook, they could poach it.
When I was teaching a writing seminar, I came across a script with a brilliant title and hook, but which I felt didn't deliver the goods on the concept. At all.
I'm not a thief, so I optioned the script and got some producers to hire me to rewrite it. But what if I had read the script on an online forum where there was no evidence that I'd read it? What if I dumped the title and wrote another script, with an entirely different plot that, I felt, delivered the goods? Legally, I would be free and clear. You can't copyright a hook.
Later on, the guy refused to re-option the script, so while I got paid for my rewrite, the project is dead. So I paid a price for being honest.
I've never posted my loglines on a site. And I recommend you pitch your script idea to anyone but fellow writers. It's too easy for a writer to "forget" where they got the idea.
However, I think non-pro writers generally have much more anxiety about their ideas being poached than pro writers. If you have a really great idea, odds are, no one is going to steal it; you're going to have to ram it down people's throats. It's all very well and good to think up "snakes! on a plane!" But then you have to deliver the goods. That is, as we say in computer science, non-trivial. A great hook is worth money, but only if you figure out how to deliver the goods on it.
What I was suggesting about agents is that maybe one of them represents Joe Bigshot and Joe Schmo sends the agent a really great hook. If it's the agent's policy to reject any and all queries from schmos, then the agent can tell Joe Bigshot the hook and have him write it.
I am pretty sure this doesn't happen. First of all, you won't be submitting your script to Joe Bigshot's agent; or if you do, he won't read it. He doesn't want to rep a "baby writer." Secondly, Joe Bigshot doesn't want to write your script. Assuming he's not busy with paid assignments, he's got a backlog of ideas he thinks are wonderful. It would be rare indeed to find a pro writer who not only would be willing to steal an idea, but who also likes your idea better than his own.
It turns out that people named Elwood are, per capita, disproportionately farmers. Also, Mavis. If you're Mavis, you're probably drawn to the field, relative to if you were, say, Mitzi, in which case long rows of numbers might appeal. Stuntmen are disproportionately named Alex.
I love having my prejudices confirmed.
(Of course, farmers and stuntment are more likely to be named Mike, or John, than Elwood or Alex. It's just that Elwoods tend in the farmerly direction.)
Careful about using this in a screenplay -- these names are, after all, stereotypical. You can, of course, use it to subtly play against type. Elwood could turn out to be a blues musician. There is a fairly well known Adele who is not an accountant.
But you can name someone Mitzi, knowing that the name will carry a certain amount of baggage. I like to use ethnic names to suggest that minor characters are ethnic without having to say they're ethnic. If I name someone Dr. Takata, I don't have to say he's Japanese. (Nor does the casting director have to cast someone Japanese. On Charlie Jade, "Karl Lubinsky" was a Black actor, Tyrone Benskin.) So along those lines, if I name someone Mitzi, it puts some nuances in the reader's head without my having to say she's an accountant, or from New York, or has probably been to some bar mitzvahs in her life.
Good writing is about packing details into a few words, so any website that helps you do that is useful.
About five, six years ago I started to get into videogame writing. It seemed really fun — you get to play in much bigger sandboxes — and video games were getting to have better and better stories, and Montreal's a big gaming hub. Oh, and, it's getting harder and harder to set up a feature film these days.
Lisa was very encouraging, pointing out that I have a degree in computer science, and that can't hurt. And I had a summer job for two summers programming for an educational computer game company on a 128K IBM. (Yes, that's "K." Some of the newer computers had as much as 256K of RAM, if you can imagine that!)
It wasn't until I'd been working in the business for a while that I put together just how much of my life I've been playing and even designing games. I was a D&D fan at 15, and drew lots of dungeons in my spare time, when I wasn't playing cardboard-chips-and-dice wargames. I was in a live-action role-playing group in LA in the '90's, and I even wrote a one-night LARP that came off pretty well, I thought. I just hadn't been writing or designing games on a computer.
One of the nice things about being a writer is that you get to use all sorts of odd experiences — the odder the better, really. At the time, spending a month writing a LARP about the evening before the battle of Camlann seemed like a huge waste of time. Fun, yes, of course, but time I could have spent writing something useful. A novel, or something. It turns out to have been preparation for my narrative design career.
In the game I'm writing now, moreover, I get to use all sorts of odd bits of history and cultural trivia that seemed kind of useless but fun at the time. ( The execution of Admiral Robert Byng pour encourager les autres! The expression, "Don't be a big girl's blouse"!)
Point is, some of us have a voice in the back of our heads telling us not to waste time. Do useful stuff. Write, and if you're not writing, read or watch stuff that is relevant to your writing. (I certainly do. Your mileage may vary. Contents may have settled. Objects in the mirror are closer than they appear.) If you're a TV writer, there's no point in reading a history of the War of the Roses, unless you think you might one day get a gig writing on The Tudors.
But over a long career, a lot of that wasted time becomes brain fodder. Grist for the mill. It comes back to haunt you, in useful ways.
In other words, don't be afraid to do fun and useless things.
Which is why it's totally a good thing that I somehow spent 290 hours in the last two months playing Europa Universalis IV. Right, Lisa?
... or rather, framing the cops-and-grand-juries issue.
(This is a post about political story-telling. If you only want to read about screenwriting, please skip it.)
It has come to everyone's attention that cops are killing a lot of black men. The Black community has been up in arms about this for years. (And their arms have been up. "Don't shoot, it's just a wallet!") Lately, though, a lot of white folks have noticed.
On most days that end in the letter "y," the right wing is not particularly interested in what black people are upset about. But now it's upset about this, too. Glenn Beck and George W. Bush find the Eric Garner non-indictment unfathomable.
I wonder if this is an opportunity for protestors to reframe the issue. It is statistically true that cops kill black men in disproportionate numbers. But there's another fundamental issue here, one that even white people who don't care about black people can get behind. Cops don't get indicted for killing people. Not even when a cop jumps on a non-violent guy selling loose cigarettes, puts him in a chokehold, and suffocates him, on video.
I don't think this is a racism issue. Yes, Staten Island is pro-cop. But, as FiveThirtyEight points out:
Former New York state Chief Judge Sol Wachtler famously remarked that a prosecutor could persuade a grand jury to “indict a ham sandwich.” The data suggests he was barely exaggerating: According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, U.S. attorneys prosecuted 162,000 federal cases in 2010, the most recent year for which we have data. Grand juries declined to return an indictment in 11 of them.
Comparable figures for cops: 80 out of 81 grand juries did not bring an indictment.
Is this racism? Maybe there's racism in there, but I think the phenomenon is way too consistent to be racism.
I think the problem is that prosecutors are on the same team as cops. Cops bring in perps; prosecutors indict them. What prosecutor wants to incur the resentment of a police department he has to work with every day? Much easier to go before the jury, allow the cop to testify, don't cross-examine him or the exculpatory witnesses, cross-examine only the witnesses who testify that he did something wrong, don't say the public deserves to see this go to trial, and just ask the grand jury to vaguely "do the right thing." If the prosecutor doesn't want an indictment, the grand jury is not going to bring one in.
We need special prosecutors for cops, like we used to have for Presidents. The Special Prosecutor law passed after Watergate made clear that the US Attorney General could not be relied on to prosecute his boss, the US President, who could fire him at will. Police forces have Internal Affairs cops, who do nothing but investigate bad cops, because ordinary detectives are not going to investigate their buddies.
I think we need special prosecutors who are called in when a cop needs prosecuting. Prosecutors who do not, on a daily basis, work with that police department. It doesn't need to be a full-time job; they could be called in from another city in the same state.
Instituting a law like this wouldn't stop police racism. But it would allow police at least to be held accountable when they kill people.
Framing the issue this way would bring in the majority. Obviously, Black people are exercised about racism, but white people typically aren't, or only theoretically so. White people tend not to see a lot of racism going on, or downplay its effects. White people are not that upset about cops pulling over people for Driving While Black.
But framed as a police state issue, this could get a lot more traction.
The reason I bring this up in this blog is that how you frame an issue is a story-telling question. What story do you want to tell?
If the story is "cops are killing black men," then it's a Black issue. Some white people will get upset about it. But maybe not enough.
If the story is "cops are killing people and prosecutors won't indict them," then it's a universal issue. Everyone is scared of cops. I'm scared of cops. Not because I'm a lawbreaker, but because they might think I am, and they've got guns and permission to use them. They are the embodiment of the state monopoly on violence.
Also, it's easier to insist that a justice department hire one special prosecutor than that they attempt to hire cops according to racial quotas, even assuming that would reduce police killings of unarmed civilians.
Obviously, it's up to Black civil rights protestors to decide what story they want to tell. But the more their story works on white fears of government oppression, I think, the more traction they'll get.