Complications Ensue: The Crafty Game, TV and Screenwriting Blog
Complications Ensue:
The Crafty Screenwriting, TV and Game Writing Blog


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Tuesday, November 30, 2004


To continue the previous post: by addressing the viewer's expectations, you let him know that you're aware of them and you don't plan to disappoint him. When Ephraim doesn't tell Amy, the audience needs to know the ep is not going to turn into an after-school special about the perils of lying. (You could even -- though this is lazy writing -- have Bright tell Ephraim, "Life is not an after school special.") And then you have to be sure not to disappoint the audience.

Remember, they watch a lot of TV. Probably way more than you. They may not think about it too hard, but after the first few thousand hours of TV, they know when something's been set up. If all they're doing is waiting for the next shoe to drop, they'll probably click over to Battlebots, where anything could happen.


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Of course, to pick up the previous post, if you can't tell stories about people failing to communicate well, you are depriving yourself of a huge source of real life drama. We've all got in trouble for not telling someone something. What puts the curse on it is that we know we're watching TV, so we know the writers are going to make something of it. In real life, most of the time we don't tell someone something, we get away with it. That's why we keep doing it.

What I might have done to take the curse off the Everwood episode: allow the obvious setup, but call into question which story we're going to tell. Ephraim says "I'll get caught." Bright tells him "You won't get caught. People lie all the time." Thus calling into question, for the audience, whether someone who lies will get caught.

I think this is akin to the believability issue. If you have a hard-to-believe plot turn, you can (a) come up with something more believable, (b) contrive to make the plot turn as believable as possible or (c) address its very unbelievability.

By addressing the unlikelihood, you can make it mean something else. Ephraim's feeling guilty about not telling Amy made it about something else, so the plot didn't hinge on "will he get busted" but instead on "which is worse, lying, or telling the truth too late?" Had we been given a sense earlier on that that was the issue, it might have reduced the wince factor. For me at least.


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Monday, November 29, 2004



On Everwood tonight, Ephraim lies to Amy that he's sick, because he wants to go see his ex-girlfriend's band playing.

I hate plotlines like this because you can see the train wreck coming. The writers are taking the rails apart right in front of you, and you're just waiting for the 8:47 to come round the bend. And even if by some miracle Ephraim does not get busted for lying to Amy, throughout the ep I'm dreading the moment when Ephraim gets busted, so I can't really enjoy the story line.

I wonder if this is just because I'm a writer, and I see it coming? Or is the audience as sick of this kind of lazy plotting as I am?

Watched Boston Legal. With David E. Kelley you have a slightly different problem. You know the writers are not going to be allowed the easy way out. So you're wondering what the twist is. So when, for example, there's a plotline about a client who talks about murdering his wife, the one thing you know won't happen is for the lawyers to come to her house and find he's murdered her. You can probably guess what the twist is -- I did.

In the Everwood story, Ephraim busts himself in the end, and gets no credit for it with Amy. At least that had emotional coherence: he busts himself because he feels guilty about lying to her in the first place. What I can't stand is when characters get busted because they're on TV and we have to wrap it all up inside an hour. I guess one reason I like Gilmore Girls so much is you don't know where the story's going until the story's already got there. Then you go, wow, yeah. That's a hell of a story. Until then you're wondering where Amy Sherman Palladino is headed with it. Nice work, Amy.


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I've got the Unseen feature out to a trusted friend to read, so I'm working on the TV series pitch. It's intriguing what aspects of the story seem to want me to reconsider them as I go back to the series from the feature.

In the feature, Rebecca is new in town and feels out of place. Then a freak accident changes everything ... and she discovers that she really does belong in Montreal.

The movie is self-contained, so you can start your character arriving in town, then having a freak accident, and it's a precipitating incident.

But after the pilot episode of a series, you pretty much want it to be standing on its own, like a newborn calf. You're likely to get a big chunk of your audience after the pilot. So too much setup in the pilot is probably a Bad Thing, because you can't count on the audience to be there for it. So while, e.g. the Buffy pilot established that Buffy had transferred out of some big city school after some kind of catastrophe, you don't really know or need to know the details. She's new in school, she latches onto some goofy new friends, that's all you need to know.

Which would seem to argue that while you can use both Rebecca's being new in town and having a freak accident thereafter in the movie, in the series maybe both are too much.


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Good piece by Frank Rich in the Times about the Monday Night Football hoo-hah: how the right-wingers making a big to-do about indecency on the tube are (a) hypocrites and (b) the vast minority. It was interesting to see that when someone checked to see how many complaints the FCC had received about one supposedly indecent show, there were only 169 complaints ... from only 23 actual distinct people ... of which 21 were worded exactly the same, i.e. only three people were actually worked up enough to write their own letter.

And, of course, Desperate Housewives is #1 on the telly.

Boy I'm tired of these self-righteous blowhards.


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My friend Denis (aka "The Crack Whore Guy") writes --

Q: Why do they call it a beat sheet?
A: Because to get it done, it really, really helps to have someone standing over you holding a truncheon.

So, now you know.


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Saturday, November 27, 2004


Ah yes ... forgot to mention two of the most important things any pitch must say:

a. tone -- what kind of a comedy or drama is it? Glamour soap? Dark comedy?

b. template -- what happens every week? E.g. "Every week, our Crime Scene Investigators will uncover the truth about three murders." "Every week, Buffy Summers fights the forces of evil -- and kicks ass."

The template is the most important thing any pitch can have. It sums up the series.


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Friday, November 26, 2004


Rented Clueless because we thought a character in it was like a character in Exposure, but he wasn't, and whatever charm the movie had then seemed to have faded. So we ditched it and rented The Craft, a very fine little occult movie I've always liked. The writers clearly did their homework on Wicca; this is what contemporary witchcraft would look like, if witches had real occult power. The high school aspects of the show were very real. The motivations of the girls were quite real and gripping, so when they get power and go overboard getting their own, the movie feels very real. The best science fiction, I think, feels like ordinary dramatic fiction, except that the science has changed. In great science fiction there are not only compelling metaphysical questions raised by the fictional science ("What is human?" in Bladerunner), but there is compelling drama. These are people you would care about even if they weren't in a science fiction movie. We came for the Enterprise; we stayed for Kirk, Spock and McCoy.

That's what I'm trying to achieve in Unseen. I'm feeling right now that there is not enough of the real world before the supernatural world asserts itself. I think I need a few more scenes of ordinary creepy before the supernatural creepy comes in.

The Craft eventually degenerates into a kung fu battle between Good Witch and Bad Witch, one that I found satisfying enough but Lisa got bored with. But up till then, it satisfied both of us. Good movie. Nice work.


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Someone who calls himself the Red Monk writes in to ask what they should send in to a producer if they have a great idea for a TV show.

As I noted in my book, in general, TV networks do not accept pitches from inexperienced writers. TV producers rarely do. However, if you have a great idea burning a hole in your brain, there's nothing to stop you from trying to convince a producer to look at your idea.

How much to send? Here's the rule of thumb: send as much as you can so long as it's all brilliant.

Whatever you send must shine. So if all you can be brilliant about is the idea itself, ask if you can send that in a page or two. Don't flesh it out badly. Send nothing half-assed or half-thought out. If you can come up with the whole show in ten to fifteen pages -- a "pitch bible" -- then send that. Send as much as you can so long as it's all brilliant.

If you want to sell the idea to a producer for some money and credit and then walk away, a page or two might be enough. I don't know anyone who's ever bought just an idea, but show business is show business: a great idea may be worth a lot. If you want to write for the show, or even run it (assuming you have the experience that qualifies you to run a show), then you may get away with a three page pitch at first, but as soon as there's interest, you'll probably have to flesh it out to a ten to fifteen page pitch bible.

(Whoever writes the pilot episode is entitled to the "Created By" credit; if you want that credit, better start with a pitch bible, which in turn entitles you to write the pilot. Then it's hard for anyone to claim that you haven't created the show.)

What exactly is going on those pages?

The shortest answer is: whatever will sell the show. You want this show to get picked up, right? Whatever will sell the show should be in the pitch.

The short answer is: everything that you need to enable the producer to "see" the show -- and the production -- in his or her mind. What proves to the producer that a network may love the idea, that the show can be made for an appropriate budget, and that a big enough audience will watch it.

How you convince a producer of all this is up to you, and there is not a standard format in the way that there's a standard screenplay format. However, here's what I like to show a producer when I'm trying to convince them to let me create a show for them:

a. Title page. A snappy title that sells the show in a few words. See the section in my book about titles. It also says whether it's a comedy or drama series, whether it's half hour or hour (unless you want that to be up to the buyer) and, naturally, your name.

b. (Optional) A little story (a half page or so) illustrating the sort of stories our episodes will tell. This is probably the story the pilot tells, because the pilot story is doing the same thing for the audience that this pitch bible is doing for the producer. They introduce the character, tone, etc., of the show. Might as well pull them in right away.

c. A brief explanation of the show, in language that will get them excited about it. Page and a half. Maybe two pages. Who is it about, what is it about, what sort of stories do we tell. Sometimes I refer to other shows ("An OC-style glamour soap." "Felicity meets Seinfeld.") Sometimes I don't. I like to explain the attractive fantasy explicitly ("Why We'll Watch"). I like to talk about who the audience demographic is ("Who'll Watch").

If you only do a pitch and not a pitch bible, this is the pitch itself.

d. A rundown of the core cast. Four to six people. These are the people who are going to be in every single episode.

e. A rundown of recurring cast. People we'll know, but who may not be in every episode.

f. Story springboards. Story ideas, not broken down into acts yet, which give you the flavor for what the episodes will be about.

If you have other creative ideas that don't relate to the cast or the springboards -- background information, say -- you can give us another section. The Unseen pitch bible goes on for pages about what sort of stories we'd see in the show, what the rules of the mythical world are, what sources we intend to steal stories from, etc. The bible I did for a robot show, similarly, goes on for pages about the "rules" of the world the show takes place in. These details usually belong in a bible, not a pitch bible; they're for the writers. But if you think it'll sell the show, and it's brilliant, put it in.

The pitch or pitch bible does not include your resume.

The pitch or pitch bible does NOT come with a sample script. Why?

- You want them to hire you to write a script, right? So why would you write it in advance?
- TV is a collaboration. There are questions you'll need to answer before you can start writing a script, e.g. how many sets, what kind of budget, what's the tone, what's the network we're shooting for, etc. Writing before you know these things is not only a waste of time, but it might put people off if you make different choices than they would. It might even put them off if you make the same choices, but they didn't get to make them with you.
- It's easier to be brilliant describing a show than actually writing the show. Especially without help. No one writes a TV show without input from producers, and often we have a whole story department to help.

Good luck, eh?



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Wednesday, November 24, 2004


Lisa and I walked out of Sideways maybe forty minutes in, or possibly longer. I couldn't stand spending any more time with two overgrown boys I thought deserved a good spanking, not a movie about them.

What threw me out of the movie, though, was an issue of trust. With the two leads behaving like such imbeciles -- 45-year-old overgrown imbeciles -- I couldn't trust in a happy ending. Considering the movie is sort of a romantic comedy if it's anything at all -- our antihero meets a charming girl that he's having trouble appreciating because of issues in his past -- not knowing if he'd screw it up with the girl or not was too much weight on my enjoyment. If I'm going to invest my heart in a movie, I want to know it won't be stomped on.

This may seem unsophisticated, but I think how relationships work is much more interesting than how they fail. There are so many ways for relationships to fail, it's a wonder anybody stays together. What's amazing is when they succeed. That's what I want to see movies about: what's amazing.

I wonder exactly how the movie lost my trust? Was it how little in the two leads' relationship was set up in the beginning, so I didn't know what ground the movie stood on? Was it how little in about Paul Giamatti's character seemed extraordinary, so that no obstacle seemed unsurmountable, and yet no situation seemed too easy for him to screw up anyway? Was it that I had no idea what he actually wanted?

You can't build a house on that sort of swamp. And the dialog just wasn't clever enough to gloss over the story's shortcomings. So all that left was a series of dinners and drinks. We decided that dinners and drinks sounded like a much better idea than watching a pair of losers get dinners and drinks, and so we left.


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Tuesday, November 23, 2004


I finally got through my screenplay. I dunno. I dunno. It feels a bit slow. It feels a bit low stakes, even though the stakes are pretty high. The action feels a little forced -- it's so important for a fantasy film, or a filmed fairy story, to feel completely credible, and I'm not sure it is.

Of course I am the least objective of readers.

What it does seem to do is convincingly create a world we haven't seen before. That's worth quite a bit.

I wonder if the backdoor-pilot-iness of it comes through? Hope not.

Well, it always takes a few passes through a screenplay before I can really get into it and start fixing things. I'll make my minor changes pass, and that'll be a way into feeling the structure.

I do sort of feel like this is not necessarily the very best story I could be telling to interest the audience in my world. But that ship has sailed for the moment -- maybe it will come to me how to fix it without having to throw everything out. Before I throw everything out I should at least try to make it work.


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Watched the pilot episode of the original British Coupling. Really funny. Big on embarassment humor. I liked how atrocious Brits are willing to be -- the US Coupling wasn't nearly as rude, and so wasn't nearly as funny.

The comedy was much slower. It felt like, in spite of the laugh track, they were leaving air space for big continued laughs. So I'd yelp out a laugh and then have to wait for the next one, instead of one laugh rolling into the next.

And what's with the laugh track? This was a lot like Sports Night: just enough laugh track to irritate, without enough to carry you over the irritation. The Friends laugh track never felt obtrusive. Is that because they had real laughs on the soundtrack -- filmed in front of a live studio audience? I'd rather have seen Coupling without the laugh track. One day perhaps they'll make it an audio option on the DVD. English with laugh track, English without laugh track, German with laugh track, German without-- wait a second, is Friends funny in German?

Hard to say in the end what the show's hook was, unless it's "6 friends talk about sex. Incessantly." Which is, come to think about it, not a terrible hook.



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Sunday, November 21, 2004


Chris responds to my post about dumbass mistakes:
"I imagine that's one of those things that can slip by you pretty easily. It's that whole "Well, this is what I'd do" rather than "Well, this is what they'd do". I think your lesson goes beyond just the page as I try to rationalize the behaviors of certain girlfriends."

To get back to believability and suspension of disbelief again: your character can and should make dumbass mistakes when their dumbass mistakes reveal their character.

The corallary to that is: when your character avoids making a dumbass mistake, especially one that characters in the movies are prone to make more often than people do in real life (e.g. go into a haunted house), make a moment of it. Have them debate making the dumbass mistake, and then do something more clever. (Which can still backfire of course.) The audience won't enjoy the cleverness if they're not even aware of it. This can be just a tiny moment onscreen where we know what the character's considering doing. But it should be there.


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You heard it here first, folks. In the future, you'll be able to hit a couple of keys on your GPS-equipped Blackberry and call a cab, and the closest available cab will scream to your destination, pronto.

Except when it rains, of course.


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Friday, November 19, 2004


Watched the Nip/Tuck pilot, because people keep mentioning the show. Gore, sex, child molestation, people eaten by alligators, passion, pathos... wow. They really threw in the kitchen sink.

I have to say that I did not like any of the core cast. And I did not like watching the show. Oh, sure, they did a great job with it. But the show is off-putting, I think. It tries very hard to go too far, and succeeds.

While on the other hand, Corner Gas continues to be charming and amusing and clever, on a far far tinier budget.



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According to C21, 77% of people with PVRs (personal video recorders) skip the ads, while 43% of people watching live tv try to avoid seeing them. This obviously bodes ill for free tv in the long run, not to mention advertising execs.

My question is -- what the hell are the other 23% doing? Haven't they noticed the FF button? Do they actually like watching advs for cleaning whiter smiles?

Oh, sure, I'll stop and watch a funny ad (even if I can't remember any offhand right now). And I'll watch movie trailers.

I guess we'll see more product placement as time goes on... and more pay tv.


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Terrific meeting this morning on one of my pitches. We talked a lot about what network my show should be on: "where do you see this being?" Naturally I said, "Leading into The OC." Which is true in a blue-sky best-case way.

The point though is that when you create TV you have to think what network you're going for, from the moment you start conceptualizing it. The WB wants sexy young stuff. CBS used to have an older demographic. Lifetime is for women. Oxygen is for women who have sex. Etc.

The producers you're trying to interest in your show want to know, where's this going to air? If they can't answer that question for themselves, they're unlikely to be interested in your show.

In this case it was a question of whether to go for an older and edgier audience -- meaning Showcase and 10 o'clock -- or the tween audience -- meaning YTV at 5. There are also specific time slots: YTV at 5 pm is different from YTV at 10 pm. At 10 pm kids might not be having sex on YTV but they might be talking about it. At 5 pm they're talking about who "likes" whom.

There's a funny disconnect between what kids are actually experiencing and what they're supposed to be able to handle on TV. 14-year-olds are having sex, but on Everwood, parents are freaking out that their 17-year-old kids might be about to have (safe) sex for the first time, after months in a committed relationship.


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We're trying to calibrate some of the stories in Exposure. One of the difficulties in writing as a parent and a 40-mphmble-year-old is that you've seen where mistakes lead and you try hard not to make them. You're more thoughtful and wise than you were twenty years ago.

However, your characters can't be, or there's no story. On the one hand you don't want them to behave unforgivably, on the other hand if they don't screw up, there's no story. When you're my age, you've learned to communicate, hopefully. But so many mistakes people make in real life come from not enough or bad communication. If you aren't willing to let your characters screw up, you're going to have a lot of stories where characters just can't get along. And those can get tiresome. Now and then you just want someone to fall asleep at the wheel. After all, we've all driven a little too tired, and imagined what would happen if we fell asleep at the wheel. People love stories that show them what could have happened if they'd been a little less careful or a little less lucky, just as they love stories that show them what could have happened if they'd been a little more brave or a little more lucky. That's one of the reasons they watch stories: they want to see what coulda woulda shoulda.


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Thursday, November 18, 2004


Nice piece in The New Yorker about when plagiarism is just reinvention...


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Wednesday, November 17, 2004


I've started reading Al Jazeera's English site. Not because I love them for broadcasting Osama Bin Laden; I don't think they should. But they do tend to listen more to Iraqis on the ground more than to official US and Iraqi government statements, which I don't believe. I do not believe the operation in Falluja has been successful. I am not impressed that US soldiers have retaken police stations after guerrillas attacked, overran and ransacked them. And I want to hear what the Arab in the street thinks of the murder of Margaret Hassan.


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Just as I was revising Exposure along the lines I just wrote about, a prodco called to say they'd like to meet about it ... and were delighted to hear I was thinking along the same lines they were about where the show pitch needs to go. Always nice when you have the right new bit of information...

TV is much more of a process than movies. You always want your pitch to be as good as it can be, but in the absence of God-given perfection, forward momentum -- and enthusiasm of people who'd like to get involved -- is what you're really hoping for.


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There used to be shows for the "whole family" e.g. The Waltons, with kid story lines and parent story lines. I guess the kids are all off in their room playing GameBoy Advance or on their own TV watching Mighty Morphin Dino Thunder or whatever it is that 9 year old girls watch. (I only know from 9 year old boys. Ask me what 9 year old girls watch in 8 years.)

I'm noticing a slew of shows with teenage characters pursuing teenage plots and adult characters pursuing adult plots, with some parent/child plots to knit it all together. For example, in last night's Everwood, Ephraim pissed off his touchy piano instructor, composer Will Cleveland, by offering to improve a piece of music he wrote; while Amanda Hayes sort-of-almost made a pass at Ephraim's dad in front of her permanently-comatose husband. And there was a father/son thing between unmercifully demanding Harold and his slacker son Bright.

So is this the new family template? In Gilmore Girls you've got Lorelai stories and Rory stories. In The OC you've got Seth stories and Sandy stories and Seth/Sandy stories.

Which makes me think that the 8 pm version of my pitch Exposure needs to have more adult stuff for balance and for viewership...


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Tuesday, November 16, 2004


Breakfasting with a producer this morning, I heard the nasty rumor that the new US tax bill has a 100% first year depreciation for the costs of making certain kinds of independent films, instead of the usual depreciation over the expected lifetime of the asset. (No doubt the Gubernator had some input here.) Through the intricacies of the tax code, this amounts to the same value to the producer, more or less, as the 9% UK sale/leaseback deal of blessed memory, the one that prompted so many Canadian/UK/xyzzy co-productions.

Together with the Canadian dollarette hitting 85 cents, this is not good news for the Canadian feature film industry.

In fact, on the face of it, it could wipe out the reasons for service deals, i.e. American features shot here because it's cheap. At 85 cents, Canada isn't cheaper, especially not if the US producer can knock off 10% of his production costs for shooting in the US.

Still up in the air whether this hurts Canadian content product, where we still have the nifty 25% federal + provincial subsidies. Those are still among the best deals around because unlike other production incentivies (e.g. the South African production incentive deal), you know that in Canada, if you follow the rules, you get the dough. So you can bank the money. No one will give you cash now for a South African incentive on the if-come because it may not come.

So that's good for me, because my stuff is Canadian content.

On the other hand the Canadian industry dying would be bad for me.

My producer friend however thinks that too many people's jobs depend on Canadian production for the government to let the industry wither on the vine. So they will have to up the subsidies, he thinks.

From his mouth to God's ears.

And, after all, all Western countries except the US subsidize their indigenous drama. So maybe Canada will find a way.

In the mean time I'll keep my fingers crossed. I really don't want to have to go back to LA.


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Monday, November 15, 2004

FADE OUT, THE END (rinse, repeat)

Finished the rough rough first draft of Unseen today. Lisa says it's good. I'm thrilled. I'm beta-testing it on Hunter, who's never read a screenplay before. Then I'll psyche myself up to read it myself. Yikes.

I hope it's good. I think it's good. I'm always nervous before reading a feature I've just read, because I don't go back and reread it before I finish it. That just slows me down, and I like to see how it turns out.

Anyway: yikes.


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I finally found a frame for my Naked Josh poster. Posters are damn big in a living space, even if it is a loft. And I generally only like to put handmade stuff up on the walls. But it's a terrific feeling to see a poster for a tv show you co-created. Sucker is going up on that wall as soon as I can find a place for it. And it's a cool poster, too, very The Graduate:


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There's a lot of really useful stuff for folklorists, and people like me who make our livings stealing from them, at The Internet Sacred Text Archive. I was just looking for Robert Kirk's 1691 book The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies and could only find it at Amazon for $125. Which is a bit stiff for a late reprint. It's free on the ISTA. For $50 they will also sell you a CD-ROM containing all their stuff.


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A truly wonderful movie. What makes it special is entirely the humanity with which the filmmakers invest their characters. The Incredibles family feels like a real family which has real fights and real love -- and even in the midst of catastrophe, they don't stop behaving like a real family. While there are whammies to spare, there is always time in between whammies for the movie to breathe and for the humanity to come out.

Some movies don't take the time, and we stop caring about the characters. Some take the time because the characters are simply taking time, unrealistically ignoring the urgency. But in this one, there are always minutes where the heroes can't do anything, or don't know they ought to be doing something. Nice work.

So: CRAFTY WRITER'S NOTE: Always take the time to remind us your characters are human, and that they are characters, not Everypeople. What distinguishes a great soprano isn't that she can hit the notes, but because she can hit the notes while still sounding like herself, and not someone else. Oh, the humanity!


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Sunday, November 14, 2004


The Times has an editorial today about ABC's affiliates refusing to air Saving Private Ryan. The reason being given is that the movie has bad language and graphic violence -- limbs getting blown off on camera, etc.

Dad theorizes that the right wingers don't want to air a movie about American soldiers getting killed while we're busy at war in Iraq. This would seem like a conspiracy theory if not for the President's overall efforts to paint the war in the rosiest possible hues: no pictures of the corpses coming home, please, and let's pretend that Fallujah was a big success.

Lisa and I watched it the other night. It's a powerful movie, even if it does edge into sentiment. Hunter came in towards the end and we wound up talking about wars and how they start and the price of freedom. I think that's worth a little (or a lot) of bad language and a lot of carnage.


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Saturday, November 13, 2004


Reading the archives of A Writer's Life I discovered the tragicomic site, Don't Save Our Show, which is a petition by fans of West Wing to cancel it. Because they hate what it's become.

They should have sent out an email. It would have gone around the world. I'd have signed.


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Friday, November 12, 2004


Another source tells me that Boston Legal's in trouble, and never spec a show that's in trouble.

Call me sentimental, but I'm inclined to think that Boston Legal, if it survives Season One, will outlive Desperate Housewives. But then I'm not sure who DH is written for and why they're watching. What's the attractive fantasy? Or is it pure car wreck TV?


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Here is an excellent fun time-waster: the Google Meme Observatory. Here are tracked such spreading memes as:

All Your _____ Are Belong to Us

My _____ Iz Pastede On Yay.

The First Rule of ___ is: You Do Not Talk About _____.

Weapons of Mass _________

I am Jack's ________...



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Thursday, November 11, 2004


Got another email from someone who says that Linda Segar had terrific things to say about his script. Does she ever tell people their script needs a lot of work and they shouldn't send it out?


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Interesting article on crossover eps on Lee Goldberg's blog, A Writer's Life. He's half of the writing team that wrote Successful TV Writing and shows like Diagnosis Murder, i.e. he's doing a mitzvah by sharing his insights with the rest of us when he could be writing produced TV.


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This one's extremely basic, and it should be obvious. But maybe it's not.

Every time you cut, you can jump ahead in time.

That means that pretty much every time you have something boring that logically happens next in your scene, you want to look for an excuse to cut away, then come back to the scene after the boring stuff is over, whether it's a jump of an hour, a day, or two minutes.

You can do this narratively, by jumping to another story line, or you can do it cinematically, just by cutting outside the house where the conversation is taking place. I was just doing it by doing a "FLASH TO:" mini-flashback; though the flashback is exactly one line long, it gives me an excuse to cut out an entire explanation that the audience doesn't need.


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Reading about Falluja in the Times today. The bad guys are fighting right out of the Viet Cong playbook, and we're falling into the same trap.

Us: Massive concentration of troops telegraphed weeks in advance, big attacks, lots of sound and fury. Radicalize the population against us. Support puppet government that is not backed by its own people. Repeat pronouncement of victory until your credibility is shot.

Them: Don't be where the hammer is coming down. Attack somewhere else while we're distracted. Attack the weakest link: the feckless government troops. Kill them and take the stuff we gave them. Next time, the bad guys will be dressed as Iraqi police, in the body armor our soldiers don't all have.

Our troops are good, but they're fighting World War II again, going house to house against guerrillas. The bad guys are fighting Viet Nam again.

I'd like to give all our political commanders a copy of A Bright Shining Lie, which is a good key to understanding how we lost that war. I'm praying we don't make the same damn mistakes in this one.


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Wednesday, November 10, 2004


You never want to waste time showing the audience a scene if they can pretty much guess how it's gonna go. But, sometimes we need to see that scene -- or more accurately, we need to see it occur.

Say you have a dramatic conversation between two girls about, say, an affair. "Are you gonna tell him?" "I don't know."

If it's a multiple-storyline show, we probably go out on the second girl's indecision -- we want to keep the audience hooked while we go to other story lines.

If it's a single-storyline show, the conversation probably ends when the second girl decides: "I have to tell him, don't I?" and then we cut to her with her boyfriend, working her way up to actually telling him. (I'm theorizing that in a single storyline show -- whether on film or TV -- you go out of scenes on decisions more often, and in multiple storyline shows you go out on indecision more often. Think about that, class, and let me know if you agree.)

Probably the least interesting part of this whole story is the girl telling the guy. We know how that conversation's gonna go.

But we have to see that the conversation happens.

So, what we do is start the conversation onscreen and then cut away. You can cut away to a wide shot where we just see the body language -- and a few seconds of that will stand in for the whole dreadful conversation these two people are having up close.

What prompts me to write about this is a very, very neat trick Boston Legal pulled. There was a big argument about whether a lawyer should tell her client something she knew that would crush him emotionally. She has an obligation as a lawyer to tell her client everything she knows about the case. She has an obligation to him as a human being not to give him information that can only hurt him emotionally.

The conversation itself, of course, is not something we want to watch. We don't want to see the guy suffer. So she says "There's something I have to tell you" and then we cut outside the conference room to watch him crumple on hearing the news. And we go to another story line.

But, clever writers that they are over there, we come back to this story line close to where we left off -- and she's not having the conversation with him that we were expecting. (It's a different, slightly less crushing conversation; and it's a lie.) They used the conventions of TV to trick us. We accepted the Cut Away from the Predictable Conversation and assumed it meant that the conversation would go predictably. But it didn't.

Clever, clever boys and girls.


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Interesting Times article about how Lost came into being. Apparently a network exec had sort of an idea and asked JJ Abrams (Alias) to come up with a pitch. The meeting was Monday, the pitch was Friday and the pilot was greenlit Saturday.

(Or that's their story anyway. I can't tell you how many instant successes in Hollywood came after much toil that is somehow not counted against the instantaneousness. (Instantaneity?))

I still haven't watched it. The first ep I watched had the hero seeing his disapproving father in the bushes, and I thought it was some tired old Freudian thing. But apparently it is a Way Strange Island. So I will watch it. Thank goodness for the ol' Personal Video Recorder.

Of course, you have to be JJ Abrams to get invited to that meeting. So this technique of getting your pilot greenlit fast may not work for you... or me...


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Another fine example was last night's rental, Jaws. The moment we see the shark, we're bound to react: you're gonna need a bigger boat. Go home.

Which could develop into a plothole if left unaddressed. Why are these bozos chasing a malevolent shark that's almost as big as their crappy wooden boat?

But Chief Brody voices our concern: "We're gonna need a bigger boat." And Quint ignores him, because Quint is a self-aggrandizing tough son of a bitch.

Likewise, after they've sunk a couple of harpoons in the fish, and it's getting dark, sensible men would go home, let the shark tire himself swimming around pulling large plastic barrels full of air all night, and then come back in the morning. But again, the screenwriters address that: Brody proposes exactly that to Quint. And Quint ignores him.

Brody tries to call for help, too. And Quint smashes the radio into pieces, because no landlubber is going to make him call for help, by gum.

So I'll refine the rule. You can have a logic hole in your plot so long as (a) you address it (b) the result is more fun than it would be if you filled it and (c) the reason the plothole goes unaddressed reveals character.

It's not that no one thought of getting a bigger boat. It's that Quint's too macho to admit the fish is too big for him and his shoddy little boat.

After all, making mistakes is what makes us human. The mistakes we choose to make reveal who we are. We get ourselves into all sorts of dumb jams because of character-revealing mistakes.

This at least provides a tool to fix character motivation plotholes. Obviously it can't address holes in the story structure that come from faulty stakes. For example, no amount of character revelation resolves the fundamental plothole Raiders of the Lost Ark: what makes anyone think that Hitler is going to be able to use the Ark of the Covenant as a weapon, considering it is a sacred relic of the Jews, whom he is trying to destroy? So in that case we're back to the earliest, weakest version of the rule: you can have a plothole so long as it allows you to keep the audience so entertained they don't care.

(I can't help carping on one other thing: what is a German excavation doing in Egypt in 1936, when the British were firmly in control of the place? Ah, well.)

(Of course you don't have to have plotholes. One of the joys of Tremors is how the characters never make decisions in favor of having an adventure. From the moment the giant maneating worms show up, they are trying their best to get out of their valley. But unless you have a meticulous brain, it is hard to write without plotholes, and life is too short to keep ripping up your stories so you can rewrite them perfectly.)


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Tuesday, November 09, 2004

Learning all sorts of fun trivia from Sitemeter. For example, the most popular page on my site, aside from the main one, is my page on how I'm positive Ophelia is pregnant. (Rue, remember, is an abortifacient.) I wonder if this will keep up or if somewhere a classroom is looking up theories of Ophelia on the Net?



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Timothy Noah writes in Slate that the Christian Right now wants to be called "evangelical Christians." Apparently being called "right wing" is getting as bad as being called a "liberal."

Thing is though, they're not the same thing. 76% of evangelicals voted for Bush. Which means almost a quarter of them voted for Kerry. If you want to talk about the pro-Bush anti-Kerry evangelicals, call them what they are: right wing Christians.

After all, Christ himself was something of a leftie. He was not confident of the spirituality of rich folks. He hung around with poor folks and a reformed prostitute. There is no natural connection between Christianity and the right.

Names frame the argument. Let's keep calling the right the right. It's only right.


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I hear from a source that yes, Boston Legal, not a bad show to spec.

Apparently Desperate Housewives is the "clear winner this year" if you can stomach it.

Still good: Joan of Arcadia, Vegas, CSI, L&O.


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I read on TV Tome that it's been picked up for 22 eps. That's a good sign.

I also read it's #40 on the TiVo Season Pass Hot 100. This is the ranking of shows by how many TiVo viewers asked their TiVo to record every single episode. 6 percent of all TiVo's are recording every Boston Legal. Not so strong as compared with (yikes) Desperate Housewives [#3].

But I have faith it will gather an audience.

Amazingly West Wing is still up there (#9 or so). Guess people still haven't noticed how badly it sucks. I wonder why Leo had a heart attack?


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Watched Boston Legal tonight on my PVR. Gosh that's a well written show! Spader is wonderful as the scummy lawyer you can't help admiring for his sheer lack of shame (I keep thinking of Jabba the Hutt: "HAH HAH HAH. YOU ARE MY KIND OF SCUM.") Shatner is hysterical as a self-aggrandizing blowhard Denny Quinn, a persona he's built for himself over the past few years (see the excellent Free Enterprise).

Many plot twists you are not expecting, and all of them plausible, and all of them emotionally satisfying.

There are also some very nice conversations at cross purposes. Rene Auberjonois as partner Paul Lewiston tries to talk to Denny Quinn about how he's been underbilling and not bringing in enough business; Quinn only wants to talk about his fear he's losing his mind to Alzheimer's. It's unclear whether either of them is listening to the other, but what Quinn says in not responding to Lewiston is so much more revealing than anything he could say in response to Lewiston's accusations; and their mutual refusal to come to grips with each other's points says worlds about their personal relationship.

I wonder if I can spec this? It's first season, but it's a spin-off. And boy I could write one of these.


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Monday, November 08, 2004


Everybody should watch movies with 9-year-olds.

Hunter, Lisa and I watched Raiders of the Lost Ark together last night. Hunter enjoyed the movie, but complained that, in the end, all the adventuring Indy had done didn't matter. The Ark pretty much took care of itself, didn't it? ROLA is the CLASSIC example of deus ex machina. Literally, in fact, if you can call an ark a "machina."

(It occurs to me that it depends on what the stakes are -- if you believe that Indy's in it for the archeology, and not to protect the US from Hitler getting a biblical WMD, then I guess it does matter, but then what kind of nut is he to put people he loves at risk over a golden box?)

I can think of a few easy fixes for the deus ex machina offhand, though they might not havebeen worth the trouble -- the d.e.m. is so spectacular you can forgive it, as the ancient Greeks probably forgave their playwrights when the god appeared through stage magic. But it's interesting that no one tried to fix it. Obviously they didn't consult any nine year olds.

It's also interesting to see what question Hunter asks during the movie. He always wants to know if this or that person's going to get hurt -- will the cat survive Alien? -- and why people are doing this or that. These are probably the questions your audience is asking silently, at some level.

Everybody should watch movies with 9 year olds. You get to see how they're watching the movie. And if you can write a movie that a 9 year old gets, without it condescending to his or her level, you've probably got a pretty good movie. (If you're writing a movie with lots of yucky kissing, of course, you're outta luck.)


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I'm looking for a little help around the office. Right it's some simple website promotion, but down the road I'll need anything from researching the best personal copier to helping brainstorm story ideas. (There isn't a lot of scut work.) Next time I go into production, if you're good, you get invited to come along.

Who you are: organized, articulate and determined. Clever, literate, funny, discreet, cool, organized and ambitious. And did I mention organized?

You're devoted to the great stories, and love television and movies. Possibly you want to be a writer, director or producer. You're reasonably up on the Net. You might be a Mac person. You're willing to pay your dues.

If you're interested, please email me a personable letter at crafty at b2b2c dot ca. Include your work experience and anything else that makes you interesting. Please answer any or all of the following questions for bonus points:

a. What's the earliest known science fiction story? Why?
b. What's the difference between a bouillabaisse and a paella?
c. Ou sont les neiges d’antan?
d. How has the template of [choose a show] changed from first season to its current season?
e. What is the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow?

UPDATE: I have a couple excellent choices, so I'm afraid this offer is closed now...


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Friday, November 05, 2004


I'm struck by how television is all about women keeping their pregnancies these days. I can't remember the last time someone on prime time TV seriously considered having an abortion. On the OC, not only did Anna not seem to consider an abortion, the writers veered away even from the story of her "losing the baby."

Partly, I imagine, this is because it's not exactly "entertaining" to contemplate terminating a potential life, to say the least, and TV is primarily about entertainment. On a medical level, you may be talking about a blastocyst, but on a story level, you are talking about a baby.

Also, to choose between keeping or terminating a pregnancy is to choose between an immediate sad thing, and the mother eventually having a miserable life. TV is all about the now.

But I think the Christian right has successfully changed the zeitgeist. They've convinced the so-called liberal media that a pregnancy is the same thing as a baby, leaving pro-choice screenwriters in the awkward position of having to justify killing a baby. Instead, Murphy Brown keeps her baby.

But you gotta watch it, people. Once we've changed our rhetoric to the point where no ever sees a likable TV character actually going through with an abortion, we're well on your way to rescinding Roe v. Wade.


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I'm about 50 pages into Unseen. Struggling with some sections that don't seem as much fun when I try to write them as they did when I outlined them. Also struggling with the believability.

You'd think in a movie about creatures that don't really exist, the audience is more than willing to suspend their disbelief. And they usually are. But the tone I'm striving for in Unseen is realism: the creatures may be unreal, but the way the human characters interact with them should be real.

Motivation's a tricky thing. You don't want characters to do something that destroys their credibility. On the other hand, real people do stupid lame things all the time. If no one ever made dumb mistakes, there would be no drama, no need to watch drama, and I'd be back in the computer science biz. So you can have your character do dumb things. In any thriller, the urgency to the action gives you a certain excuse: sure, the character's doing something foolish, but it's the best idea she has, so she's going with it.

And, of course, the audience will forgive incredible behavior if they like the results.--

/* SPOILER * /

--On The OC last night, Ryan's girlfriend announced over the phone that she'd lost the baby-- and didn't want Ryan to come home. Neat trick: it was a lie. And she's doing it to give Ryan "permission" to leave her.

I think it was a tad out of character for Ryan to agree over the phone not to return to his girlfriend who had just lost a baby. I mean, when a woman loses a baby and tells you that you don't need to come and comfort her, who's fool enough to listen to that? Certainly not Ryan, who's a king fixer, always trying to make everyone else feel better and to do the right thing.

But, of course we know Ryan's not going to stay in Chino (wherever the hell that's supposed to be), he's a core character, and the show takes place in wealthy Orange County. So we'll forgive the plot twist for being a tad out of character, for it is a clever twist, and we'll go with it.


So my job is to make the implausible things either plausible, or so much fun that no one really minds they're implausible.

The audience will also tolerate implausible things if you address them. In Alien, the obvious safe thing to do with Kane once he's brought back with a Face-Hugger on his face is, put him in hibernation. Rather than avoid this plothole, Shusett and O'Bannon have Parker shouting "Why don't you freeze him???" But no one listens to him.

The filmmakers have addressed the plothole without really filling it. After all, why doesn't anyone listen to Parker? But then there'd be no movie. So we'll just take on faith that Parker's advice goes unheeded the way lots of good advice goes unheeded in the real world, e.g. "Don't get involved in a land war in Asia."

Right now, in Unseen I have one cop fail to help Rebecca and her friends -- refuse to listen to their improbable story. In real life she and her friends would probably keep asking around until they found an adult who was willing to help. But who wants to see that? And anyway we don't really want Rebecca to get adult help, because then she can't be the hero.

When you have a plothole that you really can't fill -- they have to get the alien on the ship, Rebecca can't get adult help -- then you have to address the plothole -- then once it's addressed, I believe the audience will tolerate the implausible so long as it is more fun than the plausible.


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Pretty good season 2 pilot. Of course they had to get Seth and Ryan back to the OC, and it's nice that they spent the entire first ep of Season 2 doing it. Soaps tend to eat up plot, so you're well advised to make a meal of any plot turns that come up naturally.

Interesting how the plot was all about how Seth's departure, not Ryan's, seems to have messed everyone up. Apparently the audience is terribly fond of geeky, articulate, slightly depressive Seth, and he's becoming more the central character, when well-meaning, cool, not very talkative Ryan was the star of Season One.

I have no idea offhand (I haven't put a lot of thought to it) how you'd spec an OC, given how soapy the story line is. It might not be a good idea to spec this show -- everyone's seen some episodes but far fewer of them will be up on the chronology of the season, so your clever counterpoint to it may go unnoticed. If I had to spec it, my first impulse would probably be to introduce some temporary new characters -- a girl out of Seth's past shows up. But it might be stronger to have the characters pass a night that, later, they wouldn't want to talk about -- so it fits in the chronology but doesn't affect the chronology. The kind of episode that deepens the relationships without altering their essential nature.

Anyway, I'm gonna be watching this show. And thank the Goddess for something to watch.

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Thursday, November 04, 2004


If you want to be reassured that the country isn't split apart, look at this Purple Map of the USA. Very few states can truly be called "red." Almost no states can truly be called "blue." Nice work, J B Culver.

If you want to be depressed about it, look at the The New York Times's county-by-county blue-vs.-red model. Basically the big urban centers voted overwhelmingly for Kerry, with the exception of Colorado Springs, Salt Lake City, Houston and Dallas.


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I'm having the Devil's Own Time getting NetNewsWire to read this blog...

UPDATE: Atom feed is now enabled, so if you have a newsreader that reads Atom, it's

The NetNewsWire problem is solved too -- turns out NNW 1.08 won't read Atom. You need the new NNW 2 beta. Thanks for mentioning that, guys.


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Just got my royalty statement for my book, Crafty Screenwriting. As of last June (publishing moves at the dopamine-challenged pace of a ground sloth; I just got my report), I've sold 10,355 copies. That's over 2,000 copies in my fourth "season," which means the book is a good backlist book. In other words bookstores are no longer buying it because it's new, they're buying it because they've sold out their copies. I'm happy. These are tiny numbers by TV standards, but there you go, it's a book.


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I was watching probably my favorite episode of my own show, Naked Josh, "Domme and Dommer." It's a fun little comic episode -- Josh dates a domineering woman who, it turns out, likes to be flogged -- but likes to boss him around about how and where. It's my favorite because it's funny and "clean" -- you don't need to know anything about the show to enjoy it. There are wacky hijinks, and also moments of insight. Other episodes are either more involved in the season's chronology, or just much more dramatic -- heavier.

Canada is home of the half hour drama, but half hour lends itself more to comedy than drama. You have to make your moments crystal clear, which means, in turn, they tend to be a little cartoonish. Cartoonish works for comedy, not so well for drama. To really allow a scene to breathe, to really allow nuance, reality, humanity, requires longer scenes than half hour really wants. You can get away with a three, four minute scene in a drama, but in a comedy, that's long. Trailer Park Boys gets away with it, but it's part of the joke how longwinded and annoying the characters are, and it fits into the documentary-style, semi-scripted semi-improvised style of the show (a style that is really cheap to shoot, a point which has not gone unnoticed among Canadian networks).

If you must have drama in half an hour, then try to have fewer scenes that do breathe rather than more scenes that make more points faster. There's only so much the viewer can absorb in the impossibly short space of 20 minutes.


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Everyone I know (all Democrats) is wondering how Bush could win when (according to us) the facts were against him.

I think he told a better story. To be honest, he was the one telling a story; Kerry didn't tell a coherent story.

Bush kept his message simple. The terrorists attacked. I attacked them back. I will keep them on the run.

Never mind all the quibbles. It's a good story. It's easy to follow.

For the greatest part of the campaign, Kerry's story seems to have been: When I was a young man, I volunteered for Vietnam.

Then he stopped telling that story, because people were tired of it, and it was a story about events that happened thirty years ago.

After that, there were several stories he could have told. But he tried to tell all of them. Very few people can get wrapped up in more than one story at a time.

It's hard to win an election if you're not telling a story. Carter won in 1976 with "I will never lie to you." Nixon won with "I have a secret plan to end the war." Reagan won with "It's morning in America." Clinton won with "working people just want a fair shake." Kennedy won with "missile gap" (which wasn't a true story, but a good story). Johnson won with "Goldwater will get us into a nuclear war."

Kerry had a lot of story points which I won't bother to recite again here. But they did not add up to a story. They added up to poking holes in Bush's story. In other words, Kerry was a critic, not a story teller. I think Kerry could have won with "America needs to be united, not divided." But he never settled on a story to tell.

The Republicans have always been good at telling a story, because they tend to see the world in moral terms, and moral terms are a good basis for story telling. When Democrats tell a good story, though, they win.

Moral for the Democrats: pick someone next time who can tell a story.


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Wednesday, November 03, 2004


It's helping my depression to remember that this election, though we lost, was quite close. We hated Reagan, too, and those two elections weren't even slightly close. We hated Nixon, and he slaughtered McGovern.

I think the main reason we lost was we had a lousy candidate yet again. Americans vote for men, not platforms or plans. Howard Dean was a candidate Americans could have voted for. Maybe a bit of a loose cannon, but you knew what he stood for. John Kerry was not particularly a liberal, as accused, but he was not particularly much of anything. He was an undistinguished senator who came to the nomination because the party hacks didn't want Dean, who owed them nothing, and because he had a war record.

Frankly it could have been worse. He lucked out because the Bushies didn't pound him for voting against Gulf War 1, where there was an international coalition, and which did prevent Hussein from getting WMD's.

There was nothing to vote for. If you voted for Bush, you knew what you were voting for: aggressive unilateral American foreign policy, aggressive tax cuts, restrictions on abortion and gay rights.

We only knew what we were voting against. Kerry couldn't offer a way out of Iraq, because no one knows the way out. He couldn't offer a solution for the deficit, because he refused to raise taxes on the middle class. All he could offer was a health plan, and I personally have no idea what it was.

No one knew who Kerry was. Is he a nice man? Is he a funny man? Is he really a hunter? What happened to the brave young man who fought in a war and then fought the war? Did he ever do anything terribly brave after that?

If the party can be persuaded to get behind a charismatic centrist -- one people can identify with personally -- a Barack Obama, a John Edwards, a Bill Clinton -- we can win the next one. If we run another Dukakis/Mondale/Gore/Kerry -- another intelligent liberal with clout in the party -- we're done for.

I'm hoping to God that Hillary doesn't run in 2008. I've seen her speak, and you have to think about what she's saying before it gets into your head.

Ah well. Let the 2008 primary begin.


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The good news is, in 2008 the country will be such a basket case that we might actually throw the Republicans out of the House and Senate, too, gerrymandering notwithstanding.

The bad news is, well, that's the bad news.


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Monday, November 01, 2004


I didn't mind the first Desperate Housewives I watched. The characters are cartoonish not but irretrievably so. Some of the stories were a little obvious -- one of the women trying to buy off a little girl who saw her with her paramour -- but some felt a little realer. Emotionally true, if still a little fakey.

But what on Earth is going on with these 1950's housewives? One of the women was a high powered exec, now she's not only taking care of her three little boys -- which I can believe -- but keeping her house spotless? In real life most of us let the house get a little messy when there are 5 year olds around -- unless we can afford a housekeeper. I can't believe any retired exec would care to do the window wiping herself. And so forth for the other women. None of them have jobs. All of them seem to have money. And they're all plotting to get or keep the various men around them.

Is this some weirdly submissive fantasy for the (I imagine largely female) audience? They suffer through a day at work and come home to fantasize about staying home all day keeping house? Ugh.

And this show is a hit. Worth speccing, even, if what I'm told is true.


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FWIW, here is my friend Will Shetterly's advice on starting a new narrative, when the starting does not come easily:

What I would tell someone in my situation to do is to think about an interesting incident that would occur as the point of view character is approaching or first at the new location. Doesn't have to be a big incident, and don't fall into doing something just because you think it's interesting that will then require a distracting flashback to explain what's going on. Remember that the situation is inherently interesting. The POV character is arriving at someplace new. What does the character hope for? What does the character fear? If you've got that, you're ready to write.

You can read more on his blog.


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