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


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Friday, October 31, 2008

Earl Pomerantz (COSBY, BECKER, MAJOR DAD, etc.) has also decided to join the ever-growing club of pro monkeys who pontificate for the benefit of aspiring and emerging monkeys. Here's a post about writing "like yourself" in his blog Just Thinking.

Check it out!

Man, we did not have this stuff when I was coming up. All you could do was try to get a booth at Nate'n'Al's next to the booth full of old Jews and eavesdrop -- hopefully they were veteran writers. (If you guessed wrong, there was at least the best raisin bread I have ever had.)

I wonder how anyone sells a screenwriting book these days?

(Thanks to Pardis P for the heads-up.)



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Thursday, October 30, 2008

Here's an odd anomaly I'd love y'all to weigh in on.

Broadcast drama scripts are much more than a page a minute. Our CHARLIE JADE scripts were 51+ for a 43 minute show. THE BORDER scripts are up to 60. The very talky WEST WING scripts are in the high sixties. GILMORE GIRLS have been spotted as high as 73.

But look at cable dramas. Thanks to the efforts of my tireless researcher Webs, DEXTER pilot is 66, but other scripts are 54, 54, and 57 pages. DURHAM COUNTY scripts are 55 pages for 52 minutes. The MAD MEN pilot was 52, with most running 51-53 pages, and some 50, 49 and even 46 for a 48 minute show.

On the other hand, RESCUE ME: 64, 64. THE WIRE: 63 (and 89 - as Wilcox points out below, a 90 minuter). CARNIVALE pilot: 64.

The SOPRANOS scripts run a bit longer, but I don't think all the episodes are 52 minutes, either.

What's up with that?

Granted, broadcast scripts have act breaks. But five acts + teaser only gives you an average of 2.5 extra pages. (Slightly less, actually, since if writers are anything like me, they will usually try to reduce the page count, so a loose couple of lines at the end of an act will usually provoke a frenzy of line-trimming.)

Cable shows tend to weigh their dialog more carefully, maybe? Or have more dialogue-less cinematic goodies? Is it that you can afford more longueurs when you know your audience has already paid for its ticket?

What do you think?



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Tuesday, October 28, 2008

(Leftie politics.)

Hey, y'all. I have a new post up at Daily Kos about how we need a Voting Rights Act of 2009.



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Monday, October 27, 2008

One of the books they made us read in film school way back when was Christopher Vogler's book THE WRITER'S JOURNEY: MYTHIC STRUCTURE FOR WRITERS. Vogler has come out with a third edition, so I thought I'd take a read.

Vogler is coming at story structure out of the Joseph Campbell HERO WITH A THOUSAND FACES tradition. Campbell theorized that hero stories have a similar structure across all human cultures, and that there are archetypes that we always see in them: the refusal of the call, the mentor, the inmost cave, etc.

Vogler attempts to relate Campbell's character archetypes to successful movies. Who is the Shadow? Who is the Shapeshifter? Who is the Mentor? He also outlines a basic structure for the story:

1. Ordinary World
2. Call to Adventure
3. Refusal of the Call
4. Meeting with the Mentor
5. Crossing the First Threshold

6. Tests, Allies, Enemies
7. Approach to the Inmost Cave
8. Ordeal
9. Reward

10. The Road Back
11. Resurrection
12. Return with the Elixir

When you try to apply this formula to some movies, it works quite well, e.g. STAR WARS. Bear in mind, though, these often seem to be movies written by writers who are consciously trying to apply Joseph Campbell to screenwriting, as George Lucas was. Back in film school, I tried a bunch of times to relate these steps to stories I was trying to tell, and I had trouble telling what step I was supposed to be on. Lisa pointed out that many of the steps applied to the series I'm working on (Natural World, Refusal of the Call) but later on it gets difficult to say which part is "The Road Back" and which is "Return with the Elixir".

When Vogler tries to fit stories that aren't intended to be epic hero tales into his formula, the results aren't so neat. It can feel like he's shoehorning the facts into the theory, as when he looks at PULP FICTION. No "Shapeshifter" character? Claim that Vincent Vega and Mia's dance moves "reflect the SHAPESHIFTER archetype, as they try out various masks and identies in the APPROACH to love" (p. 275). Uh huh.

I'm not a big fan of formula, myself. I'm agnostic about Blake Snyder's formula (see my earlier post on SAVE THE CAT!) because I can see how it might work. My problem with Vogler is that while it is an interesting way to look at movies, and to understand what they're doing for the audience, I don't see how it helps me write one. It looks like a way to analyze what is going on in a movie, rather than a way to write a movie.

I should note that Christopher Vogler is not a professional writer, but a professional story analyst (if I understand his resume right). He shares credit on one German movie. Mostly, my impression is, he works with writers that the studio feels could use someone with a deeper understanding of story structure. In that case I would imagine that his approach, actually applied by him, might work.

But if you want a mythic perspective on screenwriting -- and how it fits into the grand epic tradition of storytelling -- then you might well check out THE WRITER'S JOURNEY.

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Sunday, October 26, 2008

Q. Seeing your link to the 'Save The Cat' movie logline formula got me to thinking: is there a similar formula to create a logline for a pilot? Do Series even have loglines?
If there is, I wish someone would tell me what it is.

But I hope there isn't.


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Q. My spec pilot is five acts without a teaser. Is that a problem? The story itself doesn't need a teaser, but if I rack my brain I could probably come up with one that integrates in. But I'd really rather not. This story is an entrance into a world with the first act working as an introduction to players and themes, and I don't see an obvious big hook moment in the first two minutes for a teaser.
I've seen hour episodes without teasers. I can't think of any pilots without them. (Anyone have counterexamples.)

Not having a teaser is an interesting choice. It allows you to tell a bigger chunk of story before giving the audience a convenient break during which to leave you. You'll see it from time to time in hour episodes, though rarely in pilots. (Anyone got any examples?)

I feel you almost always want a teaser. I've never written a pilot without a teaser.I want to grab the reader's, the exec's, the audience's attention. A great teaser not only grabs their attention, it tells them what kind of goods the show is promising to deliver.

It does not have to have the main characters, though it usually does. The BUFFY teaser just tells us "this is going to be a narratively surprising show with vampires."

But don't take my word for it. If you're considering skipping your teaser, then you should really try to find some hit series that also skip the teaser. See why they did it, and how it works.

Then, of course, watch a bunch of hit show pilots and see what their teasers do for them.

If you can't find any hit series that don't have a teaser, then unless you consider yourself a narrative genius, and hope to break new narrative ground, I'd spend a week and find myself a teaser.

Always do your research. If you're building a new engine, you want to know how everyone else builds their engine. Otherwise you're liable to reinvent the wheel; and no one will be impressed at your effort.

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Saturday, October 25, 2008


Looks like some companies are producing high-production-quality, very funny Obama videos as calling cards.

I love democracy and capitalism. They keep generating things that no central planner or autocrat would ever, ever have thought of.

You know how you shouldn't slam the press? There might be a tactical argument for not taking cheap shots at Hollywood, too.

(Via The Daily Dish)



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Thursday, October 23, 2008

I am a student in the UK and really enjoy screenwriting. I have applied to a program called "Work America" where UK students get a US visa to work and travel the States for 3-4 months during the summer. What are the prospects of getting a job in the film industry (any job)? Is there any type of job you would advise if I am really enthusiastic in working in film?
You don't need to be on a US set because they're more or less the same as British sets, except fewer tea breaks.

I would advise any aspiring screenwriter, director or producer who wants an intense learning experience to try to get a job (or internship) at an agency. Nothing else compares. Mailroom or assistant to an agent, those are the jobs to get. Or any kind of internship at an agency.

Get The Hollywood Creative Directory Online, get agents' names, call agents while you're still in Scotland, talk to them or their assistants, explain yourself, find out whom they think you should write to, write to those people, then call them. They'll cut you some slack because you're not from around here, and maybe because who doesn't like a Scottish accent; but not that much slack, because they have MBA's and lawyers volunteering for these jobs.

You can also try temp agencies once you're here but they're more likely to get you a job as assistant to someone in the DVD marketing department, say, or writing dunning letters to libraries who owe Disney money for motion picture rental. (Those were my two jobs from a temp agency specializing in showbiz.)

The prospects for any job in showbiz are the same. They are impossible to get, and yet somehow people get them every day. If you are daunted by impossible odds, consider another line of work. If you're not, just make yourself capable of the impossible.



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Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Daveednyc asks what a "two-percenter" is.

It's a reference that, theoretically, only two percent of the audience will get. But they will really, really dig it. (That's why you put them in. Also to amuse other writers.) Hence the ref to the burning of the Great Library of Alexandria in the previous post.

A well-crafted two-percenter isn't a story point -- you need 100% of the the audience to get those. It's just flavor. Ideally it's written so that they get the point even if they don't know the reference.

Writers are often fighting with network execs over two-percenters. Writers often think the audience is at least as smart as they are; execs often seem to think that the audience is much stupider than they are.

FRASIER somehow managed to be a hit in spite of being chock full of two-percenters, suggesting that perhaps some execs oughtta lighten up.

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Tuesday, October 21, 2008

There are some things you only get to do in spec fiction. I have a very, very old character who hails from a certain port city in Egypt once known for its lighthouse. Today I got to write:
  • CHAZ
  • I was in the city, you know. When they burned the Great Library.
It might be a two-percenter, but it's the sort of thing that makes me very, very happy.

Incidentally, my producers tell me we got a lot of interest in my metaphysical drama for pay cable at MIP. So you might actually get to see him say that.



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I see that Blake Snyder also has a blog. He has some interesting things to say there. He has a formula for writing loglines, handy if you are trying to write a query letter:
On the verge of a Stasis=Death moment, a flawed protagonist has a Catalyst and Breaks Into Two with the B Story; but when the Midpoint happens, he/she must learn the Theme Stated, before the All Is Lost, to defeat (or stop) the flawed antagonist (from getting away with his/her plan).


On the verge of another “suit and tie” assignment, a tomboy FBI agent is assigned to go undercover in the American Miss Pageant and has a complete makeover to blend in with the other contestants; but when the pageant receives a new threat, she must learn she can be a woman and tough, before she gets thrown off the case, to defeat the warped pageant organizer bent on revenge. (Miss Congeniality)
The bolded points are steps he describes in his book, natch.

I find this formula to be a bit wordy for a query, but they're certainly useful for a logline to keep yourself on track. I am a firm believer that you want to get your query right before you launch on your screenplay. Then you can keep firmly in mind the goods you are trying to deliver.



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Monday, October 20, 2008

Beau H writes:
Here's my update from the [XYZZY] Film Festival: First of all, I WON! And I got to meet a lot of cool people, including [Big Muckymuck].

Before I knew I had won, I spotted Big Muckymuck at the BBQ and talked to him. He told me not to tell him the plot of my script, but asked if I had fun writing it. Of course! Then he gave me his assistant's number and asked if I would send her my script so he could read it. OF COURSE!

At the wrap party I talked to Big Honcho, who was hammered. He told me that I needed to play my Big Muckymuck card wisely. "Hold off for a while, rework your script, because you'll only get one read."

I think this was great advice, but here's my dilemma: EITHER I send him the winning script, which takes place in the middle of last season, OR I rework my script to fit this season, as though I were submitting it for a freelance gig. I'm leaning toward the first option because 1) it's more honest, and 2) if he likes my story so much that he wants to use it then he could ask me to update it.
No no no no no no. Rework, rework, rework.

Don't be in such an all-fired hurry. If it's good now, it'll be better later.

This has nothing to do with "honest." You can honestly tell him you reworked it. Everyone likes to hear that you did more work on an already winning script. That suggests you have a good work ethic and you're not precious.

Never wait for people to update something. They won't. They'll just note that it hasn't been updated.

When you're at the point where people are paying you for stuff, it makes sense to wait until you have a contract before you start working. But till then, you should always be ready to pounce on the moment. Never wait for an opportunity to float by. Jump in the river and pull it in with your bare hands.

Oh and -- congratulations on the win!



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Want to review content on
Would you like to be a member of a panel for our Hulu Awards Ceremony? You would be one of 20 panel members who would be asked to suggest and vote on the best Hulu content in a variety of categories.

Please let me know if you are interested. Either email me at (please put Hulu Awards in subject line), or leave me a comment here:



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Blake Snyder has an interesting approach to feature film formula. He breaks all successful movies into a series of steps, such as "Opening Image" (page 1), "Theme Stated" (by page 5), " "Setup" (page 10), "Catalyst" (page 12), "Debate" (pages 12-25) and so forth.

Normally I would reject anything this formulaic, but (a) Blake has sold a bunch of screenplays for big money; and (b) my showrunner friend Shelley uses his system to arc out features she's hired to write. So something's working there. Any time a professional screenwriter uses a system, and is willing to tell it to you, it's worth listening, eh?

Moreover, the steps make sense. Blake goes through quite a few hit movies in different genres and shows how the beats apply to them. So while most pro screenwriters probably haven't read his book, he may have discovered a basic structure that we have unconsciously internalized. I will probably try his steps out the next time I write a feature -- or next time I try to figure out if a feature I'm writing is working as well as it should.

Blake also takes a shot at defining different genres, such as "Dude with a Problem" and "Buddy Love," and picks out the essential structural elements of each. That's useful if you're trying to figure out what genre you're in, which defines what goods you need to deliver.

If you like the SAVE THE CAT! method, Blake has written a second book, SAVE THE CAT! GOES TO THE MOVIES, in which he goes through lots and lots of films and breaks them down into his steps. Handy. If you are writing a horror movies, it's good to analyze other horror movies to see how they do it. Likewise if you're writing a romantic comedy.

Check'em out.

UPDATE: Here's John Rogers' review.

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Saturday, October 18, 2008

You can check out the pilot for Glenn Mazzara's series CRASH (based on Paul Haggis's CRASH) on SuperChannel's website, if you're into that sort of thing...



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Thursday, October 16, 2008

Chris Bolton was kind enough to send me the season 3 opener for his irrepressible comic soap RENT-A-GOALIE. Bar owner Cake, who runs a service renting out goalies to local teams, hasn't yet told the scrappy 18-year-old Dallas that he's her bio-dad. Meanwhile her mother has set in motion a plot to move the Edmonton Oilers to (horrors) Lubbock, Texas, which may be why the mysterious hockey cabal known only as "Upstairs" arranged for her death in a helicopter crash ... if that is indeed what happened.

RENT-A-GOALIE is sort of Canada's half-hour answer to UGLY BETTY. It's a comic telenovela, with outrageous characters, arcane schemes, slapstick and a hero that's somewhere between hapless and feisty.

The show airs Mondays at 9:30 on Showcase, beginning October 20. Check it out!



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"Never pick a fight with a man who buys ink by the barrel," I think Mark Twain said.

You can always tell when a campaign is falling apart because they start complaining about their coverage. Whether or not the coverage is biased, this is a losing strategy because part of your job as a politician is to sell yourself to the media. If your coverage is not good, it's really your fault.

The worst thing you can do though is to start blaming the media. This just pisses them off. Then their editors pick the worst possible pictures of you. I am sure there were pictures of John and Cindy McCain where she did not look like Zombie Barbie and he did not look like Wacky Gramps. But the LA Times didn't use'em.

But by the point this picture was taken, John "My Head Is About to Explode, You Bastard!" McCain had pretty much put a stake in the heart of his campaign, so I guess it won't affect the outcome too much...



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Q. An agent is now going to be representing a script of mine, and therefore, in some fashion, me.

1. AGENT is not a fan of going out wide to 40 companies at once, because he thinks all the development execs will just post their thoughts on the script to the hive mind bulletin boards. I get the impression he's been burnt by this before. He prefers to try to identify, through conversation and relationship, the 12ish companies who would be the best fit for the script. Is this normal/a good idea, in your opinion?
I don't buy the argument about bulletin boards. They're going to make comments about your script on the trackers whether you go out to 12 or 40. But he may feel that the script has niche appeal of some sort, and therefore he's picking the 12 most likely prodcos.

He's the expert, and in any case you have to rely on his expertise.
2. I ran a couple ideas by AGENT as to what my next script should be.
Good on you!
He didn't take to them, so they probably aren't commercial enough to bother with for now. But CURRENT SPEC is a broad comedy, so he wants me to write another comedy. This way, when I get meetings based on CURRENT SPEC, I have something similar to pitch. How do I go along with this plan (which seems smart) without getting pigeonholed as a comedy writer? I was thinking of writing a comedy hybrid as a means of transiting to other genres.
I don't think writers get pigeonholed the way actors do. You could sell 5 comedy scripts and then come out with a drama. If it's a good drama, it will sell. A comedy actor may have trouble convincing people he can play drama. But a comedy writer can simply write a drama, and there's your proof that he's capable of it. The proof is in the writing.

If you have a rep as a one flavor of writer, you might have a little trouble getting commissioned to write something out of your perceived drama, but all that means is you'll have to spec something in the other genre first.

I might have been seen for a time as a comedy writer because of BON COP BAD COP and NAKED JOSH. But currently I'm working on a metaphysical drama for pay cable. So as the pilot for that circulates, or word of it does, I've been getting more spec fiction offers.

Frankly, it wouldn't kill you to be typecast in the beginning. You're more likely to get comedy gigs if you're seen as a comedy writer. Whereas if you have an action script, a horror movie, a comedy and a drama, they may not know what to make of you and they may not put you on any lists.

Don't be one of these comedy people who feels they're not a success unless they can make the audience cry. Writing great comedy is just as hard as, if not harder than, writing great drama. And the audience is always dying for something to laugh at.

I would say, write the funniest comedy you possibly can.
3. I have a book adaptation and an indie drama in my arsenal. Neither are commercial, but might be good writing samples for possible future gigs. AGENT has not expressed any interest in other existing works I might have. Maybe he thinks I would have told him by now. Should I?
What are you, a teenage girl at a sock hop in the 1950's? Of course you should pitch him your other material.

If he reads your other stuff and doesn't like it, then it probably isn't commercial. Maybe best to write some more scripts, and get back to your old projects later. You probably will see what's wrong with them. You can fix them, if you have the time, or consider that a lesson.

If he doesn't offer to read your other material, or offers but doesn't actually read it, then you have a bit of a problem. You need an agent to rep you, not just a script. If this script sells, then he probably will get more enthused about your other material. If he doesn't, then you might consider quietly searching for a permanent agent, while continuing to work with him. (Never leave an agent until you have another agent lined up.)

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Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Blake Snyder has made a career writing and selling big spec scripts. He also wrote a book about screenwriting, SAVE THE CAT. I'm probably going to interview him for this blog. What should I ask him?



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I'm reading through a slew of synopses for a jury. Most of them spend way too much on setting the opening scene, as if the writer was working his or her way into the movie.

If you're writing a pitch, do not tell me visual details. Do not tell me any details that aren't story elements. Don't tell me what the extras are doing. Just tell me the story.

These synopses are theoretically for a project that hasn't been written yet, which accounts for the "working their way into a story" feel. It's okay to work your way into a story (though it is less professional than breaking the story down first). But then go back and trim.

I often write a 10 page outline in order to distill a five page pitch. I need 10 pages to figure out what the story is. But I don't deliver ten pages. I deliver five.

Work out the story first. Then write the pitch.

That doesn't mean write the pitch with the story on your lap. Many synopses I've read for other juries seem to have been written with the script open. Page by page, we work through the script. It makes for a stilted read.

The best pitches are written off the top of your head. Anything you can't remember off the top of your head stands a good chance of being unnecessary. If you're truly stumped what happens next, you can check back to what you've written -- but the odds are excellent that there is a big gaping flaw in your story right where you lost your train of thought. If at all possible, fix it before you send your synopsis anywhere.

You should write your pitch, ideally, as if you are in a room talking with a producer. You have five minutes to tell him your story off the cuff. Write the words you would say if you were talking to a human being, in the same room, with the same level of detail. You wouldn't tell us what the extras are doing, would you? (You might use a bit of hype to sell a moment. But only the most arresting moments of the movie -- the "money shot" if you will.)

A pitch should sound as if you are in the room, selling the story.

Another way to look at it is: write your pitch as if you are selling your story to a rich uncle who is going to invest in your movie. You wouldn't tell him what the extras are doing, or how the light slants in through the drapes. You'd sell him the story.

Another way to look at it is: write your pitch as if you are telling the story to your 10-year-old nephew or niece.

A pitch is not a work of literature. It is you, in the room, selling a story.

Simplify, simplify, simplify, and never be boring.



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(The following is about Canadian politics. It's not even about political theatre. I'm basically venting my point of view. Feel free to wait for the next post if that's not your bag.)

I'm hearing various friends and readers of mine are depressed about the Tories getting a bigger minority government.

I'm not depressed. I'm angry.

First of all -- to all of you who voted for the Greens: congratulations! You have helped achieve the exact opposite of what you believe in. Next time consider voting for a pro-environmental candidate who might actually get in.

Second -- Did you vote? Did you contribute money? Did you contribute time? Did you canvass? Did you phone bank? Did you do everything you could? Then don't be depressed. You did what you could. If you didn't, maybe next time do more.

Third -- what did you expect? The Left in Canada is divided into three parties. In a first-past-the-post system, that will bring you failure every time.

I blame a couple of people who should know better.

Jack Layton, I hear, is largely responsible for the lack of an electoral compact. (An electoral compact is where two parties agree not to compete with each other. In a riding where one party is ahead, the other party's candidate bows out. That gets more members of both parties elected. The idea is to form a coalition government afterwards.) He was not trying to beat the Tories. He was trying to crush the Liberals so his party would become the Official Opposition, giving him a shot at Prime Minister next time. Thanks a lot, Jack!

Stephane Dion is responsible for an incompetent campaign. He is a lackluster leader with poor control of English. It was largely because of him that the Green candidate, Elizabeth May, got to come to the debate. Why did he encourage the Greens, who exist primarily to siphon off Liberal votes? Because he figured she'd siphon off more NDP votes, thus preventing them from becoming the Official Opposition. Can we just get rid of this guy, please?

NEWS FLASH: Until the two left parties stop fighting for who gets to be Official Opposition, they will both stay in opposition.

Naturally I blame Elizabeth May. She bears heavy responsibility for taking votes from the two parties that most agree with her. I mean, my God, Stephane Dion lost the election because he was trying to introduce a carbon tax. If she were secretly working to get Harper elected, she could not have done a better job.

Does she have a right to run? Sure. Do people have a right to vote for her? Sure. People have the right to bang their heads against the nearest wall, too. But I have a right to point out that the entire country has to share their headache.

(Oh and by the way -- what kind of eejit bases his campaign on a tax?)

The Left must unify. This is a 62% left-wing country where the only thing keeping the right wingers from total power is the party for people who don't want to be part of the country. That is nucking futs.

Next time, can we please have an electoral compact? Agree that two weeks before the next vote, whichever Left candidate is ahead in the polls gets the riding to him- or herself. I don't really care which of the two parties gets more MPs. I just don't see a lot of semantic space between the Liberals and the NDP. All I see is egos getting in the way.

And fold the Green Party into one or the other of the two real parties and give Elizabeth May a cabinet post.

And if Jack and Stephane (or his replacement) and Liz won't do it, send all of them up to their rooms without supper until they agree to play nice.

Thank you for listening.



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Monday, October 13, 2008

Q. My movie takes place over a 24 hour period, with most scenes in one of two main locations. There are a couple of points when I want to make clear that significant time has passed since the previous scene, which was in the same location. To solve this, my cinematographer/cameraman and I have decided to put a large clock in the room and we can cut to it at the beginning of the new, later scene.

The question I have is, should I reference the clock in the script or is that a detail just for the shooting script?
Anything you need the audience to see had better be in the script, whether you're shooting it or trying to sell it.

But I wouldn't go with a clock. If all you need to do is tell time, I'd just put a time stamp on the screen directly. It feels like clumsy. The audience is used to time subtitles -- HEROES is full of them, so is THE WEST WING, and others too numerous to mention.

If you want to be cleverer, work it into dialog. Or give us specific clues that tell us how much time has passed that aren't so on the nose. Table set for dinner. Food on table. Dirty plates on the dining table. Sun in the eastern window, sunset in the western window. Night. The party upstairs. Silence from upstairs. Changes of clothes. Have someone spill wine on his white shirt; if we see the stain, we know it's later.

In other words, try to make the time crystal clear by showing, not telling us. A clock is telling us. Giving us clues we can easily interpret for ourselves is showing. We like to figure things out for ourselves, so give us a chance.



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Sunday, October 12, 2008

I've been dipping into SAVE THE CAT. I don't usually read screenwriting books, but a dear showrunner friend of mine has been using the Save the Cat steps to plot out movies, so I thought I'd check it out.

As I do in my book, Blake Snyder believes that the hook is the sink or swim part of your screenplay. He has two nice points to make about the hook:

It should be ironic. E.g. in PRETTY WOMAN, a guy falls in love with a hooker he's hired for the weekend. In DIE HARD, a cop's bad visit with his wife gets a lot worse when terrorists take over her office.

You should be easily able to see the movie from the hook. Any pro screenwriter could write a decent movie from either of the above hooks.

I am not sure that every great hook is ironic, unless you stretch the definition of "ironic"; I'm not sure what's ironic about the hook of SPLASH or WHILE YOU WERE SLEEPING. But a great hook definitely gives you a good story in a nutshell.

I'll point out more of Blake's good ideas as I continue on through the book...

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Saturday, October 11, 2008

Watched a bit of the SANCTUARY pilot. Hunter and I turned it off about half an hour in because we were just too frustrated with it. We felt like there was one hour's worth of plot padded out to two hours; many of the complications were there just to make things take longer. We felt like the hero was reactive and passive.


For example, after the hero spends ten minutes trying fruitlessly to convince his fellow cops that the killer is not the thug who's been framed, the Chief Monster Hunter approaches him on the street. In what felt like a three minute conversation (by which I mean Unutterably Long), she tries to get him interested in her. She spouts generalities in the "there are more things on Heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy" line -- and he brushes her off.

Why? Not because it makes any sense for his character, who needs a break in the case just now, but, I felt, because the Refusal of the Call is in the hero-writing handbook, and so he can have a three minute up-and-back with his ex-girlfriend, after which he does the obvious thing and calls up the Chief Monster Hunter, as we knew all along he would.

For God's sake, Sanctuary is a show about monster hunters. We know that going in. So we are hardly going to be worried that he'll never hook up with her. Your job as a screenwriter is to make it fun how he does.

The hero has been established as an obsessively brilliant observer. He already suspects the murder victims weren't shot to death. Just have the Chief Monster Hunter come up to him on the street and say, "You didn't find any bullets in the victims, did you?" Then walk away. He will follow her. Because she knows what he wants to know.

Or, better, use that inevitable hookup to establish his character -- and make him a proactive hero. Chief Monster Hunter doesn't want to have anything to do with him. He keeps running into her as he conducts his rogue investigation. She keeps brushing him off, until she realizes that he has the clue she needs. And then when they solve the case together, she's about to vanish off when he tells her he knows she's some kind of monster hunter -- so she has to invite him to join her organization because it's the only way to keep her secret.

The hero is us. If your Chief Monster Hunter pushes herself on him, then he's being passive and reactive. We're not being pulled into the story; we're having exposition pushed on us. Pulling is better than pushing. It's always going to be more fun if the hero figures things out than if someone explains it to him.

Needless to say, having Chief Monster Hunter deliver five minutes of exposition in her Batcave before showing him, and us, the critters in her basement, is a big bore.

But we gave up on the show only when the Chief Monster Hunter, her Badass Lieutenant, and the hero proceeded to instantly solve the initial mystery -- the kid on the run -- in the next five minutes, without complications or doing anything clever. Obviously we could no longer trust the screenwriter.

This two hour pilot wanted to be two hour episodes, one entirely devoted to the kid on the run, the second hour to the Evil Tall Guy. I wanted to spend less time on the setup, and more on the individual episodic mystery. Come on, for heaven's sake, we KNOW it's a show about monster hunters. We need very little explanation about that. Just tell a good story and let us -- and the hero -- figure out what kind of organization it is!

Your show doesn't exist in a vacuum. Your pilot doesn't even exist in a vacuum. People are tuning in because they know what it's about and they like it. We know Buffy is a vampire slayer in the Buffy pilot, 'cause the show is called BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER. She may not know it, but we do. And if your show is about monster hunters, we already know it.

Try to give as little exposition as you can. Let the audience pull themselves in. They are smarter than you think.

That does not mean "skip over the revelation." You could profitably spend the whole first episode with the hero tracking down the real killer -- and, inadvertently, the Chief Monster Hunter -- allowing us to learn about the monster hunters in an active way, the way the hero is learning about them. The reward, in the end, is the revelation of the monster hunting society. But it does mean use the audience's expectations; don't ignore them.



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Q. I'm a finalist in a festival for a TV spec. Some big-wigs will be present at the festival and I'll likely get to have a few words with one or two of them. Any advice?
Pitch your best show idea! Ask if they need an assistant! Pitch your best show idea!



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Q. i really like tv series that have been produces before 1990, the most tv series that i like to watch when i was a kid is A Team and High Chapparal. is anyone know where i an watch old tv series online?
This was in a comment on another thread, so I thought I'd promote it.

As Gnasche wrote in:
You should check out It's a legit site, but it may block IP addresses outside the US. [I can't access it in Canada -- ed.] Select TV, then Alphabetical. Seasons 1 and 2 of THE A TEAM are on there, plus a lot of other 70's and 80's stuff. There are commercials but a lot of that money goes to the people who made the shows.
Anyone else know where to watch old shows, aside from torrents and Nick?



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Friday, October 10, 2008

See, there are just some things the campaign can't do...

... but citizens can.



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According to today's The Montreal Gazette, one reason the Conservatives are now set to lose all their parliamentary seats in Quebec is their hostile attitude towards arts funding. Quebecers consider their culture absolutely vital to their way of life. When you make obnoxious comments about how artists are elitist snobs, and cut arts funding by $45 mil, they feel personally attacked.

That's right: attacking arts funding in Quebec is a Big Vote Loser.

Imagine that.

See why I live in Montreal?



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Wednesday, October 08, 2008

That One '08
Originally uploaded by copelanda

As you know if you read the papers, McCain infelicitously referred to his opponent in the debate as "that one."

And at 10:44 pm last night, it was a bumper sticker.

I think this election is a changed game. Ideas and themes used to come from the top down; party "activists" were people who knocked on doors and made calls and got out the vote. Now you can participate by making web videos and campaign art -- e.g. the classic Obama "Hope" poster and its many spinoffs.

It takes some getting used to. The Obama people seem to get it. With their history of community organizing, their campaign has been all about empowering their volunteers. The campaign gives you the template and the tools, and you go and do it.

(Though to be accurate, at the top they are extremely well-disciplined, with message control to rival the Bush campaigns.)

I have the impression that McCain is running a more traditional campaign, and it's hurting them. I'm not sure they really understand how much more dangerous it is to flip-flop when there are flocks of people with time on their hands ready to edit together a Youtube of your candidate saying both A and not-A.

I think future politicians will have to be clearer in their choices. Either say nothing at all, always say the same thing, or have no more than one road-to-Damascus moment where you change your mind. Otherwise you'll get nailed by the Net.



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Tuesday, October 07, 2008

If you're searching for the right word, try this Reverse Dictionary. You type in what the word means, and it tries to find your word.

Hey, guys, what's your favorite online thesaurus?



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How common is marijuana use in writers' rooms? Do companies really enforce a no-drug policy, or just let the kids play as long as the shows are getting ratings? Is Canada different than U.S. in this respect?
I have never seen drug use on the job on either side of the border. I think, to most show people, getting stoned on the job would be like getting drunk on the job. They would see it as a personal problem that you have. They might or might not fire you, depending on how they manage their people. But they wouldn't view it as a plus.

It's not a question of morality. Show people are tolerant of all sorts of extravagant personal choices if you have enough talent and people like you enough; that's how Robert Downey, Jr. still has a career. But most companies will fear that if you're using drugs or alcohol on the job, you're unreliable. My understanding is that Aaron Sorkin's coke problem on THE WEST WING led to him getting fired off his own show. Not because he was coked up; because he was late with episodes.

Personally, I can't imagine trying to write while high. I gather it works for Seth Rogen, though who knows if he wouldn't write even better straight. If you need to get wasted to put out the pages, maybe you should look at what's stopping you from writing, rather than trying to drug your way through it.

I have to say that overall, I have seen surprisingly little drug use in showbiz off the job. I've been to my share of industry parties both in LA (in the Nineties) and Canada (in the Naughties). Rarely have I been aware of anyone doing coke. I rarely smell pot smoke, either. Not that many people even get seriously drunk. Is it a generational thing? Do people not invite me to the really fun parties? Do show people not want to be wasted when they're working a party?

Make of it what you will. I'm going to get another coffee.



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Sunday, October 05, 2008

Q. My script is a musical drama about a band. I'm no songwriter, but the one original song in the movie has meaning for the two main characters. Should I try to write the lyrics, or just put the meaning and purpose of the lyrics into the script?
You can do it either way. In BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID, William Goldman puts in a lot of hype about how wonderful one particular song is, how haunting and how lovely. He didn't put lyrics, and somehow it wound up being "Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head."

No one expects you to be a songwriter. We have songwriters for that. And there's a good chance that the lyrics won't "read" very well. They rarely do without the music attached.

(However, if you do write the lyrics, you have a shot at a Grammy.)

If your band isn't playing an original song but covering a known song, I'd stay away from naming the song and writing in the lyrics. Readers may not have the same reaction to a given song as you do, so you're better off saying "a haunting love song," and telling us the characters' reactions to it, rather than hoping that "You've Lost That Loving Feeling" is your reader's favorite love song, too.


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Saturday, October 04, 2008

Q. I've been reading a lot about shows and agents generally looking to read original materials (spec pilots, etc) as opposed to spec episodes.

I was wondering how (or if) that trend is carrying though in Canada? Are Canadian agents/shows looking for spec episodes or original material? If they're still looking at spec episodes, is the preference Canadian shows, or American shows?
Canadian shows were traditionally more willing to look at spec pilots than American shows, so now the Americans have just caught up.

But you're still better off showing one spec episode (of a hit American show) along with your spec pilot. I can't tell from a pilot if you can write my show. I only know you can write your show. And I don't know how long you've been working on your spec pilot. Maybe years. An up-to-date spec means you can write in a reasonable amount of time.

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Friday, October 03, 2008

Q. I would love to do background research and write scripts for documentaries. I would be more at ease with historical, scientific or nature-related topics.

1) Do I need to go to a film school for that? Or are my training in the history of science and my experience as a freelance journalist enough to start working on a project?

2) Where should I start? Where are the producers looking for researchers/writers for that type of docs?

3) If I limit myself to this genre, could I make a living out of it?
I certainly wouldn't go to film school to learn to research docs. I have major doubts about the value of film school. (See my many posts in this department.) But research is a skill you learn by doing it. If you've been to college, you ought to know how to do research. Especially if you've made a living as a journalist.

There isn't a hell of a lot of money in docs. Many people working in docs are their own research. And their own director, writer, producer, financier and driver.

There are companies that hire researchers from time to time. See who's doing e.g. wildlife series for Discovery Channel, find their production company contact info and call them up.

But it's not high paid work. There are too many really smart people already working as professional researchers; it keeps the pay down.

Showbiz is an entrepreneurial business. Much of the work you get, you have to create for yourself. That goes for screenwriting, and it goes for research too, I'm afraid. You may need to finance and shoot your own doc in order to pay yourself for the research.



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Wednesday, October 01, 2008

(Political story-telling)

New Quinnipiac polls put Obama ahead 8, 8 and 15 points in Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania. Generally, you need to win two out of three of those to become President. However, Obama is also looking good in Virginia and Colorado, either of which would give him the election if he holds Pennsylvania. If I weren't superstitious about wasting my luck, I'd be putting serious money down on Obama at Intrade, where he's getting only 60-40 odds; FiveThirtyEight.Com gives him 6-1 odds.

Why is McCain tanking so spectacularly? (Aside from, you know, Americans actually disagreeing with what he stands for.)

One thing I feel has been missing in the McCain campaign is what in a script we'd call a "through line." What is the point of the story?

Obama has a compelling narrative that fits together. He's young, he's Black, he's anti-war, he's for change. It's a commonplace that this is a "change election," but that is partly the result of the Obama campaign's successful framing. When Hillary hit her stride in March, her frame was "I will fight for you"; and I think if she'd been pushing that paradigm in December (when it was "It's My Turn") or January ("Experience") or February ("I'm for change, too!"), she'd have won.

The McCain people have never really nailed down what his story is. Partly I think they've been distracted by his personal story of being a prisoner for 5 years. It's a compelling personal story but they've never tied it convincingly to what McCain would actually do. Obama would change things. Hillary would fight for you. McCain... what? Would be honorable? Would be brave? Do voters even want a brave President? I'm not sure they do. Presidents tend to be brave with your kids.

Moreover, it's hard to run a campaign on how honorable your candidate is when your campaign manager is a Karl Rove protege and your staff are lobbyists. McCain could have run an all-out insurgent campaign, rejecting the lobbyists and the Rovians, to make the "honorable" story the through line of his campaign. But he didn't.

So the McCain campaign has been flailing. At the convention they tried to make the case that McCain was also a change candidate. But that's a tough sell coming from a Republican candidate who isn't willing to actually run against the President. And who is going to believe that the 72 year old white guy is the change candidate? Even if he does call himself a "maverick," and pick the "hottest governor from the coldest state." You are simply never going to beat the black guy for who's going to change things more.

(That was Hillary's mistake running on "experience." She was never actually the most experienced candidate, and everyone knew it. How was she going to beat McCain if the election was about "experience"?)

The McCain campaign has also been flailing in how it frames Obama. Is he an angry black man? Is he a freaky weirdo? A corrupt pol? A bleeding-heart liberal? A radical? Wishy-washy? The McCain people have tried each of these, but they keep changing the attack, and so their attacks tend to contradict. If he's wishy-washy he's not an angry man. If he's a weirdo then he's not a bleeding-heart liberal.

Meanwhile the Obama campaign has been pounding away at McCain relentlessly on message. McCain = Bush. That's been their message from Day 1. They have never bothered with attacks that don't fortify that message. Various bloggers have attacked McCain for being angry, senile, reckless, corrupt and a liar. The Obama campaign has gone with the "liar" meme, but that fits with the Bush association. They haven't, that I've noticed, made much of McCain's anger issues. Not relevant.

It's all about picking one story and telling it. The McCain people have told many stories about their candidate and their opponent; the Obama campaign has told one story about their candidate and one about their opponent.

Human beings are hardwired to absorb facts better when they fit into a single story than when they are just a grab bag.

As the proverb goes, "The fox knows many things. The hedgehog knows one Big Thing." And that's why foxes rarely get to eat hedgehogs.

To be fair, this election has always been structurally difficult for the Republicans. Party registrations are down. They're carrying an incumbent who's duking it out with Nixon for lowest approval / highest disapproval ratings in history. And McCain's timing is bad. People acknowledge him as a hero, but (I forget who noted this) the country is probably looking for a steward.

Still, would it have made more sense to frame the McCain story as Experience? When you have 26 years in the Senate, shouldn't you embrace that? The best argument against Obama is probably his lack of experience, coupled with his habit of voting "Present." Would it have made more sense to pound away at Experience vs. Inexperience? Frame it that way?

Because you could certainly distinguish yourself from Bush that way. Bush was inexperienced when he came into office. He has continued to behave like an inexperienced guy, rarely seeking out conflicting opinions and knowledge. Compared to McCain, Bush is still a callow youth. You would make the case that the country needs a leader with experience in prior crises, not a junior senator with most of his experience in local politics.

And if you can convince people that you're Mr. Experience, then you get to shuck off some of the other attacks. Experienced people have a right to be angry. He's not senile; he's just weighing his responses. Sure he's been involved in some shady deals, but hey, he's been around a long time. You can't expect a guy to spend 26 years in a Senate without ever having shaken the hand of someone who's a bit dirty.

Of course it's easy to carp at this point. Anyone can see that McCain is facing long odds now, so whatever McCain did must have been a mistake, just as whatever Obama did must have been wise. Right after the convention, Obama looked passive for all the things that now make him look steadfast.

But I can't help thinking that McCain would be doing better now if he had picked one compelling story and stuck to it all along.



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If you're a Montrealer, SODEC has a series of interesting workshops and classes in French related to its Cours Écrire Ton Court program:

Mardi 14 octobre, à 10 h
Classe de maître avec le scénariste Ken Scott

Mercredi 15 octobre, é 10 h
Atelier rencontre : Comment les producteurs abordent-ils le scénario ?

Jeudi 16 octobre, é 10 h
Classe de maître avec le scénariste Jérôme Beauséjour

Vendredi 17 octobre, é 13 h
Lecture publique des scénarios finalistes au concours Cours écrire ton court !

More details (PDF).


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