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Preview: Complications Ensue: The Crafty TV and Screenwriting Blog

Complications Ensue: The Crafty TV and Screenwriting Blog

The craft of screenwriting for TV and movies, by a working screenwriter (with forays into life and political theatre)...

Updated: 2017-04-20T12:07:36.497-04:00


Denis McGrath


We lost one of the best writers I know tonight. A writer, and a firebrand for writers. And a good friend. And a wit, and a style, and a voice. Damn it.

I met Denis McGrath on a plane to South Africa. We were parachuting in on a show where the previous writing team, who were on a plane going the other way, had not got along too well with the showrunner. When we got there, we had to retcon some sort of sense out of the episodes that had been shot, and then rewrite the next script literally over the course of 24 hours.

We got along like gangbusters. Denis was a New York native who'd moved to Toronto as a kid. He was big, and he was loud, and he was funny, and he was whip smart. He liked to complain. He was generous. He cared. He loved stories. We spent a lot of time breaking story above a nice restaurant, having them bring us takeout on actual plates, since we were right upstairs. We decided his talk show would be called, "Here's Why I Hate That."

A couple years later, Denis and I instigated the Writer Mafia Party At TIFF, which became an annual event for a decade. Starting at The Paddock and moving to Czehoski, it was the antidote to all the producer parties at the Toronto International Film Festival. No free drinks, but your friends were there. Like him, it was big, it was loud, it was fun, it was packed to the gills with brains and creativity.

He would hold court at the Writer Mafia Party. He did not get around easily, so friends would come to him, and bask in him. He always had a bunch of Ryerson kids around him who were starting to break in. He was one of the top television writers in Canada, but he also taught, because he didn't want to keep it all for himself. He said in every class there was one kid you knew was going to do it. That was my experience too. You really taught the class for that one kid that had it.

He had a million friends; he had a few bosom buddies who went back to his high school days. But he always made time for me when I showed up in town.

He was a hell of a writer. He was certainly one of the best television writers in Canada. When, as a juror for the WGC awards, I read a script that really popped, more than once it turned out to be Denis's. I remember an episode of The Border where every act out not only amped the story out, it made you have to rethink everything you'd seen up to then.

He blogged passionately. He got himself in trouble calling a certain very powerful individual a fatuous gasbag, someone who could easily reach out and discourage people from hiring him. He ranted about Canadian networks that refused to believe in Canadian shows, always trying to get permission to stop funding them, even though shows like Corner Gas and Durham County were successful and good. He was a permanent fixture in the Writer's Guild of Canada, a long time counsellor for Ontario, and a member of the negotiating committee. I'm glad I was not one of the producers on the other side. He was not afraid to call shenanigans when he saw them.

Like a rising tide, he lifted everyone around him.

Damn it, I miss him.

Eeyore Was Not Just Any Donkey


I'm playing a couple of new games, and they have amazing gameplay. But something's missing for me with their characters.Now, granted, you can have a pretty good game without strong characterization. A game can be superfun without it. But it can't make you care about the characters. It can't move you.I have a long-running beef about many fantasy and SF and historical games. Characters are defined primarily by their situations. Say, for example, you're an outcast. Members of the Tribe are mean to you. The character you play is, naturally, spunky, and doesn't let the meanies get her down.But suppose you were a Jew in 1930s Germany, or a Muslim or a trans person in South Carolina now. You do not fit in; some people are mean to you.But they are mean to different degrees and in different ways. Some will mock you. Some will hit you. Some will pretend you don't exist, because they're not fundamentally mean and they're embarrassed about it. Some will be mean if other people are around, but nice to you if other people are not. We expect characters from the 20th and 21st centuries to be people with personalities. Their attitudes are colored by their situation; they're taught to react to you a certain way. But some people are angry and just looking for someone to take it out on. For some, duty is important and they might hurt you but only because they think they're supposed to; it's not personal. People are different.I miss that in a lot of fantasy and historical and sf games.I can't wait for the cave man game where you meet a Neanderthal, and he's a bit of a joker, but actually, you realize, actually kind of an asshole.People also have their own stories going on. I can't wait till I'm playing a game and I meet a member of the Other Tribe, and she's really upset about something that just happened (like she just broke up with her boyfriend) and meeting me is not the most important thing in her day, I'm just a weird happenstance. In A. A. Milne's Winnie the Pooh, the animals are people. When you meet Eeyore, he's a self-pitying mope. In fact, he is such a specific self-pitying mope that I feel positive that, if I'd gone to a garden party at A. A. Milne's house, I'd have been able to figure out which of his friends A. A. was making fun of.So if there are three kids from the Tribe harassing the playing in a prehistoric or post-Apocalyptic game, then maybe one of them is really intent on hurting you, and obviously angry at your very existence. But a second kid is trying to pull him away because she was enjoying the game they were playing and you're nothing to her. And another is obvious upset at what the first one is doing, but doesn't want to rock the boat.Just because you're writing historical or pre-historic characters doesn't mean you can't write people. Modern homo sapiens — meaning humans who you could dress up and put in the subway and they'd look completely normal — have been around for at least a hundred thousand years. A hundred thousand years ago they probably believed the mountain was a god and the stream was a god too and so forth. But don't tell me that some of them weren't really nice people, and some of them were jerks, and some of them you had to catch on a good day, and some of them were egotistical. Some of them wanted to be chief of the tribe, and some just wanted to get with the ladies or the men, and some were no use for anything but okay in a pinch, and some were smart and clever and useless in a fight.And I guarantee you some would not listen to anybody, and some could make you feel good when you fell on your face, and some just made you feel stupid, and the kids didn't listen to their elders as much as the elders wanted, because people have been complaining about that at least since the invention of writing. (Seriously, we have texts from the Romans and even the ancient Egyptians saying, basically, "Kids these days, amirite?")When you're writing aliens, other species, people from other times and places, try writing them like specific people that you know. Write them so specifically[...]

Assorted Questions


Would you be willing to read what I have done so far and, in addition, give me some advice about getting it in the hands of a producer?
I used to do that, for a fee, but I don't do that any more, except for friends.
Certainly, if you assist me, I would not mind at all sharing proceeds with you.
What you are looking for is an agent. An agent finds a producer to pay you, and takes 10%.
I am working to get the synopsis for my screenplay exactly right. It took me a month to get the perfect log line.
Good! Most people don't spend enough time on their hook. They just charge ahead and write the script. Then they write the query letter. I've critiqued query letters in the past, for a fee, and about half the time, as I'm trying to improve the query, I can easily think of a better concept. Of course by then the script is written and nobody wants to rip up their script and write a better one.

Professionals do it all the time. They don't want to, but they do.
You will see that I am an accomplished writer. In fact, my mantra is that I steadfastly refuse to start a sentence with 'the', a habit left over from the promise of at least a grade of 75% in English Literature if a student submitted material exclusively without ever starting a sentence with 'the'.
The fuck???



Q. I show a female cop near the beginning of my script, but she doesn't speak.

As I start Act II, I introduce an old women, who is really the cop, in makeup prosthetics to look like an old woman.

Do I tell the reader that the cop and the old woman are one and the same? Or do I let the reader know when everyone else finds out?

A friend of mine says “the director and the crew need to know right away.”
A. They will, but you’re not writing a shooting script. You’re writing a selling script. A selling script should read the way you want the audience to experience the movie.

Later on, should your script go into production, you’ll make everything clear; but in a selling script, secrets should remain secrets until they’re revealed.

You can, if you want, write something like “We’ll see her again,” to let us know to pay attention to this particular cop; it’s the equivalent of the camera dwelling on this particular cop for just long enough that we know we should remember her later.

Actually, why doesn't she speak? What's the point of introducing her at all if we're not going to notice her?

Another question: is she the main character? If so, maybe we should know she's in disguise. If the main character knows critical things we don't know, it alienates us from him or her. You can do it, but we won't identify with him or her as much.

We Happy Few - Update - Meat Boy


We have now, finally, at the last minute, got everything recorded for this sprint, including at least seven little old ladies for Hoard House. Guess how many actors? Have a listen when the update comes and tell me how many you think there are.

As I mentioned last week, I did a massive casting session for a character named Ed MacMillan, affectionately known around the office as Meat Boy. (Obviously he is in no way an homage to anyone associated with the game Super Meat Boy.)

I found an amazing actor, Joe Sims, who has won all sorts of awards for his radio work.

(I didn’t know he’d won awards until we cast him. I generally ignore CVs when I’m casting voices. It takes much less time to listen to a voice reel and decide whether the actor is inhabiting the roles he plays.)

Joe will break your heart, I hope, as Meat Boy. He’s also assorted bookies, bobbies, lads and soldiers. We had fun.

In other news, affordances.

Affordances is a fancy word for “things look like you’re supposed to use them a certain way.” I read a great book by Don Norman called The Design of Everyday Things. It’s about doors that you can’t figure out whether to push or pull on them, and how to design things so they’re intuitive. It’s actually super helpful for game design. You might dig it.

Well, we put some phone booths in the game, because, you know, iconic. Can’t have Britain without red telephone boxes.

But then you guys said, “We want to pick up the phones and hear something.”

So we put some voices on the phone. And a baseball game between the Dublin Dukes and the New York Yankees.

But then you guys said, “There’s voices, but there’s no gameplay.” Gosh, you people are demanding.

So Lisa and I came up with a story and some gameplay for the phone booths. It won’t be in this update, but maybe it will be in the next. So I hope y’all feel the love.

We Happy Few Update - Casting Challenges


I was not satisfied with what we were able to do with one particular character in a recording session with an otherwise wonderful voice actor. Our voice actor is very good at accents, but this is a fairly hard role — a developmentally disabled adult who has to break your heart.

So I fired off a casting call to the UK.

Saying “developmentally disabled character” to the entire pool of agents in the UK is a little bit of waving a red flag in front of the Running of the Bulls. Playing disabled is an artistic challenge, so it shows your acting chops. The clip will almost certainly go on your reel. I got 80 submissions in about three hours late on a Thursday afternoon.

So I got to wade through 80 submissions. One weird thing about voice character submissions is the headshots. They send me headshots. Why would I care about headshots? I don’t care what the actor looks like. All right, it’s nice that Alex Wyndham could actually pass for Arthur if we did the movie, but he could look like Shirley Temple for all I care. When we do the recording sessions, we don’t have the camera on, so I literally do not know what half of my actors look like.

I winnow those 80 submissions to 9 I’d like to hear from; plus I go through my last casting call and ping the agents whose clients were great but not right for those roles. The actors will record an MP3, and a dozen actors will come down to three or four. I’ll audition those guys on the phone.

The lucky actor — by “lucky” I mean “probably spent a decade or two painstakingly learning how to turn his talent into craft” — then gets to record this one particular part for about fifteen minutes, plus a bunch of other stuff for forty-five minutes. And the scene will play for about a minute and a half in the game.

It is a ridiculous amount of work for a role you’re going to see on screen in the first playthrough for 90 seconds. This is why recording voice actors is expensive even for short recordings - you’re not paying for 15 minutes of work, you’re paying for the lifetime of experience that is needed to deliver a great 15 minutes of work.

But if those two minutes break your heart, then they add meaning to the hour or two of gameplay following that encounter. They show us a side of Arthur we wouldn’t know without them. So you care.

I mean, that’s the point of the narrative, after all: to make you care.

So that’s why I was up till midnight on a Thursday.

The rest of the team's update here.



I should have posted this on the 14th, but:


Money Not Where Mouth Is?


Q. I'm a novelist who is expanding my career to include screenwriting.

I've gotten many views on Inktip. One producer contacted me to ask if I would add an angel to to script, turn it into a feature film script and then tone it down to family friendly.

I asked if we could chat by phone. We had a good rapport and I enjoyed hearing her ideas. I developed a new synopsis, tweaked it after several email exchanges until she said that she loved it.

I waited a few days. Then I emailed to ask what she would like to do next. I had asked her about her budget earlier and she didn't want to discuss money.
Warning, Will Robinson. Danger, danger. A producer who does not want to discuss money at this point is almost certainly wasting your time. Real producers understand that they have to pay money to get what they want creatively. Indeed, that is literally the job description of a producer. Producers find money in order to move their creative projects forward.

A producer that won't put money down either doesn't believe in the project, not really, or they don't have the ability to bring money, in which case, flee.
After 25 years writing for major publishers, I've never been told not to ask about money. She just emailed me to ask me about the changes to the script. I haven't added those changes to the script because the changes are major, would certainly surprise the readers who followed the book series, and I'm not sure I want to write a screenplay with no budget in mind. I've never worked gratis.

Should I write a screenplay for her without knowing the budget, or if she has the funds to pay me?
That would be "no."

She has, at this point, read a script, made notes, and read a synopsis. She's invested, at most, two hours in your project. You've probably invested several days to a week.

It costs nothing for a producer to say, "Hey, this would be great if it were set in a PT boat in the South Pacific in 1943." It costs you time to rewrite. At the end of all that time, the producer can say, "Y'know what... never mind." You're stuck with a version of your script that you don't necessarily believe in.

If someone gives you notes that make your script better, there's nothing wrong with taking those notes. Even if the producer doesn't want the script afterwards, you still have a better script.

"Put not your trust in princes," as the Bible says. Assume that some portion of whatever a producer says is optimism, and another portion is fairy tales. The money is proof that the producer is taking your project seriously, and is a serious producer.

(By the way, no, you don't ask about money. Your agent does. That is literally her job description.)

Where to Put the Monkeys, or, Third Act Action Sequences


Lisa's rebreaking the story for a script she's rewriting. She's been wracking her brain on the third act action sequences. The monkeys never seem to be in the right place.

Last night I suggested she think about "what is your hero's greatest fear? The action sequence is where she confronts and surmounts it."

She sort of lit up and disappeared into her writer's brain, and this morning told me, "I've got the whole thing."

It's not about the monkeys. It's never about the monkeys.

A great third act action sequence is, of course, your biggest spectacle. In a great script, it is also where the hero completes his or her dramatic journey. Luke Skywalker's run at the Death Star is not really about where the X-wings go. It is about Luke surrendering to the Force and taking the path to becoming a Jedi like his father.

There are plenty of movies where the third act action sequence is not about the hero achieving his or her destiny, or completing his or her journey. The action is about the hero accomplishing his external goal. However, they are less satisfying, I find, than movies in which the action sequence is not only the physical resolution, but the dramatic resolution.

What does your hero have to do in order to complete his or her journey?

Actually, this is true of all action sequences, in the broadest sense. A sex scene should never be about the sex (unless you're writing a porno, obviously). A sex scene should be a dialog scene without words, where the characters are using sex to express their feelings about each other. They each want something, there's tension, will they get it? Yes, they do. Or no, they don't.

(It's critical to any scene, including a sex scene, or any other kind of action scene, that they won't get what they want.)

Ideally, a gun battle in a John Woo movie, a duet in an opera, a pas de deux in a ballet, can and should have a dramatic question at its heart.

Or, for that matter, a boss battle in a video game, though it may be some time before we realize this.

The reason I have this particular tool in my writer's toolkit is that John Rogers wrote about this in some detail a dozen years ago. He phrases it like this:
Don't write action scenes. Write suspense scenes that require action to resolve.

That is excellent advice any time, but particularly excellent advice for your finale.

We Happy Few Update


This past two weeks, I wrote a pirate into the pub, singing a sea shanty. I’ve always wanted to put “The Eddystone Light” into something or other. Yo ho ho, the wind blows free! O for the life of the rolling sea.

Oddly, some otherwise brilliant actors cannot sing a lick. Fortunately, Jay Simon, who voiced the Honey Troll and Johnny Bolton, Special Agent, can.

I also recorded our Arthur, Alex Wyndham, and She Who Must Not Be Named, and I’ve edited most of the new lines into the cinematic audio.

It’s an interesting challenge rewriting the scenes so they convey the new information without requiring new choreography. In a movie, where the camera is third person, it’s easy to expand a scene, because the camera keeps cutting. In first person cinematics, you would have to create animation that would take the characters from position A, to do new things, and then back to exactly position A. So I try to avoid changing the timing of the scene – I try to make the new words fit as closely as possible to where the old words lived, or at least take up the same amount of time, so I don’t bump other lines that are still working.

Shouldn’t we have made these changes before the animators went to work? Sure. But it’s very hard to read a script, and still fairly hard to evaluate an audio track. Sometimes people don’t spot things until they actually see them.

More importantly, when you spend three years working on a story, you spot weaknesses in it that were not immediately apparent. Hopefully, you’ve left some room in the budget for fixing them.

On the other hand, because it’s not a movie, it’s a game, we can keep making improvements. A while ago we added an epilog for the first few characters. This week G asked us to find a way to tie all the stories together thematically at the end, which makes the game more coherent narratively. It also gives a new mandate to the epilog. So, we are rewriting the epilog to incorporate some ideas.

Also, we continue to improve the ending of the playthrough for SWMNBN. I think we’re on version 5 or 6. The first one was good, but too short to convey the catharsis we need. So each time we’ve been going deeper while, I hope, keeping to the essentials of the story.

And ... I’ve just about got all the dialog written for this sprint, which leaves me some time to play the game! So yay for that.

Querying TV Agents


Q. Lately I’ve heard that very few agents will take you seriously if you have less than 5 scripts, so before I even write the query, I wanted to know if I should do it one query per script? Or?
I have not heard anything about five scripts. Last I heard is that agents want one awesome spec (of a running show) and one awesome spec pilot (for your own show). One speaks to the ability to write in someone else’s voice, the other speaks to your own creativity and voice.

Of course my info could be out of date. I've had the same agency for ten years. Best way to get current info is to call up some agents and ask their assistants, "What do you guys want these days?" It's also a good idea to ask, "What are people speccing these days?" They'll tell you.

Generally you end up with five or more scripts as your writing gets better and as your specs age out. Your spec ages out when the show gets cancelled, or people get sick of reading specs from that show. Your spec pilot ages out when someone greenlights a show with something close to your show's premise.

When that happens, don't feel so bad. It means you were on the right track. You're in the Zeitgeist.

Also, take a look at the show that was greenlit. How was it different than yours? Was it more commercial? Sometimes it got greenlit just because the showrunner is a proven quantity, but often you can learn something.

So, if you’re looking for TV agent, it probably wouldn’t hurt to say “here’s my spec pilot with an awesome hook, and of course I also have a spec for .”

Anyone else with other info, please write in the comments!

We Happy Few Update - The Tension between Story and Design


I have an interesting relationship with the designers. They are instinctively concerned with “what does the player want to do?” As the narrative guy, however, it’s my job to ask, “Why does Arthur want to do this?”

For example, let’s suppose Arthur discovers that a delivery boy is late. The player gets an objective to find out why he is late.

However, why should Arthur care whether a delivery boy is late? “Because the player got an objective” is not an answer. Nor is “because it is going to set him off on an adventure”; he doesn’t know that. Most people Arthur knows are forgetful; aren’t people late all the time?

So, I’m the pain in the ass guy who complicates the job of designing levels by asking why the player character wants to do what the player wants to do.

So, first, I thought, maybe this delivery boy is never late. Okay, that’s helpful. But still, why should Arthur care?

I asked David. David said, “Maybe he knows him.”

So I thought, of course. The delivery boy was Arthur’s brother’s only real friend in school. Arthur’s goal in the game is to find Percy because he promised he’d take care of him. If he can help the delivery boy, he can accomplish a shadow of that goal.

Now the mission is personal. Note that it has not changed at all in design, only in meaning. And that changed meaning gave us an interesting way to resolve the encounter, which helps make the encounter even deeper and more personal. But you’ll have to play the encounter to find out how.

When I wrote sonnets back in university, I noticed that fitting a meter and rhyme scheme forced me to be more inventive with my language than writing in free verse did. Necessity is the mother of invention. Because our designers believe in our narrative, they don’t have total freedom. But in return, we discover new things about our world every time design crashes into narrative.

Or, as the old Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup ad went, only not exactly:

“Hey, you got narrative on my design!” “Hey, you got design on my narrative!” “Hmmm, tastes pretty good.”

In which I do a bit of voice directing...


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To expand just a little on that last little bit... you have to listen to your gut. When the actor is really inhabiting his character, I feel it. The studio disappears for a moment and the character is there. It's a thrilling moment. When the actor is not inhabiting the role, I don't feel it. Part of the skill of directing is learning not to pretend you feel it when you don't.

Hearing what you're actually hearing, as opposed to what you want to hear, or what you fear hearing, is something children and dogs do instinctively, and teenagers and adults unlearn, and artists have to learn again. You have to remember to ask yourself, sometimes, "Did I really believe that?"

The other side of directing is figuring out what words to give the actor to help him or her get from where he or she is to where I want them to go. Sometimes it's just calling shenanigans on the delivery. "I didn't really believe that."

Or, with a trained actor, you can often shorthand it. You can say, "More anguish," knowing they have the tools (the "method") to get there on their own.

But best practices is giving the actor an adjustment in the form of an imaginative circumstance. I don't think I ever say, "Louder." Instead I say, "Okay, now project it a bit more, as if the person you're talking to is on the other side of the street." Or, “You need help, and there’s no one around!”

"Okay, but now, as if you know the person you're talking to. You're not only betrayed, you've been betrayed by your best friend."

"As if" are the most important two words in the director's toolkit. (See John Badham’s book on directing, I’ll Be In My Trailer.)

I can give a line reading, but when the actor is mimicking my delivery, it almost always comes out sounding hollow. I then have to say, “Okay, now make it your own.” If I have to give a line reading, I’ll try to use a paraphrase of the line rather than the words of the line themselves, and I won’t use a British accent; I’m trying to convey the emotion, not the delivery.

A believable performance isn't the same as a "realistic" performance. It's the emotional truth that carries the line. A big, stagey but emotionally truthful performance is believable. (I believe it's often called "opera.") A performance that mimics what a real person does, but doesn't convey the emotion behind it, won't convince the audience.

When the actor inhabits the character, it's amazing. A line you wrote fifteen minutes ago can catch you off guard and make you laugh as if you just heard it for the first time. When I laugh, I know the line's a keeper.

Find the Truth


I read Michael Lewis’s book The Undoing Project, about two scientists, Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman, who investigated just how irrational people are. For example, “anchoring.” If you have people roll dice to get a random number between 1 and 100, and then you ask them to estimate the number of countries in the United Nations, or the number of languages spoken in India, or anything else they aren’t sure of, those who rolled higher numbers will guess higher than the ones who rolled lower numbers. They’ve been primed to think of higher numbers.Which is sort of interesting, but one valuable takeaway had nothing to do with their research. When Tversky listened to scientific lectures he didn’t agree with, rather than figuring out how to shoot them down, he asked himself: what is this true of?This parallels my acting teacher Joanne Baron, who said that when you get feedback, find the truth in it.It’s easy to find something to disagree with. But if someone gives you feedback, or a scientist gives a lecture, then there is probably some truth to it. You will often get more benefit from figuring out in what way is this true or what part of this is true than in figuring out why it’s wrong. We have a gal in our office who often disagrees with people. She has a habit of finding something in what they're saying that is easy to dispute, rather than finding the thing that makes sense, and then expanding on it.Anyone who’s ever argued with a teenager knows that if the kid can find something, anything that’s wrong in anything you say, the kid will feel entitled to reject everything you’re saying.A cardinal rule of improvisation goes: yes, and. In improv, you’re not allowed to disagree. If the actor you’re with says “I’m a pineapple,” then you can’t say, “No, you’re not.” That would kill the improv. You can say, “And I’m a grocer” or “and I’m an orange” or “and I’m a pineapple fetishist.” As a corollary, when you are proposing a new idea, there is something to be said for couching it in terms that make it hard to pick apart.See, I just did it. I didn’t say, “always couch it in terms....” I said, “there is something to be said for couching it in terms....” If I said "always," you might well be tempted to construct a scenario in which my advice would be wrong.When arguing with our former teenager, I always made a point of phrasing criticism so broadly that he couldn’t pick holes in how I phrased it. Rather than saying, “You never clean up your room,” which would enable him to bring up the one time he did, I’d say, “You’re not exactly a neatnik, are you?” It conveys more or less the same message, but – being as he was not exactly a neatnik – he couldn’t fixate on the wording. He had to confront the message. Or to put it another way, I made it easier for him to absorb the truth in the message.He never did clean his room, of course. But I got my message across, at least.Using words “many of” rather than “most of” or “all of” changes the focus from “exactly what percentage are we talking about” to whatever the issue that is actually bothering you. “Half the NPCs sound like zombies” invites a discussion of whether it’s half or some other number. “Many of the NPCs sound like zombies” focuses on the zombiness of the NPCs.Even better, use sentences that begin with some form of “I.” “To me, a lot of these NPCs sound like zombies.” It is very hard for you to argue with me about how they sound to me. (Note that I didn’t say it’s impossible. That’s inviting an argument.)Find the truth.Help your listeners and readers find the truth.Find the truth in this.[...]

Work on the Part that Scares You


All of us creative types have things we're naturally good at, and things we've learned to do, and things we aren't that good at (yet). This creates a creative trap: when approaching a project, we often work on the part we understand best — the part that scares us least.So if you're good at plot, you write the plot first, and then fill in the characters later. If you're good at characters, you write up the characters and then feel your way towards a plot.In game design, there's a tendency to work on the parts of the game that are "well understood," whether those are combat mechanics, or environment, or story, or whatever.I worked on a game whose entire success hinged on whether some very advanced AI tech would work. The studio, however, hired a slew of people to build environments and animations.I understand the impulse. You want to have something to show for it. If you're working on a very advanced, invisible back end, what can you show your investors? So you make some lovely environments. Also, it's relatively easy to hire people who can make lovely environments — compared to people who can make an expert system based on new research.Of course, if you know what you're doing, it could be a valid decision to work on well-understood parts of the game, if you know in advance that they're going to take a long time to hone. Well-understood doesn't mean simple or fast, it just means you know the processes you're going to use. When we started with combat, it had something to do with how finicky combat is to implement convincingly.Likewise, if you're a character-based writer and you simply have to inhabit the characters before you can move on to the plot, then it might be crucial to your own creative process that you start with the characters.But working on the part that you feel comfortable with can become a trap.By working on the parts that you're comfortable with, you necessarily reduce your options on the part that scares you.Every creative choice you make on a project takes away some future choices. If I set a project in Germany in 1933, then it is very hard to choose a Mongolian steppe warrior as my main character. If I did set a project in Germany in 1933, and chose a Mongolian steppe warrior as my main character, then I pretty much have to tell a science fiction story.So if you make a bunch of decisions on the easy stuff, you're restricting your range of choices for the hard stuff. That's bass ackwards. You want as much room as possible when you're doing the hard stuff, since you can probably handle a restricted range of choices on the easy stuff.In other words, don't paint yourself into a corner on the easy stuff.What happens if you do paint yourself into a corner on the easy stuff is either (a) you accept a poor solution on the hard stuff, because you don't see any good way to do it; or (b) you rip up a bunch of stuff that was working, because otherwise you can't make the hard stuff work.In game development, if your game hangs on a fresh new gameplay mechanic, then try to get that working before you put any environments into the game. Spearhead, for example, created a three-on-three science fiction soccer game. The first playable build was pretty much dots chasing another dot around a grey box; but the fun was already there.In screenplay writing, if you're weak on characters, then consider writing only the faintest of sketchiest of plot outlines, and then really spending some time thinking about what characters could most interestingly inhabit that plot — as opposed to working out a really detailed plot and then trying to shoehorn some characters into it.Or, if you're good on characters but weak on plot, take some relatively simple chara[...]

What should I ask for?


Q. I just picked up my first "LA" option for a short story I wrote. I'll be getting 2% net if it gets made. Now I've read articles on net versus gross in the industry and my agent ways I should just be happy at this stage of my career that it was picked up...... so of course I signed. However as a writer moving forward is there anything else I should be aware of or ask for that doesn't normally fall within the option contract?
The standard definition of net profits is "you don't see any profits." So whether you get 2% of nothing or 5% of nothing is unimportant. On the other hand as a newbie you're not going to get gross. It's pretty rare for even a veteran writer to get gross participation. If the movie is a hit, you won't get more cash from the movie, but you will get asked to write other people's movies at a much better salary.

I like to ask for the right of first refusal (ROFR) to write sequels, prequels and spin-offs, as well as TV pilots. Sometimes that turns into ROFR provided that I get a credit on the script. (No one can guarantee I get a credit because it's arbitrated by the Guild.)

If they're optioning your story or novel, you can often ask for ROFR to write the initial script. Very likely they will take it away from you after the first draft, but you'll get a screenwriting credit on the movie because when you adapted the script you brought in the plot and the characters. If you don't write the first draft, the most you'd get would be a "Based on a short story by" credit.

When I'm optioning a script, I like to ask for a production bonus based on the budget of the film. The WGC, but not the WGA, has this in the standard contract. Bear in mind the minimum scale percentage is a floor, not a cap, so you can negotiate more, if they really want the script. The nice thing about a percentage is that the producer can't really plead poverty. "But our budget is tiny." "No problem, then I get 2.5% of tiny."

Bear in mind anything that looks like "Writer will be consulted" bla bla bla is meaningless and unenforceable. "What do you think." "It sucks because this this and this." "Thanks, you've been consulted." Likewise anything that looks like "Writer will be considered." "What do you think about Joe?" "That guy? F*&& him." You've been considered.

Remember, you can insist on any contractual term, so long as you're willing to walk away. I've heard that Sylvester Stallone turned down $200,000 for the script to Rocky, because they wouldn't agree for him to star in it. He was broke at the time. Later, someone else bought the script for scale, but with him to star in it.

You could probably tell that story about a thousand other guys who never sold their script to anyone because they insisted on starring in it.

By the same token, if you're not willing to walk away, it's hard to get anything. You don't get the contract you deserve, you get the contract you negotiate.

99% of the time it's better to have an agent negotiate for you. But you don't want to leave the negotiating to the agent. You want them to be the face of the negotiation, but ultimately you have to tell them what your dealbreakers are and how hard to haggle, and how upset you'll be if they don't make a deal.

Clams. Don't use them.


It's Never "Just" a Joke


We had an interesting office conversation today, about the late comedian/troll Andy Kaufman, which then drifted into whether sexist and racist jokes are okay. I don't appreciate them. One of the women in the office said she enjoys them because "it's just a joke."But why do we tell jokes? Jokes are meant to make us uncomfortable in some way. We laugh when something goes wrong. A joke is always a setup that is derailed.There are absurdist jokes, of course, that are just all about the derail:"I went to a restaurant that serves 'breakfast anytime.' So I asked for French toast in the Renaissance." -- Stephen WrightOur expectations are foiled, and we laugh out of the cognitive dissonance. But most jokes are at someone's expense. "Tragedy," as Mel Brooks said, "is I stub my toe. Comedy is you die." For example:My lover's been bugging me for the key to my apartment… finally I said, 'No, I'll let you out when I'm ready.' -- Heidi FossTo dissect my friend Heidi's joke a bit, the setup is the assumed attempt on the part of the lover to have a closer relationship. The derail is that the lover is actually imprisoned. Note that the joke works because it's sort of horrifying. ("When I'm ready" is a nice touch because it mirrors the normal conversation: 'I'm not ready' for a closer relationship.)Stereotype jokes are at the expense of a whole group of people:Q. How many Harvard students does it take to screw in a lightbulb?A. Just one. He stands on the ladder, and the whole world revolves around him.The point of the joke is that Harvard students are conceited. Here's another:Two blondes were talking. "Last year," one said, "I slept with two Brazilian guys.""Oh my God!" said the other. "How many is a 'brazilian'"?The point of the joke is that blonde women are stupid. Oh, and slutty.So why do I think it's not okay to tell racist or sexist jokes? Because the point of a joke about a stereotype is that it's only funny if the listener believes that the stereotype is, in some way, true. Change one word in the joke:Q. How many Columbia students does it take to screw in a lightbulb?A. Just one. He stands on the ladder, and the whole world revolves around him.That joke isn't funny, because almost no one thinks that Columbia students are particularly conceited. Two Canadians were talking. "Last year," one said, "I slept with two Brazilian guys.""Oh my God!" said the other. "How many is a 'brazilian'"?What? Huh? Not funny. No one thinks Canadians are particularly dumb. Now, jokes at the expense of Harvard students aren't particularly awful. Harvard students are on top of the academic heap. So the joke is sort of "telling truth to power." But jokes at the expense of blondes are not completely innocent. If I tell a blonde joke, I'm saying that, to some extent, the intelligence of women with blonde hair is suspect."But it's just a joke." Well, nothing is "just" a joke. If people didn't already suspect blondes of being dumb, the joke wouldn't land. Now, there are stereotypes that are hurtful, and stereotypes nobody really minds:Q. How many New Yorkers does it take to screw in a lightbulb?A. None of your fucking business!Most New Yorkers will laugh at that joke, because they'd agree that New Yorkers are brusque. Q. How many Zen Buddhists does it take to screw in a lighbulb.A. Three.What? Oh. Zen Buddhists are inscrutable. Right. But then we get into jokes based on not so innocent stereotypes. For example, jokes about how stingy [Hittites] are. [Hittites] don't find them funny, because they don't see themselves in them. And, the stereotype of [Hittites] as being stingy is part of a whole package o[...]

Some Quick and Dirty Thoughts about Richard Rouse III...


...'s talk about Dynamic Stories at MIGS. These are my notes as I wrote them up for my Compulsion Games teammates... The complete powerpoint is on Richard's siteDynamic Story = Story that is not the same every time you play the game.Why good? Replayability. Especially these days when players stream, it’s boring if all the streams are of the same stuff.Types of dynamic story:a. Explorable story spaceWhat we’re doing in WHF and what most AAA games do these days: bits of narrative that you discover wandering around. Hopefully there’s enough that few players discover all of it.Doesn’t have to mean environmental narrative. Her Story allows you discover bits of video through a text parser. You never actually go anywhere.b. Open ended storyGive the player enough bits of a story that s/he can find his/her own meaning in it, but not so much that you force the player into your interpretation. One player may come away with a very different experience than another. c. Reacting to player actionsBranching story trees. Generally, game devs stay away from branching trees because they get crazy fast. Trust me on this one. 31 endings on Stories: The Path of Destinies. (Which, hey! Won Best Indie and Best PC Game at the Canadian Video Game Awards last night.) So often you get a series of choices, but really it’s just one choice repeated: Mass Effect's Paragon/Renegade. Bioshock's Harvest/Rescue. Or, choices, but only some of which change the story, and then only change a little bit of the story: Walking Dead. d. Shifting story elementsProcedurally generated story. In Richard’s game, The Church in the Darkness, you are there to rescue someone from a cult. Sometimes the cult is a suicide Jim-Jones-style cult. However, sometimes, it’s just a bunch of hippies who want to be left alone. The Blade Runner game changed who was a replicant from playthrough to playthrough. In both examples, the payoff is you Actually Have to Pay Attention to the story around you. If it turns out that in the story they're just nice hippies, or humans, you're not supposed to go shooting them. e. Character SimulationThe Sims. The Civilization franchise. Characters have personalities and react to your actions according to them. Faction-based systems: characters will react differently to your dwarf rogue depending on how they feel about dwarves and/or rogues, and how nice you’ve been to their friends.The player here is choosing what story s/he wants to be part of.f. Drama ManagementHere Richard’s talking about games like Façade that try to make a story out of whatever it is you are doing. Shadow of Mordor’s nemesis system turns an NPC into your nemesis if he’s killed you before.Wot I ThoughtThe Holy Grail of game narrative is emergent narrative. Emergent gameplay is when you design systems the players can use in ways the developers did not plan for, e.g. rocket jumping. Most of the dynamic storytelling methods listed are not emergent. The Shadow of Mordor people like to claim that SoM’s nemesis stories are emergent, but someone had to write and record all the nasty things the orcs say to you when you come back from the dead, or they do.On Stories: TpoD I pitched the idea of a sort of Collectible Card Game or faction-based narrative. I.e. NPCs have a basic reaction to you, which changes according to what you do with other NPCs. So if you kill someone’s brother, they will no longer sell you a sword, but they might fight you. If you marry their brother, they might tell you where some loot is.This is not emergent narrative, either. It feels more like it, because [...]

We Happy Few Update - Trumpocalypse Edition


What I did in the past week, in between frantically checking and rechecking, was write up the playthrough for She Who Must Not Be Named. Last week was the rethink. This week I wrote it up, and I’ve started in on the scenes, including one with our Hammer [Films] Villain. There’s a fair amount of carnage; we’ll have to redo some minutes of animation. But the story will be better for it – more jeopardy, and more aligning of player objective with player character objective.

Also did the same for our Mad Scotsman, although his story is holding up a bit better. We can probably keep most of our animation, but some of the dialog in those cutscenes will change.

Meanwhile, Lisa is creating gobs of environmental narrative for all sorts of places. Environmental narrative comprises the letters and diaries and signs and objects that you might find here and there that tells you what has been happening in the place you're lurking about. It creates the worldiness of the world.

All of which means more recording sessions, of course. I’m looking forward to it!

We Happy Few - Update


I needed eleven lines from our Mad Scotsman for some revisions we’re making to a scene in the Train Station. But an actor’s minimum call is an hour. So I’ve been writing barks for him – 225 of them. That should round out the hour, eh?

I’ve been working on rethinking the playthrough for She Who Must Not Be Named. G had an issue that she did not seem to be in enough jeopardy; and that the player character’s motivations didn’t line up enough with the player’s own motivations. So I’ve been reworking the story logic and the characters involved. This will involved a fair amount of carnage – animations we have to throw out – but it will result in a more powerful story and better integration between gameplay and story.

And, I’ve done a pass on the journal text. You are reading your journal, right?

Rest of the team posted here...

Learning to write stylish English? Read Raymond Chandler.


I used to teach the English side of the SAT for the Princeton Review, an SAT prep company. I had the advanced class, which was about 50% Korean immigrants who were still learning idiomatic English.

I told them the best thing they could do to improve their English was read Raymond Chandler. He's the guy who wrote The Big Sleep and Farewell, My Lovely. You know, the Humphrey Bogart movies. (Or, at least, the movies I remember as starring Humphrey Bogart, even when it was actually Robert Mitchum.)

See, you don't need great literature to learn English. In fact it's not idea. First, great literature is taxing on your brain. Second and more importantly, it's all about nuance. When you don't already know the nuances, you're apt to muddy your learning. What you need is stylish writing.  Raymond Chandler had style to burn:

"It was a blonde. A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained-glass window."

"The girl gave him a look which ought to have stuck at least four inches out of his back."

"There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands' necks. Anything can happen. You can even get a full glass of beer at a cocktail lounge."

"She lowered her lashes until they almost cuddled her cheeks and slowly raised them again, like a theatre curtain. I was to get to know that trick. That was supposed to make me roll over on my back with all four paws in the air."

“In writing a novel, when in doubt, have two guys come through the door with guns.”

That last one is indeed his plotting style. Don't read Chandler for an airtight plot. Read Chandler for how to turn short old words into magic; for how to give your sentences rhythms that have the sway and slash of poetry without reminding you that you're reading words on a page. Read Chandler because his books are very hard to put down.

A Brief Note about Story in Deus Ex: Mankind Divided


I'm enjoying Deus Ex as a series of stealth puzzles. The story raises some points about craft that I'm working on myself.The world is one in which "augs" such as Adam Jensen, our gravel-voiced hero, are discriminated against after a worldwide accident caused many of them to go haywire. There is terrorism by augs, unless it is by provocateurs seeking to blame augs. There's political infighting within Jensen's organization, TF29, and Jensen is also involved, you quickly learn, with an aug organization that suspects TF29 is being used against augs.There are global stakes. Jensen seeks justice against terrorists, and truth against plotters.Now I'm only about 20 hours in, and I'm a bit of a completionist, so I'm not to Golem City yet. But what I would love to see more of is personal stakes. What does all this mean to Jensen? You get to choose what Jensen says about all this, so he doesn't really have his own a point of view.It's received wisdom in a Hollywood action movie that the hero should have global stakes and personal stakes. John McClane is trying to save a towerful of hostages, including his ex-wife.Why? Because we can't relate to a towerful of hostages.  "One death is a tragedy. A million is a statistic," as Stalin said. That's why King Kong has to have Fay Wray in his hand. She's there to give Kong a personal goal, without which he's just an ape run amok.A story needs jeopardy or stakes. You'd think you have jeopardy in a video game, because the hero can get killed, but after the 37th time you reboot him, it stops feeling like real jeopardy. So you need stakes. And global stakes don't create emotional engagement by themselves.I mean, did you sob with relief when your Captain Shepherd saved all sentient life from the Reapers? I bet you had more emotional connection when Joel in The Last of Us did that thing that he did at the end -- because it involved his relationship with one person.Heroes have girlfriends (or boyfriends, or wards, or moms) to humanize them; it's the same reason that heroes with flaws are more engaging. We'd care about Peter Parker less if Mary Jane weren't in danger. Fighting crime is abstract; saving the girl he loves is personal.I'm not saying Adam needs a girlfriend (or a boyfriend, or a ward, or a mom). But if the global stakes were tied up in personal stakes, I feel the emotional engagement would be stronger.E.g., rather than having him investigate a bombing, have him investigate a bombing that put his best friend in a coma. Rather than have him prove that an aug organization didn't commit a terrorist act, have him prove that an aug organization of which his ex girlfriend is a member did not commit a terrorist act and therefore she should not be executed. (Or his boyfriend, or his ward, or his mom.)Or, maybe his girlfriend, or boyfriend, or mom, has turned against him because they think augs are terrorists. Or they think augs are terrorists and should all be locked up except for Adam and one or two "good augs." Or a judge is going to take away his kid because he thinks augs are terrorists.Ha ha, I know, Adam Jensen would never have a kid. (But what if he did? And he had to choose whether to make his kid an aug, or let his kid stay in a wheelchair?)(There are in fact side quests which create some personal stakes; but they're missions he does for people he runs into, mostly, not people who are necessarily part of his life. If he fails these people, he doesn't lose anything.)L[...]

How do I break in as a writer: Games version


Q. I've always had a strong interest in writing which is why I went on to pursue a degree in English. I would like very much to pursue know what it would take for me to become part of a team of creators. Is it better to have Master's degree as opposed to a Bachelor's? Would it be preferable to have degrees in different fields of study? Does Compulsion Games offer internships for individuals seeking experience and exposure?We don't offer internships. We're a small team of 25 fairly experienced people. The company philosophy is that if you're good enough to work there, you're good enough to pay.The game industry, like showbiz, is not particularly interested in whether you have a parchment in a frame with Praeses et Socii Universitatis on it. We're interested in whether you have skills, experience and talent. So if you're an artist, we don't care if you went to art school, we want to see your portfolio. Now obviously you learn a lot in art school, and you can put together a good portfolio there, so many games artists went to art school. But it's the portfolio, not the credential. Same for programming. Show us what you've done, and we'll give you a programming test. Pass the programming test, and we'll interview you. You may very well have learned to program in a computer science department, but if you taught yourself online, or out of books, that's cool. The head of the company started working at 17 as a programmer. My first wife taught herself to program after finishing her Ph. D. in Folklore, and she's been a programmer ever since. (She figured that if she could learn 14 dead languages, computer languages couldn't be that hard. She was right, too.)What schools do teach you is the tools. For example, Montreal's Cégep du Vieux Montréal will teach you Unreal. (For free, if you're a Québecer.) Level Designers and Environmental Artists make the world of our game in Unreal 4. However, I don't know how you become a game writer. My path involved having written a hit comedy film and directed a bunch of shorts. I moved into games laterally. I did not have to convince anyone that I could write dialog, or tell a story. My first few game writing jobs did not involve any special software, or even much in the way of the elaborate spreadsheets we're using to track dialog in We Happy Few. So there were no software tools to know.(Basically I now use Google Sheets, Google Docs, Final Draft and Pro Tools. Pro Tools is the only serious badass professional bit of software. It's for editing sound.)I actually do have an MFA, but I think the most valuable part of my MFA was having an excuse to muck about with cameras for three years. I did learn a few things about directing actors and cutting audio, but I did not learn to write at UCLA, or Yale. I learned to write by writing, for free and then for money, for many, many years.I don't have a terribly good idea how someone becomes a pro games writer.You can attend game jams. There's good info in The Game Narrative Toolbox, which my friend Ann Lemay contributed to.Better, you can teach yourself Twine (it's trivial to learn) and create an interactive HTML text narrative which someone can easily play.Even better, you can learn how to make mods, and create story modules in various game engines, e.g. you could create your own Shadowrun story. There are some amazing mods out there, and modding communities full of volunteers that make them. If you can show us a mod you made, that o[...]

A new Final Draft!


As soon as I get back to writing script pages (as opposed to barks), I'm going to be trying out Final Draft 10. There are two main script formatting programs, Final Draft and Screenwriter. (There's also CeltX, which is free, but I don't know any pros who use it.)

I have friends who swear by Screenwriter (and at Final Draft!). Personally, I've always found Final Draft easier and more intuitive to use. It's probably not an accident that Final Draft started out as a Mac program and Screenwriter started out on PC. Screenwriter is powerful once you learn how to use it, but you have to just somehow know that, for example, the way to get a parenthetical is to type an open parenthesis at the beginning of a line of dialog.

Or read the manual, I suppose. Crazy, right?

The people who make Final Draft have just come out with Final Draft 10, the latest edition of the 25-year-old software. It has some neat tricks:

Alt Dialog

You can now hide alt dialog lines right in the script. You can have three versions of a line of dialog, and quickly switch between them. Handy if you're punching up a script.

This is really neat.

Beat Board

Final Draft 9 had index cards based on your formatted script. Each scene in Script View turned into an index card in Scene Navigator view. You could shuffle your index cards around.

However, unless your screen is much bigger than mine, you rarely have enough real estate to see all your index cards. I've wound up printing them out and moving them around on the kitchen table.

Beat Board is a more sophisticated way of viewing your whole story. You have a scene timeline; you can hang your scenes on the timeline, and quickly view them. You can color code them, for example if you want to track dramatic beats vs. action bears, or two subplots. Being able to view the whole timeline makes it easier to see if your structure is unbalanced.

Collaboration Tools

At Compulsion, we have a lot of shared Google Documents. I share the encounter dialog with the level designers and the audio people. That way we can track a line from writing to recording to editing to integration.

Up till now, the only way to co-write a script in Final Draft is to email versions back and forth. That's the way I prefer to work. But when you go over the script on the phone (did you know phones can be used for talking?), only one person can talk. FD 10 allows several writers to open the same script and edit it at the same time, just like you can with a Google Doc.

Now, this is not a proper review of FD 10. The folks at Final Draft were kind enough to give me a review copy, but as it happens, I am doing everything at the moment except writing dialog pages. I'm helping a game cast an actor. I'm writing barks. I'm editing audio. So I'm going to have to wait until I'm back to dialog pages before I can tell you how well all these handy new tools work. Tune in later!