The Churn is the process where creators keep going back to the same well to make stories in the same vein. It starts coming out all mac and cheese.
There will always be another rogue Jedi who has been in hiding, another bounty hunter with strange powers that boggle those who rely on The Force, another brilliant officer of the Galactic Empire with a plan so dangerous (usually involving a heretofore unknown planet killing weapon hidden by Emperor Palpatine before his death) that it could mean the fate of the galaxy (in at least one occasion, it was a double of a brilliant officer who was propped up by other brilliant officers in order to use his PR value as a brilliant officer to revive the Galactic Empire).
Of course that's presumably what the mainstream audience wants. They're paying fifteen bucks to see a small bunch of plucky rebels duke it out with the forces of the Empire and the Dark Side; that's the goods they're buying. To make a different sort of movie would be a commercial and artistic risk.
What would a different sort of movie look like?
Spec Ops: The Line is a video game that keeps coming up among game devs. It is the seventh in a series of third-person shooter games in the Spec Ops franchise. However, the developers hired to design it decided to completely hijack the franchise. The game bitterly mocks shooters and their 30-something rough-tough badass white dude heroes. Somewhere along the line, you realize that you are not playing the hero, you are, in fact, the villain.
Any similarity to the US experience in Vietnam and other places Americans have gone to liberate people is, I assume, intentional.
What's interesting to me is that the devs hijacked the franchise. SO:TL does indeed have all the things you'd expect in a third-person military shooter. It just develops an unexpected theme.
What if the next creator called on to make a Star Wars movie decides to make their own movie in the Star Wars universe? In other words, treat Star Wars as a territory, not a template?
Well, they almost certainly get fired, unless they're a 500-pound gorilla in their own right -- e.g. James Cameron. But let's suppose they don't.
They could then make a fluffy Star Wars action comedy à la Guardians of the Galaxy. They could make a Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon type action romance. They could make a tense Das Boot-style drama. They could make a Seven-type serial killer movie. They could make an Alien-style horror movie.
All of these probably have a bit of run and jump; things surely blow up. I don't think anyone wants to see the Star Wars universe version of On Golden Pond. Someone almost certainly has Force powers.
But instead of trying to remake Star Wars IV: A New Hope for the nth time, they're opting out of the Churn.
The King Arthur story lives on because people keep appropriating it for their own purposes. I once perpetrated a novel about the childhood of Morgan le Fay, the half-sister of King Arthur. (The Circle Cast, it's called, and it's been translated into German.) I wanted to tell the story of a really angry young woman coming of age and coming into her power. If I'd just tried to rewrite T. H. White's Once and Future King, there would have been no point.
Of course it is very unlikely that you, dear reader, have been asked to write the next Star Wars. But you may one day be faced with the Churn. I think a way out is to ask yourself if you can hijack the franchise. Can you tell a story you want to tell within the franchise? Or can you re-examine the franchise and find things in it that were there all along, underneath the franchise elements that everyone knows?
We are all writing in a culture, which means that everything we create involves some stealing. But make it your own — if necessary, without telling anyone.
Q. What advice can you give me that would help me land a position writing for game narrative?
It helps to be able to do more than one thing. So, for example, if you knew how to use Unreal, that would be a big plus. I don’t. So someone coming in at entry level, who can read a blueprint and figure out what field needs to be changed, well, there would be an extra reason to bring them in.
The best way to get your first writing job in video games is probably being a successful writer in another field who is also a gamer. The second best is probably still to be in another job, any other job, in the same room with one or more writers. I know people have got into writing from QA and from art in the past. Then the moment someone offers to let you write something, pounce on it like an Arctic fox who's seen something small move under the snow.
Lisa long ago was in an office where she was not paid to write things. Someone asked if she wanted to do a book review. She pulled an all nighter and wrote a great book review. After that, they went to her for book reviews. You'd be amazed how many supposed would-be writers don't jump at every chance they get to write. When I was still in school I was offered $1000 to write a two drafts and a polish of a feature screenplay. I jumped on it.
Professional screenwriters I'm friends with share an almost physical aversion to turning down any sort of writing job. I'd guess most of them don't turn anything down until they have at least three things going at once.
So take any opportunity to write for money. By all means write your own stuff, but you learn craft by trying to satisfy someone who has a particular need. (I would not say the same thing about writing for free, or on the if-come, outside of a legit internship, or a writing test. Someone who isn’t willing to pay doesn’t really have a need, they have a whim.)
I'm not hiring a games writer. But some folks have been asking me how you become one. I think I have a different perspective than some people who give advice.
I believe the classic advice is to write some sort of conditional narrative -- a conversation that could go a bunch of different ways. One company asks you to use the Neverwinter Nights toolkit. You could also write something in Twine.
Another thought is to make a mod. Making a mod is a really cool idea. Some games (I think the Shadowrun games?) allow you to pretty much create your own complete scenario for a game, using the game assets, but changing the names, situation, plot and dialog.
That's what I might be looking for if I were hiring a ... level designer. (I am not even in charge of hiring level designers.)
If I were hiring a game writer, which I am not, I would not need an example of conditional narrative, or a mod. None of the narrative in We Happy Few is conditional. We just don't have the bandwidth to create big chunks of if/then/else.
What I would want someone to be able to do is create some characters who have their own inner life and motivations -- motivations that are at odds with each other. I want great dialog.
Great dialog is characters using their words to try to get things they want from each other, while revealing character.
Good dialog is, "does each character say only things that that character would say?" Great dialog is "does each character say things that only that character could say?"
The test for a great scene is:
a. Do the characters each want something?
b. Do they not get it until the end of the conversation?
c. Does each line flesh out the character?
d. Can I take off the character names and I never lose track of who's talking?
e. Even though the characters have their own distinct voices, is the conversation consistent with the tone and voice of the overall work?
In screenwriting, one tool is to go through the script once for each character, and think, "What would I have to do to this character's dialog so a major actor would want to play them?" Every person is the hero of their own story. If the janitor feels like he is the hero of his own story, if he feels like there's more to him than meets the eye, then you probably wrote good dialog.
Lisa's writing environmental narrative: lots of letters and poems and notes and graffiti and so forth. Each has been written by a specific fictional person, in their distinct voice. Each note of this kind has to satisfy the same criteria. We should get something from each note, and ideally, want to know more about the person that wrote it.
If I were hiring a writer, I would want to know: can you write dramatically, in different voices?
If you can do that, I can sit you down at a desk and within a week you can be adding value to the game.
Most people do not really know how to write dramatically, in different voices. That shouldn't be surprising. Just because you can dance at a party doesn't mean you can perform on Broadway as a dancer.
It should go without saying that a game writer has to play games. You have to have a sense of which sorts of things are easy to do in games, and which are hard. You have to have a sense of what verbs exist in the game you're writing. If you're going to write for, say, We Happy Few, then as you work with the level designers, you get an acute sense of the capabilities and limitations of our AI's.
TV writers watch lots of TV. They need to know instinctively what sorts of things TV does well and what sorts of things it does poorly.
But that's just exposure. If you are even a casual gamer, you can learn most of what you need to know about a game by playing it for, say, ten hours. Or even the better part of a day.
Really, it's all about the ability to create compelling characters through dialog. That's what I would be looking for if I were hiring a games writer.
This week I’ve been mostly reviewing the game. I’ve been playing as Arthur. Anyone who’s wondering if there will be enough game, well, I’ve logged about 550 hours in the game, I know how the game works, and it’s still taking me the better part of the week to play through Arthur. That’s not blockers, although there are some places where progression is blocked; that’s stuff to do and places to go and weirdos to talk to and things to find out.
Probably the most fun part was when an elaborate, phantasmagorical encounter we’ve been working on for three years came to full fruition. It was hilarious. And weird. And yet, I think, at some level true.
“It never happened; yet it is still ture. What magic art is this?” says the Puck in Sandman 34, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” That’s the writing I aspire to.
We also spent a good bit of the week rejiggering the opening island, so that when the player comes out of the shelter for the first time, he is “onboarded” through a curated experience. Some new players were getting lost when they hit the open world – what do I do? how do I play? where am I supposed to go – and we’re hoping to fix that.
When Lisa and I were taking Kenneth Koch’s writing class at Columbia a long time ago, we learned two things: (a) develop a writing style by writing in other people’s styles (b) you will never run out of words. Writing a game is a master class; I’ve got to write in different voices and different media.
Originally we were just going to have audio flashbacks for Arthur, because Arthur’s main issue is someone who never comes on stage in the present, while Miss Thigh High’s issue is clear and present, and the Mad Scotsman has a special friend to talk to. But Sam asked for audio flashbacks for them, too, so I wrote the Mad Scotsman’s memories this week. They’ll have to go into the game in robospeech or temp voice or something, as the fellow who voices the Mad Scotsmen disappears Monday to the wilds of Alberta till just before Christmas; apparently where he is, there are not high quality sound studios. (Everyone now carries a pretty decent microphone in their pocket; but you still need a professional quality sound studio to get clean audio without a “boxy,” “roomy” quality of reverb.)
Other work: figuring out how to bring the player up to speed on the Garden District faster; writing clever journal entries and objectives in the game’s voice for about half the game; and editing Arthur’s nightmares. Oh, he will have nightmares. He was going to have cinematic nightmares, but with our animators working their fingers to the bone and Clara frantically editing Uncle Jack, now it’s audio nightmares.
Wednesday I flew down to Texas for a motion capture shoot for a key scene in the Mad Scotsman’s story, that will also be the backbone of the story trailer!
This is the first time I’ve ever directed mo-cap. As with most motion capture shoots, we already had edited audio — I recorded one actor in London, and another in Toronto. Now we needed to give arms and legs to those voices.
So motion capture is a bit like dance. My job was choreographing the movements and gestures that are supposed to sell the emotions in the voices. I had a general idea of where the actors could move in the imaginary space we’d already built. On the mo-cap stage, I worked with the actors to express the characters they were there to inhabit. The mad Scotsman is big in all senses of the word. The other person in the scene is a British aristocrat who measures her every move.
But it’s not just gestures. As I was working with the actors, at a couple of points we’d rehearsed a scene to the point where the two actors were getting everything right; but I wasn’t feeling it yet.
In one case I realized that the other party was just sort of hanging out with our mad Scotsman; I needed to tell the actress playing her that she had something urgent she needed to do elsewhere. Suddenly the scene woke up. It’s funny, because exactly none of her gestures changed. But now, I felt it.
In the other case, I hadn’t given the actress her intention. She was saying stuff to the mad Scotsman; but she wasn’t trying to convince him. The actress didn’t know the character’s “verb”. And again, not a gesture changed, but as soon as I gave her an intention for her character, the whole scene came alive.
I find the two most powerful questions I can ask about a scene, whether it’s written, or recorded, or edited, or mo-capped are: do I believe it? And, do I care? If I can get both answers to yes, I think we end up with something pretty neat.
It's fun to write lists in dialog. A good list has power. In Henry V, the English soldiers charge "For God, for Harry, and St. George!" Somewhere I have a felt banner that says, "For God, for Country and for Yale." (This motto is listed in a dictionary as an example of "anticlimax," no doubt by a lexicographer from Harvard.)
This is the planned list, a list that has solidified in the speaker's mind. I had fun this morning writing the sentence, "No one's going to go to war for the sake of an island of rubble, subsistence farmers, and terribly large badgers," describing our alternative history England. The speaker clearly has said that before, even if only to himself.
Then there is the unplanned list. After Agincourt, Shakespeare has King Henry V read a herald's note detailing the dead among his enemies, the French:
King Henry: This note doth tell me of ten thousand French
That in the field lie slain. [...]
The names of those their nobles that lie dead:
Charles Delabreth, high constable of France;
Jacques of Châtillon, admiral of France;
The Master of the Crossbows, Lord Rambures;
Great Master of France, the brave Sir Guichard Dauphin;
John, duke of Alençon; Anthony, duke of Brabant,
The brother of the duke of Burgundy,
And Edward, duke of Bar. Of lusty earls:
Grandpré and Roussi, Faulconbridge and Foix,
Beaumont and Marle, Vaudemont and Lestrale.
Here was a royal fellowship of death.
When most actors get a list, they tend to read it like a grocery list. They know they're reading a list. Each word they speak is part of a list. It becomes singsong. If you perform Henry's speech like that, it has little power.
Take a moment, and read the above like a list.
Now, read the list, but each time you come to a name, pause for a moment, and imagine someone you know. Now imagine them dead. Only then move on to the next name.
Seriously, do that.
See what that does?
It becomes an unplanned list. Short planned lists have power. Long planned lists are tedious. Long, unplanned lists have power.
It is a challenge to get actors to perform unplanned lists, because they can see the damn list right in front of their eyes. They know how many names are coming up. Yet you have to knock them off that, derail that train, or it sounds like a planned list. You have to remind them that their character doesn't know what they're about to say until a fraction of a second before they say it.
(In Meisner technique we were taught to practice lines at the highest possible speed, without affect: "Whatapieceofworkisman hownobleinreasonhowexcellentinfaculty etc.". That way the words would be there when I needed to say them, but wouldn't be associated with an emotion. So the emotion would come fresh and surprising, even though the line was memorized.)
(The ability to let go of what you know is critical to many artists. An editor has to be able to say, "Who the hell is this character that just showed up?" even though in the 22 previous cuts of the film, that character was properly introduced, so of course she knows who it is. Same thing for a writer.)
One of our characters in We Happy Few has a problem:
"Beatrice says she loves me. But she loves everything! Me... long walks... sunsets and rainbows of course. Simon Says… big wristwatches on a man… wrapping paper… dandelions… a good night’s sleep… ribbons… Uncle Jack’s bedtime stories… six o’clock … commemorative spoons. I have to know if it’s real!"
What's funny about this list, I hope, is that it is (a) unexpectedly long (b) terribly specific (c) weirdly diverse. "Unexpectedly long" is only funny if the actor performs the list as if he does not know how long the list is. If the list becomes sing-song, it's not funny. He has to perform it as if he is searching his memory for everything Beatrice loves. It's funnier if it sounds like he's done, and then he thinks of some more things. Ideally, to make it more comically upsetting, the actor should do homework: create a different imaginary circumstance in which Beatrice liked each distinct item on the list. Then each item comes with its own distinct emotion, and it will come out of his creative instrument sounding distinctly different.
By the way, giving the actor a distinct imaginary circumstance is almost always helpful, not just with lists. With good actors -- and this deep into development we've got an amazing repertory of voice actors -- if you simply tell them something about their imaginary circumstance, the line comes out more distinctly. Even if they've said the line the way I intended it the first time, I'll still tell them something about it sometimes, to see how that informs their delivery. They usually deliver the line sharper. Remember this is in a voice session where we're doing a new line, on average, every 30 seconds. Our guys are Teslas: they go from 0 to 60 at ludicrous speed. Their ability to interpolate the imaginary circumstance I just gave them and deliver the line fresh is what makes us bring them back.
If a producer tells you, "I would definitely produce this if you can get a star attached," or "... a known showrunner attached" or "... a bankable director attached," that is a nice way of saying, "no."
A friend has been pestering me to blog a bit more. I blog whenever I have something new to say, but after so many years, that's not that much new to say!
And I've been busy. As the Level Designers rush towards content lock, they are finally spitting out the heaps of encounter lines they need, which I am turning into dialog, and then recording. So that’s a lot of writing and a lot of recording. Yesterday, I recorded 208 lines in 90 minutes with one of our key actors.
Writing and recording is a full time job. Another full time job I have is testing the story play throughs. They are still not complete, but they are complete enough that a fellow can play through them... and make copious notes on all the things that are missing, or scrambled. It took three days for me to play through Arthur, even cheating to give myself lock picks and power cells and such, even not doing side quests. When we started out, the idea was a play through was four hours. Hah.
Odd writing note: sometimes you come across illogical things in the game. For example, for design reasons, Miss Thigh Highs currently can’t go out her back door, even though Arthur, in his play through, goes in that way.
However, I have learned, you do not need to close every plothole. Sometimes it works just to “hang a lantern” on it If Miss Thigh Highs says, “What is wrong with this door, it’s always jamming on me!” then it feels like there is an in-world reason why she can’t use that door, even if we don’t get an explanation for it. By addressing the problem, it doesn’t feel as much like a logical inconsistency.
One of my ongoing efforts is to make quest givers not feel like quest givers.
Your typical quest giver is a guy standing around outside a dungeon waiting for an adventurer such as yourself. He can tell you all about a great treasure in the dungeon! Or he will give you a nice sword if you obtain some item from within, like his wallet, or maybe his car keys.
Leading me to wonder why he didn’t go himself. And how long he’s been standing around. Does he sleep? Does he ever go for a pee? Is there a sandwich cart that comes around?
In real life, of course, people rarely offer you jobs out of the blue. (And then it’s in Malmö or Singapore or something.) Generally it works the other way around: you find out that someone has a sword for sale, and you go and ask what they want for it.
The Witcher finessed this nicely. People in that world post “Witcher Wanted” ads near pubs. They are waiting for someone to come to their home to offer them Witcher services, for which they’re prepared to pay.
Fortunately, we have something rare in video games: our characters did not just wake up with full blown amnesia, living in a populated world, where they grew up. They know their fellow Wellies and their fellow Wellies know them.
So we can take the curse off quest giving.
For example, in the Miss Thigh Highs playthrough, you need to learn something about, let us say, washing machines. You know the washing machine repairman, Alfonso Maytag; he has fixed your washing machine, after all. At the pub they say he’s out by the Tor, a local hill.
In a regular video game, you’d meet him out by the Tor, and he’d say, “My friend Freddie has been captured by cultists. Please rescue him and I shall give you this book on Washing Machine Maintenance!”
In our game, he’d say, “My friend Freddie has been captured by cultists!” and your player character, who was in primary school with Freddie, will say, “Oh, my God! Can I help?” Obviously you’re not going to waste time chatting about washing machines while poor Freddie is in danger. After you complete the quest, though, equally obviously, Mr. Maytag will happily let you xerox the manual to your Hi-Capacity 27” Front Load Washer.
From a gameplay point of view, these two setups are exactly the same. Find the quest giver. Learn of the adventure. Complete the quest. Get the payoff.
But from a narrative point of view, one feels more natural and human. That’s important to me. The more real our people feel, the more the player engages with them emotionally.
Video game worlds contain a tiny number of salient objects. Stories allow our minds to weave a whole world in the spaces between them. But we'll only do it if we're engaged emotionally.
Figuring out what makes the quest feel natural instead of gamey is a lot of the effort I put into writing encounters. By comparison, character dialog is easy once I know what relationship the characters have to each other.
The audience doesn't know, but they know. That's because reality is shaped weird.
When I'm working on a fictional story, especially in speculative fiction, for a game or a tv show or a movie, there is often pressure to make the story simpler, more streamlined, more concise, more symmetrical. When I say, "Okay, but that doesn't make any sense," or "that's not how that works," or "I don't think he would do that," or "that sort of violates the laws of physics, doesn't it?" I get the response, "Alex, it's a gaaaaaaaame!"
Or, "... moooovie!" Or "teevee show!"
Writers generally care more about the reality the characters are living in than, say, directors, who want everything to look cool, or level designers, who want the player to be able to do cool stuff.
But here's why those arguments are sometimes worth having: reality is shaped weird. Most real things are not that simple, streamlined, concise or symmetrical.
So when we come upon a story that is too simple, too symmetrical, we are not sucked in as much as we are by a story that has a few weirdnesses. The latter feels more like reality.
That's how the audience doesn't know, but they know. If you have too many characters doing things because it simplifies the story, or that violate the internal rules of the universe that you have set up, or (in a naturalistic setting) that violate the rules of physics and biology, the audience may not know exactly what you've done wrong. But they will sense that the shape of your story is the shape of a made-up story, not a real one.
If you have the occasional character taking the story on a detour because dammit that's who they are, the audience feels more like they're in reality.
And that increases engagement, with that character, and with the story in general.
In honor of a great actor and director, two stories I've heard on the grapevine.
Clint bought the rights to UNFORGIVEN about ten years before he made the movie. He wanted to be old enough to play the part.
He’s finally ready to go into production. Has the writer, David Webb Peoples (BLADERUNNER) over to dinner. They chat and chat. David’s wondering when Clint is going to explain how he wants to change the script.
Dinner goes on and on. Finally, Peoples says something along the lines of, “So, what do you think you want to do with the script?" Because every director has the writer rewrite the script, if the writer is very lucky, or has his “guy” (it’s almost always a guy) rewrite the script. I was the director’s guy, for example, on BON COP / BAD COP.
Peoples is waiting for the shoe to drop.
Clint says, “Nope. It’s good,” and pours some more wine.
Shot the script word for word.
Had the self-confidence to know that the script was good. Didn’t need to mess with it just to make it his.
Clint is shooting A PERFECT WORLD starring Kevin Costner, back when Costner was on top of the world.
First shot, Costner’s supposed to run up to a line of laundry, steal some clothes, and run off.(His character is on the run.)
They roll the first take. Costner runs up, steals the laundry, runs off.
Clint says, “Okay, next setup.”
Costner says, “Wait, what? I can do better.”
Clint tells the crew, “What are you guys all standing around for? I said next setup.”
Costner gets very put out. Goes to his trailer and slams the door.
Clint tells Costner’s stunt double, “This is your lucky day!” and proceeds to set up the next shot using the stunt guy.
Costner storms out of his trailer, and says “You can’t do this to me!”
Clint looks him in the eye and says, “Kevin, I think I’m the only guy in Hollywood who can do this to you.”
One of the diseases of videogames is quest-givers who ask you, a total stranger, to solve their problem. Most people don't trust total strangers enough to even tell them what their problem is. The exceptions would be people who desperately need someone, anyone to solve their problem, and are presumably asking everyone. E.g. the postings for Witcher jobs: if you have a dragon problem, you don't care who kills your dragon, or who knows that you have one.
One of the nice things about quests in We Happy Few is that quite a few of the townsfolk do, in fact, know the player characters. So right away it makes more sense if they ask for help.
There's a simple fix, though. Instead of having the quest-giver offer the quest and then offer a reward, give the player character a reason to know that the quest-giver can give that reward. Then if the player character asks, the quest-giver can say, "Well, I might do that for you, but first you have to do something for me." To me that feels more natural.
The other night at the bar, one of the company founders asked me to name one of the things I like most about the game. One of the things that came to mind is how we are telling the story of the world.
What we try to do in We Happy Few is “pull” narrative: we try to provoke the question in the player before we present the answer. I call it “pull” because the question pulls the player into interrogating his or her environment to find the answer.
Our narrative is “dirty.” Most of the stories we tell through lore and through encounters have relate at most tangentially with the player character’s overall goal. NPCs aren’t there to serve your story. They’re there to serve their stories; it’s only an accident that their story intersects with yours. When you meet them, they’re in the middle of something important to them, and they have somewhere else to be after meeting you.
To me, this feels more like real life. No one is on Earth to serve your life story. They are there to serve their own life story. Even your Mom, who loves you, is living her own story. It may be her goal to see that your life is a good one, but that is still her goal, not your (related) goal. To add to this notion, quite a few of our NPC stories intersect with each other. You are not the nexus of all that is interesting. Some NPCs hate each other. Some love each other. Some love and hate each other. Such is life.
In other words: we are hardwired to turn our experiences into story. Which means that, by giving the player chunks of narrative content that could add up to a story, we allow him or her to tell themselves their own story. To my mind, the Holy Grail of game storytelling is: get the player to tell the story, rather than telling the player the story.
The individual chunks of narrative need to be linear in order to bear meaning – Arthur’s story isn’t choose-your-own adventure. But I aim to give you spaces in between the cutscenes which you can fill in. I’m only showing you the peaks; you fill in the rest of the mountain.
That’s my goal, anyway: to let the narrative breathe.
Q. I live in Montreal and I have no desire to move to Toronto (in part because I hate Toronto but mostly because I love Montreal).
I hear that!
Q. At this point my portfolio consists mostly of big-budget features, which have made the rounds in some of the American screenplay competitions. I'm trying to make sure that I'm on the right path.
Should I continue doing what I'm doing:
Writing feature specs, sending targeted queries to producers and agencies in LA and Toronto, until one of them lands me a sale or a job.
Or, seeing how Canada is mostly a TV industry (as far as writers go), would you recommend that I try writing some TV specs and pitching them to Toronto agencies instead (like your blog suggested). Just keep in mind that I frequently watch and study a lot more movies than I do television, and feature-writing has always been my primary interest. With that being said, if TV writing is the only way to make it down here, I am open to shifting my focus.
Honestly, I’d recommend you write games. You live in one of five world meccas for game development. Games hire writers all the time. I hear about game jobs pretty often.
Montreal is a backwater of a backwater for writing features. Canada barely has an English language movie business. (French is a different story obviously.)
TV writing is a better business but you can’t do it from Montreal. You have to be in Toronto. Ideally, you go to the CFC Prime Time program. Most of the graduates from there find something to do in the business, though not all writing, and there’s no guarantees.
Or go to LA if you want to work in the real business. This is the golden age of television writing. There are so many scripted series going into production these days.
Kids today mostly don’t want movies and they don’t even watch TV that much. They play games.
... I am not really sure how you get into writing games. There are people who have advice about that and I’ve blogged about it. But my own particular path depended a lot on having written a hit film, so it’s not an easy path to follow.
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.
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 that your friends will recognize them. Give them the flaws of the people you're basing them on.
And then, and only then, put on the pointy ears.
Then they'll really create a reality. Then I'll really care.
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'.
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 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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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!
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.”
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.