Monday, February 28, 2005

[lovebites] The Pain of Names

How did we come up with the title for our TV show? I started a competition called 'What's the worst name you can think of for our show?'


Click for more on the baffling true story of how we named our show ...

I feel bitter and amused by it even now, four years later. Of course the show started by being called hopeless. I say "of course" but it was equally obvious that the name had to change for three reasons:
1) Phil Hope was back from Australia so it no longer applied.
2) The movie didn't do so well so people (executives, produces and... eventually us) wanted to distance the show from it.
3) hopeless is a bad name.

Seriously. It's negative, nondescriptive, doesn't indicate that it is a comedy and only make sense after you've seen the movie. I love my little movie but just like I won't call my firstborn son 'Sexy Beauregard88', I will never again title a film on impulse without really paying attention to the wider implications.

Even this is simplifying the story a lot. We searched for a lot of new names for 'hopeless' but this is a story about lovebites. I've got to keep focused on that or this whole post's going to get infinitely recursive.

So we had to change the title. First were plays on 'hopeless', like "Here's Hoping" and "Hopeful". Positive. Upbeat. Everything from this era of titles sounded like a fresh new sitcom from the creators of Major Dad and Designining Women. There was a moment of optimism when Andrew reported that one of his mother's friends had come up with a phrase that worked, at a dinner party. But he couldn't remember what it was. So we continued to search, all the while having the perfect name that Andrew's mother's friend came up with gnawing at my brain.

Phase 2: Brainstorming. That gave us Small Poppies and Loose Change. I actually liked Small Poppies, but we got a note from the network saying that 'small' implied 'second-rate' and who wanted to watch second-raters? So Loose Change become the default.

Why'd Loose Change change? I really can't remember, but I'm pretty sure that the consistent pressure of our dislike had something to do with it. I made it a mission to find something better. I must have generated 200 names: Back on Earth, Down to Earth, All About ..., It happens. Around this time I entered that particular crazy phase where I singlemindedly and seriously pushed for Ben having a Season 1 story arc of trying to become an astronaut.

Then the competition. It was a joke. A joke.
My brother put up the first entry. Love Bites.
We laughed.
Larry saw it.
He liked it.

This is how I remember it happening. He told Caterina up at TV3. She liked it.

Now my apologies to anyone who likes the title of our show, but there are 3 reasons it's no good:
1) It sucks.
2) It reminds people of reality bites.
3) What the fuck does it have to do with anything?

But the power-hubs of the creative process like it. Think it's snappy and edgy and ... oh dear lord they're serious.
We panic.
Time passes.
The fog does not lift from their brains.

So we - or me - take it upon ourselves to make them see reason.

I compile a list, a list of 10 titles that are better than Love Bites. Not perfect, mind you, just less likely to make the 1.5 million potential viewers we're about to unleash this on say, "What were they thinking?"

Larry tells me that 10 titles are too much. Narrow the list down.
I obey. I narrow the list to 3.
He says that's too much. Just choose the best one.
I do. I choose ... I think ... "It Happens".

Caterina doesn't like it.

Our show's called 'Love Bites'.

Now, you see what happened? (a) I played by someone else's rules - because Larry was the only person who dealt with Caterina, I felt I had to do as he suggested because of course he knew best. (b) Things got narrowed down to a choice between something someone already liked and had no reason to change versus something new that wasn't so much better. In retrospect, I think I was suckered.

We had some victories. We made it one word, made it lower case, found a really cool font for the main titles. It was all just a band-aid on a chainsaw being slowly lowered onto our show's head.

I think one of the tests of a title is 'Do you cringe when you say it to people'? If you ever feel like you have to apologise for it, if you're not proud of it, then reconsider.

Well, that's it. Thank you for listening to me vent. Oh, and three months after it went to air, I did hear a phrase that I thought would have made a better title. "Quarter Life Crisis". Which, according to an internet rumour, is going to be the name of a new American sit-com.

Sunday, February 27, 2005

[VW] $$$ and Ads

Terra Nova reprints a press release from Funcom about their game, Anarchy On-Line. Starting in March 2005, all free players of Anarchy Online will see dynamic in-game advertising billboards in central areas of the game. Paying subscribers will not see the advertisements.

No idea what 'dynamic' means.

Probably 'in your face'.

You see, prime-time TV viewing among 18 – 34 year old men is dropping. And in suit-speak, MMORPGs are "an additional venue to reach the coveted 18 – 34 demographic through the medium of games.

Which leads to my favourite quote: "As opposed to a medium like TV, you know the gamer's eyes are always watching the screen while playing games.
...................... Trond Aas, CEO of Funcom

Saturday, February 26, 2005

[RPG] A Published Review

My review for the farm is up at I started it here (in fact it was my second post) and submitted here. Three and a half months, total.

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

[VW] Reviewing Computer Games

I noticed this post on These Damned Machines Are Killing Me about a week ago. It talks about the flaws of computer game reviews. (Its sequel, I didn’t find so interesting.)

Now there’s been a response, an extension really, to that from Gamesblog at the Guardian. It links to a review, “Bow, Nigger” – a gripping piece of writing dealing with racism, good vs evil and zen in a Jedi Knights II duel. Then Gamesblog talks about the mercantile focus of most game mags and their focus on the new and the now.

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

[SF] Cosmonaut Keep by Ken MacLeod

*** (out of 5)
The first half of the story cross-cuts between a far-distant planet settled by Russians and Scots and a cyberpunky Scotland in 2040. MacLeod spends a long time subtly developing relationships between the 2 settings

How’d they get from here to there? By halfway through, it seems obvious – and so does the conclusion of the story. Plus, I didn’t care about the main characters. So I wasn’t gripped but kept reading.

Then, strangely, I got emotionally involved. Now that all the cards were on the table, MacLeod began throwing in plot twists and raising interesting questions about immortality and the fate of major characters mentioned in the 2040 setting but not in the far-future.

So it ended up a satisfying read. Interesting politics, a story that alternates between involving and not and a set-up for a sequel that I won’t rush to find but will eventually check out.

Monday, February 21, 2005

[Astral] Topic 14425

The Astral thread is here!

And TonyLB, designer of Capes, responded so quickly that I hadn't even had time to get my second post up.

Already I'm going to have to create a second thread. There are 2 lines of inquiry - one about Challenges and the other about how to make the Basic Mechanic more intuitive when describing it. Damn it. When I see the character sheet with paper clips sliding around as scores are adjusted,
the Basic Mechanic seems intuitive to me - but as soon as I describe it, my brain locks up!

Sunday, February 20, 2005

[RPG] Going live

Deep breath. I’m busy summarising Astral … to post on the Forge tomorrow. This’ll be the first thread I’ve started in the Indie Game Design forum – a step I’ve been building to for about 2 years.

While it’ll consist of material that’s been posted here before, the thread will start my attempt to make Astral’s system coherent. I hope you regular commentators will follow the discussion over there - and thanks for all your comments so far, Morgue, Mike, Billy and Svend.

Friday, February 18, 2005

[Script] Lessons from pitching, so far

If I were designing a pitch from scratch today, here’s what I’d do:

1) Define the Title, Genre, and overall Effect.
2) Be succinct.
3) ‘Emotion’ and ‘character motivation’ are more important than duration or plot.
4) Be visual.
5) Start pitching to other people ASAP.

Get more info on how to pitch …

What is a pitch?

In Hollywood terms, it’s whatever sells a movie – so a pitch could be as short as ‘Jaws meets The Sixth Sense’.

But in scriptwriting terms, it’s telling someone your storyline. It’s a quick way to get feedback – to see what’s entertaining and what’s weak. But the important thing is to create an accurate (and short) impression of your story.

So, to expand on the above list:

1) ….. Define the Title, Genre, and Emotion or Effect you’re going for.* If it’s a comedy, what sort of stuff are we laughing at? What is the basic comic tension?

2) ….. Be succinct. A five minute pitch (or even two minutes) is preferable. The maximum duration you should be thinking for a presentation is 10 minutes; and entertaining someone for 10 minutes is hard work.

I’d start the pitch as short as possible and from there build up the moments that you think are weak and unconvincing.

You’re not really telling a ‘this happened and then this happened’ type of story in a pitch. It’s more about describing the broad sequences of your movie. See this Wordplay column for advice on how to accomplish that.

3) ….. ‘Emotion’ and ‘character motivation’ are more important than duration or plot. Of course, if you’re pitching a comedy it’s important to make the listener laugh.

But here’s some stuff I learned:
..... a) To connect two sequences smoothly, link the emotion at the end of one to the start of the next.
..... b) Clearly communicate the emotions of each sequence. Figure out the emotion you want each sequence to convey. Then, change the pitch’s language so it’s not so much about what’s happening but how I feel about what’s happening.
..... c) Pitching is acting: trying to find your film’s ‘character’ and convey its emotions.
..... d) Rely on your performance (rather than emotive words) to convey the feeling.
..... e) If there’s a choice between describing plot details and a simple emotion, choose the emotion (at least, I found that when pitching a thriller).

4) ..... As much as possible, be visual.
Have a board with the sequences and photos of the key characters on it for the person you’re pitching to to follow along.

'Imagining the action' seems to be key for me. I like to act out the events, to dramatise them.

5) ..... Start pitching to other people ASAP.
Pitching to someone else is fun. You learn lots about your movie quickly.
I’d recommend pitching to one new person a day – and if you can find people who are willing to listen to it multiple times, come back to them after a week of pitching to everyone else.

The Goal:
Engage and entertain the person you’re pitching to.
Create an accurate impression of your story so they can give you feedback.
Pitch to several people.
Are you getting the same feedback from all of them?
Fix or address these issues (if necessary).
Start pitching again.

* (from the Bo Zenga article in Creative Screenwriting)

Thursday, February 17, 2005

[Astral] Intent

Finally had a breakthrough on the Astral role-playing game I'm designing. The question I've been struggling to answer is 'When do you interact with the System?' When is the right time to roll dice?

I've now introduced the idea of the "Challenge".

In normal Astral play the player narrates what is happening. The GM provides NPCs and bounces off the player's ideas. This means - if the player wants - she can succeed at everything she intends. In fact, "The player succeeds" is the default assumption for Astral play.

Continue reading what happens when you Challenge ...

The player continues determining the direction of her scene until another player says, "Challenge." You only issue a Challenge about what a player wants her character to do. Challenges are not issued about descriptions the player has provided or incidental details. IOW, a Challenge has to be significant.

a) .... Once a player has issued a Challenge, they name the Rating that is affected.
b) .... They say which end of the Rating the player's intended action leans towards - and then the Challenger names an alternative outcome from the opposite end of the rating.
c) .... This alternative can be discussed by the Challenger, all other players and the GM until it is satisfactory and exciting to all.

Morgue: "I get him to use his 82 eyes to see what's festering at the bottom of my soul and he heals it."
Billy: "Challenge."
Morgue: "Wait. I need this. If I don't -"
Steve (GM): "Billy's challenged. Let's see what he's got to say."
Billy: "Right. Uh-um. Okay, you're convincing him to help you so that's Focus. What other rating's are there? I think you're asking him to do something good for you, so that's Ethics as well."
Morgue: "You bastard. I've got a 2 in Ethics."
Steve (GM): "So if you roll on that, things are probably going to go bad."
Billy: "Yeah but that's not what I'm thinking. I reckon this is a Focus issue. You want 82-eye-guy to do something at the Self end of the Rating. On the Universe side of things, ... let's say his eyes see something happening, like a disaster and you - um - need to help out with that before he'll help you."
Morgue: "What sort of disaster?"
<Morgue and Billy now negotiate untily they're both satisfied with this alternative.>

NB: the GM never challenges. Therefore to play Astral you need at least three players (one of them taking the GM role); and I suspect the game would be more interesting with 4-5 players.

I see two rewards for a player Challenging another player:
1. If you challenge, you can adjust one of your Ratings by one point - no questions asked.
2. Players gain control over the pacing of scenes. If they want the game to move fast, they challenge.

I think this sets up an interesting [social contract] for a role-playing group. The GM provides almost no plot. Their role is facilitation; very much the bass player to the rest of the band. The players, on the other hand, may need to come to terms with the issue of 'spotlight time' - that is, how much time is appropriate to focus on one player's story.

The intention here is to set up clear parameters for when you roll dice. Following on from this is the rest of the IIEE system that determines the outcome of the roll.

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

[The Limit] A Damn Good Place

This morning:
The pitch turns out to be 8 minutes long, I’m wading through a cut-down of Act 1 and my enthusiasm is waning.

Thought I'd try kicking my energy back up by pitching it again and again, letting the edits come naturally, through performance, not writing. At first my brain blocked me ... but when I finally did it, I broke through!

The pitch is now 8 min 50 sec, but I don’t care. Finally the emotions are almost all there. I was absorbed by the pitch the whole way through. That’s a damn good place for the pitcher to be.

The New New Thing, Part II

This is a continuation of my notes about Jim Clark, billionaire technology visionary.*


The one hard rule in Jim Clark's life was to always pursue the new new thing. His one rule about his new new things was that each one had to be bigger than the last.

The moment of conception was, to Clark's way of thinking, the critical moment of any new enterprise. It was important not merely to hire people bent on changing the world but to avoid hiring the people bent only on changing jobs. He loved hiring people who were ferociously, recklessly competitive.

He also wanted everyone to have a stake in his businesses. Clark couldn't stand the idea of anyone working for him without having the chance to accumulate a bit of wealth. Coincidentally, this stake also made them more committed to the job.

As someone said, "Jim Clark has a clarity of vision that is prompted by the purest form of greed." Clark was incapable of creating new technology without finding away to make money from. In other words, the purpose of the technology he developed was 'to make money'. And the way you make money is by changing the world.

Read more!

Clark admitted he was not the charismatic leader who could sell the new new thing to Mainstream Business. He needed someone who could take an inherently inplausible idea and lead others to believe it.**

A start-up costs almost nothing to start. All you need is an idea, some excellent engineering talent and a pair of big brass balls to execute the idea. Jim Clark’s unofficial sequence was: 1) find the concept, 2) write the software to exploit the concept, 3) sell the company to the public, then 4) announce the new new thing.

Clark's business plan seemed to be: wander along the top of the cliff overlooking the US economy, deciding which rock (if kicked) would wipe out the largest section of the slope below. When it came to presenting his business model to potential financiers, all he did really was describe how he planned to make money.

Clark also made enough money that he could finance his own start-ups. As far as he was concerned, the Finance Department of the American economy was expendable.*** Clark's faith in his new enterprise was actually faith in his own imagination.

The thing I can’t relate to at all is that Clark didn't care if the share prices on his start-ups dropped enormously. He wasn't focused on preserving money but on creating something new.

For Jim Clark, a plan was merely a theory of how he might spend this day; all times it clashed in his mind with half a dozen other theories. Clark was far happier doing something he had just decided to do in something he had decided long ago. No decision was worth sticking to unless it had replaced several other decisions

What happens to Clark in Silicon Valley was the interplay of a character who had a deep feel for technology, and a taste for anarchy, with an environment that rewarded both traits. However, Jim Clark was an outsider. He could see human society in ways that most businessman could not, because he was not very much a part of it.

Above all, one thing was clear: his pursuit of the new new thing depended on his curious amnesia. His ability to forget what he said he would do next, or what he'd thought would make him happy, was the mortar on which he laid his endless tiers of self renewal. He'd made a kind of religion of keeping only those parts of his past he needed for fuel, on his journey into the future.

* And most of these notes are verbatim from the book, “The New New Thing” by Michael Lewis.

** Of course Clark had this quality with engineers and his reputation for making billions of dollars didn't hurt.

*** That's the Goal: Become the investor so you don't get cut out of the decision-making process.

Monday, February 14, 2005

[TV] Good shows, bad emotions

So, a TV show should aim to give off a consistent emotional vibe in every episode. Let’s call it ‘the Unique Tone’.

I propose: the more positive or comfortable a series’ Unique Tone, the more likely it’ll be accepted by the mainstream.

NB: Of course I’ve provided no examples to support this, nor have I defined ‘mainstream’ (a word which has bugged this blog before). So, does this gel with other people's experiences?

[The Limit] Hack n’ Slash

The pitch is simpler, the end’s more obvious. Duration – about 8 minutes. Now to get ruthless (especially in Act 2 and 3).

Saturday, February 12, 2005

[Script] Manifesto ‘05

If I were to start a new script today, I’d adopt these principles :

1) Characters are true to themselves. They make internally consistent decisions.
2) Establish their emotional starting point in great detail. What do they do? What are their lives like? Is anything in their lives going to change on its own?…
…If no, then a Plot Event occurs. How do your characters react?
3) Follow the characters for a while, see what happens. If they become pro-active, fine. If they stay reactive, introduce another Plot Event.
4) Know your genre (if you’re writing in one) and make sure you have genre beats often enough to keep it in that genre.
5) As soon as you’ve figured out the story from start to finish, tell it to another person. Or five.

(1) is all about having characters NOT make decisions just because it’d be a cool direction for the plot to go in. It’s about respecting the plot that comes out of character decisions.

(2) is about starting with a Hook or a ‘What if’ idea for the movie then coming up with the characters who could be involved. Draw a relationship map of how these characters interact with each other AT THE START. Get opinions on what people think the most interesting relationships are.

(3) de-emphasises the textbook Act 1, Act 2, Act 3 structure. I’ve been thinking up Turning Points first. But the story and the climax should 'look like' they flow naturally out of the characters anyway, so why not make them the starting point of your process?

(4) ... man, it's just a kick-in-the-pants to keep the vibe of your movie focused and on-track.

This all started after watching Storytelling by Todd Solondz. But it’s been influenced by Crafty Screenwriting by Alex Epstein, watching lots of Everwood and writing for Shortland Street.

What makes characters understandable and entertaining is consistent dialogue and attitude within a scene and consistent motivations across scenes.

[The Limit] Simplify, Simplify, Simp.

Yesterday I worked on the pitch while hungover. Maybe that's what caused my dread that my edits hadn’t improved anything. Anyway, decided to simplify and de-cliché remaining scenes. Then pitched to Andrew.

Pitching to someone else is fun. You learn lots about your movie quickly. We agreed the goal now is to reduce it down to about 5 minutes and emphasise the structure is a cross-cutting chase movie (like Changing Lanes or 24).

This pitch will be my guide when I write the first draft. The emotional story in these 8 pages is clearer than the 60 page treatment that I sent to Andrew and Ainsley.

[TV] F&G has reached that point

... where every line is funny because of what we know about the characters and their history.

I love all the main characters – and now the show's developing less central figures (Cindy, the parents). Plus continuity has given the show a new way to embarrass the cast.

Thursday, February 10, 2005

[RPG] Reward systems

NB: I want to post this to The Forge, so if anyone has any ideas on how to clarify the following, please comment…


I finally think I understand how a role-playing game’s reward system works.

A character has an Ability.
The player enters that Ability into a Mechanic.
The Mechanic is used to resolve a situation.

As a result of the situation being resolved, a player gets a Reward.
The player can use that Reward to improve their Ability – which improves their chances of resolving a situation in their favour.

So the three components of a Reward System cycle are: Ability, Mechanic, Reward.

Those are the three components of a Reward System that has a Goal of ‘character improvement’. What other Goals are out there? Jared Sorenson has proposed ‘development’ and ‘investment’. Are there more?
Does a different Goal need a different Cycle?
Are there others ways of running a Character Improvement cycle?

Here's some threads to review ...

Rewarding Players.

Reward Systems, or Making Your Players Behave.

This thread has expanded my thinking on reward systems.
It points out an opposite cycle to the one I've highlighted. A negative loop versus a positive loop.

Rewards for setting up.

Advancement Systems and D&D.

Non game system reward.

Character goal based reward systems.

[The Limit] Getting There

10.40 am: This reading was great. Long stretches where the emotion’s sustained. And I can see ways to fix the slumps. [29/14]

11.12 am: I’m simplifying this re-write, focusing on character motivations. Like where it’s going. Wouldn’t it be cool it I could finish this today?

12.00 am: Readthrough felt pretty functional – but it’s getting the job done. Act One works! [29/21]

Tuesday, February 08, 2005

[TV] F&G: Now with Continuity!

Finally Freaks & Geeks develops an interesting storyline. The Lindsey/Nick relationship continues to form accidentally. F&G is now also mining a Fawlty Towers / The Office level of embarrassment that has me on the couch in the foetal position screaming for it to stop even as I’m remembering doing exactly the same stuff in college.

To develop this show, the writing team sat round a table for about a week discussing all the horrible things that happened to them in high school. The series creator, Paul Feig, provided roughly 80% of the material. If someone thought a plotline was too unbelievable, Feig provided proof it really happened.

[TV] Angel Lives!

Angel was cancelled at the end of Season 5 but it looks to be continuing in comic form (complete with input from Joss Whedon).

[RPG] Many threads

Svend’s write-up of his award-winning Inspectres game has lead to a design thread on the Forge.

Big news from the Forge – it will eventually close down.

Our My Life with Master game had its first session last week. There's a small post about it here.

And a couple of thought provokers: Ben Lehman’s comments about designing games , Jared (InSpectres) Sorenson on the same, and a 20x20 article on PrimeTime Adventures which I’m thinking of running with a hand-picked group.

[The Limit] How to overcome procrastination:

A couple of days ago my perfectionism nearly stopped me writing 100 words

In this one early scene I kept re-finessing details. So I forced myself to keep moving - and in the process clarified what the two leads have in common. After a little more grunt-work, the pitch has finally started to convince me.

The key: relying on my performance (rather than emotive words) to convey the feeling. That means I have to know what emotion I want from the sequence. And if there’s a choice between describing plot details and a simple emotion, choose the emotion.


Now a few of the scenes are ALMOST there. Out of 29 sequences, 8 get the feeling right [29/8]. The pitch clocks at 10.55, not so bad.

Some more fine-tuning led to inserting the phrase ‘godamn bitch’. It seems to cut through to precisely the feeling I want to create [29/9].

Third reading. Stopped halfway through because I lost track of the emotions. When I don’t feel the pitch, I don’t act it – just read. That makes it go dead. On the plus side, that tough early scene is pretty much nailed – just a few tidy-ups but I’m convinced by it. [29/10]

Monday, February 07, 2005

"The New New Thing" - Some Notes

Something a little different today. I've been taking notes from a biography of Jim Clark called "The New New Thing". Clark started Netscape and has made a career from figuring out how to make money from the next step in technology. I think there are many similarities between what he does and what I want to do as a scriptwriter. So these notes attempt to figuring out his thought process.

The new new thing is a notion that is poised to be taken seriously in the marketplace. It is the idea that is a tiny push away from general acceptance and, when it gets that push, will change the world.

Jim Clark couldn't see the future; he groped for it. He would be seized by some new enthusiasm and then chase it wherever it led. His SOP was that if nothing surprisingly or interesting was happening to him, he moved on until the situation corrected itself. Clark was always changing his mind. He was described as an engineer with a taste for anarchy.

He was always thinking about how to make some high-end technology accessible to a larger audience. He knew that gaining access to a mass-market meant making great sums of money. He also believed that the only way to preserve your current status was to create a monopoly. He described himself (and the reason for his winning streak) as being 'the guy who finds the new new thing and makes it happen'.

Clark's goal was to create the company that invented the future. Once he had done that, he wanted to do it again and again and again and again. For his services he wanted to be treated better, and paid more, than anyone else.

Most people don't enjoy making huge gambles on the future. They would just as soon have someone else tell them what to do. And that is what Jim Clark did.

After Netscape, Clark's starting point was how not to make millions but billions of dollars. Quickly. His play took on the intensity of work, and his work acquired the flavour of play. He designed all future large organisations without a place for himself inside. He had ceased to be a businessman and become a conceptual artist.

Jim Clark wanted to hire people he trusted rather than people the venture capitalists recommended. He was interested in finding bright people with a passion to change the way things are. To attract the smartest best people you needed to persuade them you had the new new thing.

-- I'll compile more entries on this book over the next couple of days.

Sunday, February 06, 2005

[TV] 3 Things to know

At the heart of your show are three things:
The Emotion you want to produce.
Your Central Character.
The Main Relationship.

Know these three things.
It’ll focus the series design.

And be aware - the answers will change.

Look at Friends.
The producers thought Monica was the central character –until they shot the 1st episode. Then it became an ensemble with – at various times Rachel, Chandler and Joey at the heart.

The main relationship? Starts as Ross and Rachel, moves to Joey and Chandler, then to Chandler-Monica before settling back on Ross and Rachel (with Joey as occasional third wheel).

The emotion, however, never changes. Friends support each other through the process of growing up. The show wants to make you feel comfortable.

Saturday, February 05, 2005

[Script] The last line.

What’s the most important line of a scene?
The last line.

It raises a question.
Creates a tension we want released.
Primes us for what we expect to see in the next scene.

[TV] The A-Plot

What’s an A-Plot?
It's what you say when someone asks you what 'last night's episode' was about.
It's the main story.

How do you write an A-plot?
First, have an overall idea.
Are you reporting to a producer?
Then pitch that idea, make sure they’re on-board with it.

Second, break down the Acts.
Specifically, know how the A-Plot has advanced by the time you go to each commercial break. Call them cliff-hangers, plot-points, reversals, big developments, whatever …

… These Act Breaks are your signposts for writing a clear and understandable story.

Someday I’ll write about how I got fired for not doing this.

Third, make sure the Act Breaks are of high-quality.
They’re true to your characters.
Original - within the genre you’re working in and within the show you’re writing.
They develop character, plot and/or the series arc. They shouldn’t repeat what has gone before. Note that well: don’t have 2 Act Breaks that are basically the same thing.
Always develop. Always raise the stakes.
There’s probably more, but that’ll do for an initial brain dump.

Fourth, clearly introduce the situation.
At the start of each episode, we want answers to these questions ...
* What's the status of the relationships that will apply to this A-plot?
* What do these characters want out of life?
* What do they think will happen if they fail?
* Why do they need to act?
Call these the emotional stakes.
Make sure we know and care about them.

Fifth, fill in the space between the Act Breaks.
You’ve probably generated a lot of ideas for scenes while breaking down the Acts.
Now’s the time to provisionally put them where you think they should go.

NB: Prepare to drop scenes, combine them or realise they’re repetitive at any time.
NB: Acknowledge if a scene doesn’t fit, leads the A-plot astray or says something untrue about your characters.

So, filling the space between the Act Breaks.
Reprise the situation soon after coming back from commercials.
Have at least one scene about the A-plot to link this reprise to the next Act Break.
If your show has no sub-plots, every scene between commercials will be about the A-plot.

And if your show does have sub-plots?
It depends on whether your characters regularly interact (like an ensemble) or have very seperate lives.
It's the difference between Buffy and 24.
In 24, you'll have B, C and even D-plots that have no interaction with the A. Simple.
Just write the damn thing, follow the rules above.
(But even then, you'll want something connecting the plots, whether it's theme or situation.)

When your characters are an ensemble and have a lot to do with each other's lives ...
You'll probably have separate A, B, and C-plot scenes.
You'll also need
scenes that interweave the A-plot with other sub-plots. This isn’t so hard ...
... just keep track of the motivations and emotions of character involved in the A-plot as they meet other people and deal with 'unrelated' problems.

Sixth, wrap up the A-plot.
Did people succeed or fail?
How do they feel?
Are the emotions you’ve created from the A-plot consistent with how you want people to feel after watching an episode of your show?

There’s a lot more.
When I talk about interweaving sub-plots, I'm hinting at the use of Subtext.
I’m coming to believe Subtext is vital to writing a good script.
(a good script = a script I’m happy with)
But that’s a whole ‘nother article (and possibly a book).
This’ll do for starters.

* The big thing – and this is where the art and design of episodes comes in – is to try and make the sub-plots feedback into and affect the A-plot.

Thursday, February 03, 2005

[TV] Are TV show downloads illegal? (Part II)

As this Salon article (ad view required) indicates, Hollywood assumes you won’t watch TV if you can choose to watch what you wanted.

Read more!

The suits at the Motion Picture Association of America phrase it this way, "Technologies that enable redistribution of copyrighted TV programming beyond the local TV market disrupt local advertiser-supported broadcasting and harm TV syndication markets -- essential elements supporting the U.S. local broadcasting system."

Maybe the copyright laws are ridiculously restrictive but it’s easy to see the networks’ and the production companies’ POV: the harm isn’t in the file-trading or increased visibility of downloaded shows. It’s whether you lose advertiser dollars and therefore mess up the production of these shows, or instead increase a fanbase and make money directly from DVD sales.

At the moment, according to Salon, trading is not hurting Hollywood. The sales of DVDs of television shows is larger than anyone has expected. But this position may change as download technology becomes easier to use.

There are a few ways to still gain advertiser dollars. TiVo wants to start adding banner ads to fast-forwarded commercials. US Congress is considering a bill to make fast-forwarding through commercials on DVDs illegal.

In 2003, the FCC announced that any digitally broadcast show must include an invisible antipiracy device called a ‘broadcast flag’. Last October, nine groups petitioned the Court of Appeals, saying this oversteps the FCC's authority, makes life more difficult for consumers and fails to stop piracy.

Items such as digital TVs to DVD recorders that are sold before July 1 do not have to recognize the broadcast flag. So the Electronic Frontier Foundation has been holding ‘buildathons’ to help novices build home-brew digital televisions and DVRs.

At the moment the networks have no choice. They have to continue to provide product because to stop would cost them money. Still, the obvious first step is to work on some super-cunning encryption. What’s next, though? Force as many people to pay for it as possible simultaneously and then write the show off … or rely on people’s honesty and the crappiness of any technology designed to circumvent anti-piracy protection?

They better start thinking soon. Already it’s possible that free internet downloading is causing conventional businesses based on this tech to fail. In 2003, Om Malik posted about the death of TiVo. Now he's commenting about internal restructuring in the company.

And if you want to download a show, here’s a a How–To.

[TV] High Pressure Laughs

When South Park first aired, the head of Comedy Central remembers thinking, 'Can I go to jail for this?'

Frank Rose, writing in Wired, talks about the pressures that Comedy Central faces developing new shows. The spine of the article is an attempt to develop a funny videogame review show. Ideas that are pro'd and con'd include 'a Playboy playmate explaining her favourite games', a 'sausage-stuffed Gadget Guy' and a Halo 2 tournament between a group of comedy writers.

[Film] Future of Film (Part II)

Annalee Newitz is predicting an end to a US cultural monopoly. She's devoted a Techsploitation column to what happens (later this year) if the Supreme Court decides companies can be held liable when people use their product to infringe copyright.

She's predicting a big change in the Model I ranted about yesterday. She could also be taking the piss. I’m not sure about that yet.

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

[VW] Protesting in VR

Terra Nova's posted an entry about a protest in World of Warcraft that brought down the Argent Dawn server.

The way this type of VW protest works is: the crowd assembles, the technology groans, the GMs begin dispersing people by force (suspending their accounts) and then the server crashes.

[Film] Future of Film

Is it smart to make films? Me, I want to make money* and I want to create. Best case, I create something I really love that other people desperately want to see.**

Assuming I’ve cut a good deal with a producer – or that I’m the producer – I can then earn a very decent living from my work.

Assuming not so many people want to see what I’ve made, then everyone before me in the food chain gets fed first. Exhibitors, distributors, marketing, then financiers, and then producers. Creatives get paid last. That’s the model.

So there are currently 3 tiers to earning money from film:
1) The film makes too much money to hide (Creator gets wealthy);
2) The film breaks even (Hey you’ll get to work again and earn a damn good yearly salary); and
3) No one sees the film . Whether because of distribution and marketing SNAFUs or your failure to come up with a good idea in the first place, you’ve just spent 3 years of your life working for $2.50 an hour.

2 questions: How do I change this model to make money even in a worst case scenario? What can I do outside the model to make money?

* And by ‘money’ I mean ‘a living’, so that I can create.
** A thought about franchises like 007, The Matrix and Buffy. They seem to be partly about a cool setting and mostly about a cool character.

Tuesday, February 01, 2005

[The Limit] Ainsley feeds back

She thought the scriptment was great, recommended some production options for it and has some story suggestions.

[TV] Freaks & Geeks: Make or Break

Episode 6 – okay so it had some involuntary nudity in it but really this was all about Nick and the episode was way more heartbreaking than I expected. Insights into his family life, his dreams; the whole ep had a melancholy feel to it – even though it got funnier and funnier as the second half wore on. Kind of like a humanised teen version of Bullets over Broadway.

I suspect Freaks & Geeks has anti-continuity. Based on what Lindsey did last night, it’s about people making choices that are terrible and yet somewhat repetitive. As if the storyliners have devised a parameter within which each character relationship will occur, then the writers just ring variations on it.

It’s a good strategy if you’re not sure about the strength of your show – that way you can showcase your funniest episodes first and hook viewers in, you can run episodes out of order because you’re not bound to a strict season-long storyline. This is what we did in lovebites (which also was not renewed). The danger is that people see your show as repetitive or static and given that F&G operates in the world of teen comedy-drama, people familiar with the genre might be expecting more forward movement.

OTOH, this approach allows you to mine more deeply for character moments. If you find a vibe that works on-screen, you can write another episode and apply more pressure to it. This way, character arcs emerge organically based on what you’re interested in.

Tonight’s episode will be make-or-break for understanding Freaks & Geeks’ approach to continuity. We know Lindsey just wanted to do a good thing, but what the hell was she thinking? I am interested, I want answers. I will be extremely disappointed if the show does not address it.