Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Supernatural: Season 4

Supernatural, the show about two brothers beating the crap out of monsters every week, got darker and more interesting through Seasons 3 and 4.

Season 3 dealt with Sam and Dean Winchester trying to simultaneously fight an army of demons that had been unleashed on earth, and figure out a way to evade a particularly nasty deal with the devil. I actually liked Season 3's storyline a lot (especially its character arc for Dean) and thought it would have benefitted from the writers compensating for the season being cut short by the writers' strike by delivering many more character-centred episodes.

As it was, Season 3 contained many what I call 'bookend' episodes - a character issue is presented in a scene at the start of the show, the events of that episode's hunt unfold (with maybe an occasional reference to that character issue), and then in a dramatic scene at the end (usually a conversation between the two brothers in their car) the issue is progressed or resolved. That structure felt very unsatisfying, and only the fact that many Season 3 episodes were FRACKING GREAT (Mystery Spot, Jus in Bello, A Very Supernatural Christmas) compensated for it.

Season 4, however, changed all this. Rather focusing episodes around a monster of the week, the writers started breaking stories by deciding on the issue in the brothers' relationship they wanted to showcase, figuring out the emotional beats of that story, and then designing a monster around that. As a result the show began to feel like it was drawing from the best work of Freaks and Geeks and Everwood, as well as any number of monster of the week series.

Even the bookend episodes are better (as a result of this change). Take something like Episode 4, which deals with Dean's suspicions about Sam's blood, and the question of whether people can choose to not be a monster gets strongly. That issue gets set up at the start, and the writers take quite a long time establishing it, until we really feel it. And then that issue is not only present in the monster, but addressed in actual scenes between the brothers during the episode. Sure, it's pretty on the nose, but it's also satisfying.

The tone of the show has become darker, a bit more sombre. There are still wisecracks, but taking itself more seriously. And it's more satisfying as a result.

The show grows stronger and more interesting throughout the season. By halfway through, I felt it had become a dark, funny, slightly morally complex war story. By the end of the season, I felt it was teaching me how to write TV - treating its characters with respect while being unafraid to damage them, and exploring exactly how much series mythology and continuity the show could stand.

Whereas Seasons 1, 2, and 3 had ... patchy episodes, Season 4 is pretty much strong across the board. In fact, the episode 'The Monster at the End of This Book', manages to combine hilarious entertainment with an such an unbelievable amount of meta (while being vital to the show's mythology) that I'm going to use it as a touchstone for the series I'm currently developing.

Grades so far:

Season 1: B- (except for the finale, which is an A+)
Season 2: B+
Season 3: B (but contains a couple of A+ episodes)
Season 4: A

Monday, October 19, 2009

Crafty Screenwriting: Summary

Back in August I took a little dip into Alex Epstein's book 'Crafty Screenwriting'. I was looking to see if it had anything to add to the ideas about how to create stories that I'd been reading in 'Presentation Zen' and 'The Elements of Persuasion'.

It was another case of doing three blog posts and not much synthesising of the ideas. So I thought I'd start to rectify that by doing a summary of my summary of 'Crafty Screenwriting'. While there's a lot in the book that I didn't cover, I did write about hooks, pitching, and the elements of a story.

A Hook is a brief description of your story that intrigues the audience into wanting to know more.

I keep reading about reducing your story or presentation down to its core idea, to a single catchy phrase. There's a reason for this: we all have multiple demands placed on our attention every day, so how do you cut through the noise and make someone pay attention to you?

You have to make them want to know what happens next.

Hooks make people want to see how things turn out. That means they're simple, intriguing, and a fresh idea.

For as long as possible, DON'T write your story down. Instead, actually tell it to people.

That's the best way to find out if your hook or story works. Tell it out loud, over and over again, to whoever will listen. See what people respond to. And because you're not writing it down, you can see what bits of your story are memorable and stick in your head - and at the same time, you can hear when YOU get bored or confused while telling it.

Telling your story to everyone forces you to create a story that's so simple, clear and logical that you can remember it.

Here are three questions to think about while you're telling your story:
  1. Is your listener interested in your hook at all? If not, then (a) rephrase it and try again, or (b) come up with a better idea.
  2. What does it remind them of? Check these other, similar stories out.
  3. What do they tell you? They may have ideas and criticisms. Listen to them. Even if they're off-base, you'll find out what sort of things they expected to hear or see when you told them your pitch.
Writing it down 'freezes' your story, making you reluctant to make big or necessary changes to it. Writing it down also makes it easy to overlook your story's flaws.

And if the idea of telling someone your story completely freaks you out, you can:
  • tell it to yourself
  • write down the basic beats of the story on cards, mix the cards up, and try to put them back together in the right order
  • (... or my favourite) write your story down. Hide those pages. Rewrite it again from memory. Hide those pages. Repeat.
The Elements of a Story
Here's the summary of what Crafty Screenwriting says are the elements that make up a compelling story:

A MAIN character
... who has a GOAL that we (the audience) care about.
... The main character is RISKING a lot
... and they have at least one but ideally three basic OBSTACLES in their way:
  1. An External Antagonist or Obstacle: We have to care about the antagonists, even if they're an obstacle (like crossing the Antarctic)
  2. An Intimate Opponent: Someone on the main character's side who is working at cross-purposes to them.
  3. A Tragic or Comic Flaw (A Psychological Opponent):
Main characters can be unlikeable, but we do have to care about what happens to them. There are a few things that could make us care:
  • their situation is familiar to us
  • we want to walk in their shoes
  • we find them fascinating and want to know what they'll do next
  • they're caught in a dilemma and we want to know how they'll resolve it (Tony Soprano trying to negotiate between the pressures of his criminal life and his family life - which is also a 'family situation: job vs. family)

We need to care about the character's goal, whether it's internal (psychological, emotional) or external (save the world, fall in love). A person may be a jerk, but if we can admire or get behind their goal, then we can root for them as a protagonist.

NB: Characters without goals lead to stories without drama.

The main character is risking something; they have something to lose that is worth caring about.

What makes us care about that possibility of that loss? This is what I've extrapolated from Crafty Screenwriting: The hero (who's someone we care about because we identify with them or want to be with them) is now at risk of being transformed, harmed, or losing something vital to their life. They are in play; the thing that they are risking is (essentially) something that's core to their identify.

The hero is at risk of being changed, fundamentally and for the worse.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Movies: August to October

My Neighbour Totoro really deserves the warm fondness that Jenni and Svend use when they talk about it. To me, it felt like an essential film in building up my understanding of Japanese fairytales and its spirit world. There is also a scene at a bus stop which plays out an incredibly audacious intersection between our normal world and the spirit world; the whole movie slowly, plausibly builds up the idea of spirit creatures living in the forest ... but this scene is simply incredible in the way it matter-of-factly brings Totoro in the lives of the main characters.

Bruno is pretty much a masterpiece of script writing. Much like Raiders of the Lost Ark, it features a protagonist who believes he's competent but who fails at every single turn. Bruno has an outer motivation of becoming a celebrity and an inner motivation of finding true love - and the film brings both of those motivations (and Bruno's dominant character trait of outrageous hyper-homosexuality) together for a draw-dropping climax. The only problem for me was that I felt many of the comedic set-pieces featured people who were in on the joke. So, the script = great; the candid camera stuff veered between okay and freaking brilliant. I now want to check out Borat.

Desperation adapts a very large Stephen King novel into a tele-movie. That means a TV budget, so instead of an actor like Terence Stamp or 1980s Peter O'Toole playing Johnny Marinnville, you have Tom Skerrit. Which, I admit, is an interesting choice. The film feels forced, in that typical Mick Garris way, with lots of extreme camera angles and stupid jump scares (a slot machine that pours blood? Really? He didn't get enough of that bullshit when he had the cash register ring up 'No Sale' in the mini-series version of The Shining?). In fact, by about halfway through I felt that Desperation was taking its visual cues from a Resident Evil game, rather than 100 years of cinematography.

On the plus side, Desperation's score has a simple memorable main theme, and it contains a couple of great flashbacks and an amazing establishing shot of the mine at the story's centre. Overall, though, I felt it rushed through the emotions of the book: there were quite a few instances where I didn't feel for the characters, or where the story moved along so fast that it was hard to follow. Also, this is a story that is very much about God ... and unfortunately God's presence in the film felt cosmetic to me, rather than heavy and urgent. All-in-all, I think this one is ready for a smarter version with a slightly bigger budget.

Weird thing about that music - it reminds me a lot of the theme from Moon; there are a lot of interesting parallels that I lack the vocabulary to describe accurately. Here's the first 10 minutes of Desperation (the music is in the first minute thirty):


(There's no embed for this, unfortunately.) Now, here's the trailer for Moon - and beware! Spoilers. If you haven't seen Moon yet, I wouldn't watch this.

District 9 is great fun. Mostly an excellent film, with frequent moments of awesome and occasional bursts of greatness. Warning: Contains action, aliens, robots, racists and an extremely funny pig. My favourite thing about the film was the inexorable escalation of violence between the different factions as the movie pushed its way towards the end - there was a great moment where I realised, "But if they do that, then the Nigerians would have to do this, and that would mean the MNU would have to respond like this ... oh shit!" Cue an extremely satisfying finale to an impressive film.

Coraline was remarkably more subdued than I expected. For most of the movie I didn't quite feel a sense of excitement about the magical other world that Coraline was exploring - possibly because, for me, her real world seemed just as interesting, and possibly because the script didn't build up the sense of wonder and awe for me. However, once the battle of wills really started between Coraline and her Other Mother, I was seriously into it - the talking cat, the small world, vampire dogs ... it all worked for me. But the end result was a smaller, more intimate film than I was expecting. And the 3D was definitely not essential to the experience.

After three viewings, The Godfather finally worked for me. Perhaps I needed a break of a decade, and to watch The Sopranos and The Wire, but now I can see exactly how influential it is and more importantly how simple and clear the story is: after two introductory sequences (meeting the family at the wedding, seeing how the Corleones operate in Hollywood) the story deals with the implications of a single decision to say no to a man with powerful backers. I cannot wait to watch Part II.

Jenni and Lee arranged a screening of Hopeless. I had a blast watching it for the first time in about three years - I'm now pretty confident about the audience response to the film - the slow build, the scattershot laughs and then the second half of the film jelling more and more. It's funny looking back on it; Hopeless is about young, insecure characters who don't really know how to talk to each other or be in relationships. The film is similarly a little insecure - dashing around the place and aiming to amuse. Which it does ... but watching it, I can't help feeling that we should have gone for the dramatic throat a bit more: that it's not Richard who Phil makes his confession about but rather the guy standing next to him; that Ben actually declares that he loves Maryann (rather than that he loves her as a friend). And it's only in retrospect that I can see the movie seriously pulses with suggestions of bisexuality and polyamorous relationships - that would've been some seriously awesome stuff to explore.

I watched the last hour of Southland Tales, and then the next day watched the whole thing. I'd actually kind of recommend this - knowing where the movie's going eased me into putting up with how it gets there. It kind of feels like Strange Days as directed by Terry Gilliam and written by someone from the 1980s influenced by Repo Man and Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension. The film sprawls and the script doesn't really make it easy to let the audience in on what's going on, instead preferring to consistently make an odder choice than you'd expect. But the use of the screenplay inside the film to represent fate, and the ultimate destinies of the characters ... well, I found they moved me on my one and half-th viewing.

Stardust is like a darker, more epic version of the Princess Bride. Slightly less witty, more episodic and possessing more protagonists to keep track of. I recommend it though - it was a good reminder for me of how powerful fantasy can be in delivering an emotional kick.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Goal-setting: 12 Things in 2 Years

I've been setting goals for a long time now, and I've used lots of techniques to articulate and arrange them - stuff like a list of 50 things to do before you die, and making them S.M.A.R.T (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Timebound).

It's all good, and I made some scattershot progress on them over the decade and a half I've been doing it. But nothing to blog about.

A couple of years ago, I ran across the idea of creating a list of 101 things to do in 1001 days. Immediately I got excited by that and started putting all of the goals I was most interested in onto this list, grouping them by category, figuring out the stuff I was most interested in. Being the sort of person I am, I also put "Finish my list of 101 things in 1001 days" onto my list to get the satisfaction of ticking it off.

For a long time (between six months and a year) I used this list during my weekly sit-down where I review what's going on in my life. I'd tick things off, figure out what to do next. But I was vaguely dissatisfied with it, and I had no idea why.

Clicking around aimlessly on the internet as I often do, I found a site called 43things.com, which is a goal-setting community where you make a list of 43 things you want to achieve. "Eureka," cried the organisation part of my brain. "That's what's wrong. 101 things is too intimidating for me. It feels unachievable, demotivating and hard to select my next goal from. What I need to do is create a list of 43 thi --"


That was another part of my brain speaking up. It realised that if I could cut the list down to 43 items, then I could make it any number I wanted. I could choose a number of items and a timeframe that was right for me. I wanted it to have a bit of alliteration, so 12 things in 2 years became the immediate front-runner.

12 things is an amount I can keep track of. Two years is a decent period of time to do it.

Now the trickier thing was what 12 items to choose.

I'd recently finished doing a life review (which maybe I'll talk about later, but it's basically a series of questions designed to help you see what's going well and what you need to work on). A couple of the items from that review stood out as things as things I needed to fix or work on urgently. So they went on the list.

Next I had a look at the things I needed to get done and was already in the process of doing: getting my full license, setting up a retirement plan, pay off my student loan. Easy (but freaking meaningful) achievements; they went on the list.

Finally I looked at my list of 101 Things and the two folders I have that are filled with other goals. What I was looking for were goals that would make me feel like I was getting closer to being the person I want to be. Stuff like 'Learn to dance', and 'Learn 500 words of Te Reo and 100 basic phrases'.

Now I had my list of 12 items, and a deadline of 18 April 2011 to do them in. Next I had to decide how to deal with the fact that my life will change over the next two years and that some things might become redundant or other more urgent goals might emerge.

I decide to use the concept of the 'Will Do' list:

  • All 12 items are things that I'm committed to doing.
  • To avoid feeling overloaded, I can't add new items to the list; in fact, I drew a big black line under the list to emphasise that.
  • If I decide to drop something, I highlight it but I do NOT add a new item in its place. That way the list gradually keeps going down; I want to make this easy on myself.

I figured that there would be urgent or crisis goals that I'll need to deal with over the next two years, but that I would treat this list as a touchstone to keep returning to, to keep me on the right path.

So far I've completed two goals, and have made significant progress on five more. As I complete each one, it gives me more time and energy to focus on the remaining ones.

That's it. That's my goal-setting system as at 2009. What about you? What's yours? (And if you've got any questions, just ask.)

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

500 Days of Summer (2009)

scr. by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber

There's a lot to enjoy about this relationship comedy, much of it centring around its playful structure.

Pay attention to the difference between how Tom and Summer are presented. Tom is definitely the main character of the film: the story is presented mostly through his eyes, and it's sympathetic towards him. We have way less psychological access to Summer and what's going on with her; as a result, to Tom she appears to flip between being his dream girl and a complete bitch. And there's at least one point in the movie where Summer does something that makes no apparent sense whatsoever.

But ...

Here's the thing when you watch it: accept that Summer is not the main character but play a little mental game and pretend that she is the protagonist of the film. The one who has to make choices and change.

Go further and pretend that Tom is her antagonist. From the Elements of Persuasion:
Antagonists keep the Hero from achieving their goal.

Antagonists don't create conflict; they "clarify what the conflict is about"....
[Stories] aren't about 'defeating' the Antagonist, they're about us discovering
what we need to change in order to defeat them.

Keep that in mind and you might find the script's structure is not only playful but extremely balanced.

I highly recommend this film - so far it's in my top 5 for the year.

Saturday, October 03, 2009

Synopsis: Made to Stick (Introduction)

This will be the last of my 'How do you make story' reviews for a while, but before I dig into what Made to Stick is about I wanted to mention how impressed I am by its design.

I was feeling pretty overloaded yesterday - stretched at work between deadlines and training someone, having to run a game afterwards, and dealing wiht a few relationship issues. So when I finally hopped into bed and picked up 'Made to Stick' I was torn between wanting to read a bit of this book that I'd finally been able to pick up from the library, and finally going to sleep.

So, I pick it up (just to check it out) and the first thing I notice is its cover:

Immediately, I try to peel away that 'To' label ... but the library has carefully plastic-wrapped the cover. So I turn to the inside jacket, to read a bit of a description, and see that part of the book is going to be about discussing urban legends and conspiracy theories and why they spread so effortlessly. Reading through the rest of the jacket's copy, I can see that this is going to be my sort of book.

And it reminds me of this post by Seth Godin: The Purpose of a Book Cover

Is the purpose of the cover to sell books, to accurately describe what's in the book, or to tee up the reader so the book has maximum impact?

The third.

... Tactically, the cover sells the back cover, the back cover sells the flap and by then you've sold the book.

So I turn to the back cover, again not intending to read the book, just checking it out, and this is what I see: A list of the six qualities of 'stickiness' that the book is going to discuss together with page numbers illustrating the points. Like so:

Simplicity: How do you strip an idea to its core without turning it into a silly sound bite? See how Army commanders force siplicity into their battle plans - page 25

Credibility: How do you get people to believe your idea? See how NBA coaches engineered an experience that made the dangers of AIDS more palpable to their players - page 162

(That AIDS example is genius, btw. If you're just interested in flicking through the book at the library, I'd recommend it.)

So I check out the examples - which are well written, entertaining and illustrative. Then I check out the table of contents which says there's an 'Easy Reference Guide' at the back of the book. That guide is a 5 page summary of the ideas in the book - which is exactly what I want most books to have, because it saves me the work of doing it myself.

By this point, I'm intrigued and entertained enough that I read the whole introduction (which you can check out here, if you're interested).

Basically, this is exactly how I'd like a non-fiction book to be designed. Easing you into the subject matter, giving you a summary of what it says right up front (rather than hiding it in the last chapter), and providing entertaining, concrete examples. I'm looking forward to reading this.