Thursday, March 8, 2018

Open Screenplay: open, sesame!

I often wake up with the flake of a screenplay in the corner of my mind:
JOHN, 30's, worn down by the world, is leaning against the corner of a building in the downtown of Lowell, Massachusetts. He is watching a string of PEOPLE heading toward the annual FOLK FESTIVAL.
A MAN'S HAT, of the old-style detective sort, blows along the street and fetches up against his leg. He looks at it, then reaches down to pick it up.
That's not your hat!
And there I am with the first seconds of a new script, and no idea what might happen in the next few seconds, or all away along to FADE OUT.
Open Screenplay logoI don't have to discard the new idea any more. I can take the fragments of what I have and post them as a new project in Open Screenplay. The wizard steps me through naming the new script, choosing a genre and making a stab at a logline. I can go on from there, listing locations and maybe some characters. And at any point I can throw the project open to the whole Open Screenplay community. Someone out there will be able to tell me who Margo is, and what's in the hat, and what will happen if John picks it up.
I find the Open Screenplay interface useful and focused, and the community thoughtful and able to come at scripts from angles I have never considered. I love the idea that all contributors share in the success of a script, if it ever gets produced.
Writers condemn themselves to lives of isolation and carpal tunnel problems. Working on projects in Open Screenplay can be a medicine for melancholy and a remedy for loneliness.

Friday, July 1, 2016

Cast of One

For the past year I have been involved in the world premiere of a play. Brenda Thompson wrote it from the memoirs of Lester Beeler, who lived most of the 20th century in the settlement of West Dalhousie, in behind Bridgetown, Nova Scotia on the top of the South Mountain. Brenda asked would I direct the thing and I said yes. And then we had a real problem finding an actor ready to take the play on and bring Lester to life.

It's a one-person play, essentially a 75-minute monologue. That's a lot of words, a lot of builds and dramatic pauses and snappy comebacks and tongue-twister lines. Not hard to see why local actors were reluctant to agree to play Lester.

So I said I would perform the play. And I have been doing it over and over again: being Lester in community halls and church halls and fire halls for audiences that often include people who have never ever been to a play before in their lives.

It's a long, long script. I had to break it down into scenes and beats to learn it, and then identify hooks I could remember to take me from the story that I had just finished to the one that was about to start. I met with members of Lester's family, to find out how he spoke and how he gestured. I borrowed a jacket from his grandson that was "just like" what Lester would have worn.

I gotta tell ya, the show is a hoot, and worth all the effort we've put into it. One of the greatest things is that, after the show, audience members share their own Lester stories--either stuff from their own lives that is just as funny and incredible as what I tell in the play, or actual stories in which the real Lester Beeler played a part. I particularly treasure the night when I finished telling the story about Old Joe and his truck, and the the day he gave Millie the schoolteacher a ride home and lost control of the truck and it and they ended up in the middle of a lake. As the final laughter faded down, a voice rang out: "That was my mother!" We had a good chat about Joe and Millie over tea after the show.

And now we get to take the play further afield. We are performing at the Fundy Fringe Festival in Saint John, New Brunswick August 16-21, and at the Atlantic Fringe Festival in Halifax, Nova Scotia September 1-11. It will be very interesting to see whether Lester's stories travel well beyond his home area, and whether the cast of one (me!) is up to the rigors of daily performances combined with handing out flyers and drumming audiences when I'm not on stage.

Another interesting challenge is the play runs about 75 minutes, but the fringe festival performance slots are 55 minutes (to allow setup time for the next act using the same venue). So Brenda and I have had the agonizing challenge of cutting 20 minutes of material out of a show without losing its spark and sparkle. To compound the challenge, the show is actually getting longer: Brenda is writing an additional scene about a "lost" episode in Lester's life, and that scene will meet its audience for the first time in West Dalhousie August 6.

And then I'll have ten days to unlearn it again.

Lester Beeler

Thursday, June 30, 2016

When you get to the final page

I have been writing the current play for far too long. The idea has been niggling at me for some years, and I made two or three false starts on it. But now I not only have a first draft of about 70 pages (not bad for something that at one point seemed likely never to make it to 10 pages): I even have a final scene.

That doesn't mean the play is ready for people to perform, or even ready for people to comprehend. I have a sense that the order of some scenes is wrong; that I have glossed over some stuff the audience needs to know; that at least one character's story line just fades out instead of coming to a good stopping point.

But now that I have the last scene, I know tons better what this play is actually about than I did when I started. And it's hardly about what I thought it was about, at all. I couldn't find the ending and couldn't find the ending, and the other day a character whom I had last seen about 20 pages earlier walked in and handed me the ending.

And now that I know better what the play is about, I can go back and spackle the awkward bits and expand the terse bits and get the thing to a point where some readers can sit around a room and read it to me. Here comes the fun stuff!

Getting to the end of a play gives you a gift that getting to the end of writing an article or an essay rarely provides: the characters have come alive and take the direction of the story out of your hands and show you how the play has to end even if it isn't how you thought it would end or wanted it to end. I think that's why I keep writing these things: there's a surprise at the end almost every single time.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Uncovering "coverage"

I wrote “coverage” of a screenplay for a new author, and it turned out to be a fairly good statement of my understanding of problems first draft usually encounter. So I have taken out specific references and am so bold as to share my thoughts with you here.

While there are some exciting events in this script, I think you need to do substantial surgery on it to create a compelling story that somebody would want to produce.

Writing a screenplay is tough because you have to engage and delight a whole bunch of different audiences, one after the other. These include:

  • Yourself: Is this a story you would watch if someone else had written it? Do you love the characters? Does the ending make you smile, or cry?
  • A reader: Studios and independent producers employ assistants to read scripts and evaluate them for possible production (what I am doing in this paper, in fact). They look for hooks—places to engage the audience—and also for odd things like the potential for product placement (if a key point in the scene has the hero shaving the beard he has always worn, maybe we can get a shaving-cream company to pay us to feature their product...). They think about whether the script takes advantage of trends (lots of room for another zombie movie!) or bucks the trends (I have never read a script before about a location scout who is a serial killer...), and other stuff out of the author's control, like whether the script is too similar to another script the studio has already optioned.
  • The producer: Can I make money off this, or convince investors that they will? How much will it cost to make? How would I pitch it? What is its category?
  • The director: Why would this be a fun script to work with. How would it stand out? What would be the memorable moments people would pirate and post on YouTube?
  • Actors: How will playing this character let me do something I have never had a chance to do before, or strengthen the bond between me and my fans?

Having to please a sequence of people who each apply a different lens to the script is one of the reasons it is so hard to get a script produced. A screenplay that tells a good story that is easy to summarize, with one or more prominent characters the reader can identify with or love to hate, and that offers some jolts of excitement and some surprises, has a better chance of getting produced than a script without those things.

There are at the moment problems of fact, problems of story-telling, and problems of structure. Here are some notes under each heading.

Problems of fact

In this section I identified some specific errors in the script, problems with procedure in the courtroom scene, statements by a politician that are too incorrect to qualify as rhetoric, and so on. Each script has these, and it often takes someone who is not the screenwriter to identify them.

Problems of story-telling

Story-telling includes drawing the audience in, giving them something or someone to care about, providing surprises and delights, and drawing all the threads together in a satisfactory way in the end.

  • What is the elevator pitch for this movie? An “elevator pitch” is what you would tell a potential producer while the two of you were going up in an elevator in a not-very-tall building. You have less than a minute to outline your story, give a little of its savor, and plant a hook so the producer wants to find out more. The ideal elevator pitch is a short sentence that forces the producer to ask more, not out of politeness but because it's interesting. Here's a pitch sentence for the first Star Wars movie (I guess really episode 4): “A young farm boy joins a princess in the Rebellion against the Galactic Empire.” And you wait for the producer to say, “And then what happens?”

    I have been trying to write a sample for you, but I have not yet succeeded. That is probably because of some of the following problems.
  • What is the story? Is it about a caper gone wrong? Is it about a father very ineptly trying to reconnect with his son? Is it about a second wife discovering her step-son might be a better partner than her current husband? The script starts with the caper and ends with the love story, and this may be a big reason it feels disjointed.
  • Who are we rooting for, and rooting against? Is this A's story? B's? C's?? These are the most likely characters to be either the hero or the villain, but I don't see any of them clearly enough yet. And if one of them is the hero, who is the villain that person is struggling with? The three main characters in your script seem to move mainly in parallel with each other, and are rarely in conflict, but they are not really allies—B, for instance, knows nothing about the money-laundering until quite late in the story.
  • Why are people doing what they do? Why did B (a young woman) marry C? Why is she now casting an eye at A (C's son by a previous marriage)? If C is so wealthy, why is he involved in this dubious scam? Why is the governor in on this—is it just about the money? Most of the schemers already seem to have a ton of money.
  • Twists: the only twist I see so far, and it's a good one, is that C is bringing A onto the scene not to redeem him, but to use him for criminal gain. The story would benefit from a couple more surprises like that.
  • The love story: I understand A being involved in the scam, but I don't see at all that he is interested in B, or why he would be interested; and since the story ends with the resolution of that line (he gets in her car and they drive away), I think the viewers need to see their developing relationship much more clearly. One classic way to deal with unlikely lovers is to start with them colliding, scrapping, misunderstanding each other. And in the effort to defeat this nasty person, each comes to discover that the nasty person is not so nasty after all, that in fact they are meant for each other.
  • Save the cat: Once you have figured out who your main villain is, have that person do some nice thing that shows he or she is more than a cardboard cutout in a shooting gallery. If the villain is also a Big Brother or a Big Sister, it makes the villain much more interesting, and also adds complications to the villainy.
  • Feet of clay: C is, I guess, a greedy liar; A is a thief, or at least an ex-thief. What is B's weakness? What is her character flaw, or what temptation does she succumb to? Just as the bad guys have to have tiny redeeming features, the hero characters cannot be perfect and flawless. And while we're on the subject, what are her good points? She seems too featureless, too perfect, to be the character we root for.

I would recommend that you look at each scene and figure out what each significant characters wants in that scene, and what they come away with. If you have a scene where what the characters want is not in conflict in some way, and that ends with characters neither gaining or losing their objective, that's a scene to be suspicious of. Scenes like that can work okay in a novel, because you can explore character, location, and relationships in depth; but they are hard to justify in a movie, where you only have a very few minutes and a very few pages to set the scene.

Every character, down to the foreman of the jury, has a character arc, a progression from stability at the very start of the story, through becoming unstable by their own actions or some event, struggling to gain some new stability in body and spirit, and either succeeding or failing. He or she starts in one place and usually ends in a different place. Ideally, the change is because the character acts in response to what has happened before, not just because things happen to the character who takes these things passively. I don't understand the character arcs for the main characters. You can have minor characters with flat arcs (the court clerk is just going about his business), but major characters need to have a character arc that drives them and that the audience can figure out.

Problems of structure

Just as each character has an arc, the whole screenplay needs a story arc. A traditional story arc goes something like this:

  • We set the scene and identify the main characters (the characters we identify with) who are balanced.
  • An event (earthquake!) or a character decision (kiss the boss's daughter) knocks the main characters off balance.
  • The main characters take steps to get back in balance (run away! Steal some money!! Elope!!!) and for a bit it looks like things are going to be all right.
  • Things get worse and worse, and the bad guys are closing in. Further efforts fail badly.
  • Things are as bad as they can get. The main character or characters is at a very low point.
  • There is one last chance and the main characters take it. This last chance is planted early in the story, so the audience says, “Oh, yes! He's a ventriloquist!! He can maybe throw his voice to confuse the gunman...” just around the same time the main character has this insight.
  • The last chance either succeeds or fails. The main characters reach a new stability (a new life together; a life in jail; death; happily or unhappily ever after). They may ride off into the sunset together.

I can't follow the story arc in your script very well. And because I can't see the arc, I don't see very many twists and turns in it.

  • Bechtel test: The Bechtel test is a way of seeing if women get a fair shake in a script. The rule of thumb is: is there a significant scene or conversation where two or more women talk about something essential to the story that does not involve relationships with men? B is, I believe, the only significant female character, so she seems a bit isolated.
  • Voice: Almost all the characters speak the same way. Everybody says “ok” and asks if other people are all right. I can't tell without checking who is saying what. You don't have to go all Charles-Dickens and give every character a catch-phrase; but the way a person speaks rises from who the character is (including their racial, regional, and educational background, and how upset or determined or scared he or she is), so each main character should speak in a way that is recognizably theirs. Additionally, most of the minor characters, especially in the later scenes, speak like police reports. It's pretty turgid.
  • Scene rhythm: There are a ton of scenes that take place around desks in offices, or over the phone. We sometimes go from one meeting directly to another, or from one intercut phone call to another. This squanders the rich visual opportunities of a movie over a novel, and also settles the story into a dull rhythm. There are almost no action sequences, and certainly few that break up the talk-talk-talk. B in the shower, and in A's bedroom, and A hitting his escort, are welcome exceptions.
  • We know that! There are many, many occasions when we watch character D tell character E something. Then character E goes and tells character F what we as the audience already saw and know. This gets tedious for the audience. Two rules of thumb:

  • Start the second scene with character F reacting to what E says (which is what D originally said), rather then when F hears the news.
  • If you really must have a person tell what the audience already saw or heard, have that character get it wrong, or try to twist it to his or her own advantage. The audience loves getting outraged at bad-guy liars and cheaters (and cheering for tricky good guys), and you make a strength for the script instead of a weakness.
  • Conclusion: At the end of the story C is up his neck in trouble, the money-launderers and possibly the governor are in trouble, and B and A are in a car together, evidently starting out toward a new life. I don't get how that new-life thing works exactly, since I have not seen a real change in their characters and have no real evidence of their affection for each other. B just running away is a stunning change for a person who, to this point, has seemed efficient and dutiful. It makes a certain visceral sense for these two to end up together, but in both practical terms and in terms of character (C, for example, has learned that crime gets him both money and the girl. This does not bode well for their future) it is not convincing. The conclusion feels like something the author is imposing, rather than something the characters are discovering.

Good news

I hope you didn't slit your wrists yet. This is a great first draft, and far better than many scripts I have worked on. I would not spend this time on it, or suggest that you do so much surgery on it, if it did not have the kernel of something very good at the center.

The script runs about 100 pages right now, which is about right. You gain a lot of space by cutting down repetitive reporting of what the audience already knows, and can use that space for building up the relationship between A and B, establishing the main characters better so you can throw them off-balance better, and inserting some action that takes us away from board-room tables and cell phones.
Again, this is a good first draft. The really interesting bit is what you do with it next, to get to a very good second draft.


Thursday, April 16, 2015


I have always wanted to publish things. When we were in the Arctic I created books with an unbreakable but ungovernable Gestetner duplicator, the kind for which you cut a stencil with what looks like a dentist's tool, affix the stencil on a drum, apply far too much ink, and feed the paper, sheet by sheet with one hand while you revolve the drum to print through the stencil with the other.

Later, I was the editor of not one, but two monthly newspapers. Layout involved printing out the columns of text to appear in the paper, and placeholder spaces for the images, and then crawling around (and on) the layout sheets spread out on the floor with a glue-stick or other affixer and trying to get the right columns in the right places, and all parallel with each other. Then I would trundle the layout sheets off to the printer, where the staff would try not to sigh to loudly while correcting my sillier misteaks mistakes.

Boy, is it easier now.

I just published the first of a half dozen or so collections of my plays as an eBook. I wanted to see what was involved in creating such a book, and was not averse to sharing some of my plays with the reading public. I read a couple of online guides about eBook publishing and then tried my hand at it. The result is available on Kindle, Kobo, the Barnes & Noble store, and lotsa other places.

For those playing along at home, I created the cover using Canva. I generally write scripts using Celtx, but the standard script format is designed for an 8.5 x 11 page. I therefore had to blow away all the formatting Celtx provided in its export-to-PDF option by dropping the text of each play into a text editor (EditPad Pro), copying out of the text editor into Libre Office (or Open Office or Word), and providing some basic formatting that would read clearly on any mobile device.

Then I uploaded the document to create the eBook in Smashwords, which not only has lovely book-creation tools but also delivers the result to most eBook markets except Kindle.

After that I took the epub version of the book that Smashwords had created and uploaded it to Amazon's Kindle Direct Publishing to create a Kindle version. The link for the image above goes to the Canadian Kindle store, but you can find the book easily in Amazon Kindle for many nations.

No one step is too onerous. I spent the most time (aside from writing the plays in the first place, d'oh) reformatting the scripts to make them readable on screens of many sizes.

I have three more collections ready to go, and a fourth on the horizon. I won't belabor you with the construction details every time I publish a book, you'll be happy to know. But I will tell you as each book becomes available.

Monday, April 13, 2015


I am at the same time writing two plays, a couple of choose-your-own-adventure games, and another thing that may turn into a book...or nothing at all. I tend to launch into projects as early as I can in order to let the characters inform me about what happens in the story, rather than me telling them. I often have a hope about how the story will turn out--and often the characters educate me on the way, and the story ends differently, and much better, than the way I had at first hoped it would.

This morning a question came up on a games forum I follow about creating the "world" for a game. The writer was daunted by the amount of work that seemed to be required before you could start the first sentence of the first page of the actual thing you wanted to write. Here's my response (I'm posting it here so I can find it again when I need to remind myself):

You can write a first draft of a game without knowing much about your main character's physical world, world-view, opportunities or threats. But to go beyond first-draft level you need to discover and articulate the world. 
Knowing the world of the story keeps you honest as a writer: it leads you to write about things the main character would be concerned with, not what is on your authorial agenda, and it helps you keep things believable. If there's a pirate attack--how come? What forces them to become pirates? If the main character finds treasure, whose was it and who else is trying to find it? If there's a love interest, do the social rules of the world make it easier or harder for the main character to pursue that person?

If creating a world seems daunting, then go ahead and write the first draft of the game against a blank backdrop. If it seems like fun and you want to make it a richer game that's fun to play, you will then be motivated to explore and define the world.
I was writing about making games, as you can see. But I think the observation is true for any sort of creative writing.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Altogether too much fun

As you know, I do a lot of freelancing. I have enough work coming in that sometimes there is a bit more than I can handle, so on the oDesk job site I developed an agency of freelancers. There are five of us now, covering editing, graphic design, and voiceovers.

Partly for fun, and partly to show off what I can do using Moviestorm, I created this animation about our agency. I have had far too much fun (read: spent far too much time) on this, and so am releasing it into the world even though there are a couple of things I really, really should tweak just one more time. Or two more times.