JOHN OSTRANDER’S WRITING CLASS: NEWTON’S FIRST LAW OF PLOT

by John Ostrander

Young_Bilbo_BagginsStory reveals character through action – the plot. There are two primary ways that the plot works: 1) the protagonist initiates the action or 2) the protagonist is thrust into a situation and the plot reveals what happens. In each case, the character’s defenses are stripped away as we get down to who they really are – not who they (or anyone else) think they are. What is important is not what the character says (or anybody else says about them); it’s what they do. It’s what theychoose to do. Their choices define them.

How do we determine what a given character will do in any given situation? It depends on their motivation. It’s not simply what theywant; it’s what they need. It’s not just what they desire; it‘s what theylust for. I may want a pizza, but that’s not strong enough a motivation to drive a story. It may not drive me; I have to get into the car and go pick it up. Or, worse, make my own. How much do I really want that pizza? Maybe it comes down to how good that pizza is. I’d probably go a long way for a deep dish pizza. Mmmmmm. Deep dish pizza! Where was I?

We want something that will drive a character to action and that’s not always easy. Newton’s First Law of Motion states that a body at rest will remain at rest unless an outside force acts upon it, and a body in motion at a constant velocity will remain in motion in a straight line unless acted upon by an outside force. That’s true in a narrative as well. Maybe we’ll call it Newton’s first law of plot.

We all have a certain amount of inertia especially as we grow older. Change can be difficult. We have routine and that can be comforting. However, as Samuel Beckett noted in Waiting For Godot, “Habit can be a great deadener.” In The Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins is apparently satisfied with his life – his home, his books, his tea, regular meals, and handkerchiefs. Then one day a wizard and a whole mess of dwarves invade his sanctum and, before he knows it, he finds himself running down a road, off on an adventure, forgetting his handkerchief.

Why? Because something has been stirred in his soul, the desire to see far off lands, to meet elves, to do the things he has read about in his books. It speaks to a side of him that he has not often indulged.

Bilbo wants to keep his life just as it is but he also wants to have an adventure. It’s not that he wants only the one thing. Like all of us, he has more than one desire and all are important to him. It is the decision that informs us about his character and, not coincidently, drives the story forward. It is the necessary decision for us but not the only one Bilbo could have made. The more difficult the choice, the more interesting the decision and the more it tells us about who this person is.

We rarely want one thing at a time and we often have to sort out conflicting wants and needs. The choices we make define us. As with us, so with the characters we write. What’s true in life should be true in our writing. If you want to write an interesting, and complex character, give them conflicting choices with no easy answers.

That’s the job.

Shonda Rimes on Writing, Loneliness & “Diversity”

The reigning empress of network primetime TV at her most inspiring:

shonda

by Soo Youn

Saturday night at the Human Rights Campaign’s Los Angeles gala, Shonda Rhimes gave a thoughtful speech about writing, Shondaland, and the importance of creating diverse representations. She said that her writing basically boils down to one thing: loneliness. “I don’t know if anyone has noticed, but I only ever write about one thing: being alone,” Rhimes said while accepting the organization’s Ally for Equality Award. “The fear of being alone, the desire to not be alone, the attempts we make to find our person, to keep our person, to convince our person to not leave us alone, the joy of being with our person and thus no longer alone, the devastation of being left alone. The need to hear the words: You are not alone.”

Rhimes also talked about why she finds the term diversity limiting and prefers the word normalizing. “I’m normalizing TV. I am making TV look like the world looks,” she said. “Women, people of color, LGBTQ people equal way more than 50 percent of the population. Which means it ain’t out of the ordinary.”

Here are some of the best bits from her speech.

On how writing helped her cope with being a nerdy and “painfully shy” little girl, who was “often the only black girl in my class”:

I created friends. I named them and wrote every detail about them. I gave them stories and homes and families. I wrote about their parties and their dates and their friendships and their lives, and they were so real to me that …

You see, Shondaland, the imaginary land of Shonda, has existed since I was 11 years old. I built it in my mind as a place to hold my stories. A safe place. A space for my characters to exist, a space for me to exist. Until I could get the hell out of being a teenager and could run out into the world and be myself. Less isolated, less marginalized, less invisible in the eyes of my peers. Until I could find my people in the real world.

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There was Comedy Before 2005

Ken Levine knows cuz he sure wrote his fair share of it. As did a few others he’s very happy to remind us of:

4_bob-and-ray

by Ken Levine

As some of you know, I am in Andy Goldberg’s Improv Workshop on Wednesday nights. It’s always a blast. I did a scene a few weeks back with a fine improver (if there is such a word), John Content. It was a “Man on the Street” scene. You’ve seen those. Jimmy Kimmel does them frequently – an interview snags passersby and asks them various questions.

I was the interviewer and John was the “man on the street.” We got the preliminaries out of the way. I asked him his name and where he was from (New Orleans). The objective of this exercise is to force you to really create a “character.”

At that point John launched into a hilarious ridiculous story involving UFO abductions, space cows, God knows what. He got big laughs. But what made it funnier was that he delivered it all very matter-of-fact. As he was unspooling this absurd raft of bullshit a thought hit me. When he finally took a breath I interjected, “You’ve said some very interesting things. I don’t want to just slide over them, so let’s back up a bit. What part of New Orleans?”

This too got a big laugh.

John answered my question then launched into more outrageous nonsense, much to the delight of the audience.

I finally broke in with “What side of the street in New Orleans?” Again, a big yuck.

The bit worked for several reasons. First, John figured out immediately what I was doing and played along. And secondly, the construct was very funny. We all know interviewers who don’t listen.

But here’s the dirty little secret: I was essentially doing a Bob & Ray routine. Bob & Ray were a radio comedy team back in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Their sketches were uproarious. Always dry, always underplayed, but their premises were always absurd and their timing was impeccable. Although they did not do this exact bit, they did a lot of similar interviewer-guest sketches. Once John launched into his crazy UFO scenario I thought to myself, “This feels like a Bob & Ray sketch. What would Bob & Ray do?”

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Peggy Bechko & The Publishing, Writing & Reading Revolution!

revolution-1by Peggy Bechko

Publishing and by extension, writing, are in the throes of a revolution the like of which has not been seen since the invention of the printing press.

Out there is a whole brave new world (or maybe not so brave but undeniably new).  If you’re a writer in nearly any field you can’t have missed the chat, buzz and hair-pulling about the new direction publishing is taking. If you’re a reader (and writers are readers in addition to their writing hats) you can’t have missed the rapid changes; the introduction of electronic readers, the ability to read with smart phones and tablets and of course the old paperback, hardback, newspapers and magazines still fight for their place in the market.

But, as always there’s more than one side to a coin. You’ll read some articles raving about it’s the best time ever to publish, that things are shifting rapidly in favor of the author. After all there’s self-publishing now with Print On Demand and EBooks, along with the traditional publishing paradigm. Things are great, right? Things can only get better and better.

Then there’s the writer who tells us about the decline in book sales and e-book sales. So it appears people are buying fewer books each year, that people want their stories ‘visual’ meaning video and graphic novels, anything to avoid reading the written word. They want to return to childhood when they saw one big illustration and six words on a page. So, in the long run, things are actually getting worse for writers, right?

Here’s the thing. In my estimate they are better, to a point. There are more opportunities for writers. The major declining sales argument stems from statistics gleaned from the big publishers and book sellers. The ‘wonderfulness of it all’ stems from the folks in love with the new direction things are taking whether it’s Print On Demand or E Books. In either case the writer is usually asking why can’t I get published or if self-published, why aren’t my books selling as I’d believed they would?

Okay, readers, here’s where you come in. You’re the central element. What motivates you? Do you have enough books in a wide enough variety within your grasp to read when the mood strikes? Yep, I have old fashioned books on old fashioned shelves, but I also have a Kindle (it’s crammed full) and if there was some tragedy and I escaped my house falling down with only my pets and my Kindle I’d be well supplied with reading material for months – with the capability of downloading more once I reached a computer and could access online resources. Or hitting a Wi-Fi hot spot where I could download direct to the Kindle.

So what does all this mean? It means that readers have a whole lot more choices to. Where once they looked for bargains at yard sales, used book stores and promotions at the ‘Big Box’ booksellers, or just went to a library, now they can add to that list access to plenty of digital material much of it low cost or promotionally free or buying used books online. And don’t forget the thousands of public domain books that can be downloaded from many sites free.

Let’s face it, Amazon became the giant in this arena and now people can download books to their reading devices and take an entire library, including business oriented reading material in pdf format, anywhere they go. And readers can download even more anywhere they can tie into an online connection.

And for those readers who still love to hold a book in their hands and caress it, there are literally thousands of additional titles now that would never have hit the shelves courtesy of Print on Demand from such sources as CreateSpace. This is good and bad with the thousands of writers jumping in to take advantage of the sudden, new opportunity.  There are some exceptional writers who are gaining exposure. Then there are the ones who can’t spell, can’t punctuate, haven’t taken the time to edit and manage to turn some readers off altogether. C’mon guys, if we’re going to do this let’s all get professional.

So, bringing it full circle, the writer needs to realize the reader is not simply now spoiled rotten when it comes to choices, that reader is positively swamped.  The reader still has all of the old resources (how that will change in the near future remains to be seen) plus the ever expanding online universe offering used books and Ebooks.  And the competition is fierce. Who wants to pay the publishers’ inflated prices for the newest paperback when there are so many other choices?

In the end it’s kind of scary out there for writers – in addition to being very exciting. Supply right now outstrips demand in a big way creating one heckuva buyer’s market for the reader. There always were writers who simply shouldn’t, but now they do and they’re pumping hundreds of thousands of new books into the market (most of which aren’t worth reading).

On the other hand, oh, joy for the writer, thousands of writers have beaten the odds. There have been spectacular break-outs. There have been writers published electronically who have gotten very nice contracts from traditional publishers. There have been writers who have done so well on their own they’ve refused said contract from said traditional publisher.

As the writers we need to clean up our acts, get some beta readers so you know that book is worth reading, edit it and polish it up both with all the grammar and language angles and with the formatting for the new venue angle. In other words take time to think not only as a writer, but as the reader you are as well. To get the reader to choose one writer’s work over another the writer has to make it worth the reader’s while.

It’s one thing to offer a book on a free day to attract readers – it’s quite another to make that read so fascinating, so compelling that that reader remembers your name and watches for your next book.


Peggy Bechko is a Contributing Editor to TVWriter™. You can learn more about her HERE.

The Downfall of the NBC Comedy

Once upon a time, NBC ruled the comedy roost. Now, well, when was the last time you even tried to laugh at an NBC show that was actually trying to be funny? In the immortal words of Harvey Kurtzman, “Wha– happened?”

parks-and-rec-640x426by Nick Cannata-Bowman

The climate for comedy television in just the last few years has seen a massive shift, as shows have gone off the air and been replaced by other inferior offerings. No network has seen this happen more though than NBC. There was even a time in their history when The Office, Parks and Recreation, 30 Rock, and Community were all on in the same two-hour block Thursday nights. Since then, The Office, 30 Rock, and Parks and Recreation have all come to a satisfying end, while Community was unceremoniously canceled, only to be picked up by Yahoo! for its streaming service.

The aftermath following what amounted to a golden age of NBC’s comedy lineup hasn’t been pretty. There’s a veritable laundry list of quickly axed shows that make up their programming graveyard, leading one to ask: What in the name of all that is holy happened? The answer is that CBS happened. Somehow, CBS has made itself into the single most-watched network in the country, on the strength of shows that no one will ever describe as smart comedies. It’s been carried on the backs of three-camera sitcoms like Two and a Half Menand The Big Bang Theory, as well as dramas like The Mentalist and NCIS.

This has left NBC scratching its head, with its history of critically acclaimed comedies that no one watches, in favor of the more mindless offerings over at CBS. This has left them attempting to duplicate that success to no avail, tanking both their ratings and the quality of their programming.

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How to Be Braver In Your Everyday Life

…Which is especially important if your everyday life is the writing life. Cuz nothing we can think of takes as much raw courage as facing that terrifying foe the blank page.

Well, almost nothing. Anyway:

courageby Patrick Allan

We all wish we could be a little braver, but fear can still permeate into our day to day activities. It keeps us from taking action, progressing at work, and even causes us to procrastinate. Here are a few ways to boost your bravery and take every day on with courage.

Bravery is mental toughness, knowledge, and confidence all wrapped up into one trait. With bravery you can make tough decisions, take action without wasting time, and approach uncomfortable situations comfortably. You need bravery when you take on new tasks at work, confront others who rub you the wrong way, and even when your work suffers because you’re afraid of doing something less than perfect. When you become braver, you become more capable of taking action and handling the things that come your way.

Bravery is not something you’re born with, though, and it’s not something you can acquire overnight. Like all desirable traits, it’s something you work at developing. Joel Runyon at Impossible HQ breaks the development process down plainly. If you want to be braver, you need to:

  1. Be terrified of something.
  2. Do it anyways.
  3. Be moderately less scared than the first time you do it.
  4. Repeat

Otherwise there’s only one alternative:

  1. Be terrified of something.
  2. Do nothing
  3. Still be terrified

Of course, there’s more to it than “doing it anyways.” It’s important to note that bravery is just as much about understanding risks as it is about taking them on. Jumping into something blindly isn’t necessarily brave; it can actually be quite foolish. What bravery really comes down to is learning how to repeatedly turn uncertainty—which is what drives most of our fear—into approachable, calculated risk.

Unfortunately, it’s hard to be brave with something if you’ve never been exposed to it. By doing what you fear, little by little, you slowly, but surely take away the uncertainty of it all.

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