Troy DeVolld: “I Think… (Not)”

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Troy loves remotes!

by Troy DeVolld

Working on Dancing With the Stars again has been a real treat, thought it’s certainly keeping me away from the blog.

Just wanted to pop by today and share a neat little thought on interviews courtesy of my pal Dan, another producer on the show.

We were having a conversation about good interview technique this week, and he offered up a great bit of advice that hadn’t occurred to me after a decade and a half of working on interview questions and conducting more than my share of “look at me, not at the camera” sit-downs.

“You know, I really don’t like it when people start a response with I think,” said Dan. He explained that he felt it diluted the certainty and oomph of the statement that followed.

The more I thought about it, the more I agreed.

Look at these two responses:

“I think Carol was at least twenty minutes late.”

“Carol was at least twenty minutes late.”

The second one’s undoubtedly more impactful, because it sounds so darn certain.  The wishy-washy first statement sounds a little unsure, as if it was maybe fifteen or twenty-five minutes.

The only time that “I think” could be useful is if you had some legally hairy content and your subject said something controversial, stating their opinion.  Then “I think” clarifies that it’s their position and not a statement of absolute fact. I’m no attorney, but I imagine that it could help get your powerful personal statement through legal/S&P.

Thanks, Dan!

Herbie J Pilato: The “Doors” on TV – and the importance of creative consistency

BEWITCHED front-door1by Herbie J Pilato

No, I’m not talking about Jim Morrison and his legendary rock band.

But what I am addressing are the physical front door props, on the exterior and interior, of certain television shows, and how their consistency or inconsistency is pertinent, representative and conducive to the true success of any given series – and the creative process in general.

For example, Bewitched.  And I know what you’re thinking:  “Really?  Did he reference Bewitched…AGAIN?”

It’s true:  I have.  But with good reason.

The front door on Bewitched always remained the same.  The semi-oval glass design at the top of a nice welcoming front door to the home of Samantha and Darrin Stephens (who lived on Morning Glory Circle somewhere in Connecticut).

That door never changed, at least from the outside.  And from the interior, it was painted white (from some kind of dark brown or so) in the sixth and seventh season.

But having that door ultimately never change in style what such a wonderful representation of the consistency of that series.

The actual interior sets of the show were destroyed in a horrific fire that transpired after the sixth season, but once the sets were rebuilt, everything else on the set was updated with somewhat new styles.  But the design of that front door stayed the same; again, changing only the color of its paint.

And this was consistent with the creative presentation of the scripts and stories on Bewitched.  Whatever transpired within the magical realm of that show’s premise, made sense.  There was a logic to the illogic of it all, and the showrunners of its day (led by the genius of William Asher, then married to Bewitched star Elizabeth Montgomery) really road the series to keep things consistent.

On the other hand, in more recent years, a sitcom like The King of Queens, which also just happens to be one of my personal favorite sitcoms of all time, did not exactly remain consistently representative when it came to the front doors on its main set (that housed the characters of Doug and Carrie Heffernan, as brilliantly played by Kevin James and Leah Remini).

Ironically, Doug and Carrie’s front door was the same style of Samantha and Darrin’s front door on Bewitched, but only from the inside.

Whenever The King of Queens would display the exterior opening shots to Doug and Carrie’s house, the door was different from the interior design that was used on the show.

And in many ways, this represented the inconsistency that took place on this series over the years.   The characters of Doug and Carrie were more affectionate with other, and more realistically portrayed in the early seasons of this long-running sitcom; and later, the characters simply became caricatures (as did most of the others on the show, as well).

It just wasn’t the same.  Somehow, the showrunners on the series decided it was more fun just to make jokes, and have Doug and Carrie do and say things just to be and sound funny, instead of remaining consistent with their original and (quite likable) performances in the roles.

All that said, and as strange as it may be, there is one other TV show that has the “Samantha door” that was first displayed on Bewitched; and that show is Who’s the Boss? – the Tony Danza sitcom that ran on ABC in the 80s and early 90s.

Not only did Tony’s on-screen house feature a Samantha door, but other Bewitched-connections to the Boss are as follows:

Judith Light’s character, Angela, worked in advertising, just like Darrin (as played by Dick York and Dick Sargent) on Bewitched.

Angela referred to her feisty, red-haired mother, as played by Katherine Helmond, as “Mother!” in much the same way that Samantha referred to her feisty, red-haired mother Endora (Agnes Moorehead) on Bewitched.

And Tony’s on-screen daughter, played by Alisa Milano, was named Samantha!

Point being:  Bewitched and Who’s the Boss, while ironically similar in very small, yet significant ways, were also consistently written and likable series – with the same front door.

Certainly, these shows – like ALL television programs that are on the air for any lengthy amount of time – still had their inconsistencies over the years.  But the truly successful shows keep their inconsistencies to a minimum.

The King of Queens, although I adore the show to this day, was generally and somewhat consistently inconsistent in quality over the years, and was at times presented somewhat lazily; a happenstance that was so perfectly, if unfortunately, represented by not having the same door design featured on both the interior (Samantha-designed) and exterior (non-Samantha-door-design) shots on the show.

Whew!

So, anyway – what does all this really mean in the realm of writing for television and beyond?

There ain’t nothing wrong with being consistent – in every little way (right down to door designs!) with every endeavor, creative (TV writing) wise, or not.

It keeps everything comprehensible – for everybody.


Herbie J Pilato is a Contributing Editor to TVWriter™. You can learn more about him HERE.

 

How Many of You Use “Scrivener?”

Is this an article or an ad? Maybe a little bit of both. But whatever you want to call it, we at TVWriter™ found this article about the writing app Scrivener a true affirmation that the entrepreneurial spirit is alive and well and that it can benefit not only techies but – writers:

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Scrivener Creator Keith Blount

by David Wells

Millions of people around the world are fans of their work – tuning into their television shows, poring over their novels and losing themselves in their plot lines.

Few fans of television, film or literature will, however, be aware that many of the greatest works by some of their best-loved authors and screenwriters were composed with the aid of a genius bit of creative computer kit developed by a former primary school teacher – from his spare room in Cornwall.

Now the content-generation, writing studio app called Scrivener, created by Keith Blount, is not only used by best-selling novelists, writers, authors, journalists, academics and other creatives all over the world – many of whom swear by its usefulness – but Scrivener has also grown into a global business with a turnover of around £2 million.

Many writers, including Neil Cross, who has used Scrivener as he was writing for the BBC show Spooks, Doctor Who and the hit TV series Luther starring Idris Elba as Detective John Luther – a show that last year pulled in five million viewers for the opening episode of the third series – say that Scrivener is such a useful tool in the creative process that they now wonder how they managed before without it.

 Other best-selling names in a long line-up of authors who sing the praises of Scrivener, and suggest their creativity has been aided by using it, include writer Michael Marshall Smith, author of One of Us and Only Forward, mystery novel writer and journalist David Hewson, who wrote the popular Nic Costa series of books, and Marie Phillips, author of Gods Behaving Badly.

Author Michael Marshall Smith whose 2007 novel The Intruders has now been adapted for an upcoming television series on BBC America called Intruders, was so impressed by how he has been able to work with the software that he offered a testimonial to the app, saying: “Scrivener is where I live. I’m planning the next novel, two screenplays and a couple of short stories with it and it’s amazing how fluid the software makes the process. I genuinely think this is the biggest software advance for writers since the word processor.”

Keith has spent the best part of the last decade building up his company Literature and Latte on the back of sales of Scrivener – which sells from about £25 upwards and has now sold more than 200,000 copies worldwide and has a long list of writers offering their own testimonials to the app on the company webpage.

Despite that, Keith said: “I still get excited when I hear of another author using Scrivener – every time. It’s great to hear how it is being used and it is still exciting every time I hear of a new author or writer saying they’ve used it to create a novel or something like that.”

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Peggy Bechko: Rewriting is Hell

Full wastepaper basket

by Peggy Bechko

Rewriting is hell, right?

Nope. Not when you can goose the effectiveness of your writing and create a really outstanding script or manuscript.

Have you heard from a producer, “there’s nothing wrong with your script, it just needs a rewrite.”?

Have you heard from an editor, “it’s a great story, it just needs some rewriting.”

Did your heart lurch, your stomach drop and your mind rail, “I want it the way it is!”?

I mean here it is, you thought the script or the manuscript was great just as written, you thought it was ready to submit and someone was going to be just as excited about it as you were when you finished that last touch-up edit.

When you think about it there are about three categories of writing and it applies to most areas of writing – especially movie scripts and manuscripts.

Worst = not on its best day will it ever have a chance of acceptance anywhere. Trash it. The producer/editor already did. Moving on…

Middle of the Road = pretty good and could be fantastic with the right rewrite.

Best = wow, outstanding! Ready to go and everybody is going to want it. A bidding war is in your future.

Admittedly a whole lot more scripts and manuscripts fall into the middle category than the best – the worst is probably where a large majority falls because (and I’m not trying to be unkind) it seems like a huge number of folks who’ve never taken the time to study any craft of writing think they can simply chuck out a story and everyone will be scrambling to grab it. Nope, not true.

Now, if you’re a serious writer and you hear from the atmosphere, “you’ve got a great story here, it just needs a rewrite,” don’t despair. You’re actually miles ahead of most of your competition. Success is within grasp.

Here’s the thing, most of us writers have the instinct to protect our work like a mother tiger protects her cub, claws out and fangs bared. But wait a minute, what if we would think more like explorers than fanged terrors? What if we stopped, stepped back and realized suggestions can make the work better? Has it happened to you that someone said something had to change and you reared back in horror, knee-jerked your way to disaster since you refused to change anything and the editor/producer just walked away?

Hmmm, probably not the result you wanted or anticipated. So let’s get our heads around the creative process, the need for engaging and considering changes to our work.

First of all, before you take off on any rewrite remember you have a computer hard drive. You can and should save your original version and back it up. That draft will be there. You can always go back to it.

Now that you’ve copied it again you’re totally free! You can rip it up, pull out chunks, insert new ones, take a whole new direction. You can follow suggestions and see where they lead. You can initiate new ideas based on those suggestions. The world is your oyster you can unleash your wildest creativity and that original draft is tucked away… just in case.

Okay, the next question. Do you really want to rabidly defend all those little tiny details? Cut to the core of your story, the heart of the manuscript or screen script you’ve written. Remember how cooperation can move your career forward. Of course you want to keep the heart of your story pumping, but writing is at its ‘heart’ a non-linear process. It’s also a cooperative process – unless you self-publish and do everything yourself. Otherwise you’re going to have editors involved, producers, even possibly actors. Learn to be flexible and you’ll get much further and be much happier. Only stand firm on the heart of the matter.

Look for the value in the comments and notes you’re given on your writing. Think about it (okay, privately fly off the handle for a while if you like, then get to it) and use it. What if, instead of being threatened by editorial comment or script notes you turned it around and told yourself that instead of interfering, the person making the suggestions was making an effort to help you make that book or script great, fantastic even?

Ponder this. If you change something in the story near the end, whether book or script, chances are you’re going to think of several additions/changes/deletions that need to happen earlier on for that final change to work. In scripts it’s called set-up and pay-off. In books it’s foreshadowing and climax.

Granted, you need to be selective in the suggestions you accept and how you launch into changes of your writing. That’s your prerogative and it’s important. Long long ago in that far and distant time I had an editor suggest changes and wanted me to remove a character from a manuscript. The character was small but pivotal. I did the rewrite, did the cut in length and left the character in. The book ended up much better, the editor didn’t even notice the character wasn’t removed, everybody was happy and the book was published – by Doubleday. Sometimes suggestions are way the hell out in center field – far beyond the outfield and you have to reel things in a bit to find the seed of brilliance, or uncover a problem that will make your writing great.

Focus on what will make your script or manuscript great. Brainstorm. Let your characters speak to you. Always ask yourself, am I making it better?


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

The Art of the Villain Backstory (and Why Dracula Untold Fails)

Time now for a perceptive look at both a new feature film and an old feature film and TV writing problem. Yes, even we egomaniacs at TVWriter™ are suckers for good analysis and advice:

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by Petra Halbur

Villainous backstories are an… imprecise science. When done well they can imbue a previously simplistic baddie with depth and challenge conventional morality. When done poorly, however, they are frustrating, self-pitying, and utterly off the mark. Unfortunately (though not surprisingly), Dracula Untoldfalls into the latter category. To be fair, as a film it’s not entirely awful. It contains some interesting visuals, great sound editing, and a decent score byGame of Thrones‘ Ramin Djawadi. However, as a villain origin story, which it purports itself to be, Dracula Untold is an absolute failure.

Spoilers for Dracula Untold below.

The fundamental problem with Dracula Untold is that it shies away from ever making its protagonist, Vlad Tepes III, do something truly bad. It even incorporates Vlad’s legacy as “Vlad the Impaler” yet still manages to characterize him as a squeaky clean Marty Stu, which I honestly didn’t think was possible. Vlad never kills or hurts anyone the audience cares about, apart from his sexy lamp wife who begs him to drink her blood just before she dies anyways. For all the movie’s talk of “monsters,” Vlad never becomes one. Even when he declares himself “Dracula, the son of the devil” (an appreciated historical reference), he’s a monster in name only as he still hasn’t compromised any of his morals. Despite the score’s best efforts, there’s no menace at the end when Vlad introduces himself to Mina in the 21st century because Vlad still hasn’t developed into a character the audience fears. If anything, the Stoker reference only draws attention to the disconnect between Vlad and the iconic Victorian vampire he was supposed to have become.

Of course, Dracula Untold is not alone in this failure. The reluctance to challenge the audience is a reoccurring pitfall in villainous origin tales. Writers try to play it safe, an approach that consistently fails because villain backstories are fundamentally paradoxical: they are stories that contextualize and evoke sympathy for characters whom we are supposed to oppose. If it’s not challenging, you’re writing it wrong. Yet so often the pre-villainy protagonist is driven to act against societal or moral norms for some greater good that plays no part in whatever motivates him or her as a fully-fledged baddie. It’s as though once the character crosses the villainous threshold his or her complex and well-intentioned nature is erased and replaced with a brand new personality.

There are many cases of this, but in my mind there is no example more egregious than Morgana from BBC’s Merlin. She started out as a Demona-esque antiheroine, passionate about overturning Uther Pendragon’s unjust laws and protecting those with magic (as did most of the villains, actually). Yet by the finale she had devolved into a power hungry tyrant and Hot Topicpatron bent on ruling Camelot and willing to kill all manner of magical folk in order to do so. I imagine, somewhere around season 3, the writers realized that they had made their destined baddie far more compelling than their heroes and panicked. So they threw in a twist that Morgana is Pendragon’s illegitimate daughter, with as much right to rule Camelot as Jon Snow has of being Lord of Winterfell. This drives Morgana to pursue the throne with a ruthlessness and disregard for human life that comes completely out of nowhere.

Similarly, Hannibal Rising purports that Hannibal Lector began eating people during his mission to avenge his murdered (and devoured) sister. We are then left to conclude that, much like the crocodile from Peter Pan, Hannibal has acquired such a taste for human meat by the end that he… just… keeps… eating people?

And then there’s Anakin Skywalker, who turns to the Dark Side in an attempt to save his wife’s life. He betrays the Jedi Order and kills Younglings for an understandable reason based on a moral compass that has completely disintegrated by the beginning of A New Hope a few decades later.

Why does this keep happening?

Well, behind these botched villain arcs I sense a basic underestimation of the audience. “There’s critical acclaim to be earned from giving villains depth, but people can’t sympathize with a character that’s genuinely twisted or oppose a character with remnants of humanity.” So goes the logic. Yet our society is increasingly comfortable with ambiguity.

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GONE GIRL Writer Gillian Flynn Tells Us How It’s Done

GONE GIRL is the movie of moment. The a drama about people under pressure with not a superhero in sight has hit it big both at the box office and with critics. So it’s with Eyes Wide Open (instead of our usual Tight Shut) that we read this interview with its now huge A-list writer and realized that it’s something that has to be shared.

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Killing It: Lessons In After-Hours Creativity From Pop Culture Writer Turned “Gone Girl” Author Gillian Flynn
by Joe Berkowitz

GONE GIRL is the movie of moment. The a drama about people under pressure with not a superhero in sight has hit it big both at the box office and with critics. So it’s with Eyes Wide Open (instead of our usual Tight Shut) that we read this interview with its now huge A-list writer and realized that it’s something that has to be shared:

A lot of creative people tend to lead double-lives. The work they do during the day is a job, and the work they do at night is a searing passion. Gillian Flynn worked as a culture reporter for Entertainment Weekly for 15 years, moonlighting during many of them as first an aspiring author and later an acclaimed one.

She never had the chance to quit her day job, though; she was laid off the year her second novel was published. By that time, however, she’d sharpened her authorial instincts to the point where her third novel became successful enough to ensure she’d never need another work-job ever again.

The book Flynn began in the aftermath of her departure from the magazine is Gone Girl, which took the literary world by storm and has just begun wreaking havoc at the box office. (The film adaptation, for which Flynn also wrote the screenplay, has amassed $48 million in its first six days.)

The author is now the envy of all office workers who spend their days toiling away on something other than what they hope to be their true craft. She’ll be spending her coming year working with Gone Girl director David Fincher on Utopia, a dark conspiracy thriller series for HBO. In the meantime, Flynn spoke with Co.Create about all the steps she took in order to switch sides from writing about movies and TV shows to writing them herself.

Although Flynn would eventually demonstrate her crime-writing prowess for millions of readers, her original plan to cover the darker side of society did not pan out the way she intended.

“I was always someone who wanted to write. I was a real shy, bookworm-ish kid, and I think my earliest stuff was fairly dark,” Flynn says. “It was always someone against the odds, or a bad thing happening to a kid. I still have old scribblings about kids finding mysterious doors in the grass that led to other lands and that kind of thing. It was always kind of a slightly heightened or otherworldly reality.

Flynn went to journalism school with the intention of becoming a crime reporter. “I was picturing myself as someone very different than who I actually was,” she says. “I do not have the makings of a hard-boiled, tough crime reporter. But for some reason I thought I could pull it off. And I very quickly realized, while I was still in journalism school, that it was not anything I was ever going to be able to do. But then I realized what I could do is write about movies and TV and books and so I got the job at Entertainment Weekly right out of college.”

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