John Ostrander: Who Are You? And Who Are Your Characters?


by John Ostrander

Let’s have our own little adventure in time and space. At the time I’m writing this, the new season of Doctor Who, starring the new guy, Peter Capaldi, has not yet played. By the time you read this, it will have already been on. A bit of the old timey-wimey thing.

If you’re not a viewer of the time traveling import from the BBC (and we Whovians pity your poor benighted souls), Doctor Who is a fifty-year old TV show featuring a madman in a blue box. The madman is also known as The Doctor and the blue box is his TARDIS (Time And Relative Dimensions In Space). The Doctor is a Time Lord from the planet Gallifrey and while he looks human, some bits of him aren’t. Such as the ability to regenerate when his physical body is in close danger of dying. It’s not just a reboot; his entire body changes… and so does his personality. It is this ability to change actors every so often that has helped keep the show on the air for fifty years (give or take a hiatus or two).

That’s one of the exciting mysteries about the new season. We’ve only seen bits and pieces of Peter Capaldi as the Doctor but we already know he’ll be very different from his predecessor. Matt Smith was sort of the Robin Williams of Doctors; anything that came into his head came out his mouth. Capaldi is also older than the three prior Doctors, harking back to the first versions of the Doctor. He also appears to be more serious to the point of being grim. I’m very much looking forward to finding out who and what the new Doctor is.

The challenge for each actor playing the Doctor is to find a way to put their own stamp on the character while, at the same time, finding the core of the character, the part that doesn’t change. It’s a challenge not only for the actor but also the writers of the show and it illustrates an important aspect of writing characters in general.

We are, all of us, like a diamond. Turn the stone and the different facets can reveal different aspects. We have many different sides to us and they come out according to the situation or who we are with. You may be different with your friends than with your parents. Guys are one way with their guy friends but if you introduce a female to the mix, they change. The body posture, the voice, the way a guy expresses himself may be way different with a female (especially a new attractive unknown one) than his buddies. I don’t know but I suspect the same is true for women.

What we find to be true in life should be true in our writing. If you are creating a complex character, you have to find their contradictions. A person can be very brave in some aspects and yet very scared in others. They can go from one thing to the other in a heartbeat. Maybe you’ve noticed that some people are really nice until they get behind the wheel of a car where they can turn into flaming assholes. Maybe you’ve been that person. We have heroes within us; we also have villains. That’s why writing a villain can be a lot of fun; you get to let loose that side of you without any real ill effects.

One of the purposes of a supporting character in a story is to bring out this aspect or that aspect of the protagonist. Have you ever noticed how some people bring out the best of you and others bring out the worst? Back in my college days, there was one person I really didn’t like being around. I finally figured out why; he demonstrated aspects of myself that I didn’t like and seeing those traits made me uncomfortable. As a writer, however, that’s all useful.

The thing to remember is that all those aspects are you just as all the past incarnations of the Doctor are the Doctor. As in life, so in our writing. All our characters are an aspect of us. That’s part of the fun of it.

As for me, I can’t wait to see what the newest incarnation of the Doctor is like. Maybe by figuring out Who the Doctor is this time, I may also learn a bit more about Who I am.

Tips for Writing a Web Series Script

Question: When is the 3 act structure not the 3 act structure?

Answer: When you decide to call it something else.

But whatever you call the technique in the following article, we think it’s an interesting angle to work. Especially if you’re feeling stuck on a story and need to break on through to the other side:

organisation-structure_95892469by Nick Lawrence

When you start learning about screenwriting, one of the first things you’re likely to hear about is the Three Act Structure. With roots tracing back to Aristotle, the Three Act Structure has been championed by everyone from Syd Field to Robert McKee as the standard way to write a feature-length (90-120 page) screenplay. But for those of us writing shorter scripts for web series, applying the three act structure can prove confusing. It may be counterintuitive to try and pack two act breaks into a 5-10 page script, for example. What if your script only has one scene — how are you supposed to pack three acts into a single scene? Faced with these issues, it’s tempting to ignore structure and just try to write something entertaining. But is that really a good idea?

I want to introduce an alternative approach to screenplay structure called the PCR Method. PCR stands for Problem, Complication, and Resolution. I learned this method from Professor Jay Moriarty at USC, who cut his teeth writing for popular 1970s comedies like All In the Family and The Jeffersons. These shows were maybe 25 minutes without the commercials — closer in length to a web series episode than a feature film — so the writers had to develop their stories quickly and hold the attention of finicky viewers clutching remote controls. The structure they perfected is still widely used in half-hour comedies, and can be applied equally well to comedy and drama web series, including episodes that are only a few minutes long.


1. Start your story with a PROBLEM — some situation that your characters are facing. Problems can be big or small. Maybe an annoying character is coming to visit (Introverts). Maybe your character wants to throw a birthday party for her friend who hates parties (Introverts). Problems don’t have to be negative — maybe your character is going on a date and wants to make a good impression (The Mindy Project) or has the opportunity to stay in a beach house for the weekend (Girls). The important thing is that the problem engages us by creating dramatic tension — hope and fear about what’s going to happen. It doesn’t have to be big or high-stakes (though it certainly can), but it does have to be involving enough to make us care about what happens next.

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Peggy Bechko: So Finish It Already!

Seabiscuit always finished what he started. You should too!

Seabiscuit always finished what he started. You should too!

by Peggy Bechko

You’re a writer. Maybe of scripts, perhaps of novels or even non-fiction.

Maybe you have a couple of unfinished scripts laying around. A novel half done. A memoir or non-fiction expose roughed out. No doubt you have a stream of ideas, probably some really good ones.

BUT, you know what? If you don’t finish it you can’t get it out there. Others can’t read it, you can’t sell it, you career is stuck in the mire.

God knows I’ve been there. And, I admit I usually have two or three projects going at the same time. BUT, that isn’t the same as not finishing and moving on to something else. Many times my projects kind of play leapfrog until I focus in real hard, then boom, boom, boom, one after the other hits the finishing line. Goes to edit, then on to readers.

The fact of the matter is a writer may start off strong with a great idea that really excites him or her and it’s off to the races. But somewhere along the line the thing just won’t really pop, it’s running into a wall and the writer gets discouraged. Pretty soon, after agonizing over it, following leads that lead nowhere, the wall still firmly in place it’s walk away time. Maybe the next one will go better…

Maybe not. It might be that the original story idea just didn’t have enough moxie. How to work with that? Well, it’s a good idea to make a plan, maybe an outline, to work the idea through thoroughly before you leap into writing pages. If a script writer, there’s still those old stand-by cards you can jot things on an rearrange. You can write out the whole treatment and give yourself direction. A novel writer can make use of those outline cards as well or just create a rough outline and go from there. Make sure you’re well acquainted with the structure of the medium you’re leaping into. Understand screenwriting structure, know the mechanics of novel writing.

So many new writers tell me, “I don’t want to outline and block myself in, I have to be free to create!”

Yeah, yeah, you’re free already. Just because you work through an idea to be sure it DOES work and give yourself a direction doesn’t mean you’re trapped. You’re the writer, you can change things in flight. But if you don’t change your approach you’re going to pile up half done scripts like bundled newspaper for recycling.

Or maybe you’re one of our clan who has that fear of failure (or success for that matter) thing. After all if you complete a script or a manuscript it’s likely to be ready by someone, right? Maybe by someone who’ll be truthful and helpful, maybe by a nasty, snotty intern wannabe. What if they don’t like it? What if they dissect it and leave you with your guts spilling out on the floor? What if your dream of being a writer is only that and no more?

In that case all I can say is suck it up and move on. Rejection is a major component of being a writer. Don’t laugh nervously and shake your head. It’s simply true. You’re going to get criticism and rejection. Many will pass, but as my mother always told me, it only takes one to say yes.

And if one script or manuscript can’t find a home you write another one and hope that one will. It can be really painful, but it’s the mine field we must traverse if we really want to be writers. Take the negative feedback and learn from it, or, in some cases, reject it and move on. Toughen your hide and keep writing.

But, of course, for some writers, the whole thing is a bit much and thus the stack of half completed scripts or manuscripts. They just can’t get past that wall. These writers frequent the social media bemoaning the state of a writer’s lot, judging others, giving opinions that rarely hold water. In fact they spend so much time there it’s a wonder they begin that next script that will peter out.

Don’t be one of them. Yes, it can be a lot more fun to talk about or write about writing than actually taking it through to completion. After all, who really wants to send their heart out there to be stabbed and stomped? But here’s the thing gang, that’s the obstacle course that confronts you.

If you decide it’s all too unfair, that you’re going to skip the whole thing, well, that’s okay. Not everyone wants to be a writer, really and if you give up you open up another spot for another writer who’ll finish those novels and scripts over and over and over and over…

Take stock now, what kind of writer are you? What are your demons? Confront them and move on.

How to Go from Working at the Apple Store to Writing Comedy for TV

Yes, it’s true. Successful television writers aren’t born that way. They’re real people with actual and often obnoxious jobs first. This is the story of one of the lucky ones who made his writing dream come true:

midnightcomedycentralby Joe Berkowitz

People move to Los Angeles every day to embark upon careers in the promised land of show business. Most of them end up dwelling in entertainment purgatory. Nobody knows exactly which factors set people on the path from nowhere to somewhere, but talent is only part of the equation. The rest of it seems to involve some dark-arts combination of making connections and working your ass off. For Matt Mira, both happened once he became a Genius.

Like many other ambitious young writers who have bills to pay, Mira began working at a job completely removed from the field he hoped to conquer. He was an Apple Genius Bar employee, toiling away the hours with dysfunctional iPhones. Amazingly enough, though, it was this very gig that indirectly launched Mira’s writing career and took him where he is today.

It’s tough to say how Mira is currently best known. Over the last four years, he has become familiar to comedy fans as one-third of The Nerdist–both in podcast and, later, TV-form–alongside cohosts Chris Hardwick and Jonah Ray. He also divides his time between another podcastwith film producer Scott Mosier, and a writing job on Comedy Central’s@midnight, which Hardwick co-created and hosts. As the projects he works on continue evolving, it will probably get more difficult to pin him down.

Mira’s story is one of not only creating opportunities, but also rising to meet the ones that happen along. Recently, the writer and comic talked to Co.Create about chance encounters, gradually quitting a day job, and why figuring out how to work the comedy machine is harder than getting an iPad to work.

Mira moved to L.A. from Boston to become a comedy writer. While he was working at the Apple Store during the day and performing at open mics around the city at night, he met two people who changed the course of his life and career. “I sold Chris [Hardwick] an iPod case one day, and then we just started talking about comedy. He said he was doing a show that night at UCB [L.A.'s Upright Citizens Brigade Theater] and asked me if I wanted to come. I went and then we stayed in touch and started having lunch sometimes. He helped me figure out how to get booked on shows in L.A. and further my standup. Not too long after that, [comedian] Jimmy Dorecame to the Genius Bar too and we had a nice little rapport. When he was starting a podcast, he thought to ask me how to do it. What was funny was I had no idea how to produce a podcast–I had to buy a book and learn how to do it in about three days.

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Tiffany Shlain, creator of the Webby Awards, tells us all the mistakes she made with her own film making so that we can avoid them. And, since we all want to do things right, we’re all going to watch this, right? And tell our friends? And family? But not our enemies or rivals, oh no, not them. Cuz this advice is spot on:

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Peggy Bechko: The Symbiotic Relationship Between Writers & Readers

Hmm, dude here looks like Gene Roddenberry. Could it be...?

Hmm, dude here looks like Gene Roddenberry. Could it be…?

by Peggy Bechko

Writers and readers have a symbiotic relationship. Each needs the other.

So why, really, do people read? Personally I think most people read to escape, to experience things they might not (or plainly could not) experience in everyday life.  They can explore new worlds if science fiction or fantasy, they can feel the adrenaline rush of a car chase, or a race from an exploding volcano or maybe experience a jungle trek astride an elephant in India without actually going there.  Fiction offers the opportunity to live another life while remaining safe on the couch.

And that’s just for starters. Readers can also experience the wide range of human emotion and deeply moving experience from the safety of a comfortable chair. Or they can relive an event in their lives via the book in their hands. They can do all this while skipping the boring parts, and they have they opportunity to learn from all this without actually suffering through those experiences first hand.

Think about the emotions you, as a reader, may have experienced. For example, amusement, anger, anxiety, awe, confusion, contentment, curiosity, disgust, grief, adrenalin rush – shall I go on? I could. On and on and on. Those few I mentioned are merely a taste of what a reader can absorb through your written words. Expand your mind and consider the many more emotions such as jealousy, joy, frustration – and bring them to life in your writing. They lend a nuanced richness to any story and hold your reader’s eyes to your page while their palms may sweat or their heart race a bit faster.

Think about how you can entice your reader. Curiosity is in us all. If you use that to your advantage you have a grip on your reader. If he or she is curious about what’s going to happen next then you have them hooked to the next scene, the next paragraph and perhaps even to your next book or script.

And what does the reader give the writer in return? Praise, respect, payment for the writer’s labors, perhaps fame and fulfillment. As a writer, you, too, are a reader, probably a voracious one. Pause and think about a book you’ve read recently, or pick it up again and skim it. What does it stir in you? Emotions? Memories? Desires? Whatever it is, presuming it’s a book you enjoyed, it no doubt delivered an experience you enjoyed.

So, doesn’t that tell you that you, as a writer need to set goals for what you want to stir in your reader? If you want your readers to cry you have to build up to it, prepare them, make the story choices necessary to bring them to that point. There are, of course, the unintended reactions you might stir. Like causing laughter when you’re aiming at solemn. And that might just be okay. The aim is to take the reader along for the ride, to surprise him, present him with a perspective he might not have entertained before. Veering off your intended course could bring more depth, more richness. It will be up to you to decide if that’s the case.

It’s truly a dance between writer and reader. So much to share. What was the latest book you read and how did it move you?