“WHAT-IF” PHENOMENA

by David Perlis

 

“What-Ifs” are big these days. Maybe they always were. What if we had lost WW2? (Man in the High Castle.) What if plummeting fertility rates threatened our society? (The Handmaid’s Tale.) What if 2% of the human population suddenly vanished. (The Leftovers.) One of my professor’s at UCLA lauded the What-If. “That’s your hook,” he’d say. No arguments here. I’m convinced. But I’ve decided there’s a right way and a wrong way to go about it. Here’s the issue: What-If’s are often about building worlds—but drama is about building characters.

Doing it Wrong

I had high hopes for last year’s The Lobster. From the trailers, it looked right up my alley. Here’s the hook: “What if singles were rounded up, and forced to find a partner, else they be turned into animals?” It’s almost Kaufman-esque with its magical absurdity. I loved the concept—but found the movie a total bore. Why? It spent more time building a bizarre world than it did giving me a character I actually wanted to follow around for an hour and a half. The stakes were high. The whimsy was spot on. But I never felt engaged with this world from the POV of a unique character who helped bring the concept to life. Why was I following this guy, and how did this world affect him in some meaningful way? Frankly, I just felt stuck on the ride, and I wasn’t impressed. Some will be quick to say, “But it was nominated for Best Original Screenplay!” Yup—and maybe if it had characters to care about with unique needs, it would have won.

Doing it Right

I’m a big fan of graphic novelist, Brian K. Vaughn, first stumbling upon his brilliance with his epic space opera, Saga. But before that gem, he wrote a What-If called Y: The Last Man. The premise? “What if every man alive suddenly died—except for one.”

Now your protagonist is clear—it’s the last man! And every protagonist must (absolutely, must!) have a dramatic need. What does our last man want? It’s absolutely brilliant. In a world where he is the only man left, his big quest is to reunite with his girlfriend, who is halfway across the world, and doesn’t even know he’s still alive.

And from this need, Vaughn creates a world that opposes our hero again, and again, and again.

Here’s another What-If, which focuses less on building a re-imagined world, but still creates the right character for the journey: What if the world were literally controlled by evil corporations? (“Dude…that’s not a what-if…that’s reality.” Again, no arguments here—but that’s really another post altogether.) Anyway! Sam Esmail’s Mr. Robot doesn’t work because he created a world based around the Evil Corp concept—it works because the protagonist is a socially anxious, schizo hacker, bent on fighting it.

I’ve been slacking on my homework, not having yet watched The Handmaid’s Tale, but I read the book, and I’m just guessing the show has a spot-on start, with the POV of a Handmaid. And The Leftovers? I just re-upped my HBO account yesterday to see how they’re tackling that one. Frankly, I’m not yet sold on their angle (Justin Theroux’s copper, What-his-name), but I’ll give it a chance, and save my praises or my boos for another post, another day.

Here’s your super surprise shocker-ending to keep you all going “ooooo!” I’m working my own What-If. Won’t disclose it here, but just know, it’s an awesome idea—or, it will be, once I find the right character to tell the story. Stay tuned.


David Perlis is a screenwriter and former People’s Pilot Finalist doing his best to break into the even Bigger Time. This post first appeared on his very helpful blog.

Troy DeVolld’s Reality TV Pro Tip Grab Bag

by  Troy DeVolld

Hi, all.  Gee whiz, it’s been a while… I feel like a ghost on my own blog.

Thought I’d pop by with a grab bag of pro tips that aren’t long enough for their own features, but that have been hard-won lessons along the way.  Enjoy.

A 44-minute docusoap typically keeps its pace best at 12-15 scenes.  Don’t overload it.  More is not more.  More is too much.

You can’t tell five stories in an episode with a cast of five people.  People can participate in others’ stories, but it’s best to keep to an A,B,C and maybe single-scene D story.  Yes, if you have a one-scene nonsequitur moment that you want to use (maybe because it’s funny), it probably belongs at the top of Act 2.

Get somebody in the room who hasn’t seen the edit to watch down your rough cut.  You know the material and your brain fills in the gaps in logic and story based on that familiarity.  Let fresh eyes that you don’t have to answer to get a look.

Stick up for the show, not just your ideas.


Troy DeVolld is a Larry Brody buddy, former senior story producer of Dancing with the Stars, and all-around true master of the reality TV genre. This article originally appeared on his Reality TV blog. And while you’re thinking about him, why not buy his book, Reality TV: An Insider’s Guide to TV’s Hottest Market?

Pioneer TV Writer Susan Silver Talks About ‘Hot Pants in Hollywood’

And if the headline above doesn’t make you keep reading, Susan and we at TVWriter™ are going to feel awfully…cold? Apologies, and now to the main event:

How To Thrive Despite Your Fears
by Jeryl Brunner

We all experience fear and self-doubt, no matter where we are in life. But Nelson Mandela said, “The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.”

Take the barrier-breaking television writer Susan Silver. She was one of the first female TV scribes to find herself in coveted male-only writers’ rooms. The Milwaukee native hit Hollywood and amassed impressive credits writing for The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Maude, The Bob Newhart Show, The Partridge Family and other hits.

Throughout her life, so many moments filled Silver with fear, which began when she was a child. “I was overprotected to the point of paralysis. Thus, I was fearful of a lot of things,” she explains. “I was called high-strung by teachers, nervous by school nurses, and I was always in tears from slights either imagined or real from friends.”

In her recent delicious memoir, Hot Pants In Hollywood: Sex, Secrets & Sitcoms, she describes being the consummate “scaredy kid” who was afraid of everything. The fears continued to her adulthood. ‘Somehow I overcame my fears,” explains Silver. “Or continued in spite of them.”

But she didn’t let any of that get in the way of her dreams, especially when the odds were stacked against her, just by virtue of being female.

When she was a casting director for Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In, she desperately wanted to be a writer on the hit variety show. However she was told that wasn’t an option because all the writers were men. They insisted that they would be uncomfortable having her in the motel room where they worked because they needed to be able to “fart and strip down to their underwear.”

Instead of backing down, she found a way to spend time with the writers and soak up their knowledge when they were fully clothed and in their offices. And ultimately she had her manager at the time (the great director Garry Marshall) submit her to be a writer for a new female-focused series, The Mary Tyler Moore Show. She was hired.

Whether she was working as a TV writer or meeting Bill Clinton in the Oval Office during his presidency or approaching Israeli President Shimon Peres in Israel when he was surrounded by guards, Silver always found her inner chutzpah.

Throughout Hot Pants in Hollywood, Silver reveals the innovative ways she was able to get what she  wanted despite her fears. “What gave me the idea that I could accomplish anything, have a life filled with iconic celebrities and success beyond my wildest fantasies?” she asks in the book.  “My scaredy kid still lives inside me. But if you talk fast and carry yourself tall they won’t find out… maybe….”

Read it all at Forbes

Unblocking John Ostrander!

 

Do you recognize this man? How about his name? Does it mean anything to you? Just wonderin’….

by John Ostrander

A sad fact of a writer’s life is writer’s block. That’s when you sit down and look at the blank page or the empty screen and go “I’ve got nothin’.” Some form of that can happen every time you start to write. The really bad version can go on for a long time, maybe for years. Not only do you not have an idea, you feel that you can’t write, that you could never write, that you will never write, and what the hell were you thinking when you thought you could write.

There are things you can do when the malady strikes, some less useful than others. Crying, swearing, cursing, screaming are all options but you eventually run out of energy and then you’re back at square one – the damned blank page or screen.

Not all solutions work for all people and what work’s in one situation may fail in another. That all said here are some things that I’ve tried that sometimes work.

Do not panic! Seriously, calm down. It only feels like life and death. You’ll write again. Relaaaaaax.

Do something else. Staring into the abyss (a.k.a. that blank page or screen) until you’re cross-eyed only hurts your vision. Go do something else. Something physical. I’ve been known to wash dishes when I get desperate. Go for a walk or a run. Don’t read, watch TV, play video games, text or call someone. You’re looking for something that will shift your mind into neutral. Something that will silence the chattering monkeys in your skull.

Work on something else. I generally have three or four different projects working at the same time. If I get jammed up on one, I’ll go to another. If I get jammed on all of them, I revert to the rule above. Play with a cat. If nothing else, it may amuse the cat.

Check the basics. If I stall out on a plot, it generally means I’m making a Writing 101 mistake. I haven’t done the basics regarding plot construction or building a character. I tell myself that I’ve done this for so long that I can skip a step or two. That’s hubris talking and hubris is a lying bastard. Or maybe I’m so late with the deadline I don’t have time for all that. Wrong again. When you’re running late you only have time to do it right once. Take the time. Do the work.

Write about it. Yes, that’s exactly what I’m doing here. I sat down to write this week’s column and had nothin’ so I wrote this column about having nothin’. A rather Seinfeld column. Seriously though, as a writer you put into words that which exists only in your mind and heart. It’s most likely will be nothing you will ever read again or show to anyone but the physical act of putting words – any words – down can be therapeutic. Yes, it most likely will be crap. Let it be crap. Write it and flush it.

Get paid for it. At one time, I thought I had a serious case of writer’s block. Had it for years. Nothing came, nothing worked. Then Mike Gold offered to pay me for a story (my first printed work, as it turned out). Boy Howdy, that block just evaporated. Funny how motivating a paycheck can be. Knowing someone will give you the real coin of the realm for your writing can be awfully encouraging.

I hope all this has been a little help to some of you but – hey, I’ve got this week’s column so I’m good.

See y’all next week.

Unless I hit a block.


John Ostrander is one of LB’s favorite writers in any medium. Don’t forget to read his most excellent blog at ComicMix, where this piece first appeared. You can learn more about John and his masterworks HERE

Troy DeVolld’s Tips for Climbing the TV Success Ladder

by  Troy DeVolld

As a newbie to television seventeen years ago, I used to come in for a 7pm to 3am night shift in the late afternoon. When a producer asked me why, I said, “Because otherwise, you’ll never know who I am.” So began three straight years of employment.

A large part of success is hitting that sweet spot between simply busting ass and staying visible. Take cues from your superiors. If your boss is brassy and bold, he or she might enjoy you meeting them at that vibration. If your boss is super chill, take note of that and adjust your approach accordingly.

There’s also a third approach, which is figuring out who you are in the menagerie and playing that part well. I’ve been the “adult in the room” guy fairly often, balanced against bigger personalities and younger hires with a load of enthusiasm, but maybe in need of reassurance.

Personally, that’s how I like to staff. Kind of a rainbow sherbet of types. I don’t just want yes men/women, and I don’t just want bulldozers, as both types are valid and work just fine.


Troy DeVolld is a Larry Brody buddy, former senior story producer of Dancing with the Stars, and all-around true master of the reality TV genre. This article originally appeared on his Reality TV blog. And while you’re thinking about him, why not buy his book, Reality TV: An Insider’s Guide to TV’s Hottest Market?

J. Michael Straczynski Gave the Best Writing Advice at ComicCon

J. Michael Straczynski is primarily know these days as the creator-writer-producer of cult fave TV series Babylon 5 as well as of the slightly less cult favored Sense8. He’s also written a ton of other TV and won his fair share of awards.

So now that we’ve established dude’s cred, how about we see what he has to say about this TVWriter™ minion’s all-time favorite subject – writing:

by Dane Styler

Screenwriter, producer, novelist, and comics writer J. Michael Straczynskibelieves in sending the elevator back down. He believes in helping others, like he once was, who have talent but not enough information. So at San Diego Comic-Con 2017, Straczynski helmed another of his irreverent yet frank, funny yet informative Q&A panels as he solicited questions from a room full of aspiring writers.

Shall we begin?

FINISH THE GODDAMN SCRIPT

“While we are in the process of writing things, we can’t be judged. But when we finish and put it out there among our friends and people who don’t like us, they could say, ‘You’re not very good.’ If you’ve been working on something for a long time, finish the goddamn thing and move on to the next project. The more you do and finish, the more you learn.”

For comic books, don’t be worried too much about the type of script format you choose; it’s really what’s inside the format that matters (i.e. the content).

WORKSHOPS EN LIEU OF WRITING CLASSES

“Attend workshops before taking writing classes. Classes are there to teach you how the teacher feels you should write. Workshops help you find your voice.

“Though the best way to learn how to write is to read a lot.”

FROM CHARACTER TO PLOT

“When developing a story, there’s two ways usually: Go from character to plot, or plot to character. I work from character to plot because I found that when going from plot to character, often you end up with characters who are service to the plot instead of their own thing.”

ASK ALL THE QUESTIONS

“After you have a general idea, begin answering each next logical question, truthfully, one after another. Who is the character? What does he want? How far is he willing to go to get it? How far is someone else willing to go to stop him?”

Straczynski quoted Heinlein, saying that part of science fiction writing is solving the problem for the next five minutes. To compel readers to read further, you hook them with mystery after mystery, starting with first page and/or scene, answering some along the way as you create more mysteries. In addition, he emphasized research, research, and more research, which will lead to more ideas, and make it easier to find yours answers in the process of questioning.

“So really, your process should be: Asking the next logical question, defining your characters, and doing everything in your power to poke holes in your story. Better to figure out those holes now, than 200 pages in.

“Because if you don’t find those holes now, someone else will….”

Read it all at Bleeding Cool

Peggy Bechko on Writing Without Boundaries

Um, it’s a map, without borderlines. Get it? An outline without boundaries.

 by Peggy Bechko

All right screenwriters, TV writers and writers of all stripes. Have you ever thrown all concepts of structure to the wind, all outlining directives out and just written something on the fly?

Really. I recommend it. For a while forget the novel ‘structure’, forget the 3-act structure. Forget all those rules and directives you’ve been told and have been following.

Just sit down with an idea and write…and write…and write.

Complete a short story, a script, a novel without restricting yourself.

Result might be great! Could be crap.

But here’s the thing. It’s a very freeing thing to do. I’ve done it many times and many times from that effort sprang a published book or in a couple of cases an optioned script. Yes, I had to go back to tweak the said piece of writing.

I had to do a thorough edit and find all the places that things kind of went off on a track of their own. But the core was good. It was solid and the story great. And I was winging it the entire time through the first draft. Whohoo!

Only notes I had were ones I’d made along the way that let me keep track of characters, what they were doing, their appearance, their goals. No outline other than a rough sketch of a story idea that evolved as I wrote. Writing this way made the characters clearer in my mind. The story fell into line with what was, for me, amazing ease. This is the ultimate spill your guts onto the page with no restriction.

In the end it might not be something you can use. But, then again, it just might. And writing like this is a way of breaking all the rules and opening up new gateways for yourself. It’s a draft after all. And remember the first draft is usually (I know, some say always) garbage. But the first draft really is the place it all begins. It’s where the story is hung from sturdy limbs. And the characters step out from cardboard cut-outs into real live people with pasts, problems and desires.

Seriously. When we begin writing at the start of our careers we look for all kinds of tips and hints. We might hook up with a mentor. We search the web now for all sorts of tips from all sorts of resources. After all that, sometimes it’s best just to take our idea, sit down and write!

All the help you got from a mentor, all those tips and helps you collected before will come together as you write.

It might not be the best way to go for every project. It would probably trip you up if you’ve been signed on to write for a series on TV or maybe a series of novels since a formula will be in effect. It might make you nervous, typing those first words onto a blank screen without an outline or whatever method you’ve used to prepare.

And I know a lot of writers will gasp in horror. (Am I looking right at you, TVWriter™ Bossman Larry Brody?) But, take it from me, writing like this can be an amazing tool.

When you’re done, when you reread, the flaws will jump out at you. After that, I’m willing to bet molding the story into the form it must have to succeed will be an exciting adventure.

Go ahead and try it. And don’t forget to leave some comments on how it went and what you think.


Peggy Bechko is a TVWriter™ Contributing Editor. Learn more about her sensational career HERE. Peggy’s new comic series, Planet of the Eggs, written and illustrated with Charlene Brash-Sorensen is available on Kindle. And, while you’re at it, visit the Planet of the Eggs Facebook page and her terrific blog.