Peggy Bechko: Writers, Let’s Get to the Subtext!

 by Peggy Bechko

If you’re a writer of any stripe at all, then you’ve heard about and/or considered subtext. For the rest of you the beginners, those in need of review, let’s talk.

For starters remember, characters you create are always doing something. They’re not just sets of talking heads. They do things. They do a log of things and they go through all sorts of drama common to the human condition. And, as live people, they don’t actually SAY most of what they mean, they express it in some way, thus the subtext.

That being said, plainly it’s your job, as writer to get that across, in novels and especially in screen scripts.

One great trick to doing that is to substitute gibberish for your character’s dialog and see what’s left between the lines. In between the lines of dialog (what your character’s actually say) lies what those characters really mean to say. “Between the lines” so to speak.

Using this trick it’s easy to see what’s actually going on. On the other hand if you’ve made the dialog unintelligible and reading the bits left leaves you unable to know what’s going on then the scene is no doubt in need of more subtext.

In addition to giving yourself, as the writer, a way to double check thigs with the gibberish trick, The writer needs to supply the characters with something that drives them, a goal. A boy wants to get a date with a girl, or get a job, or solve a crime, or whatever. That goal will automatically add subtext to everything that character might say.

With a goal in mind a character needs some action to go with it. A detective might be walking a crime scene, a shy boy might be shuffling around a bit outside a gym, a job-seeker might be all dressed up, stiff and nervous.

All of this adds up to body language. In a novel you can describe at length (hopefully not too much at length). In a script a lot of it is dependent upon actors, but the writer can certainly give hints, especially when it’s an important bit of action that fills out the story or tells the viewer about the character. A girl blows a raspberry at the boy asking for a date. A job-seeker keeps adjusting the knot of his tie at his throat.

In a novel a detective can both walk a scene and have some thoughts going on about it on the page.

Giving your character a secret is a good idea as well. Remember the first Jurassic Park with the character about to steal dino embryos? That scattered subtext all over the place whenever he interacted with another character or when he took any type of action.

Then, for more complications there’s one character knowing the secret of another character. That can really set things off; open lots of doors to subtext in every scene.

So what do you think? Can you keep firmly in mind that your characters are alive? That they have lots of ‘stuff’ going on and when they talk to each other it’s just like you talking to a member of your family with opposite political beliefs? There’s lots of subtext!

Think about it. Watch people interact. You do this and the way people move and talk will never be viewed from the same perspective again. And you’re going to get plenty of subtext into your scripts and novels.


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.

Let’s !EXPLODE! Some Writing Myths!!!

Whoa, would you look at that. An article heading with five exclamation points in one sentence. That must be against the rules of English writing.

Or maybe not…cuz the rulez we all know may not be what we think. In other words, it’s infographic time! (That exclamation is, of course, absolutely necessary. Right?)

Oh wait. Gee…not a word here about exclamation point usage. Guess that’s for the second ten.

TVWriter™ found this at one of our favorite writing sites, Writers Write

And they in turn found it HERE

Secrets of the TV writers’ room: inside Narcos, Transparent and Silicon Valley

Everything – within reason – that we’ve all wanted to know about how some of the top shows on TV are written today. Let’s put it together for showrunners Eric Newman, Jill Soloway, and Alec Berg, not to mention the kindly folk at The Guardian.

by Tim Adams

Every age creates its signature way of telling and consuming stories. The Jacobeans had the blood and lust of popular tragedy. The Victorians had the great social novel. The 1960s had new journalism. The chosen form of our own age is the downloaded serial drama. While the energy and ambition of screenwriters was for nearly a century invested in two-hour feature films, for the past 10 years, ever since The Wire and The Sopranos and The West Wing showed what might be possible, it has been in the 10-hour arcs, and annual seasons of streamed drama.

Those shows – Scandi-noir, Game of Thrones (and its progeny), Breaking Bad and the rest – have created a new kind of relation between creators and viewers. The stories are made not only for total immersion, but also presuppose the potential for binge-watching. Since Netflix started uploading whole series, days and nights are lost to the “just one more episode” of unfolding dramas, in the way that we might once have been invited to lose ourselves in books.

The idea of bingeing on drama has some negative connotations, but the facts suggest that far from seeing this habit as time wasted, we tend to think of it as fulfilling in the way that time devoted to great fiction always was. In 2013, Netflixdid a study into why 73% of viewers felt overwhelming feelings of comfort when immersed in these dramas. The company sent an anthropologist, Grant McCracken, into viewers’ homes to discover the reasons for this: “TV viewers are no longer zoning out as a way to forget about their day, they are tuning in, on their own schedule, to a different world. Getting immersed in multiple episodes or even multiple seasons of a show over a few weeks is a new kind of escapism that is especially welcome.” The usual attention deficit of the internet was replaced by something more complex and satisfying.

The huge demand for such shows and the intense rivalry between Netflix and Amazon, in particular, to create has led to a new kind of mythologised creative space: the writers’ room. The creative pressures of producing multiple series of 10-hour dramas in short order have changed the dynamic of traditional scriptwriting practice. Rather than pairs of writers, or single auteurs, the collective and the collaborative is not only prized but essential.

As favourite shows build their own addictive fanbases – more fragmented than the audience for broadcast TV ever was, but often more cultishly engaged – the writers’ room, the place where the drama begins and ends, has become the subject of intense curiosity and scrutiny. The room is largely an American creation, a development of the comedy bunkhouses that produce The Simpsons or Saturday Night Live. Inevitably there are websites and blogs and memes devoted to gossip about these sacred and profane spaces, places to get a fix of favourite dramas before the next series is uploaded. Some shows – Orange Is the New Blackand The Good Wife pioneered the practice – provide the backstory to the genesis and creation scenes in live Twitter feeds, with whiteboards and interview links and photos.

What they mostly reveal is that having ideas – even in groups – and writing them up into scripts is no less painful and laborious than it ever was, but that it now has a kind of endless forward motion….

Read it all at The Guardian

John August’s Writer Emergency Pack

Found: The Christmas gift you wish your BFF had given you! Fortunately, even though we’re already marching through January, it isn’t too late.

John August, one of the most successful screenwriters ever (want proof? click HERE), still has a few deck of his Writer Emergency Pack left from the holidays, and you probably can talk him into selling you one, or maybe even two.

WTF are we talking about?

Glad you asked. Here’s the dope, straight from the horse (that would be the illustrious Mr. August)’s mouth:

Writer Emergency Pack is a deck full of useful ideas to help get your story back on track.

Creative writing can be challenging. When you’re working on a story, you’re not just trying to decide what word comes next, but what idea comes next.

It’s easy to get stuck.

Writers have many techniques for pushing past these problems — little nudges and prompts to help get the story clicking.

Writer Emergency Pack is a curated collection of some of the most useful suggestions I’ve encountered. It’s by writers, for writers.

The cards themselves are designed to be practical, and “immediately useful” to anybody writing fiction. They focus on story, character, and conflict, and include not only specifics on how to structure your work but also some really great (hey, we think they should all be framed) illustrations.

We at TVWriter™ believe the Emergency Pack is the next best thing to hanging out with a true master. Check ’em out – better yet, buy ’em for $19 plus shipping – HERE

Happy, erm, Emergency Packing!

Peggy Bechko: Getting Under Your Characters’ Skin

by Peggy Bechko

 

Characters!

They’re pretty darn important to story whether novel or script. I mean, let’s face it, we’re not telling stories about a tree that just stands there. Heck, even the Ents in Lord of the Rings were developed characters.

But there are a lot of problems with characters in stories and how they’re developed.

Fact is, women think differently and act differently than men. It’s tough either way – whether a woman writer is developing a male character or a man is developing a female character it gets tricky.

Traditionally, it’s been the female character who’s gotten the ‘short end of the stick’.

In case you haven’t heard, many female stars complain they can’t find strong female roles out there. Lots of readers complain about the female leads in novels turning out to be little more than some kind of appendage to the stronger male lead.

Not surprising, really. Think about it. Stories so very often focus on a male hero. Whether in books or scripts. That’s the way it is.

All too often the woman has a minor role or is constantly in need of rescue or screams a lot, or is some type of arm decoration for the hero or villain. Female stars have been known to take over what was written for a man. Remember Evelyn Salt? How about Ripley in Alien(s) etc.?

So let’s talk about how to write better characters for those favorite female stars you love, or for that matter how to write better female characters for your novels.

Where to start? How about by considering your characters a people, individuals with lives before you think of them as man or woman? Hard to do? Well, if it was easy I wouldn’t be writing this.

Here are some things to keep in mind. As a human being, your character needs to be well rounded and whole. There are times when the character is funny; other times when that character is serious. Success finds that person and so does failure, and there are times when the character does something really, really smart, and times when she or he does something pointless or stupid.

Don’t forget your character has a past, like any other real, live person. And, if he or she doesn’t end up dead by the end of your script or novel, a future. The things your character has done in the past influence what they do now and forevermore.

Always remember that the characters are existing within the framework of the time you’ve delineated. BUT to be real they also have to exist outside of the framework of the story you’re telling.

Now, since we’re focusing on punching up the female character here, I’ll just say it. Don’t create a stereotype.

We’ve all done it. But from now on, don’t. Of course there are stories and situations that lean toward a male or a female. Period pieces can be even more difficult if the writer remains true to the period. For example, if the story is set in world war II women were nurses and did heroic things during the bombing of cities and other places, but they simply were not soldiers.

Unless the story is going to be set in an alternate timeline or some other SciFi trick, it will be awkward for a woman to be a grunt soldier in that context. Just something to keep in mind.

Another little trick to help with writing a female character is to keep in mind that if you have two female characters talking to each other – it should be, at least some of the time, about something more than a man. Seriously, using the war setting – there would be more to talk about between women than a man.

Think about it. People, all of us, talk about a whole lot of things. Hobbies, books, things we’ve ready, the latest political debacle, family stuff that drives us crazy, you know, the stuff of our lives. Remember that when writing for your female lead.

Since your characters are people they deserve the depth real people have. Unless your story hinges on some guy being a mindless, empty macho man, don’t make him that kind of guy – and if the story hinges on him remember to reveal why he’s like that.

Same goes for our woman character. Sure, there are lots of brain-dead bimbos who only want nothing more than marriage and a guy to support her, oh, and babies! But the same goes for her – whether novel or script – if she is that person and important to your story, WHY is she that way? And make that bit of backstory good!

And lets ’pull back on the physical details. Only if it’s very important and pertinent to the script do you use something like “she’s a stunning blonde”. Scripts are short. Are you going to waste those precious lines on an unimportant physical trait when you could better use the space to indicate something about her?

There’s a bit more leeway in a novel, but how many times have we waded through pages and pages of unnecessary description? Give your readers and audience more solid information about who the character really is. Give them something better than stereotypes.

Give them depth.


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.

What You Need to Know to Become a Successful Freelance Writer

Yes, it’s true. There are books about writing that actually can help you not just write but make money from writing. LB’s Television Writing from the Inside Out is one. And here are five, count ’em, 5 more:

5 Amazing Books on Becoming a Successful Freelance Writer
by Pinar Tarhan

This post comes with the help of my own library, meaning I own every one of these books. Enjoy!

*Please note that this post contains affiliate links. You won’t pay extra, but everything you buy through my links help keep me update this blog more often and with better, more comprehensive content. I don’t recommend anything I haven’t bought and/or used and loved myself.

Start Your Career as a Freelance Writer by Moira Allen

Moira Allen is one of my favorite writers. She is the creator of The Writing World. As far as I know she is no longer updating, but that website will take years to get through. It is just chock full of great content on all aspects of writing. But if you are looking to start a freelance writing career and like me, prefer a book you can come back to as often as you like, then I recommend her Start Your Career as a Freelance Writer.

Truth: I bought it after I’d been freelancing a couple of years. You can skip or skim through more familiar chapters such as equipment, but chapters like setting goals, coping with rejection, starting your article, finding the right markets, queries and submissions, expanding your freelancing business, rights and contracts, and more, are evergreen and chapters you will want to refer to again and again.

The Unconventional Guide to Freelance Writing by Amber Adrian

The Unconventional Guide to Freelance Writing is a part of the Unconventional Guides series by popular blogger and bestselling author Chris Guillebeau. It comes in two different packages: Pen-for-hire ($39) and editor-in-chief ($58). I own editor-in-chief.

Pen-for-hire includes The Ultimate Freelancers Guide, which is a 55-page guide written by experienced freelance writer Amber Adrian. It covers starting, getting clients, getting paid and what to charge, creating a routine and dealing with freelancing-related fears, building a business and more. These 55 pages are complemented with The Big List or Links and Resources, “Rejection Be Damned” Tools for Success. You can check here for more details.

If you go for the editor-in-chief package, in addition to pen-for-hire’s contents, you get Sample Pitches and Letters of Introduction, Eight Big Bonus Author Interviews, and an additional 44-minute audio interview with veteran travel writer Kristin Luna. 

The Essential Guide to Freelance Writing: Write, Work, and Thrive on Your Own Terms by Zachary Petit

I get into a bit of detail The Essential Guide to Freelancewriting by Zachary Petit in my post Do You Need to Buy Another Writing Resource? The Impulsive Information Product Shopper’s Checklist. Zachary Petit is a former editor of Writer’s Digest and a veteran freelance writer. He is funny, honest, practical and experienced. The book covers basics, ideas, author platforms, getting published, pitching, interviewing (so detailed and valuable: I learned a ton in this chapter!), actually writing, people behind the scenes, and business basics.

The book is paved with awesome quotes about writing, the below being my favorite.  

“The road to hell is paved with works-in-progress.” Philip Roth….

Read it all at Addicted to Writing

Question for LB: OMG! Are Those My Words That Actor Just Said?

Glad You Asked Department 1/8/18
by Larry Brody

Last week we presented a guest article about what it’s like to see your first script produced, and over the weekend a similar question came in from a TVWriter™ reader about my own personal experience in that regard. So I thought I’d share my answer here and now:


Where are they now? No, seriously, if you know, please comment below!

Question from Armando:

Dear Larry,

My longest running recurring dream is that I’m sitting in an easy chair, iPad in hand, watching as an episode I’ve written as the newest staffer on THE GOOD PLACE begins, with all the actors delivering my lines. It’s the most exciting dream I’ve ever had, even better than the one about Gal Gadot, her golden lasso, a tub filled with Lucky Charms cereal, and me.

You’ve had hundreds of TV episodes on the air. How does it feel to hear actors saying something you’ve written? In particular, did it feel the first time?

Answer from Yours Truly:

First of all, congratulations, Armando, on proving yourself a real writer. How, you may be wondering, did you do that? Very simply: You asked me about My First Time and it was a writing question instead of a sex question. So smile, dood, this proves you’ve got what it takes to go far.

My first produced script was an episode of the long gone series HERE COME THE BRIDES. I don’t remember anything about the story other than it involved the heroes helping a group of immigrants trying to build a new life for themselves in the rugged 1870s Pacific Northwest, believe it or not. But I do remember sitting down to watch the show the night it was on, eager to hear the actors uttering my words.

Unfortunately, an hour later, after the episode was over, I was still waiting. Because the thrill of seeing absolute proof that I was a professional writer of television never materialized in terms of anything other than my writing credit. I never got to experience the “Oh wow, they’re saying that I wrote” moment for one not uncommon reason:

The cast wasn’t saying what I wrote. My recollection is that about two-thirds of the dialog had been rewritten by the story editor and the remaining third had been changed by the actors themselves during the shoot. And the way I felt about that was dumbfounded.

What had they paid me all that money for? Why had they hired me to write two more episodes if nobody liked my dialog? What the fuck was going on?

I got the answers as I continued to work on HERE COME THE BRIDES and then other shows over the next couple of millennia. My experiences and conversation with various executives, producers, other writers, directors, actors, and their friends and lovers and even spouses brought the truth home:

Like all television writers, I was being paid to do the hard job of facing the blank page. Of organizing the material. Of writing dialog that gave everyone else involved enough of an idea about what should be there – but to their minds wasn’t – to make it easier for them to adapt the words to their own needs.

This is one of those occasions where I could go on and on and on, but you probably get the point. On HERE COME THE BRIDES and all the shows that followed, I was hired and re-hired as writer and then producer and then showrunner (and occasionally even praised to the skies) because my words came closer to what everyone involved wanted, or thought they wanted, than those of most of the other writers they’d worked with.

In fact, very often the praise came out something like this:

“Larry, that script was awesome. You’re a really good writer. Rewriting you is a cinch.”

Now that may not sound like much to you, Armando, and when I was starting out I wasn’t exactly tripping on that particular accolade myself, but my time in the trenches has had its teaching effect, and I’ve learned to appreciate the comment above.

Because when you get down to it, and the various needs and desires of everyone involved in a Hollywood production are taken into account, if those in charge like your work enough to keep asking for more, you’ve done the job you were hired for and then some.

Which is what being a pro, a real pro, is all about.

Here’s hoping that you get to experience the same acceptance I have, and that you embrace the joy a lot more quickly than I did. Relax, let yourself grin, and enjoy your very real and exciting success along with everything that leads to and follows from it.

In other words, good luck, kid. Say hi to Gal and the tub for me.


My purpose here is to help as many undiscovered creative geniuses as possible. But I can’t answer if you don’t ask. So send your questions and make everyone’s day!

LYMI, LB