World-Building From The Inside Out

advice, drama, screenwriting, storytelling, T.V. writing

Your story’s world is a reflection — a result — of what’s happening inside your characters.

The world doesn’t create the character. The character creates the world around her. You create the world around you.

Like a prism refracting colors or a digital projector — the image starts with the emotional footprint inside your main characters. You project this inner image outside them. That becomes their world.

Here’s how it works: I believe I can be successful, that I deserve success — so I act in ways that confirm that belief. I filter what I see for stories that confirm that belief and fail to see those that don’t. I set up my world in ways that support this belief. I gradually adhere to a system of rules that affirm this belief. Rules like if you don’t hold on to what you’ve got, it may be taken away from you and you don’t deserve success, you earn it. These rules build out and become my world. I don’t even recognize parts of the world that don’t agree. I know I’m in Julie-world because Julie-world is defined by these rules — rules that started inside me and served me at one time, and then, because I gave them power-of-attorney over my life, grew strong like a sentient computer program and jumped outside my head and started governing the world around me. Now, not only do I walk around following these rules in my head — but I insist on seeing the world as if this is how the world operates too. Because Julie-world starts inside me and is projected, reflected out. Julie-world is something I inflict on the world.

Many storytellers will start world-building by asking themselves tons of questions — how does this place work? what are the physical laws, political laws, cultural rules of this period — what does this place look like? —

Start by asking how these characters work — what are their internal physical laws, political laws, cultural rules — these answers will tell you what this place looks like. If your characters are haunted by past lives they can’t shake, their environs will be haunted. They may even have established an elaborate system of rules, laws, customs, moral strictures disallowing the past from sticking around — this started inside them. If your characters are liars, they will inhabit a world of false fronts. If your characters love, they inhabit a world that loves.

Worlds aren’t built top-down (what galaxy is this?), bottom-up (what does a wedding ring look like?) — worlds are built inside out. What don’t you know about yourself, that we can see all around you? What rules are you following unconsciously? These rules limn your world.

You build their world by establishing the rules that govern them.

The world IS the rules. And the rules are a by-product of the emotional life of your main characters — a structure organizing their hopes and fears. Because deep down they think that by following these rules they’ll get what they want.

Worlds are anchored, buoyed inside our main characters’ guts. The more the characters’ guts direct their outer world, the more we feel the piece. The bigger emotional impact. Bigger experience. The more we feel like we live in this world. These are people in our world.

A given character could walk into my house and her world would still be different from my world. Because her world isn’t bound by geography, it’s bound by the rules she feels she’s bound by. They feel they’re bound by.

The world is symptoms helping us diagnose what’s going on inside the character. Eczema doesn’t just exist and then a person finds himself inside it: he produces it. We see the skin rash, and that’s how we know what’s going on inside him. This strange place exists because they do, because they are the way they are and their world can’t be any other way. When they change, their world changes. Often, that’s how we know a character has changed — we see their world change.

Mythology

comedy writing, drama, screenwriting, storytelling, T.V. writing

My first T.V. job was writing for a show called “The Dish” on Style and E! — a spin-off of “The Soup” with Joel McHale, a clip show where a host stands in front of a green screen and shows clips of other shows and says jokes about them. Occasionally we did little sketches and trailer re-cuts, and we had characters (played by the writers or production staff) who would come out and do very stupid stuff. It was fun and low-budget, and there was a lot of room to try wacky stuff. Pitch Jerry the Fashion Crab on Monday and on Thursday the prop guy is spray-painting a foam cut-out in the shape of a crab — and the writer wearing it is dizzy from the fumes.

Once during punch-up we wrote a joke about a commercial for a female stand-up urinator — I don’t remember the exact punchline, but the commercial had a line like “I learned it in Europe.” So then we cut out of the commercial on that line, had our host Danielle look like she’s peeing while standing there. Then she said “I learned it from the host of The European Dish.” (Then the window over her shoulder flashed to a mocked-up photo of Danielle with a huge wart and a unibrow, in a gypsy costume, pushing a plough through a rutted field in Transylvania — with the logo of The European Dish superimposed over the whole thing.)

The joke killed in taping. We the writers loved this joke and laughed really hard when she did it. But the powers that be killed it in the booth because they didn’t want to seem “xenophobic.” We came up with something else on the floor. But I was sad to see the Host of the European Dish get iced, because building mythology is important.

Whether you’re writing a tiny little clip show on a cable channel somewhere in the upper 300’s or a huge-budget space opera on one of the antenna channels, mythology is what makes your show sticky.

Seeing the Host of the European Dish — or Jerry the Fashion Crab — or any other dumb little one-note characters we did on that show — once is funny. But then if European Danielle comes back — and this time she’s there to talk about the Paris runway shows, say in a tape segment, and then she pees herself again … now you’ve got a bit. But then say every time European Danielle comes back on the show, she drops little tidbits about how she got her gig as Host of the European Dish — maybe she was coyoted by a band of gypsies and she has to pay off her debt to them by hosting this clip show … Then we cut back to Danielle in the studio with fake tears rolling down her cheeks, going “They said there’d be opportunity in America … I didn’t know I was going to be a clip show host ….” You’re building the mythology of this character, populating the world of this clip-show, and creating a narrative myth that gives fans an armature to congregate around. Suddenly they don’t just love watching stupid Real Housewives clips, but they also love when European Danielle comes on, and it seems like no matter how outrageous things in Europe are, they’re gonna be more outrageous back in the home studio . . . . It brings people back. It makes you feel like you’re part of it. Fans know they’re fans by knowing that European Danielle became a clip show host via indentured servitude. Late Night with Conan O’Brien did this so well.

Human beings like stories. Tuning into a clip show is fun, mindless entertainment. But if there’s a chance that a character I recognize from a few weeks back will make a surprise appearance, even just to toss off a stray line that may add to his weird back-story — even if that character is just a foam spray-painted crab played by one of the writers — it’s satisfying. It makes us want to stick around, tune in again, see what happens next. Because what if we find out that European Danielle and Jerry the Fashion Crab know each other — what if European Danielle caught a case of Jerry the Fashion Crabs during her time working the Marseilles docks and now she won’t even look at him in the studio for fear of them being recognized together?

This is pure silliness because that’s what that show is. But the principles are the same, no matter what kind of show you’re writing. If you’re writing a serialized drama, mythology is that much more important. Every time you introduce one character or artifact or motif, and then bring it back — you’ve given it a story that has the potential to impact other stories. Tracing the pattern of these collisions, what impacts what and how that changes what can happen next — who has collided into whom in the past, and what that has produced — it becomes a puzzle for the audience to solve. It pulls them in, putting connections together and being rewarded when connections and histories are revealed. It turns your show sticky, holding onto eyeballs.

Because who wants to watch plot? We want to watch stories. We come back to create myths.

Audacity

advice, drama, screenwriting, storytelling, T.V. writing

Hesitant, cautious, careful, wondering — no one gives a shit. I can get that anywhere, from anyone. From everyone.

I want to see audacity.

People warn you not to be audacious for fear you’ll get hurt, you’ll look foolish, you’ll hurt them. They speak to their own fear, to the voice that says they must follow the rules. They don’t. You don’t. Rules exist for other people’s convenience, not yours. They’re there to comfort and guide those who don’t know how, or don’t have the balls to create rules of their own.

Somewhere along the way we absorbed limits. This catalogue of stuff I’ve already seen in T.V. and movies is allowable to pitch, on the list. These stories and images and references are on the approved list. This is what we can draw from. We stay within these limits so we won’t be laughed at, so we won’t be challenged. So when we’re in the room and we pitch gay robots and people sneer or laugh we can feel okay about ourselves knowing they already did gay robots on Battlestar or wherever the fuck. So I know I’m not a complete fucking loon.

But you know what, they hired you to be a complete fucking loon. I mean, not completely. You have to understand the map before you veer off it. And if you’ve got a map that’s working, no need to bring in a new map. Especially if you’re working for someone else. But no matter what the map says, you always have the option to grab the wheel and drive off-road. Don’t be safe. Be audacious. That’s what people remember — both people who hire and people who watch. They — we — don’t care about how well you stay within the lines, follow form. That does not interest me at all. What we crave is stuff that thrills us. What thrills us is when you break rules. When you get big and then you fucking explode and take the ship down with you, leaving us feeling real fear and empowerment at once — those were all his options. Now what? That’s what storytelling is.

Know your craft, know the form you’re writing, the genre, make sure we’re rooted and hooked from minute one and then — blow shit up in our faces. Set up our expectations and defy them. Slow down when it’s time to speed up. Throw away jokes, as Jane Espenson says. Go psychological when all convention says it’s time for action. Surprise us. Be brave. Be bold. Shoot your wad — the more you give, the more you’ll get.

As the firemen say — the hotter you are, the faster we’ll come.

Themes Emerge

drama, screenwriting, storytelling, T.V. writing

Themes exist in our world.

Being awake means noticing when themes emerge.

Some people argue that invoking theme in your work is artificial — theme is a by-product of the story you’re telling, and your audience will see what they want in it.

I argue that watching and tracing the ways in which themes emerge — in stories, out there in the world — is what storytelling is.

This is an anxious time for T.V writers — staffing season, when the network shows hire their writers. This morning a friend let me know that my manager’s client’s show had just gotten picked up, and his agent told him they were desperate for women writers. I asked my manager about it, and she said not true, they’ve already got the women they want. And they’re all lawyers. Even the staff writer they want is a lawyer. The janitor’s a lawyer. The dog is a lawyer. Ok. Got it. I should have gone to law school to be a T.V. writer.

And I’m anxious about other stuff too. I want to be loved.

I know a piece — whether it’s a pilot, a blog post, a joke, whatever — feels like one of mine when it starts dovetailing —

Writing I want to be loved just now brought me close, after roaming on this post for two days —

I went to a teahouse in Koreatown and back to my couch, changed clothes three times. I’ve eaten and eaten — am I getting fatter or is that another feeling I’m dodging, that wants to speak?

I abandon most of these posts. I write far more of them than I publish.

The word “abandoned” is such a fucking cliche. I hate saying it, and I wouldn’t if it weren’t such an accurate word. It’s such a joke now to talk about people with abandonment issues, but how do you explain people who roam, whose thoughts are restless, who can’t or won’t focus until they finally write the words “I want to be loved.” And when you do , a fresh wave rises —

I vowed the other day to be funnier in these posts. They’re getting Czech arthouse dreary. Next thing you know I’m going to have a table of indigent old people sitting around cracking hard-boiled eggs until one of them gets dragged away by the state interrogators.

So the anxiety is not free-floating. It’s specific, and it emerges. It shape-shifts. It takes the form of lawyers getting all the T.V. writer jobs. And it takes the form of my hunger. Of not knowing where my next meal’s coming from, if it’s coming at all. My lack of faith. I don’t know if I’ll have a job, and I don’t know if I’ll be loved. I don’t know when I’ll find out.

Themes emerge. I knew I wanted to write about theme, because I loved what John August said about it here, and blogging is a conversation. But when I started this post, I didn’t know how I was going to write about theme — in what context, with what examples. You start, you have an idea in mind, you find places in your story to bounce that idea around. Your story becomes an echo chamber, and you carve out more and more interesting folds in the walls. The tracing of the bounce becomes your theme.

In the story here, I wanted to write about theme, I wanted to make it immediate and personal and emotional. So that narrowed the frame greatly, because what’s going on today? Anxiety. But I could have told any number of stories about anxiety and staffing season, anxiety and love — it becomes a story about theme when you draw the parallel between them, waiting, the hunger for them both, the jar of sunflower seed butter I won’t stop eating — a jar that never fills my hunger. The way I can’t stop touching my belly. What connects T.V.-writing-lawyers to the touching of my belly.

The joke I wrote on Twitter last week about douchey guys who try to worm their way in by reassuring you about your body — and I’m like, reassure me about my career, jerk-off. This joke hits deep with me, where stuff hurts.

Hey, I put a joke on here — and proved I’m completely incapable of being funny here. This must be my ponderous, serious space, like when Americans go to Europe and feel we have to prove ourselves. This is my Europe. God help you all.

For theme to emerge, give it a space, a context, two adjoining contexts, and then pop your idea inside like a pinball. Watch it bounce around. What emerges will be a tracing that’s dense, provocative, layered. This is your theme.

How A Scene Is Like A Joke

comedy writing, drama, jokes, screenwriting, T.V. writing

I’m working on scenes right now. So I’m thinking about scenes as discrete units, like jokes. A mentor taught me this, and a showrunner he worked for taught it to him.

A good scene is pithy like a good joke. It takes leaps and accomplishes its mission in shorter than expected time and distance. It doesn’t explain itself, doesn’t tip its hand — it leaves its most important points unsaid, to the imagination, to be completed by the audience. Any time you let the audience step in to fill in the space you’ve supplied between Set-Up A and Punchline B, they’ll love you for it. Because you’ve let them become the heroes of the telling.

Whether you’re writing a joke or a scene — you wanna get in there as late as possible, get out early. But not too late, not too early. Finding those right moments to jump in and out of scenes (or jokes) is an art. A great scene will have a beginning, a middle and an end, turned like a little three-act play, as will a great joke (even a one-liner, if you look hard enough).

Think of the beginning of the scene (Act 1) as the set-up of the joke: Why does this person need something, here, right now? The set-up builds expectations.

Middle of the scene (Act 2): a reversal happens, a set-back. The twist in the joke. The moment we realize all is not right in joke-world.

End of the scene (Act 3): the character is thwarted or spun a new direction. Surprise! Punchline.

The punchline is the most important part of the joke. Your punchline lands your joke and lands your scene. Scenes finish with a twist, a turn, another obstacle for the character — they finish dramatically, and whatever you go out on is your punchline. The body of your scene was the setup, so you made it pithy and tight and turned it, then you killed with your punchline. Maybe it’s the hero’s final line as he blows out, maybe it’s what the hero does, maybe it’s what you reveal, maybe it’s an explosion. Whatever it is, it’s a punchline, something we lock onto, digest, understand what’s being turned or thwarted or revealed and then wonder what happens next.

Set ’em up. Knock ’em down. Always leave ’em wanting more.

Because in both joke-telling and scene-writing, the business we’re really in is keeping them wondering what happens next.

My post on how to write jokes can be found here.

Nightmares

pilots, screenwriting, storytelling, T.V. writing

Someone trapped a girl in a carved out space beneath the cushions of a shitty yellow sofa for an entire year.

That’s the  nightmare that woke me up.

I’m putting it in my new pilot. I’ll tweak it — would a person fit inside a sofa? But the point is I love using dreams in my work — a nightmare a few months ago became an important piece of the plot of my Iraq pilot.

Dreams are important because they are made of meaning. It’s usually not clear at first what they mean. Either the act of writing them down forces you to project your conscious logic onto them to show you what you’re thinking, or the act of writing them down processes the unconscious into the known. What arises in these written descriptions are like crystal balls to what’s inside us. And what’s inside us is what needs to go on the page. Because that’s what’s inside our characters, and inside our audience.

In this new pilot, I knew I needed a horrific, long-term crime hiding in plain sight among the characters — something they could live with and not know they were living with it, like cancer if someone could go home from their job at night and make a little cancer. Perhaps that’s what abuse is, in the context of a family. Perhaps one character goes home to reveal she’s living with abuse — and the other goes home to reveal he’s living with a girl trapped inside his sofa. Haven’t nailed this down yet.

This is my process. I didn’t even know this character existed until I woke with my heart racing in the middle of the night. I just knew something ominous needed to be hiding in plain sight among these characters. I leave everything loose and then nail pieces down bit by bit as they make sense to me. First comes knowing there needs to be an ominous plain-sight crime (because of the subject matter of the piece), then I wake with a nightmare supplying the crime, then I realize there has to be a character who works with the main character to be the perpetrator of the crime, and so on. Structure and character evolve from metaphor.

When the nightmare woke me up, I felt like the girl stuffed beneath the sofa cushions meant I had been feeling locked down, invisible, muzzled. Suppressed. So porting the dream straight into my pilot leverages all that meaning for me, accesses the feeling I wasn’t aware of until I described it. Stories tell what you’re feeling without having to unpack it — because often we don’t want to put into words our most important stuff. One great image is enough.

Teach Empathy

screenwriting, storytelling, T.V. writing

I have a day job: I teach empathy.

I write action scripts and I write comedy and I write novels and I do all this shit but the reality is — my job is to teach empathy.

Story’s job is to allow us to feel the feelings of others. Our job is to craft the story so that we see through another’s eyes, so that, given enough context and circumstances and choices, we understand how it feels to be another human being. Stories teach empathy.

Your job is to teach empathy.

Even in the darkest, most life-denying piece — you set up a world that helps your audience feel despair. So that when they leave the theater and encounter a person who lives in despair, they see themselves in that person. They’ve had that person’s experience, in the world of your darkest, most life-denying piece. You’ve given them a touchstone of recognition, added to their emotional lexicon. You’ve taught empathy.

Every kind of story teaches us empathy — comedy, drama, light, dark. What matters is we feel what someone else feels. Every kind of story has an emotional heart, a character whose feelings we make our own.

Failures of empathy underlie most of the problems we face as human beings. Sharing stories with one another — teaching each other empathy — can set us straight.

What kind of asshole am I? I sit around lecturing people they don’t have enough empathy.

Write Back To Front

screenwriting, storytelling, T.V. writing

Start with your target.

Your target is the moment you build to — that big reveal, big stand-off, joke on the scene, revealing look, twist — whatever pushes us stumbling forward, searching our hearts for more. This is the last moment in the novel, last beat in the scene, last beat in the act.

Drive the arrow of your story through the target where you want it to land. Find that last beat — of the story, of the scene, of the act — start with where you’re going.

Unless you experiment with rhythm and timing by placing your big moments in the middle or the beginning, your biggest moments should go last. Your end beats stand as booster rockets pushing us forward, constantly building tension and emotion, propelling us all the way past THE END to continue the story in our minds and in our hearts.

Instead of loading up your arrow and launching it, hoping it will stay on course and land where you want it, target these end beats first. Then, pull back — what happened right before the arrow nailed the target? What happened right before that? Follow the line of the arrow back all the way from where it hit its target to where you loaded your bow. You’ll find the path between target and pulling the string a lot shorter than it might have been had you started with the quiver.

I’ve been writing back to front for a long time — both within scenes and over entire scripts and novels — but it didn’t occur to me to write a post about it until I read this post at Screenwriting Foxhole in which Michael Lee discusses how to structure a scene — from back to front. Ensuring the last beat is caused by the beat immediately preceding it, which is caused by the beat preceding it, and so on. Like a director organizing a shot list, ensuring that every beat has a shot and that these shots flow in a tight, inter-dependent chain like a spine through the back of the scene.

Begin where you want to go. You’ll get there fast.

Story Shorthand

screenwriting, storytelling, T.V. writing

Fiona Akerman

I used to write slowly. As a novelist, I would meander, let myself go, simmer, get stopped up, go around in circles, find my way again and again. I still do that, I just do it very fast now.

If you’re on a deadline, but want to write a rich story fast, here’s a shorthand:

Every character gets an arc that hits at least three beats:

  • We meet them when they’re low — or don’t know yet they’re about to take a big fall.
  • They struggle with a new challenge.
  • They change as a result.

Show each of these beats in a scene or scenes consisting of:

  • a visual image
  • an emotion
  • a question in the mind of the audience — what comes next?

Weave these scenes together like a building conversation: each scene interviews the next, asking a more insistent question that’s only partially answered by the next, which answers a question with its own question in turn. Building in speed and intensity.

Every moment in your story is a great moment — if it’s not, lose it.

If you’re on a tight deadline, you can use this shorthand to develop a pretty tight story. Once you’ve got the story down, you can get profound.

How I Write: Motifs

comedy writing, drama, screenwriting, storytelling, T.V. writing

I love motifs. If there’s some physical law where the number of motifs in your story threatens to reverse the chemical ratio of metaphor to action, I’m the person to test it.

A motif is a detail that repeats through a story to draw attention to an idea or theme. The motif can be a word, phrase, color, character, monster, sign, place, image, way of describing something, way of talking, alliteration, simile, character trait, situation, anything. The point is that it repeats. Once it repeats it becomes a trail of breadcrumbs we leave to help the reader or viewer find depth and meaning in our stories. When motifs cross and combine, they reflect and magnify each other, drawing a map that points the audience down paths of allusions, partly inherent in the story and partly supplied by the audience’s experience. This is the theme.

I’ll use my Iraq pilot LIONESS as an example to show how I use motifs. I decided to introduce a new motif in each act, like a recurring chord in a symphony, that, once introduced, would blend together in the end. Each act’s motif shapes the act, giving it a guiding metaphor to direct the action.

These are the ideas that take root in the imaginations of my characters in each act. They discuss them, they see evidence of them all around themselves, they see parallels to them in their environment, more importantly, they DON’T see parallels to them in their environment. These motifs show up in both subtle and un-subtle ways, as jokes, as images, as plot points, as looping topics of conversation.

Act 1:  Motif: Bloodshed.

Act 2: Motif: University of Texas Cheerleaders.

Act 3: Motif: Missing Humvee and Suicided Soldier.

Act 4: Motif: We Don’t Leave A Man Behind.

Act 5: Motif: Innards.

You don’t have to tell a serious story to use motifs — my sitcom pilot was standard network fare but also very motif-driven. You can bury them beneath the surface or not. What they give you is a deeper, more meaningful, more textural world.