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.

Bushcast Ep. 1: The Worst Thing That Can Happen In A Movie Theatre

bushcast, storytelling

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2BDvYLcacUU

Ok gang, I need you to bear with me. This is the first video I’ve ever made (I know, right?). First time I’ve ever edited. My virgin run, if you will.

But I was waiting for something juicy to start the Bushcast with, and tonight a certain anonymous perv gave me my first episode.

I’m warning you — if you have a job, or responsibilities, or you’re not immortal — please do not waste precious seconds of your life on this experiment in giggling and discursive self-indulgence. It’s 5 minutes 26 seconds long, and the last bit turns … experimental. Partly by design and partly because I don’t know how to edit and I messed up.

Also, I recorded this at 2:00 a.m. because it took me two hours just to figure out how to record stuff on my computer. Yeah. The full story was 17 minutes long so just be grateful I figured out enough iMovie to whittle it down to 5 minutes. Astonishing, right? That I could stretch that into 17 minutes.

Enough caveats. I bring you BushCast Episode 1: The Worst Thing That Can Happen In A Movie Theatre.

I Don’t Remember Who ‘We’ Were

drama, storytelling

Freshman year at Princeton, we were going to New York a lot because it was just an hour by train, and because the little shuttle train called the Dinky dropped off about a block through the Junior Slums from our dorm room, it was literally an hour and a half door-to-door, Witherspoon Hall to Penn Station.

I don’t remember who ‘we’ were.

Could have been a few different people on that trip — we were there for different reasons. I was probably doing something impossibly glamorous like visiting a real New York artist’s studio. Somehow we wound up catching different trains home.

Was I supposed to meet them under that sign with the spinning destinations? Was I late and that’s why I was alone in Penn Station in the middle of the night?

I think I had my book bag, like an anchor.

I was 18 and new to New York. I was afraid I would be robbed the minute I dropped my guard — maybe I was already being robbed, pickpocketed, or would, and not even know it. That is the bag I packed with me to New York that night.

All Princeton kids carry book-bags around at all times — jammed full to prove we were working or about to work or capable of working or at least thinking about working all the time. Our work was to think. We thought about big, important stuff. That was our jobs. Your book-bag was your guard against recriminations of the world — you’re not working hard enough. Not enough thoughts.

I didn’t want them to take it from me. I guarded it.

The next train to Princeton wasn’t for another hour.

I made my way into the urine-soaked, fluorescent bathroom. Metal ant-theft purse clasps. Signs warning you to watch your belongings. The scattered contents of a woman’s purse on the floor.

I tried the first stall. Blood all over the toilet steal and broken crack vials scattered on the floor. Pushed open the second door on a shrieking transexual clown. Ran for the handicapped stall — chased by the clown. Slammed the door on his hand as he tried to force it open. Locked the door and backed away from it, terrified. But I still had to pee like a racehorse. Dropped my stuff down, pulled down my pants and squatted over the filthy toilet seat —

A crack vial rolled from beneath the other stall and hit my foot —

The clown shrieked and stretched his hand after it, groping — touching my foot —

Then he squeezed his head and shoulders underneath the partition, going after the crack, smiling up at my naked cunt —

I kicked him and screamed —

I yanked up my pants and pressed myself against the wall. The clown stood on the toilet in the next stall and looked down over the partition, screaming at me to give him his medicine back —

I kicked his crack back over to his stall. I couldn’t hear what he was doing in there. I was afraid he was going to attack me the minute I opened my stall door. I didn’t know whether he had left or not. I waited an interminable amount of time, then I busted the door open and ran out of the bathroom all the way across the length of Penn Station to the retail safety of the magazine shop. Shaking, I flipped through magazines without seeing them. I looked over my shoulder — I thought the clown might still be chasing me. Maybe this was one of those movies where the end-game is destroying the clown by blowing up Penn Station. I flipped through magazines without seeing them for the hour till my train to Princeton. I felt guilty and dumb for being in Penn Station alone in the middle of the night. Was I brazen or a hayseed? I was new to New York. I probably didn’t tell my friends.

I shook all the way till I got on the train, maybe till my dorm room bed. I didn’t want to be robbed. I was 18.

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.

Odds N’ Ends

storytelling

I’ve been a fucking drag lately, right?

In lieu of apology, I’m giving y’all one of the painter John Kacere’s lithographs above to make it up. You’re welcome.

I’m tired and I’ve been working on loglines so I’m in danger of boring myself to death any minute now. How I get through writing loglines is I pretend I’m writing joke loglines for a sketch or fake T.V. Guide and imagine a wacky SNL character reading them, like to introduce the Sunday night movie. Then, when they’re sufficiently jokey and awful and sound like the worst movies ever … voila. Done! It’s a little more complicated than that, but there is something to that feeling of a logline needing to sound punchy and familiar in tone and rhythm, like a hacky joke version of itself.

What I’m discovering is this is my method — I do whatever keeps me moving. No matter how fly-by-night. Better to be moving in the wrong direction and change course, than stand frozen in one place, uncertain. That’s me, anyway. Or what I’ve come to.

Hey French braids — you’re just hair that got pulled into a series of complicated relationships with the Germans. Lay off the attitude.

Clutter, Emptiness

storytelling

I struggle with clutter, emptiness.

At times my mind feels cluttered. Thoughts pile up like one of those 40-car wrecks on the Interstate. There’s poetry in the crash, but the thoughts are difficult to separate and impossible to drive away. It’s why I’m attracted to stories with layers, ruffles, depth, holes: these are stories about me, about what it’s like to struggle with clutter. What’s it like to have more thoughts than space to think them. That’s what feelings are.

I often wake in the morning with some new idea — send that novel excerpt to my agents, dig that old Calvin Klein bag out and get it sewn up, go back to sleep.

Yesterday morning I woke with the thought of an empty room. Like, a Zen temple. Empty. Fragrant and far from here. It felt safe and comforting, and I returned to it throughout the day.

I spent yesterday cleaning out my files, which proved emotional. I have a meeting Monday with my agents and manager to strategize what I’m going to write next, and I was partly going through just to find all my uncompleted projects, idea files, notes. I was happy and dismayed to see how many there were, ideas and projects — happy because I’ll have a lot to pitch, dismayed because this material represents years of my life that could have been spent earning money for this same output —

This is what I mean by clutter. This is in my head, so it’s in my files. It’s in my living room. It accumulates, in a pile of twenty scripts on the dining room floor. In drifts of post-its covered with notes from many different projects. I have trouble letting go of things. Because without my things, the feeling is — I won’t have more things. I’ll be left with what I have. Emptiness.

I am rich in emptiness. So I gather, I accumulate — thoughts, notes, clutter — in order to fill that. My things make me feel like I have — something.

But clutter takes from me, because what I am is — empty. Clutter surrounds me, like fat, like drugs, keeps me from expressing what I really am. Empty.

The more days I wake with the thought of an empty Zen room, the more I can hold that, the safer I’ll feel letting go of my things. Accepting that all I am is — empty.

Clutter is denial, resistance. Emptiness is what I am.

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.