Organizing reality

Yesterday, the WGA announced plans to begin organizing writers working on reality television shows. Unlike writers working on traditional dramas or sitcoms, these writers haven’t been covered by the guild, which means they receive no health insurance, no residuals, and no set pay minimums.

As WGAw president Daniel Petrie put it in the press release:

The secret about reality TV isn’t that it’s scripted, which it is; the secret is that reality TV is a 21st-century telecommunications industry sweatshop.

Most readers of this site are familiar with one kind of writing when it comes to film and television. It happens on three-holed paper, with uppercase scene headers and neatly indented blocks for dialogue and parentheticals. But the truth is that much of the work a professional writer does in Hollywood takes on other formats: treatments and beat sheets, outlines and season patterns. Even in non-reality shows, a lot of the writing takes place before you type “FADE IN:”. So it’s a mistake to confuse “unscripted” with “unwritten.”

Many of the people who the WGA would like to organize are currently called producers — which is the norm in television. Be it The Simpsons or The Sopranos, many of the writers in television are called producers of some stripe: Executive Producer, Co-EP, Supervising Producer. Despite the title, there’s no doubt they’re writing. Every episode says “written by” or “teleplay by.”

In reality TV, there’s usually no “written by” credit. But it would be a mistake to think there’s no writing.

In addition to the obviously-scripted moments (someone has to tell Jeff Probst what to say), every episode needs writers to figure out what the hell the story is. Yes, video crews will capture the action, and a team of editors at Avids will ultimately cut the footage together, but the decisions about what actually happens in a given episode fall upon the writers, who have to tease plot, character development, comedy and tension out of hundreds of hours of “real life” taking place.

These people are, in fact, organizing reality. Which is why they deserve to be able to organize under the WGA umbrella. You can read more about the situation here.

UPDATE: After reading a note left in the comments section, I don’t want to understate the role editors often have shaping the “what happens” in reality TV. They’re often performing functions that would normally be the purview of writers; the question is, why aren’t they being compensated for it?

Formatting a reality show proposal

Writing loglines for a comedy

questionmarkSo now I have 120 pages of the funniest damn stuff you’ve never seen and I have to describe it in three or four sentences. How do you convey the witty dialogue, the clever visual gags, the essence of the humor in a logline?

Whenever I write one it ends up sounding like it’s describing an action movie or drama. Any help would be greatly appreciated.

– Jeff in Maplewood

You aren’t going to be able to summarize the visual gags, puns and one-liners in a logline, so don’t try. Rather, you want to distill what’s funny about the idea of your movie. The best practice is to take existing movies and figure out how you’d boil them down if you had to write a logline.

None of these would classify as John’s Best Effort, but they get the point across:

  • Groundhog Day — Bill Murray gets stuck repeating the same day, again and again. Every day, he tries to do something different, but the next morning everything resets to the way it was.

  • Shrek — A grumpy ogre and his hyperactive donkey have to save a princess. The world is made up of all the different fairy tale characters, like the Three Little Pigs and the Gingerbread Man.

  • Clueless — An airheaded but ultimately well-meaning Beverly Hills teenager tries to “makeover her soul” in a riff on Jane Austen’s Emma.

Accept the fact that some movies aren’t so easily summarized. For instance, we never did come up with a logline for Go which sounded actually funny.

Note: Looking up the IMDb summaries for these examples proves that anonymous posters can do better than the pros. For Shrek:

A reclusive ogre and a chatterbox donkey go on a quest to rescue a princess for a tyrannical midget lord.

Damn. It’s the “tyrannical midget lord” that makes it funny.

Hey look! err..Listen! John’s on NPR. Briefly.

podcastAfter meeting a friend-of-a-friend at a birthday party over the weekend, I ended up getting pressed into service for a story on NPR’s Day to Day.

Reporter Mike Pesca wanted to talk about Arnold Schwarzenegger’s challenges converting his action-movie persona into a consensus-building governor, and wanted to talk to a screenwriter about it. So I happily made with the quotes.

Here’s what I learned. Somehow, the experience of talking into a microphone makes constructing a coherent thought 300% more difficult. I sat down ready to talk about things like California’s abysmal Proposition 13, and found myself speaking non-words like “governenceship.” Bah. Fortunately, the snippets that made it in to the report are at least English.

You can hear the results here.

(For the record, I’m pretty neutral on Schwarzenegger. He’s honestly been a lot better than I was expecting, but that’s sort of damning with faint praise.)

Formatting the one-sided phone conversation

questionmarkI’m curious about your format for writing a one-sided phone conversation.

I’ve seen it done in so many different ways now, that I have no idea if there is a more uniform way of doing it, or a preferred way.

I’ve seen…


(on phone)

I know it’s your birthday…I can’t make it…Look, that’s not my problem.



(on phone)

I know it’s your birthday…


I can’t make it.


Look, that’s not my problem.

Then, I’ve seen some similar to above, but filled with (beat) instead.

Is there one correct way to do it?

– Kris
New York City

There’s no one “right” way, but I tend to choose the first option, since space is always at a premium. The only time to break out the parentheticals is if something really is changing on Kevin’s side of the conversation: the tone, the intent or the direction of the conversation.

You’ll also need a parenthetical (or a separate action line) if Kevin is speaking to someone on-screen and on the phone at the same time.

For instance, here’s an exchange from Go:


(on phone)

It’s called Mary Xmas. Mary like a chick…Like her name is Mary, not like you marry her. You fucking moron…I dunno, some warehouse shit.

(to Claire)

Is this gonna be cool?


Yeah, I guess.


(on phone)

My friend Claire here says it’s going to be a kick-ass-fucking-time…What, you know her?

(to Claire)

It’s your buddy Simon. He’s in Vegas.


I know.


She knows…Hell, I dunno…

(looks at Claire)

Maybe…Yeah, well save a load for me big boy…Whatever.

Read lots of bad scripts

Screenwriter/blogger Bryan ‘Locke’ Naegele speaks the truth: it’s just as important to read bad writing as good.

The first reason to read bad scripts is to constantly expose yourself to what doesn’t work. Don’t learn from your own mistakes, learn from others. That’s my motto. That way yours are much more manageable because they’re fewer. You become hyper-aware of flat characters, shotty dialogue, predictability, clich├ęs, etc.

I assume “shotty” is a cross between “shoddy” and “shitty.” I like it.

I worked as an intern-slash-reader at a little Paramount production company during my first semester of graduate school, and the contrast between the crappy scripts I read there and the great scripts I read for class was really illuminating. And encouraging on some level. I knew I could never write as well as Lawrence Kasdan, but I could easily write better than the schmucks I had to write coverage on.

So, take Bryan at his word.

Introducing Off-Topic

off topicThis website is billed as “a ton of useful information about screenwriting,” but I have many interests that don’t fall within that framework, no matter how broadly I try to stretch it.

So as a way to service these off-topic interests, I’m happy to introduce Off-Topic.

Off-Topic is not about screenwriting. At least, not primarily. It’s structured as an ever-expanding list of sites and real-world things that I find interesting, useful or disturbing. The accompanying blurbs are a lot shorter than traditional posts, just long enough to help you decide whether it’s worth it for you to click-through. Every headline on Off-Topic points somewhere off-site.

Daring Fireball’s linked list was my most obvious inspiration, but kottke and others have implemented their own strategies for micro-posting. From a site owner’s perspective, the advantages are mostly about time. The average post on takes me between 15 minutes and an hour to write, which is one reason I don’t post daily. These linked-list postings, however, take less than a minute, so I suspect you’ll see a lot more of them.

In the right-hand column, you’ll see the link for Off-Topic, which is a page that shows the fifteen most recent entries. For now, you can bookmark this page, or just click-through from the front page. At some point, I’ll implement a graphic to indicate that there are new links in Off-Topic.

Why the separate page? Well, there are different techniques for implementing micro-posting, each with its own pros and cons. One option is to mix the links in with “regular” blog content (a la kottke), which ensures maximum visibility. Another method is to keep the links separate from “real” editorial (such as Daring Fireball). I chose door number two, for a couple of reasons:

  1. It was much easier to implement.
  2. It keeps the non-screenwriting stuff separate.
  3. It let me set up new RSS feeds just for the Off-Topic stuff.
  4. I could leverage to do the heavy lifting.

That last one was key, because is ideally suited for the task. The system uses tags to sort and classify the links. A very cool side benefit is that any user can subscribe to an RSS feed of just the topics she finds interesting. For instance,

will pull up all the links I’ve posted. But if you only want links that pertain to screenwriting, you can subscribe to:

You can have your feeds, your way. Since the postings are so short, they’re ideally suited for RSS.

What do I expect to put on Off-Topic? The tags tell the story.

  • Books. I read a lot. A lot. Mostly, it’s non-fiction, sometimes tangentially related to what I’m writing.
  • Reviews. Particularly if I strongly agree/disagree with the reviewer.
  • Funny. Random things.
  • Screenwriting. Okay, it’s not officially “off-topic,” but if I find good stuff on other sites, I’m more likely to link it here than on the front page.
  • Geek. Lotsa geek.
  • TV. Lord knows I love me some idiot box.
  • Gay. I don’t write a lot about gay issues, but other people do.
  • Parent. I’m having my first kid in August, so I’m sure stuff will come up.
  • Projects. When I encounter interesting links to past or current projects, you’ll see them here.
  • Mac. The best darn computers in the world.
  • NSFW. That’s “Not Safe For Work.” Or for minors. Or my Mom. Or the easily offended. I won’t be posting a lot in this arena, but better to take me at my word. (The individual links will also say NSFW, just to be extra-clear about it.)

The best part about the tagging system is that I can expand/modify tags as needed, so that if there isn’t a good category for something, I can just make a new one. It’s a lot more flexible than traditional blogging taxonomies.

The biggest drawback to implementing Off-Topic this way is that there’s no easy method for feedback. Unlike normal entries, there’s no comment section for Off-Topic. For the time being, the best bet is to email for anything related to the list. I’m sure a better system will come along shortly.

For now, explore.