The original post for this episode can be found here.
John August: Hello and welcome. My name is John August.
Craig Mazin: My name is Craig Mazin.
John: And this is Episode 333 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.
Today on the podcast we’re going to be taking a listener question about getting through the first act to look at the bigger issues of how we get our scripts on the right track to begin with. Then we’ll be looking at the role of writing and writers in creating VR, AR, and other immersive experiences.
Craig, you are in Seattle. How is that as an immersive experience?
Craig: Seattle is a great city. I really like it up here. It is verdant, as we like to say. It’s got that kind of – well, I’d guess you’d say a big city vibe but little city kind of vibe at the same time. It reminds me a little bit in that way of Boston or San Francisco. You kind of have the best of both worlds. Super educated. Very progressive town. Honestly, it just feels like a lot of LA to me, except colder, wetter. The time is the same. You know, you don’t have the time change problem.
So, it’s nice. We’re up here just for a few days. My son is taking a look at some potential colleges and things like that. And, you know, just chilling.
John: Cool. We are trying to figure out a date for us to come up to see Seattle and talk to screenwriters up there. Maybe this summer? It’s all really depending on really kind of Craig, because Craig’s schedule is crazy, because he’s making a giant TV show for HBO.
John: But we’d love to come up there. So if we have dates, we will share them as soon as we know.
Craig: As soon as we know.
John: Last week you were absolutely correct. You diagnosed me over the air with a sinus infection. That is in fact correct.
Craig: Nailed it.
John: I’m on my heavy antibiotics. I feel much better. I don’t really sound better, but people will suffer through my nasally voice for one more week hopefully and then I’ll be better.
Craig: And what did they lob at you?
John: It is not a Z-Pack because it had been going on long enough that they put me on a different antibiotic. I also have some Mucinex, I have two different kinds of Mucinex to take.
John: My saline nasal spray. I have other stuff for kind of emergencies. But I really do feel quite a bit better. I was able to fly yesterday without my ears exploding, so I was very happy with the progress so far.
Craig: It’s amazing how quickly the antibiotics will turn around an infection like that. And let’s just all pray that we don’t ultimately succumb to bacteria that don’t care about our antibiotics. It’s a real thing. Because, you know, the problem with sinus infections, there are very few blood vessels running through there, so you have to actually bomb your system with a pretty sizable amount of antibiotics just to reach those little nooks and crannies up there. It’s atrocious.
And, also, the clearest evidence we have, I believe, that there is no intelligent design of human beings, the sinuses are absurd. They’re so dumb.
John: Yeah. Hopefully they’ll be restored to full functionality soon enough and we’ll be good. My question is would our voices be the same? Our voices would not be the same without our sinuses. So we have to credit some of our wonderful resonant human voices to the bizarre structure of our sinuses.
Craig: I don’t know. I guess a little bit. But, I mean, you’ve got a big hole that runs from your nose down to the back of your throat. That’s why we can breathe through our nose. But the sinuses that are in our cheeks and our foreheads, I don’t know if they’re doing that much for resonance. But, yeah, I’ll give you this. Maybe we wouldn’t have – maybe we wouldn’t have Barbra without the sinuses.
John: Yep. All right, let’s do some follow-up. Man, this is going back so, so far. Why don’t you try Richard’s question here.
Craig: OK. This is from Richard. “I’m writing as a long-time listener with an update to a question I asked all the way back in Episode 3. That’s right, not a typo, Episode 3 from 2011. How simple life seemed back then, right?” An aside, yes. Right. It did.
Craig: It did. Oh, 2011, how we miss you. Richard goes on, “Back then I asked as a prospective parent what it’s like raising a child while trying to break in as a screenwriter. You both gave some great perspective about how it’s tough but doable. Well, I wanted to let you know that last year, 2017, I was admitted into the WGA having written two freelance episodes of TV, but better yet my daughter turned five.” Awesome.
“Somehow, through perseverance, discipline, luck, moxie, and a very, very patient wife I was able to become a writer and a parent in these past six years. I’m now preparing to go out for staffing season this year and transition to a fulltime TV writer. I find you both inspirations as writers and people. Your podcast has given me an education and a sense of hope.”
Holy cajole, thank you, Richard.
John: That’s very nice. What a lovely way to start 2018 with a follow-up from six years ago. So, congratulations on being a parent. Congratulations on being a paid writer, a working writer who is now a member of the WGA.
Some clarification for people who don’t know, freelance episodes of TV series are – a lot of US TV shows are written by staff. And so the staff is assembled and they put together the whole season of television. There are also freelance episodes. And there are requirements that change and it’s all complicated, but some episodes of network TV shows are intended to be farmed out to somebody who is not a member of the staff, or for other reasons they’ll bring on an outside person to write an episode of a TV series. That sounds like what happened to Richard and that’s fantastic for Richard.
So something else he wrote attracted the attention of the showrunner, or other decision maker there, and said like, “You know what, let’s give that guy a script.” And Richard apparently did well enough to do it twice last season and now he is a paid writer writing under a WGA contract, which is fantastic.
Craig: That is. It used to be, I think, a lot of these freelance jobs existed. As I recall friends telling me, they sort of disappeared, but not completely. And so it’s good to see that Richard got that. And really cool to see that, Richard, our podcast is older than your child. I like that.
John: Yeah. It’s nice to see.
Craig: You know, your kid will always be younger than our show. Thanks for listening for all this time and we’re glad we have helped.
John, we’ve got some more follow-up from Laurie.
John: Laurie from Episode 331 writes, “Why are you so adamantly against work-for-hire? Are you saying that non-WGA screenwriters should turn down paid ghostwriting gigs? If the price is right, and the client insists on such terms, that is the alternative is no work and no money, what’s the downside for the writer?”
Craig, what is the downside?
Craig: Well, I don’t think, Laurie, that we’re adamantly against work-for-hire in the essence of it, because John and I both work in that capacity all day long, work-for-hire for studios.
What we’re concerned about, and yes, we are saying non-WGA screenwriters should turn down paid ghostwriting gigs. What we’re concerned about and what the downside is is not the downside for you individually in the moment, although there is one, but rather the collective downside for all of us. Because you’re essentially pushing down the nature of the work around us. Anytime somebody shows up and works for less than minimum wage, for instance, they are harming all minimum wage workers. I think we can all agree on that.
Well, in our business of professional television and movie writing, we have minimum wages. We also have some other protections that are minimum protections like our credit protections. When other people show up and work for less and under conditions where they don’t get credit, or paid properly for their work, or residuals, they essentially put pressure on the rest of the world. Not only do they make their lives worse in that moment, but they make other people’s lives worse.
Yes, in that moment you will get paid as opposed to not being paid, possibly, although I would argue you could take a stand. But what are you essentially doing is mortgaging your future to make a little bit of money right now. And you’re also harming everybody else’s.
So, the downside is not so much for the writer. The downside is for writers. I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch, Laurie, to say that writers who are hired with money to write things should be able to write, if they so choose, under their own name. They should receive credit for the work they do and they should be compensated fairly. To me, that is not being adamantly against something, it is being reasonably for something.
John: Absolutely. So work-for-hire is common across all industries. So it’s not just writers, there’s artists, there’s other folks who work-for-hire. And we are really working-for-hire when studios employ us to work on screenplays. But they’re hiring us under very specific circumstances and conditions because of the union that we have. And if you talk to people in other industries, or writers who are doing the kinds of things that aren’t covered by the WGA contract, they would love to have some of the protections and some of the guarantees that we have. And so I don’t want to dismiss the possibility that there are writers who are working on movie stuff that is not covered and for other reasons maybe can’t be covered because of the weird esoteric conditions, but the aspiration should be to get that work covered and get that work paid fairly and those writers treated fairly. Do screenwriting on feature projects or television projects that could be covered under a contract because you are not just hurting yourself, you’re hurting everybody else who could be doing that work.
John: All right. Let’s move on to our marquee topic of the day. This is a question that came in from Dr. Cakey, and he sent audio, so we’re going to listen to Dr. Cakey’s question.
Craig: All right.
Dr. Cakey: To give some context for my unfortunately long question, I write almost constantly, either actually writing pages or more in the notes phase. But despite that, I almost always fizzle out very early on to the point that I finish less than one, even the messiest rough draft, per year. If you have a magical solution to that, I’m certainly open. But otherwise I think a place, or the place that stymies me, the place where I lose my way is what’s in the three-act structure term’s the second half of the first act. That is the incident has incited, the ball has been kicked, but its flight hasn’t yet stabilized.
The transitional period between what the story is going to be about, you know, crystallizing, and the protagonist actually doing that story. The period between Luke Skywalker seeing Leia’s message and him in the Millennium Falcon shooting TIE Fighters, and getting between those two points.
Because this is a period in the story rather than a point in it, I feel like that’s why it’s difficult to talk about, or why I haven’t seen people talking about it. And it’s also why it’s something I can’t find when I outline. So if you have advice about this space between inciting the story and beginning it, I’d appreciate it.
John: So an interesting topic and one we’ve never specifically dug into in these first 332 episodes. So, let’s talk a little bit about what we mean by the first act, because anyone who has picked up a book on screenwriting has probably heard the descriptions of what a first act, a second act, and a third act is. But just so we’re all talking about the same things. First act is the beginning of your movie. It’s usually the first quarter to a third of your movie. You’re meeting the characters. You’re setting up the world. You’re setting up the situation.
In the very classic sort of screenwriting book, the end of the first act is this big pivotal turn where everything is different. It’s the Dorothy, we’re not in Kansas anymore. Then you go into the second act which is sort of your biggest act. It can sort of be twice the size of your first and your third acts. That’s where the meat of your story is happening. The end of your second act is the moment of final crisis, the big worst-of-the-worst kind of twist. And then you get to your third act and the movie wraps itself up.
So, what he is describing, Dr. Cakey, is that moment after you’ve sort of first set things up, that inciting incident has happened, the fuse has been kind of lit, but before the character has really fully undertaken this journey. And that seems to be where he’s struggling.
Craig: Yeah. Well, I tend to think about these things entirely in terms of character. And in terms of the psychology of the character. Because you and I, when we’re doing this, we are in full control. The character isn’t. The character is as close to a real person as we can fashion. But we, as the writers, well we’re in perfect control. So everything we’re doing is intentional.
When I think about the character in the beginning of the story, this is a person who has achieved some ability to survive in the world a certain way. And then you, the writer, have upended things. People call this the inciting incident, and so on and so forth. And that’s, I think, what Dr. Cakey – which I really want to believe is his real name and that he’s a real doctor – Dr. Cakey is describing as the first half of the first act, right.
So, here’s the person. He’s living his life, she’s living her life, and then boom, a thing happens. Everything is rattled up. So, then he knows, Dr. Cakey does, that when we are in our second act some journey of a kind, whether it’s metaphoric or literal, is going to be undertaken. But what happens in between the point of the big shakeup and the going on that journey, the crossing of a threshold?
And to me a lot of times what that section is about, Doctor, is a character resisting and a character contemplating and considering, a character planning, trying to get out of, and then making some sort of bargain with the universe or fate. Characters are I think always on page 15 trying to get back to page 1. And between page 15 and whatever you want to call it, page 30, and please don’t hold me to those page numbers. You know how we are about these sort of things. The character is attempting to wriggle around it. They are meeting people and they are learning things that make it harder for them to wriggle around it, but in short they’re bargaining a bit.
I mean, Luke essentially is, I mean, in Star Wars he’s going to go return the droid and then this guy says, “Kid, come with me and fight the,” and he says, “Nah, that’s not for me. I’ve got to wriggle out of it. You know what? Let me just do one more harvest and then maybe.” He’s bargaining.
And then he goes back and he sees that his aunt and uncle have been murdered. There’s nothing more for him now and so our second act begins. But the second part of the first act for a lot of characters, whether it’s an animated character like Shrek, or a person like Luke Skywalker, or even in romantic comedies, you’re talking about–
John: So the decision that the Bill Pullman character is just fine. Like, you know, I don’t need to go off on the better one, I can stay with Pullman.
Craig: There you go. Exactly. And so really what – I think what I find helpful, because I think it’s real. It’s not like any of these things were written down by a monk in the 1500s and we just have to follow them blindly. These conventions occur because they mimic in some satisfying way what we know to be true. In your life, Dr. Cakey, if a big boulder comes rolling through and changes things, you are not immediately going to leap into a journey or an action. You are going to spend a little bit of time trying to undo what just happened, trying to make sense of what just happened, trying to excuse it, get out of it, return to where you where, and then once that becomes impossible then you start to think, OK, maybe I can do this, or this if I talk to this person and this person. To me, that’s kind of what it’s about.
John: So, what you’re describing is very true and very emotionally accurate to what it would be like to be in those circumstances. It’s also a very classic mythic structure, though. You’re talking about the denial of the call to adventure, which is a very classic sort of moment that heroes go on a classic hero’s journey/quest.
They won’t always have the denial. Like sometimes it won’t be a bad situation that’s forced them into that thing. They actually finally are able to voice that thing that they’ve wanted.
So, you’re talking about something outside coming in and disrupting their life. Sometimes it’s the character’s own want that finally gets expressed. Like this is the thing I want more than anything else, but they’re afraid to sort of fully grapple with it. So that’s another moment you’re going to see in these sort of we’ll say 15 pages, but really after you’ve sort of introduced the character, before they’ve really fully taken on their journey.
But as important as it is to understand this from the character’s perspective, you also have to understand it from the audience’s perspective. The first act is really how you’re teaching the audience how to watch you’re movie. And so in that initial set piece, the initial opening, you’re talking about the world, you’re talking about the characters, the tone, the voice. You’re giving them a sense of what’s important and what’s not important. But it’s after that section, it’s this period that we’re talking about, where you’re really kind of describing the path ahead for that character. What the kinds of things the movie will be doing over the next 90 minutes. And so you’re kind of cordoning off the sections that the character won’t go down, that the story won’t go down, so the audience sitting there in the theater watching it has some sense of what they’re in for.
You’re basically laying out the contract with the audience, like if you give me your attention I will make it worth your while. These are the kinds of things you can expect to see happen. And these are the questions I’m going to set up that I promise I will answer for you over the course of this next 90 minutes if you give me your full attention.
When movies don’t work, when TV shows don’t work, it’s often because that contract wasn’t well written, or was broken essentially by the end of the movie.
Craig: Well that’s exactly right. You are not only offering the audience a chance to crawl into your little world and thus give them an orientation tour of it, but you are also establishing a connection with them in terms of your responsibility to them. This portion of the movie is where you get to assure the audience that you’re going to be taking care of them by letting them inside your hero’s mind or thought process in some small way.
Even if the character is thrilled by the boulder that has rolled in, I’m going to go out on a limb and say generally speaking she may want to immediately get in the car and go on that exciting road trip because of what just happened on page 15, but A, she’s not going to want to go on that road trip for the right reason. Something is going to ultimately change with her, so I want to know, I want to get in her mind. I want you to show me her mind so I understand that she has something to learn. That she is not a complete character at this point. And then I want her to, I don’t know, say goodbye to some people. I want her to quit her job. I want her to pack, purchase clothing. I want to see a preparation.
Really, this area is to get ready. All of us, we get to get ready.
John: You’re assembling the team. You are figuring out what the path is ahead for you.
Going back to Star Wars, you know, it’s crucial that Luke not only deny the call to adventure, but he goes back and the family is dead. So, we call this burning down the house. You’re essentially making it impossible for them to get back to the life they had on page one through circumstances. Ideally, it’s circumstances that the character themselves have done and not some external force, but it also works if it’s an external force.
But something has changed and you basically said of all the stories this character could go on, the story the character is going to go on for this movie, for this two-hours of time is this story. This is the road ahead for this character. And that’s a crucial thing you’re doing in this period at the end of the first act.
Craig: Yeah. I actually don’t necessarily mind if a movie burns the house down, or does something like that in order to force a character to do something as long as I have seen that character refuse to do it prior. Because that does set up a certain tension which is to say, oh OK, now you’re doing it but you didn’t want to. You had to. And eventually you’re going to need to want to. You’re going to need to make this right choice when you can go back to a house.
And that’s a good expectation, but this is all stuff that you are setting up in motion here. You know, you think about the first half of your first act, Dr. Cakey, as who is this person and what is their problem. You can look at the second half of the first act as a little bit of an indication of what the ending of the movie is going to be. Because the motions that they’re going through here should be both in denial of that ending, but also in a sense predicting it.
John: So let’s talk about if you’re having problems in this period, what are some things to be looking for? I would start with do you really know what your character wants? And when I say wants, I mean both macro level like what is the overall hope, dream, ambition of the character, but what does the character want moment by moment? It goes back to what Craig was saying about trying to find a way to get back to page one. They probably want to retreat to a place of safety. How do you juggle the very immediate wants, the sort of scene by scene wants, with this bigger sort of emotional want?
Can you hear what the character’s song would be if this was a musical, because this is classically the moment where you’ve already had the “welcome to the world” song. This is the “I Want” song. Well, what is that character’s song? And if they could sing it, what would they be singing? Because that would probably tell you where they’re emotionally at as they’re trying to head into the second act.
Second I’d say have you picked a story that’s interesting to you, or just a character or situation that’s interesting to you? Because maybe it’s a fundamental thing about the nature of the story you’ve chosen, because if you’re not actually that intrigued by the journey, by where they start and where they’re going to, but you really love this character, or you really love this world, or this situation, that may be your problem and that may be why you’re struggling to get through this part of the first act and really only finishing a script in a year is you’re trying to force yourself to be interested in something that’s not fundamentally that interesting to you.
Craig: I think also, Doc, if I may, sorry, I think I’m coming down with John’s whatever sinus infection, I think you need to take a step back and start watching some movies that you love that you think you know. And watch them specifically for this. Write down everything that happens in every scene until the first act is over, and then think about what connected you to the second part of that, what you call the first act. Think about it. Really think about what grabbed you and what meant something to you and then ask how that might apply, not the details, but the spirit, how that might apply to what you’re doing.
John: The thing I want to stress is we’re talking about first act and second act that like it’s a really natural clear distinction between the two.
John: And a lot of times in the movies that I’ve worked on, I would disagree on sort of where the first act is and where the second act. I think it can be kind of arbitrary and honestly invisible. When a movie is working really well you sort of cross over that boundary and you don’t really notice that you’ve crossed over it.
Like, you might check in with a character later on and realize like, oh yeah, they’re in a very different place than they were 20 pages ago, but it wasn’t right on a certain page break where like, oh, suddenly now the curtain closed and now we’re open to act two. It doesn’t often feel that way. So, looking through some of my movies, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory has a very, very obvious act break where we’re outside the factory, then we’re inside the factory. It’s a very different movie and things happen completely differently inside and outside.
But Go really doesn’t have that same kind of break, even though there’s three sections to it they’re all following different stories. Basically each one of those little stories has its three-act structure, its beginning, its middle, and its end.
Big Fish kind of has a first act and a second act, but I would have a hard time pointing at one specific scene that says like, oh, that’s the start of the second act. You know, it’s two characters on two different journeys and you’re following them. And if I’m doing my job correctly, scene by scene, you’re intrigued enough that you’re not really noticing that the landscape underneath your feet has changed.
Craig: Sometimes I find myself in a room where a producer and executive are discussing the first act or the second act, and one of them say, “And the first act, you know, I think ends here.” And then the other one will say, “No, I think the first act ends here.” And they’ll start arguing about it. And I will tolerate it, briefly, but eventually I will say you all understand there’s no – the curtain stays open the whole movie. No one cares. Why are we talking about this? Just talk about the movie. Talk about the story.
A proper movie has one act. Beginning, middle, end. That’s it. I don’t get all hung up on this act stuff. I really don’t. And, by the way, I think partly because there are other kinds of entertainment I’ve come to enjoy very much, like say musicals, that are two acts. But, you know, you could also take any two-act musical, ignore the fact that there’s a break in the middle so people can pee basically, and then re-divide that into three if you’d like. Or five. Or seven. You know.
John: So both stage musicals and classic broadcast television, they have act breaks because they literally have breaks where they stop the action and go to the next thing. And because they have that mechanical divide, you write them in a very specific way so that you have an intriguing question at the end of an act and then you come into the next act to sort of answer that question.
So, with Big Fish I had to figure out how to both resolve the action and have a big moment, but leave an open question so that the audience has something to talk about over the break and is eager to see that question resolved. In TV, we look at what Aline does with Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, they have to really plan for what those act breaks are. And once you get used to that form of writing for television, with act breaks, it becomes an incredibly useful structuring tool to figure out how you – those become the moments in which you story sort of hangs. You figure out those act breaks first a lot of times and then write to those act breaks. And it’s powerful when you can do it.
When we had our live show and we had Julie Plec talking about the one thing she wishes she could kill, or the lump of coal, it was the six-act structure which is imposed on some broadcast shows now where the acts become so short that like you’re just scrambling to get any meaningful piece of entertainment in between those last commercial breaks.
Craig: Yeah, you know, in the writing of Chernobyl I’ve never thought about acts, but not even once. Each episode is an episode. That’s what it is. It’s an episode. Inside of the 60 pages I couldn’t even begin to tell you where there’s acts. It’s just not relevant.
John: Yeah. And as we were talking about Game of Thrones and sort of the challenges of that first pilot episode and making it work right, they really weren’t act problems that you were describing. It was audience understanding of what characters were going for. It was audience’s understanding of the world and, yes, those are first act issues because you’re trying to establish things, but they’re really the whole piece issues.
Craig: Oh yeah. They had problems at the end of the show when people were showing up and I would say, “Well who’s that?” And I watch Game of Thrones religiously. I couldn’t tell you where an act occurs in any given Game of Thrones episode. Nor could I tell you where an act occurs in any given episode of Breaking Bad or any TV – any episodic TV show, like a 60-minute show. There’s no first, second, third to me. It’s really more about just breaks. It’s different.
In movies, there is this sense of dramatic motion, like “And now the second act is over and the third act begins. Well, the third act seems to be starting a little late.” And I always just giggle. I’m like, is the movie the right length? Then let’s just call to five pages earlier the third – who cares? What are you talking about?
If the movie is the right length and it’s paced properly, I don’t know what any of this jargon means. So hopefully we’ve helped Dr. Cakey without over hammering on the orthodoxy of this act stuff.
John: Yeah. So I want to try to square this circle here by saying I think it’s fine to talk about acts while acknowledging that they don’t really exist. What’s useful about talking about acts is we recognize that in most feature films with a central protagonist there’s a journey that happens because these stories happen to a character just once. Like there’s a once in a lifetime thing that is happening to this character that you’re going to kind of naturally flow along a certain path. And one of those paths is going to be leaving this comfortable place and going on a journey.
And not necessarily a literal journey, but some sort of change is going to happen to this character. And in that process of change there are turning points. I think it’s fine to talk about all those things without getting too hung up on “It’s this act, it’s that act, we’re on this page, or that page.” And where I feel the danger is is that somebody at some point read a bunch of scripts and watched a bunch of movies and realized like, oh, it’s happening at this page counts and at this minutes. And that must be how movies work. And they mistook the measurement of the thing for the thing itself.
Craig: Yeah. People watch movies and then they confuse symptoms for causes. And they will advise people. You see it all the time. “Well, in the middle of your movie this thing must happen.” OK. Why? “Because it does all the time.” Well, yes, but why? “Just do it. All movies have it.” OK. Well how am I supposed to do it if I don’t know why it’s there? And why did all the people who did it before me who didn’t have you telling them to do it, why did they do it?
And so these are the things that interest me. I’m never concerned about the act effect, which is why I actually like this question because he’s really asking why. Why do these things happen? Yeah.
John: So, back in Episode 100 someone asked in the audience, basically I have these two ideas, which one should I write. And I said write the one with the best ending because that’s the one you’re going to finish. I think my advice for Dr. Cakey is as you’re auditioning ideas to write, for you specifically I would say write the one that has the most interesting section of what we’re talking about. Pick the one next to write that has a really fascinating change from the normal world into the – we’ll call it second act – into that journey of like where things are going. Write the one that has a really intriguing moment of that character having to decide to go on that journey, because that’s the one that’s going to probably work best in that section. And it may work best overall for what you’re struggling with.
Craig: I’m down with that.
John: Let’s go to Nicole in Rome. She writes in with an audio question as well.
Craig: Let’s listen.
Nicole: Hi John. Hi Craig. My name is Nicole Mosely. I’m listening to your podcast from Rome in Italy. And I’m enjoying it very much. Thank you.
I have a question regarding new formats of storytelling that became possible in the last years. I’m talking about virtual reality, 360 film, and augmented reality. I’d like to know what you guys think about it. Is this the future of filmmaking? Or is it just to hype something that is already dead before it hits the mainstream?
And the thing that would interest me even more is how does it affect storytelling? For example, how do you actually get the viewer to look at what is important and convey story and meaning when it’s no longer you, the screenwriter, but actually the viewer who decides what he’s going to look at? What does all of this mean for dramaturgy like the three-act structure? Does it still apply as it does in non-linear movies, or does it work in a completely different way?
And is that still storytelling? Or would it serve for journalism, education, gaming, and other experiences? Also, the moment we talk about full immersion and the viewer being inside the story, what role does he take on? Is he the protagonist? Or is he a fly on the wall?
I know those are so many questions, but I’d really like to know what your take on all of this is. Thank you.
John: It was one of those epic questions that sort of keeps on going. But they’re all related and I think they’re all fair questions to ask.
John: From my perspective, I don’t think AR/VR/Immersive storytelling/360 movies, I don’t think they’re the future of cinema. I don’t think they’re the future of moviemaking. But I think they are in our future. I think they are important art forms that need to be talked about in their own way and to try to just say that all movies are going to become them I think is really naïve.
I think they have as much to do with video gaming as they do with traditional movies. I think you have to sort of look at what is the best way to tell a story in those new mediums and not necessarily try to apply everything we’ve learned from TV or from film. Just let them be their own thing.
Craig: Yeah. I agree. Well, first of all, Nicole, these are really, really good questions. And I don’t blame you for being a combination of skeptical and also possibly hopeful. I mean, it’s always exciting when these things come along. And then, of course, scary as well. What is it going to mean for all of us?
I think the first thing to understand, at least from my point of view, is that virtual reality/360 film, and augmented reality is – well, let’s leave augmented reality aside. Let’s just talk about VR/360. That already exists. They’re called videogames. The only difference that we’re seeing now is the delivery method which now straps to your head, so you’ve eliminated the space between yourself and the television. So, visually the experience is different. But storytelling-wise it’s the same. You control your point of view in a 360 up and down way the way you do in say Skyrim.
The storytelling that occurs in that format, well, there’s lots of ways of doing it. One way is the kind of it’s open and you discover things as you go. One way is sort of a combination of that, but you are also kind of on rails, so when you attach yourself to a certain story point you follow that little quest and you’re kind of on rails with it. Or you have choices between things to follow. That exists. And I think that when John says games, I think he’s right that this feels more about games to me than movies.
Movies and books and television shows are entirely passive experiences for the audience. They have always been so, with rare exception, and I don’t see any reason why that’s going to go away. That experience is actually the fundamental narrative experience. To read a book. To watch a play. To see a movie. To listen to a song. And we will always come up with other ways to have that experience, but the fundamental experience will always be there. No new technology has gotten rid of the technologies before it. None.
I don’t think there are any story type of technologies that have just simply been eliminated. We just accrue more of them, which I find fascinating.
There are some examples of things that are happening. One of the people that we want to talk to is Ed Solomon who has put together this crazy thing with I think Soderbergh, right?
John: Yeah, exactly. Mosaic.
Craig: Yeah, Mosaic, which is very much a kind of, OK, choose your own adventure style parallel storyline. Everything all adds up. Lots of different points. And it will end differently depending on what you’re doing. But, of course, no matter how complex you make these things, and we will talk to Ed about it, it comes down to, well, it’s written right? It’s written.
So, yes, these things are kinds of storytelling. They are all sorts of storytelling. And just as there are simple children’s books you can read and then these very complicated children’s books that aren’t really for children but more like for adults that involve moving back and around and turning things upside down.
Did you ever read – there’s just all these multimedia things and ways to do storytelling. And so I guess I’m going to say, Nicole, all of it is going to happen. None of it is going to eliminate anything else. That’s my crazy point of view. It will accumulate, but it will not eliminate.
John: Absolutely. I think the question that’s sort of underlying what Nicole is asking is how do you write it. How will we figure out how to write it? And we’re still grappling with that. I think we’re still grappling with how to write certain kinds of videogames. Like videogame writing has improved dramatically, but it’s a very different kind of writing than what we’re used to. Because usually when we’re talking about a book, we’re talking about a play, we’re talking about a movie, it’s one shot straight through. And we know exactly what we’re going to be looking at. We can direct the viewer’s attention completely.
But in a videogame you may not have that option because the character could do a thousand different things. It’s a forking branching paths, and so you have to plan your writing for all the different scenarios they could come across.
A similar thing happens with immersive theater. So, Sleep No More, New York, or I went to Safe House 77 here in Los Angeles, and those are situations where parts of it are clearly written and controlled and there’s a whole plan for this is going to happen at this moment. There’s a timeline in which things happen. But you can’t know for sure that a certain person in that audience was looking where you wanted them to look, or was interacting the way you wanted them to interact. You can direct your actors to do certain things, but the audience can change that as well. They have to be able to sometimes improvise based on what’s happening in the space. So every time is different.
So that’s still playwriting to some degree, but it’s also a different thing. And I think to try to force it to become the future of something, or to be like something else, is limiting its potential.
I would say when you’re grappling with AR/VR/360/some new storytelling mechanism/an alternative reality game, always great to take lessons from what other things have done before it, but you really are walking into uncharted lands. And enjoy that uncharted landness. I think it’s important to be able to not limit yourself because the movie version of it would have done this. Well, you’re not making a movie. You’re making something else. What is going to be the cool experience? What is going to be the thing that people will take with them?
And one of Nicole’s great questions is are you a spectator or a participant as a viewer? Are you changing the story? Are you making the story move around? Or are you a fly on the wall? Both can work, but that’s a fundamental choice you’re going to have to make early on in any of these projects is to what degree are you participating in the story versus watching.
Jordan Mechner who did Prince of Persia, he really describes his games as being like you are the hero of the game. You have to think about every action being you are the protagonist doing it. So, if you’re watching people have a scene around you that is a failure. You have to be driving the scenes that you’re in.
Craig: Yeah. A lot of it reminds me of magic in the sense that you are implying a certain amount of choice to the audience that they don’t have. Pick a card, any card. I know what card you’re picking. Or it doesn’t matter what card you’re picking. You’re going to think that it’s this card. This is what craft is all about, right? So, when we do these things, I think videogames do it all the time, they make you think that you’re making a million choices. They make you think that you are somehow going to change the ending of something. But sooner or later the debt comes to be owed.
And the debt is to story. It’s to narrative. Mass Effect had a little bit of a problem when they arrived at the end of their trilogy of a billion user choices only to realize, “Uh, we have to give an ending. And the ending has to cover at least an enormous amount of these possible choices. So, let’s go with three of them,” and everybody went bananas.
And I understood why they went bananas, because the game had promised a certain kind of something it could not deliver. I played it. I played them. They made you feel like the choices you made mattered and you had many, many multiple choices. But in the end really they were kind of squishing you towards two poles, which were manageable narratively. And then some other things that occurred, which were managed narratively, but you know, it comes down to decision tree. No game, no piece of art can offer you a decision tree that is as complex as just walking down the street to the 7-11 is in real life. Because there is an end, right? The show ends, therefore work backwards from that.
So, I think, Nicole, no matter what happens it’s our brains that will always be the sticking point. That’s sort of the log jam. We have to deal with our brains. And people’s brains do require a certain kind of firm narrative to cling to one way or the other.
John: Circling back to Dr. Cakey’s question, I feel like this is also a case of the contract you’re making with the viewer, the participant, whatever you want to call the person who is experiencing the art that you’re making. It’s quite early on, the first few minutes, you are going to be establishing these are the kinds of things that can happen. These are going to be your responsibilities. These are going to be my responsibilities. Together we’re going to make this all work. And in a film or television show, it’s one kind of contract. In an immersive theater piece or in AR/VR, something that’s 360, it’s a different kind of contract. But it has to be there and you have to recognize that whether you’re explicitly stating it or just sort of implying it, people are going to have expectations about where you’re going. And so as long as you’re going in a place that meets their expectations and hopefully surpasses their expectations you’ll have a good experience.
Where it’s just confusing, or I just don’t even know what I’m supposed to be looking at, that’s where these projects tend to fall apart.
Craig: Yep. 100%.
John: Cool. Do you want to take Melissa’s question?
Craig: Yeah, Melissa in Eugene, Oregon, not too far from where I am now, asks, “I’m writing because last year I made it to the semifinal round of the Nicholl Fellowship,” congrats Melissa, “and ended up getting some inquiries from managers and producers based on that. The majority of people that reached out asked for the whole script, but two people asked for a writing sample.
“Is there an industry standard as to what a writing sample should consist of? The first ten pages? Any ten pages? The first act? Or is this generally up to the individual writer? Any advice you can give would be appreciated.”
John, what do you make of this?
John: Great. I don’t really know what to make of it because I’ve never been asked to send in a writing sample that wasn’t the whole thing. Because honestly I feel like you can send the whole script and if they just didn’t finish the script that’s up to them. We talk to a lot of people who read scripts for a living, who are staffing, and they stop whenever they stop, or they skim through stuff. We had these agents on for the last Three Page Challenge and they said like, “Yeah, we’ll start reading and then when we get bored we’ll skim.”
If they’re asking for a sample, it makes it sound clear that they don’t want the whole script, I would send them ten pages. And ten pages doesn’t feel like a lot and I think if you’re sending ten pages, I’d send them the first ten pages I should stress. And that’s not a lot. If they like the ten pages they can always ask for more. Craig, what’s your instinct?
Craig: I wouldn’t do that. Because here’s the thing. You have gotten inquiries, Melissa, from managers and producers based on making it to the semifinal round. The majority of people will ask for the whole script. That implies to me they haven’t read it. Two people asked for a writing sample, I wonder if that means we’ve read your script that was in the semifinal round. Can you please send more?
No matter what, I would never send anything less than a complete script. Because like John said, especially now in the age of PDFs where we’re not creating extra weight on their desk, they can read as much as they want. The script is a writing sample, top to bottom. If you send ten pages and they love it, the problem is they may go, “Great. I’ll ask her for the rest of those later,” but then a couple days go by and something happens and they’ve forgotten. But a script is a script. So, I would just send the whole script every time. If they ask for a writing sample and you’re not sure if they’ve read your Nicholl script, send the Nicholl script and something else.
If you don’t have another script, just resend the Nicholl script and say this is what I have so far.
John: Yeah. I think you are right and I’m going to sort of retract my previous advice. I guess I really can’t make a strong case for the ten pages. I think I may have been thinking about writing packet submissions, which are for a very specific kind of thing, and the WGA has been addressing abuses in that world.
The other thing I’ll say is it’s not even that we’re shipping big chunks of paper around, or even attaching PDFS. If you stick a link on there saying here are some things I’ve written that you may enjoy, then you’re sending two of those things and they’re basically just Dropbox links they’re going to open or not open.
John: Great. You’re really creating very little burden for them to do it. Just make sure you’re steering them to the thing you think is your best work, the thing that is going to best showcase what you’re able to bring.
Craig: That’s exactly right. You know what? Every now and then, John, I feel like we actually answer a question.
John: Oh, that’s so nice.
Craig: A lot of times, you know, listen, I’m not dissuading people from writing in. We do our best. Some of these questions you people ask are not answerable. You realize that. We do our best. But every now and then I feel like we nail it. And we’re definitely going to nail this next one. Definitely.
John: All right. Let’s bring in our next and our last one. It’s the last one in our list here. It’s from Will in Toronto. He writes, “How feasible is adapting a novel into a screenplay? Does the red tape of IP and rights make an adaptation virtually unreasonable to focus on or even impossible? I came across a novel in the past few months that would serve as a brilliant screenplay, but should I give it my undivided time and effort if it’s going to be ultimately denied?”
So, this is a very fundamental question but also a naïve question and I think a question that we can frame out for Will here in this discussion. Yes, a lot of books are adapted into movies. And sometimes those books are optioned by studios or producers who say like, “Hey, let us borrow the rights to your book and we may make a movie out of it. We’ll pay you a small amount of money. We’ll pay you more money if we make it. We’re going to hire a writer to work on this.”
That happens. That’s a lot of what I do is adapting books into movies. Individual writers can also option books. So, you, Will, in Toronto, if there’s a book that you love that you thought could be a movie and you felt like you could convince that author to sign over the rights, to option those rights to you, you could option those rights from that author and do it.
I’m sure on previous episodes we’ve talked about optioning stuff, about adapting other work. But I think you are fundamentally asking is this a thing you should be thinking about doing. I don’t think it’s the first script you should write is an adaptation. I think you need to learn how to write screenplays first. And I think you need to write one or two screenplays that are just yours, that are just entirely your things that you own every piece of.
And then if you want to circle back around to that book to adapt, go for it. Craig, what do you think?
Craig: I think you did it. I think you nailed it, John. I predicted that this question would get answered firmly and completely and you did it. I have nothing to add except this tiny piece of information. When John says, “Hey Will, maybe you could find this author and option the rights yourself.” That is absolutely true. And it may cost you a dollar. It may cost you nothing. Right?
It depends on who the author and the book is. If no one is asking them about their book, it’s an obscure book, or there wasn’t any interest. You’re the only person interested. What does it cost them to say, “All right, well you know what, give me ten bucks and you have a year to set this up somewhere, at which point somebody will have to purchase the rights to this book, but you have the exclusive right to go ahead and create a screenplay based on it and go and try and sell it.”
John: Yeah. Back in the day, when I was a young screenwriter, there was a book that I really wanted to option. And the only way to figure out how to get to the author was to call the sub-rights department of the publisher. So let’s say it was Macmillan, you would find the number for Macmillan in New York. You’d call the operator at the Macmillan switchboard and ask for sub-rights. And you get to someone in sub-rights and say I’m looking for the film rights for this book. And they would look up in some sort of catalog and then they would tell you who the person was. Or later on you’d email or you’d fax something through and they’d fax you back information.
Now with the Internet, you find the author, you find the author’s Twitter thing, and you ask them. You find an email address for them and you email them directly. The few times that I’ve optioned the rights to books myself, I just figured out who the author was and how to reach them and started the process myself.
Craig: That sounds exactly like the way to go. Will, we’ve done it. We’ve answered your question. I feel really good about it.
John: I feel great about it.
All right, it’s time for One Cool Things. My One Cool Thing is Bathe in my Milk. Craig, have you clicked this link yet?
John: Click the link. Clink the link, Craig.
Craig: Batheinmymilk.com. OK.
John: Now, please describe what you see.
Craig: OK. So I see a photo. Oh, all right. So, it’s a photo of a bathroom. It’s a bad bathroom. Peeling wallpaper. An elderly white woman is standing in a shabby white nightgown, cleaning products at her feet. There is a torn tassel rope and then a standalone tube. There is an African American man also about her age I would say sitting in the tub and the tub has apparently got milk in it. But maybe just soapy water.
And then her head is casting a shadow against the window. It’s not good. Should I keep scrolling?
John: Keep scrolling.
Craig: Oh god. OK. So now she has repositioned herself on the other side of the room and now there is a younger Asian man in the same tub. Nothing else has changed except a plunger has appeared in the cleaning – oh god. What is the story here? What is happening? Every single photo is the same except that there is a different man in her tub of weird, creepy, milky water.
Oh, there’s a big boy at the end. He’s big.
John: Yeah. He barely fits into the tub.
Craig: Yes he does. Oof. Yikes.
John: All right. So, Craig, tell me your theory. What the hell is going on here?
Craig: OK. Well, theory number one, this is a very, very low rent spa. This is a spa that costs $0.14.
Now, I think this is some kind of art project. I can’t imagine it’s anything else. The bathroom doesn’t – it’s – what could possibly be happening here? Oh my god, there’s one picture where she’s outside looking in through the window. Did you see that one?
John: [laughs] I saw that one, too.
Craig: That’s horrifying. So in one of the pictures she’s not even in the room. She’s outside of the room looking. Yeah, this is just a weird art project.
John: All right. So now you can click through to the New York Post thing which shows the actual flyer this all comes from. So it’s a flyer that’s mounted onto a telephone post. It says Bathe in my Milk. It has one of the photos there. It says Bathe in my Milk. Offer open to men only. Soy, almond, or traditional. Use my sponge. I will watch you. And then it has a link to the batheinmymilk.com.
Craig: So what the hell is it? It is a prank. Should we tell people?
John: It’s a prank, yet it is a meme. It is a creation, this guy Alan Wagner, and his friend Sydney Marquez helped him build it. He’s a guy who just does these things. They’re kind of art projects. They’re just like sort of little bits of cultural stuff that go out there. And this is an especially effective one, I thought. I just thought it was delightful.
Craig: Yeah, this is great. I like this line. He says, “Nobody seems to be enjoying it, and yet they are partaking in it.” That’s a great description of what these people are like. Yeah.
John: So I’m going to put up a link to the New York Post article which goes into sort of the backstory of it. So, Alan Wagner is a USC film school grad. I suspect he might be a listener, so Alan if you’re listening, hello.
Craig: Well done.
John: And basically he built that bathroom set in his garage. He just did it for the giggles. It looks like all those actors are from Craigslist. I just thought it was a nice example of just making something for the hell of making it. And a wonderfully creepy sort of disturbing thing to float out there in the world.
Craig: Yeah. It’s got a bit of the Saw bathroom kind of going on in this. It’s creepy.
John: It does. Yeah.
Craig: Very creepy.
John: It also reminded me a little bit of escape rooms. You can sort of imagine that there’s some escape room that’s kind of like this bathroom. That is just so disturbing.
Craig: Yeah. There will be a Bathe in my Milk Escape Room. Well, god —
John: Top that.
Craig: I won’t. I will go right underneath that with the most mundane One Cool Thing ever, but you know I’ve got this Apple Pencil. I don’t use it. It’s just there. I have it. I don’t know what to do with it. And finally I just thought, you know, I had to go somewhere and just jot down some notes and I didn’t want to bring my laptop. So I brought my iPad. I just said, screw it, I’m just going to do the pencil, the Apple Pencil note thing. I’m just going to plunge in. I’m not going to read instructions about anything. I looked to see there’s two apps that people use. There’s Notability and then there’s another one. I can’t remember what it’s called.
And I just flipped a coin, went for Notability. And you know what? It’s actually not bad. I don’t know if this is a One Cool Thing as much as a one begrudgingly, yeah, it actually works pretty well. I guess the nicest part of it, the part that made me happiest was I’m writing these notes down and it just automatically puts an image of the notes that I’ve taken on my computer when I’m at home via the magic of Dropbox of iCloud or whatever. But, you know, yeah, it’s OK. I mean, it’s not Bathe in my Milk, but it does the trick.
I’m not like fully into it. I’m OK with it.
John: Yeah. I don’t use my pencil for very much, but when I do need to go through a script and do some markup on it, I find it’s actually really good. So, even doing Three Page Challenges, I will find I usually use my Apple Pencil for that. So I’m looking at the PDF. I use a PDF Expert for that. And then I use the little pen function on that and circle things, highlight things, mark things. And it’s quite good for that.
And I agree that the iCloud aspect of it is incredibly important because then when I’m on my computer and we’re recording an episode I can pull up that same PDF with all of my markup in it and sort of see what I wanted to talk about.
So, I do use my pencil some. I think the pencil is remarkable. I just don’t have as much use for it as I’d hoped I would.
Craig: I’m there with you. Look, this is a better method for me than what I normally do, and what I normally have done, which is to just write notes on a regular piece of paper and then take a picture of that with my phone so in case I lose the note I have an image of it. But that’s sort of dopey.
The one thing I wish they could do differently is I don’t like that the Apple Pencil makes a little click when it contacts the glass of your iPad. I wish that there was no click. Because there’s something about graphite on paper, you know don’t get a click. You know what I mean?
John: I don’t hear that click. Are you sure you have the nib screwed all the way in?
Craig: No, it’s not a click-click. It’s more just – it feels hard. There’s no give, basically, right? There’s a little bit of give to paper and a little bit of give to graphite, because the graphite is wearing away as you’re drawing, right? And the paper is wearing away as you’re writing and drawing. But there’s nothing – it’s a fully inelastic collision between the nib of the Apple Pencil and the service of the iPad. And I wish it was slightly – I wish there was just a touch of give.
John: I get it. I get it. My wish for the Apple Pencil 2.0 or whatever is some stylists in the past have had a thing where you flip it over, and it’s like an eraser on the other side.
John: I keep trying to do that and to try to erase and instead you have to click the little erase thing and that’s just frustrating. There are also great apps out there that are doing innovative things where you’re touching with your finger while you’re using the thing. And you watch people do it and it’s amazing and it’s magic. I just don’t have a need for those things right now.
Craig: Also, I don’t have any talent with anything that involves dexterity and some sort of fine art instrument like a pencil, a crayon, a marker. I’m a disaster.
John: Yeah. I’m good at craft. I’m good at wrapping up things and that stuff.
Craig: You are.
John: But I’m not good with the little fine motor skill stuff whatsoever.
Craig: I’m also bad at craft.
John: I remember during the strike you were so impressed with my duct-taping abilities as we were duct-taping signs.
Craig: I still think about it. Yeah, we had this job of like, so, you know, these picket signs are made of two posters that are stapled together over a stick. Not even a stick. Like a slat.
John: It’s like a yard stick.
Craig: Yeah, like a yard stick. It’s a piece of crap piece of wood. And if you were to just walk around holding it your hands would be shredded with these terrible splinters from these things. So you have to duct tape them so that people can walk around and hold them without shredding their skin. And so John and I spent an hour at the Writers Guild one morning in 2007, I guess it was.
John: I guess.
Craig: Duct-taping these things. And my method, you know, just because again I don’t understand craft. I just figured, you know, I’m just going to start winding duct tape around this thing. And eventually I’ll stop. And then John’s method, everything was at a perfect slant. Each layer overlapped the other layer perfectly, so it just looked professional.
John: I’m a professional picket sign maker.
Craig: Yeah, it was really good. So I tried to do it like you were doing it, but I wasn’t as good.
John: Yeah. No, I really love that. I love that kind of stuff. I love wrapping presents. There’s something really calming about that. Like me and Martha Stewart, we love to wrap presents. Love it. Love it.
Craig: I still can’t do it. I’m almost a 47-year-old man, and when I have to wrap a gift I go to Melissa and I just say can you please wrap this for me. Because I don’t know how to do it. [laughs]
John: I kind of feel bad for my daughter because I will still wrap gifts that she’s giving out for presents for people and like I’m denying her the ability to actually learn how to do it, but I just love it so much that I always want to do it.
Craig: You know what I do? My one crafty thing is tiling out large D&D maps and then taping them back together.
John: That’s quite a skill. I’m not good at that. So nicely done.
Craig: That I rock. I knew that somehow this would come around in my favor. I just didn’t know how it would happen. So exciting. This is why VR struggles because you could never predict that.
John: No. They would never know that like Craig’s ability to tile things is crucial.
Craig: It’s going to be the ending. Like who could have seen that that was the ending? Our show is produced by… [laughs]
John: This Sunday, Craig, we get to play the next installment of Storm Kings Thunder. I could not be more excited.
Craig: Oh I know. I mean, it’s all I want to do every day.
John: Our adventuring party is headed into some place along the spine of the world and we have a giant who is a friend, so it’s going to be great.
Craig: It’s going to be great. And there will be blood.
John: There will be blood.
Craig: There will be blood.
John: Our show is produced by Megan McDonnell. It is edited by Matthew Chilelli. Our outro this week is by Rajesh Naroth.
If you have an outro, you can send us a link to email@example.com. That’s also the place where you send questions like the ones we answered. We love it when you record your audio with your question because it just makes it easier, because that way we don’t have to read your question. And also we get to hear the voices of our people. We get to hear your accents. The way you pronounce words in Canadian and/or Italian accents is fascinating for us.
But short questions on Twitter, Craig is @clmazin. I am @johnaugust.
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John: So if you are the person who pushes us over, I will be eternally thankful, because that would just be kind of cool.
Craig: I won’t care because it means nothing for me. [laughs]
John: It means nothing for Craig.
John: Other than something else for him to complain about.
Craig: Ooh. Yay.
John: That’s a gift that keeps giving.
Craig: Come on people. Help me out here. One away.
John: We also have some of the Scriptnotes USB drives in the store. So that’s store.johnaugust.com. That has the first 300 episodes of the show in one handy little package.
Craig, thank you for a fun show.
Craig: Thank you, John. I’ll see you next week.
- Bathe in my Milk and the NY Post article about it.
- The Apple Pencil works pretty well! You can use it with Notability.
- The Scriptnotes Listeners’ Guide!
- The USB drives!
- John August on Twitter
- Craig Mazin on Twitter
- John on Instagram
- Find past episodes
- Outro by Rajesh Naroth (send us yours!)
Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org
You can download the episode here.