Monthly Archives: May 2007

What's your vision?

A new video series for Fable 2 on “love and emotion” got me thinking. Part of our mission at the Writers Cabal is to help you realize your vision. But how do you articulate your vision?

The clue lies in the answer to this question: How do you want your players to feel when playing the game? Now, of course you want your player to feel important, but delving deeper will help differentiate your game from, say, the 100 other RPGs out there. Do you want your player to feel heroic? How about “loved,” as in the case of Fable 2? Do you want your player to feel ambivalent, torn, conflicted, eager, certain, or some combination thereof? There’s no wrong answer, so long as you actually answer that question and articulate it to your team. Your vision will help everyone from programmers to, you guessed it, writers create a cohesive and compelling game.

What questions have you asked yourself to clarify the vision for your game?

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Filed under Game Design

Truby: 9 story keys you must know

I attended a brief presentation by Truby today.  While afterwards I don’t think I counted out 9 story keys in my notes, I’m sure he gave them to us.  Truby offers a nice middle finger salute to three act structure, which is nice for some of us.  Here are my notes, which I hope will be helpful to others.

Common misconceptions:
1.  Movies are a star-based system and you need a star to succeed.  This is not true.
2. It’s all about who you know. Who you know is the “most over-rated element” in a screenwriters success. Many haven’t mastered the craft by the time they meet the right person

What is film? The art of change, the art of juxtaposition. As opposed to other media, Truby claims film is “pure story.”

3-Act structure leads to a weak plot, because it emphasizes only 2-3 plot points. 7-12 major plot points is much better. 3-act structure also doesn’t have a genre map, when most Hollywood movies involve 2-3 genres.

99% of movies fail at the premise

Success in writing means 1. finding your originality and 2. controlling your creativity.
To do so, create a wish-list of stories, lines of dialog, characters, etc. Then look for common elements and patterns, repeating characters or genres. Find out what you care about.

Genre. Many ideas fail because they’re developed in the wrong genre. Ways to identify genre:
Hero’s Role
Hero’s desire — best key
Social stage
Key question
Basic strategy
What follows below is the hero’s desire based on genre:
Comedy: To gain success or romance, with humorous results.
Action: To engage in combat
Crime: To catch a criminal
Detective: To find the truth (genre now only exists in television, primarily)
Fantasy: to explore an imaginary world
Horror: to defeat a monster
Masterpiece (not technically a genre): To find a deeper reality contrasting time/perspective/system
Myth: to go on a journey, ultimately leading to oneself
SciFi: to deal with the tools of a world
Thriller: to escape attack
Love and comedy are easy to cheat, because they are not naturally very plotty. These are usually the secondary genres in multi-genre stories.

Most high concept premises are failures, because the high concept only suggests 2-3 scenes.
To make your movie work, figure out what the moral problem is. What is the moral decision your main character will make. Then create a group of opponents that deal with the moral problem in different ways.

Plot: A second act issue usually means there’s a problem with the premise or the first 15 pages.
Plot is: the choreography between the hero and all the opponents. It is the interweaving of how the opponents attack the hero.
When plotting, focus on what the opposition is doing, but keep as much of the opposition hidden as possible. The more you hide, the more reveals you get into your story.
Reveals are key to plot. Make sure your reveals build in intensity.

Dialog – 80-90% of story is learned from structure, not dialog.
-dialog should not do the job of structure.
-dialog should be lean and subtle. It is the icing, not the cake.

Rewrite – Whoever said writing is rewriting made a “big mistake.” Who would say “Building a house is rebuilding a house?”
– You need to do the difficult story work up front before going to script

Find deep structure — precise set of tools to track how main character defeats an opponent, accomplishes a goal, and develops emotionally and morally in the process
Note: character changes through the plot
Note: the change is both emotional and moral

Truby teaches the 22 building blocks of any story, which helps you figure out the best sequences.

He also teaches to write original genre stories. Genre is what movie people buy and sell. Genres have requisite beats. Hitting the beats is called paying your dues, but you need to twist it. He suggests picking one primary genre, then layering in the other genres in a hybrid genre movie. He also suggests specializing in one genre, or 3 tops, because each genre is so complex. He wants everyone to write fromt their strength.
Storytelling is a lifetime commitment and successful people continue to learn new techniques (excuse me while I pat myself on the back).


Filed under Film, Writing

Share the wealth!

You like us, you really like us!  One of our clients recently sent an e-mail about our blog, saying “I’m catching up on your cabal blogs which are FULL of useful information.  Reading those blogs will help me tons once we get down to the nitty gritty…”  Thanks for the vote of confidence!

While we love our clients, our mission is to help developers create compelling games by working better with writers, whoever or wherever they may be.  So if you read a post that may be helpful to someone you know, pass it on!  We will now feature an email link at the bottom of our posts.   Read on, and rock on!

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Genre TV Dramas 2007-8

I posted this article on Popsyndicate!

Midst a week of season and series finales, the broadcast networks announced their fall schedules for the 2007-8 season.  The popularity of HEROES, the break-out hit of the year, figured strongly in development.  Come fall, immortal detectives, gifted romantics, geek heroes, and bionic women will battle for your eyeballs in what may be the strongest season for genre shows yet.

Both CBS’s MOONLIGHT and FOX’s NEW AMSTERDAM follow an immortal who investigates crimes while looking for love.  In MOONLIGHT, Mick St. John is a vampire private investigator who falls in love with a mortal.  In NEW AMSTERDAM, homicide detective John Amsterdam was gifted with immortality for saving the life of a Native American girl in 1642.  Once he finds his one true love, however, he will become mortal again.  NEW AMSTERDAM boasts Lasse Hallstrom (“Cider House Rules,” “Chocolat”) as director, giving it a compelling visual style.  Airing Tuesdays at 8pm in the fall, it may lose viewers when it makes way for AMERICAN IDOL and moves to Fridays at 9pm against MOONLIGHT.  For its part, MOONLIGHT will benefit from a stable time period throughout the year and a strong lead-in from returning favorite GHOST WHISPERER.  If both series survive the fall, the Friday audience may well decide which of these shows has a chance for immortality.

Aside from men with the ability to survive the ages, we’ll see two men with special abilities all their own.  NBC’s JOURNEYMAN can travel back in time and change the past.  He is attracted by the lure of seeing his deceased wife, which strains his current marriage.  A romantic note also plays prominently in ABC’s PUSHING DAISIES.  The hand of Bryan Fuller (“Dead Like Me,” “Wonderfalls”) is evident in this series following Ned, a man who can bring others to life with a touch.  Unfortunately, a second touch kills them, which complicates his relationship with his newly resurrected childhood sweetheart.  With colorful art direction, PUSHING DAISIES will air 8pm on Wednesdays facing no competition from another scripted drama.  Although up against CBS’s ratings winner CSI: MIAMI, JOURNEYMAN on Mondays at 10pm can expect a boost from HEROES, which returns at 9pm.

Geeks made a name for themselves on the fall schedule, from sitcoms to drama.  The sitcom THE BIG BANG THEORY, airing Mondays at 8:30pm on CBS, features two nerds who have a beautiful woman (Kaley Cuoco, “Charmed”) move in across the hall.  Geek comedy isn’t limited to sitcoms this season, however.  NBC’s hour-long CHUCK features a young man working tech support for the Nerd Herd.  He unwittingly gains knowledge of value to the CIA and other nefarious groups, earning the interest of a woman sent to find out what he knows.  The CW will also offer THE REAPER, a cross between feature film IDLE HANDS and SUPERNATURAL.  While working a dead-end job, Sam learns his parents sold his soul to the devil, and now he must track down renegade souls from hell using what looks like a super-powered dust buster.  With humor and nods to geek culture, CHUCK and THE REAPER both air Tuesdays at 9pm.  Although the CW has already found success with the monster-of-the-week formula on Thursdays, clearly the hour is up for grabs. 

Finally, two highly anticipated series based on popular properties will grace the airwaves next season.  NBC’s BIONIC WOMAN heralds the return of Jaime Sommers, retelling her origin as a state-of-the-art fighting machine with a job as a bartender and a hearing impaired sister.  Courtesy of Executive Producer David Eick of BATTLESTAR GALACTICA fame, Katee Sackhoff (Starbuck, BSG) will recur as an enemy bionic woman.  FOX also boasts strong women with a technological boost in the SARAH CONNOR CHRONICLES.  Set between the second and third TERMINATOR films, Sarah and John Connor team with a female terminator sent from the future to protect them against the one sent to kill them.  BIONIC WOMAN airs Wednesdays at 9pm against the new Grey’s Anatomy spinoff and FOX’s BONES.  SARAH CONNOR CHRONICLES will take the stage in early 2008 on Sundays at 9pm opposite NBC’s MEDIUM. 

Lovers of genre will feast on a smorgasbord of shows this coming season and may suffer from an embarrassment of riches when similar shows go head to head on Tuesdays and Fridays at 9.  Regardless, viewers will be sure to find a genre show every major night of the week. 

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Reading help

You’ve seen it. The plodding step of the programmers, the downturned eyes, the life seemingly sucked out of them — the telltale signs that mean only one thing: it’s time to read the design document. While writers naturally have an easier time of ploughing through copious documents, an e-mail I received from a repeat client reminded me that a little help can go a long way.

After indicating where to find the documentation, our client made a number of fabulous suggestions. While his suggestions may seem like additional reading for the weary, a few sentences more can make the difference between a smooth collaboration and a bumpy one.

1. Indicate what to read first. While reading from beginning to end may work for some people, it’s nice to know upfront a good starting point. It’s a good way to emphasize what is most important to you and your writer.

2. Suggest a natural work flow. While each person may work differently, suggesting an order for completing tasks helps the writer better understand your vision and helps him/her focus on what to read in the documentation.

3. Walk through the entire project. Sometimes neither the documentation or contract accurately delineate what the project entails. Furthermore, even when working with a repeat client or known colleague, a brief runthrough of the project and the supporting documentation is helpful to avoid unpleasant surprises. For example, if a writer is accustomed to working with a team on a project, he should know ASAP if he will now be working alone.

With these suggestions, your next contractor or colleague can attack documentation with a renewed purpose. What successes have you had in guiding others through your documentation?

Question Mark Chris Peterson’s favorite line of game dialog came from Mortal Kombat for the arcade. More Guess that Game Dialog to come!

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Filed under Guess that game dialog!, Outsourcing

The road to comedy

Reading the book Creating Fiction and a recent article in Written By about BIG today reinforced a key point.  The best comedy tells the truth, using the tools of comedy (such as exaggeration) to better illustrate that truth.  Creating Fiction suggested writing comedy with the detachment of an anthropologist.  With an anthropology degree under my belt, I should be able to rock comedy!

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Music, Meet Writing

The Writers Cabal headed out to New Jersey on Saturday to listen to producer Chris Peterson of Heavy Melody Music and Sound talk about voiceovers. His presentation immediately got us thinking about the times we wrote song lyrics for game characters without even knowing the music for the song. Chris, for his part, was challenged by the fact that most lyrics were already inside the game by the time he stepped in to record, so he was unable to give feedback to the writers on lyrics that just didn’t sing. Both sides of the equation felt somewhat frustrated by not being able to communicate with each other.

The solution seems obvious. When outsourcing writing and/or sound, introduce your writers and sound designers to each other. Most will welcome the opportunity to collaborate more closely or at least be a resource for each other. Doing so will help both your writers and your sound designers “get it.”

Question Mark Chris Peterson’s favorite line of game dialog: “Fatality.” Stay tuned to the next post to find out where it came from and for a new line!

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Write a feature the smart way

Had lunch with some WGA writers today, including one who said the best way to avoid problems when working on a feature was to add yourself as a producer.  Then you could write a treatment for the project by avoiding the WGA minimums.  That begs the question — how do you subsequently avoid being sued if the production goes south?

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How do you expect games to be written?

We’re in the midst of scoping out our next project and our developer has gone out of his way to read books to learn more about the writing process. Yet an article in Gamasutra unwittingly highlighted two divergent ways to go about writing a game. Different approaches can lead to confusion, especially when a writer’s style conflicts with a developer’s expectations of How It Should Be Done. We’re here to help you articulate those expectations so that your writer, however he/she prefers it done, can cater to your needs.

There are many more than two ways to write a game. Roberta Williams of the adventure series King’s Quest reportedly developed story by drawing a map of the world, the items, and the characters. Jane Jensen of the Gabriel Knight series began with a story outline. Now these two approaches may seem mutually exclusive, but they were able to combine their styles to create arguably the best of the King’s Quest series: Heir Today, Gone Tomorrow. The take-home message? Whatever your expectations, you can work with a writer with a different approach from your own, as long as there’s good communication.

Even if this is your first game, you do have expectations or assumptions on how a game should be written. Here are just a few questions to get you thinking:

1. Characters. Do you expect the PC and NPCs to change over time? Where do you stand on the age-old debate: do players see their avatars as themselves, or do they accept them as characters they’re playing? There’s no right or wrong answer here — just know where you stand and express your opinions to your writer.

2. Story development. Are you a Roberta Williams or Jane Jenson? Do you expect a story outline first or are you more interested in incorporating gameplay mechanics/puzzles first? Do you prefer to start with a theme, like “Fire & Ice,” and work from there? When I spoke to Neal Baer of Law & Order: SVU last month, he helped his writers develop story structure first, then added depth in later iterations. Where do you stand?

Asking these questions will initiate conversations that will improve your working relationship with your writer. What questions do you think are an absolute necessity when working with a writer?

Question Mark The previous line of dialog came from the PS1 game “Resident Evil.”
Check back next week for a new line of game dialog!

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Filed under Guess that game dialog!, Outsourcing, Writing

NBC Upfronts and, oh, that party

It’s already day two of my quest to attend all the network upfronts this week.  NBC’s went off without a hitch.  I got the opportunity to meet and speak with Jason Katims (FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS), Jason Smilovic and Michael Dinner (BIONIC WOMAN), and ate small chocolate-covered cheesecake.  Katims seemed open to the product integration that NBC touted during the presentation, while Smilovic was unaware that the Sarah Connor Chronicles also features a female character who can kick butt due to robotic enhancements. 

Afterwards, I slinked on over to the WMA party.  While I didn’t speak with any showrunners there this year, I did have the opportunity to speak with Les Moonves himself!  I found out that he would indeed say something like “You can never have too much comedy in a drama.”  Those who have visited my samples page know that’s the top quote on the page!  In the Head of Network department, I also spoke with Matt Blanc, who, in addition to being CEO of Showtime, was headed to Paris the next day.  We should all be so lucky.

And in the great get-Anne-a-cool-job department, I spoke with a lawyer who actually specializes in TeeVee.  He agreed to read my material, so fingers crossed, comrades!

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