television screenplays

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I’ve had a number of questions about being a professional writer, and listing “creative writing” as a skill, hoping that this will somehow be something attractive to the hiring managers.

Let me begin by saying “Pure writers are a rarity in the industry” - most game writers are also designers of no small amount of skill because they need to be able to do things like script quests, set up triggers, handle spawning of enemies, and so on and so forth. The writing they do is only a fraction of their overall responsibilities. There are only a handful of studios that employ full-time writers, and most of those positions are already filled. You won’t see many writers for large genres of games - sports, multiplayer shooters, fighters, MOBAs, puzzle games, platformers, and the like rarely have room for full-time writers on the team.

In general, writing for games has very little in common with writing a novel, a short story, or even a TV script or screenplay. The difference between games and the rest of these is the sense of player agency - the player is the one choosing how to play the game. In all other forms of media, the player is a passive observer who follows the beats of the medium at the medium’s pace. You don’t get that luxury in games, and that sense of player agency makes a huge difference. If the story unfolds in a linear fashion, you absolutely must minimize the amount of time the player relinquishes control of the game to the plot. Even in a story-driven game, a huge amount of the writing exists to serve the gameplay. The gameplay is generally how the majority of the story will be told to the player, not just cutscenes or conversations.

Furthermore, what a lot of writing hopefuls don’t understand is that game writers don’t actually get to dictate what happens in the plot. The plot, for the most part, has already been established by the leadership on the game. It is the responsibility of the writers to handle the individual bits connecting the major plot points from A to B. It is directed every step of the way, because there needs to be gameplay here and there needs to be overall story movement there, and all of these things are hard and fast constraints on your work that will be assigned to you. As an entry-level writer, you’ll be the one who’s told the outline of will happen, and then you have to write the specifics. 

An entry-level writer will most likely be writing quest log text, blurbs for marketing, tooltips, tutorial text, and codex/lore entries. All of that stuff has to come from somewhere, and it has to adhere to certain regulations - you’ll have a word budget for all of the text you write, and you’ll absolutely need to stick to it. You’ll learn to write a cohesive and self-contained story in seven sentences or less, and you’ll learn all about writing with localization requirements in mind. As you improve, you’ll learn to trim down your conversations, streamline your storytelling, and improve the density of meaningful content conveyed to the player per word. Once you’ve actually gotten some experience writing the small stuff and proven your ability to handle the job, you will be entrusted with larger responsibilities, characters, and actual story arcs.

Further Reading:

The Controlling Idea vs the Counter Idea

Huzzah! I’m not dead! I know it’s been a while since my last post, so let’s get right to it.

Obviously, every story starts with an idea. Sometimes you come up with a funny event, an idea for a character, or maybe a cool gimmick. And that’s great – you’ve had your eureka moment. But before you go any further, you have to decide how you can make it mean something.

This is where the Controlling Idea comes in, and oh is it important. You’ve probably heard it referred to as “theme” for most of your life, but I prefer Robert McKee’s term because it emphasizes a very specific function: The Controlling Idea controls the story.

When you think of a story, imagine Saturn:

The planet’s rings are held together by Saturn’s gravity, and thus, there is structure. In this example, the rings are metaphors for drama, action, comedy, romance, all of it. Every story needs that, but what are they without gravity?

A big giant mess. They have no direction – they’re simply adrift in space. So when a story falls apart, it’s because it doesn’t have a core holding it together. And as you’ve probably gathered, the Controlling Idea is the core of a story.

Example? Try The Avengers.

When an alien brings war to Earth, an unfriendly team of superheroes must overcome their differences to send him back home, or else suffer the consequences.

That’s a basic logline of the film, and like any good one, it subtly hints at the Controlling Idea: “United we stand; divided we fall.”

So, think about it: You’ve envisioned Iron Man flying towards a portal blasting aliens out of the sky, all while the rest of the Avengers are battling in the streets of NYC. You’ve imagined a part of a story you want to tell – but how do you make it mean something? You give it a Controlling Idea, and suddenly, we don’t just see a bunch of superheroes fighting and being cool – we see something with meaning:

A team that’s worked past its differences and is in perfect sync. And thus, the Battle of New York has subtextual meaning. It becomes a symbol for unity, whereas it could easily have been a simple action fest.


THIS IS IMPORTANT

There are two more things you need to know:

1: The Controlling Idea must be introduced extremely early in the story, and must make the audience wonder something like, “Will it work?” (Nick Fury announces that he’s assembling a team of superheroes, whom we know don’t get along with each other. We ask ourselves, “Will it work?”)

2: The Controlling Idea is only one half of the pie. There’s also the Counter Idea, and it is of equal importance.

Loki embodies the Counter Idea of The Avengers. When the Avengers say, “Look at us! We can work together! Win!”, he steps in and says, “You can’t.” That’s the point. If your movie says, “Crime doesn’t pay,” then there better be a criminal who believes the opposite, “Crime pays.” And he must come as close to proving his point as the heroic cop does. In the Climax, whomever’s right is decided.

Also, be careful not to have two Controlling Ideas in your story. There can be subplots and stuff like that, obviously, but don’t open your movie with, “There is good in the worst of us”, and then say, “Love is cruel”. Pick one or the other – you can’t have both. Also, the broader and more general your Controlling Idea, the more possibilities you have for the story itself.

We’ll talk a lot more about this in the future, specifically how to actually introduce the Controlling Idea, but for now, you should be good.

Leave a comment below and I’ll be sure to answer any questions!

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Aquarius: Character intros from original screenplay by John McNamara

Outlander 02x11 Vengeance is Mine

…Or as I prefer to think of it The One with all the Agency and Control. I didn’t think it was as bad as many other people seem to find the episode. It had pretty much everything in the episode that I was expecting it to have as far as the plot movements and tying up loose ends from older plots (and a very convoluted and tangential part of the book). I think because I didn’t have much in the way of expectations––and I had quite a few fears about how graphic the violence would end up being––I was actually pleasantly surprised by most of the episode. It was also DG’s first time writing in a screenplay/television format. Was it perfect? No. Was it one of my favorite episodes? No. But it also wasn’t on my list of least favorites for the season either (with #1 on that list going to The Fox’s Lair, which I still haven’t been able to make myself watch a second time, and #2 being Not in Scotland Anymore). For me this episode is along the same lines as By the Pricking of my Thumbs; there’s a bit of plot that just has to be gotten through––in the first case, to set up events that are coming and in this latter case, to tie up events that were left hanging. 

So I think the best way for me to tackle this particular episode analysis is to look at things through the thematic lens that I found most intriguing and prevalent but in subtle and understated ways: Agency and Control. (There will be some spoilers for the rest of Dragonfly in Amber as we’re closing in on the end of the season; spoilers/speculation for Voyager and Season 3 will be at the end of the post)

It feels like the episode starts out with an odd beat that’s very much an inversion of how Prestonpans opened: the Bonnie Prince is once again discussing strategy with his advisors. Except this time, his General and his Quartermaster are in agreement and it’s Jamie who’s on his side when it comes to the question of attempting to take London. At first, I very much cocked an eyebrow at the scene. As the others point out to Jamie, normally he would see their side of things and agree with them––and his arguments in favor of going after London aren’t very strong. It doesn’t feel much like Jamie… until we get to see him on his way outside and discussing things with Claire. He wasn’t actually in favor of going after London for any practical reasons––he was trying to see if there was a way to change the course of history, to have the Jacobite army go after London like that would have deviated from the sequence of events as Claire knows them from her past. He was testing the extent of his/their agency in terms of the war as it is unfolding––can they affect the outcome or are they at its mercy? Picking up from the end of Prestonpans and Claire’s observation that each beat that falls in line with her memory suggests more and more strongly that there is nothing they can do to change the future, Jamie especially is getting more and more nervous. This fear ties into Jamie’s determination to see Claire safe throughout the episode; he isn’t clingy in the way that the word is usually used (i.e. negatively and as a hinderance to the other partner) but rather he clings to the time they have left together, to the idea that he can and will protect her, that everything else might be out of his power to stop but he won’t let that approaching doom destroy her. We see this in his Gaelic prayer as she sleeps when he implores the Lord to help see her and the child he believes she will someday bear (though I don’t think she’s already pregnant for timeline reasons, but who knows because the timeline is a bigger lost cause than Culloden at this point) not safely through the violence yet to come but away from it altogether. (Also, it’s basically the first instance we have of, “Lord that she might be safe. She and the child.”)

The orders from the commanders and the removal of the Charles from his influence is a very overt removal of Jamie’s agency. Dougal comes charging in explaining that he and Jamie have been essentially banished because the General and Quartermaster don’t want him exercising his control/influence. Jamie is upset, of course, but it has more to do with the ways it affects his desire to protect Claire. With regards to the promise/vow/prayer, his agency is more directly tried as it clashes with Claire’s agency over herself––coming to a head in the church with Claire’s decision to deceive the British into giving the rest of them up to “save” her. And what pushes Jamie into compliance is ultimately the way she asserts herself as Lady Broch Tuarach and claims that protecting the men is as much her responsibility as his. 

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