Thursday, June 28, 2007

Screenwriter Secrets of Effective Storytelling!
The Language (continued):
#2. Getting Stuck in a “Level III Diagnostic”

How exact do we need to be in our stories? Everyone these days deals with so much technical and highly sophisticated information. Programs, concepts, research and the like, so vital to the story, begs to be explained for the lay person (or anyone with power and little time.) What do you do when you need to include a technical term that'll take a few paragraphs to explain, but you don't want to give over that much space to it?

Give in and dumb it down a bit. Find a related concept, or an easy-to-explain item, that can stand in for the complex. You're not writing a doctoral dissertation here, right? (And if you are, stop reading and go back to work!)

Let's use Star Trek as an example. Gene Roddenberry's characters are always using “tricorders” when the set their “phasers on stun” to capture some “dilithium crystals” for the "warp drive." He was making terms up to stand for fictional scientific information that was supposedly centuries in the future. Did Captain Kirk ever stop and deliver a dissertation to the crew on proper phaser use? Of course not!

Roddenberry, in The Making of Star Trek, said that although nobody had ever heard of these things before, he wasn’t about to have a character say “We’ll meet in the Transporter room. The Transporter will disassembled our body’s atoms and shoot them down to the planet where the beam will reassemble us.” All the other characters already know that. To state it would sound unnatural. And in westerns, the gunslinger never says "let me aim my Winchester repeating action rifle, which will fire a number of deadly rounds, at the sheriff."

Roddenberry's solution? Create terms that are 1-off from what we know. He kind of “dumbed down” the future for us. That is, the Star Trek future.

Tricorder? Recorders.
Phasers? Lasers.
Dilithium? Lithium.

Lay them out and then back away.

A long description of the term "pathology" will break your story into pieces. Better to just say "disease." If you can find an image that’s 1-off from what we already know, you can cover even more ground. Don’t worry about getting every detail absolutely right. Just worry about the ones that are important - the details that move the story forward. And if someone complains? Offer to fix it the next time (yeah, I know, that's a terrible suggestion. Maybe someone else has an improved reply?)

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

7 Ways to Improve a Municipal Water Report to DC Residents

I just received my 2006 DC Water and Sewer Authority (WASA) Quality Report, a glossy, full color, six-page newsletter that I assume appeared in every DC household's postal mail box.

I took some time to really read my copy, instead of my usual action. Let's look at some suggestions to make it more useful:

1. Define for us some terms none of us use in our day-to-day communications. Terms like:

potable (I know what it means, but does everyone?)
free chlorine
Total Coliform

2. List some reasons we would contact you at the phone numbers listed.

3. Provide a few "watershed protection activities" that you suggest we join our neighbors in accomplishing.

4. Explain why WASA "purchases drinking water from the US Army Corps of Engineers, Washington Aqueduct" (page 2) if our "Drinking water...comes from the Potomac River" (page 1.)

5. Advise us whether or not the listed "violations" of EPA Drinking Water Standards constitute a real hazard to the DC population, and how they compare to other regions. The report contains some pretty technical details all written in federal governmentspeak.

6. Lead us through the extensive tables (pages 4 and 5.) I tried to make sense of them, but ended up drowning in data (pun intended.) Do we really need all that information right then and there, or could we make do with just a few facts, and some guidance on how to find more.

7. Explain the photo of two fire fighters spraying water at a burning house. Maybe a caption would help.

I do have a few positive comments, though. The report's layout is effective, with plenty of white space and an easy-to-read typeface. Contact information (phone numbers, offices, email addresses) appears throughout the publication, so I don't have to hunt for it. And picture use is spare but effective (although I'm still puzzling over the fire fighters - do they need potable water to fight fires?)

Overall, I think the writers and editors could learn a thing or two from Made to Stick. While they've clearly and concisely delivered half the information, WASA might find some additional methods of humanizing the document. After all, Water is Life (or so WASA states in the 2005 report.)

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Screenwriter Secrets of Effective Storytelling!
What's this series about? Scroll to the end of this post for the answer...

Part 1: The Language
Screenwriters (especially unknowns) are always swimming upstream. They have two pages to grab the reader’s attention, and then not only keep it, but make sure that reader blasts from sentence to the next and one page to the next.

Screenplay readers (usually always attached to a production company) will sometimes take home a stack of scripts to read provide what’s called “coverage,” which includes whether or not to advance the screenplay to whatever the next round is. And script readers claim that the piles of scripts next to their beds are basically worthless, unreadable, and worst of all, boring!

It’s all a part of the ongoing problem we all face: attracting interest, and then maintaining it.

In order to do this, screenwriting language is simple, clear, concise, unadorned, all the things you’ve learned through school and in Strunk & White.

What does screenwriting language do? To begin with it:

I. Plants a crystal clear image in the reader’s mind

Remember the first time you saw Aliens? If it was in a packed movie house, you’ll definitely remember the audience’s reaction to this scene. I remember the audience I was in: everyone said “Oh, NO!”

It started with a crystal clear description in the script. Notice how the words, with blazing efficiency, give us the scene:
Newt, standing waist deep in the water, watches sparks shower blindingly as Hicks cuts. She bites her lip, trembling. Cold and terrified. Silently a glistening shape rises in one graceful motion from the water behind her. It stands, dripping, dwarfing her tiny form. Newt turns, sensing the movement...She SCREAMS as the shadow engulfs her.
Terry Rossio, co-writer of all three Pirates of the Caribbean flicks, says “Write what you see.”

To paraphrase for the rest of us: Write what you saw.


About this series: Made to Stick devotes an entire chapter to Stories. I've found that many of us a pretty good at telling stories, but not so great at writing them. I've seen organizations design pages on their Web sites, asking for story submissions, but what comes back (if anything comes back) is usually unusable.

That's where I'm stepping in. As a playwright and screenwriter (semi-produced), I've compiled all sorts of facts, methods, tools and ideas from the experts in dramatic writing. I've categorized them under three headings: The Language for Stories, The People in Stories, and The Structure of Stories. And I've taken heed of one of the methods and just started the series, without a lengthy explanation at the beginning. Here's hoping that by writing them down, I'll at least use some of these ideas when I get stuck, as often happens.

(This post's "Headline Emotional Marketing Value" score: 80%)