John Ostrander: Outrage for Outrageousness Sake

by John Ostrander

As of this writing, James Gunn has been fired as the director of the next Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3. The reason? Some tweets he wrote ten years ago where he made light of, among other things, rape and pedophilia. Always good comedy material. (Yes, that’s sarcastic. I don’t want to be Gunned in my first column.) The director says he was trying to be outrageous and provocative and that they no longer represent who he is as a person, which is a good thing because he doesn’t come off as a very nice person. If you really feel the need to read them, you can find them here.

Disney/Marvel have cut all business ties with Gunn, the CEO sniffing, “The offensive attitudes and statements discovered on James’ Twitter feed are indefensible and inconsistent with our studio’s values and we have severed our business relationship with him.”

I have a few problems with all this, not the least are Gunn’s tweets, which are stupid, heinous, and seriously not funny. I have a bigger problem, however, with Gunn’s accuser, Mike Cernovich, an alt-right columnist, blogger, and social media commentator. His own blogs and tweets show he’s made his own nasty comments on rape, pedophilia, and more. Cernovich was also a key figure in Gamergate which coordinated troll attacks on females in the gamer industry. If you feel the deep seated need to know what Cernovich is saying, The Southern Poverty Law Center has a good round-up of the man and his views here.

So I can’t see that Cernovich gives a rat’s ass about Gunn’s comments per se; his own remarks are as bad or worse. He’s targeted Gunn because Gunn is a liberal and has made some comments on the Great Pumpkin, aka President Trump. After the Trump-Putin press conference, Gunn compared Trump unfavorably to Thanos. So he became a target of the alt-right and specifically Cernovich (other targets includes such left wing media heroes as Trevor Noah of The Daily Show).

Ultimately, however, my real problem is not even with Cernovich but with the executives at Disney Corp. They threw Gunn promptly under the bus, claiming his tweets of over ten years ago weren’t consistent with the studio’s values. I’d suggest that values with which they were inconsistent was Disney’s desire to make money; they certainly don’t want a possible boycott against the next Guardians movie or possibly even against all the Marvel movies which make a TON of money for the Mouse.

Shouldn’t Gunn and others be held accountable for their words/actions? After all, Roseanne Barr was fired from her own TV show for comments she made. Fair is fair, right? The difference is that Barr made the comments about a week before she was fired; it was an immediate response to what she said in the same time frame. Gunn’s comments were made over a decade ago. As Gunn said, his comments do not represent who he is now; Barr’s certainly do.

Firing Gunn validates the tactics used by Cernovich and the alt-right. They worked. If they worked once, they probably can work again. And probably will be used again. Despite the moral tone being adopted, Cernovich and his ilk are doing what they’re doing for primarily political reasons, just as I think Disney has done what they’ve done for primarily economic ones.

A far thornier question is whether or not you can or should judge a work based on what you know of the creator. That, however, is a topic of its own and one we may pursue at another time.


John Ostrander is one of LB’s favorite writers in any medium. It’s been awhile since he’s been here, but now John’s back with a new column at a new blog, PopCultureSquad, where this piece first appeared. You can learn more about John and his many masterworks HERE

Peggy Bechko on Paring Down Your Prose

by Peggy Bechko

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Attention spans appear to be peaking…or is that guttering? Whatever, fact of the matter is we writers have to pay very close attention to what we’re writing and to creating white space.

Wait, you say, that may well apply to screenwriters, but surely not to novelists?!

Um, both.

Admittedly still even more to screenwriters, the newbies among them who need to strive for a script of less than 120 pages and hopefully closer to 100 pages for a real running start at selling that script.

BUT, it does apply to novelists these days as well. I’ll focus a bit more on screenwriters in this article, but apply the ideas to manuscripts as well and you’ll get a lot further.

White space is every writer’s friend these days. The goal is to create a breezy read whether a script or a novel. Yes, a novel is different in that a person sitting down to read is usually taking time to relax.

Even so, that reader usually wants to move it along and isn’t particularly pleased to be confronted by a dense page of text with few breaks and long, rambling descriptions.

Because of that, editors who might buy a novel aren’t thrilled either. Yes, the writer must meet number of word requirements for certain genres, but the pages need to be broken up for easy reading.

Okay, on to the script writers. Be aware that the first thing a producer might do with a script is flip to the last page to check how many pages there are.

Don’t make your script 140 pages or more and have that producer red flag your script from the beginning. 120 you might get by with. 100 pages is even better. Since a page of script is about one minute one can easily see where a movie closer to 90 minutes is better than one over two hours.

Oh, and keep in mind we’re assuming here that you know how to format a script correctly. If not, find out.

Nobody has time to mess with those who don’t learn the basics. Learn how to format a spec script whether you’re writing for TV or screen.

Now here’s a biggie, maybe the biggest biggie. Lots of white space. Yes, I know I already mentioned this above. That’s how important it is.

The fact of the matter is white space equals fast read. Readers and producers are busy. A quick read is much more likely to migrate to the top of the stack. More likely to get read first.

Lots of people will tell you if you want to write long narrative, write a novel. Well, even that is not as true as it used to be. Word count yes, but also more white space.

Look, many writers may find it hard to believe between rejections, but the people you hand your work to really want to love it.

Seriously, it’s true.

The goal then is to get a script reader to be able to visualize the film from the script you’ve handed them. If you can get a script reader’s eyes to keep moving down the page with smooth speed you’ve won half the battle.

Speed, I’ve been told, is part of the key. The faster they read the more they’re visualizing and that’s the goal.

So, white space. Fewer words equals faster reading equals visceral involvement with the script.

Of course that means you, as writer, need to provide words that are powerful, vivid and minimal. In other words the skill the screenwriter most needs to master is how to say more with less.

The written screenplay is a blueprint, a guide to what will be up on the screen. At the same time it has to catch the interest, rope in the reader and the producer.

Practice is your teacher. Get your hands on scripts. Can you tighten it, make it more engrossing and tight than it already is? Grab a couple of paragraphs from a favorite book. Whack it into script talk.

Things like, “the music started playing” becomes ‘music plays’. “A hall full of avid Senior Citizen listeners burst into applause” becomes ‘the old folks went wild’.

What’s happening is the writer cuts out all but the most absolutely necessary verbiage. Keep the essentials which keep the writing more dynamic. Focus only on what is important.

Read every line and consider – can what is being said be said with fewer, more powerful words?

Tighten things up by considering if every single word is visually interesting and adds color? Can the new version of what’s been written absorb some of the other lines around it?

Tighten, consider, tighten again and those scenes you write are going to pop. And that’s what it’s all about, right?


Peggy Bechko is a TVWriter™ Contributing Editor. Learn more about her sensational career HERE. Peggy’s new comic series, Planet of the Eggs, written and illustrated with Charlene Brash-Sorensen is available on Kindle. And, while you’re at it, visit the Planet of the Eggs Facebook page and her terrific blog.

Diana Black: TV Writing Checklist Part 4

EDITOR’S NOTE: If you haven’t already read Part 1,  Part 2, and Part 3, now would be a good time.


by Diana Black

Regardless of what type of project you’re writing, or whether you wrote a Treatment prior to this step (Storybook version of the narrative), the Scene Outline is mandatory.

IF this is a TV Pilot, Telemovie or Limited Series, the Outline must follow strict formatting guidelines. Regardless of whether, you plan to write up a story-book version (Treatment), I suggest you read LB’s article “Writing the Dreaded Outline” – not only is a great informative read, the GDD method really works, especially when you’re up against the clock.

But let’s assume you do have your potential novel/story-book Treatment in hand and you’re wanting to transform it into an Outline… all you need do is simply break the Treatment up into individual scenes. The ‘big-print’ for each scene, should only be a few sentences long and if it’s more than that, break it up into two (2) sentences per paragraph…. the more ‘white space’ on the page the better.

If you’re not having to submit an ‘industry-standard’ Scene Outline, because it’s not a TV project but a Feature instead, I’d advise you to create the following document… it’s a ‘multi-tasker’… why create more work when you can create a killer document that does so many things at once…

Create a Table (computer… ‘Landscape’). The number of columns depend on how many sub-plots you have besides your main plot (A). Let’s say you only one sub-plot (B)… create a table with five (5) columns… an Act # Colum (I, II and III, or if for TV -TEASER, I, II, III, IV, and TAG); Scene & Page #; A-plot Scene – containing the Slug Line and ‘Big print’ (description incl. action); Scene & Page# column for the B sub-plot, and the last one, the B sub-plot Scene details….

Fill the table in as you work through the Treatment and mark with a numbered asterisk e.g. *1, if it’s set-up #1 or mark with a numbered check e.g. ?3 if it’s paying off set-up #3 and so on… this way you’ll easily keep track of the set-ups and ensure you’ve paid them off correctly. The pay-offs are not likely to occur for a while, or if it’s a TV Pilot, the pay-off may not occur until the next episode, but you’ll know where they are in an instant and whether in the end, you’ve addressed them.

Outlining the entire narrative arc in this manner enables you to not only identify whether a scene is the main plot or a sub-plot, you’ll also be able to determine the timing and relationship between them. It lets you chart the energy dynamics and pacing of the narrative… cutting back and forth between A & B will likely quicken the pace.

You can also indicate whether it’s a Flashback (FB) scene… but most importantly, you can locate scenes a lot faster than flipping through an entire script. If you add or delete scenes (rows) on the Outline, be sure to re-number them. By numbering the scenes at this stage on both the Outline and the Script (a no-no on your spec submission), it makes it easier if you’re working in collaboration with multiple writers on a project or conducting a Table read. Having to say, “Let’s look at Sc.#30” is far easier than saying, “Let’s look at Hotel Room – Night er… page 53”, don’t you think?

Act
Sc/Pg
A – Main
Sc/Pg
B – Sub-plot
I
1/1
INT. HOTEL ROOM – NIGHT
The PROTAGONIST closes the curtains – watches the street. He turns to the POLICE OFFICER behind him – hands over the box. (*1)

2/1
EXT. ALLEYWAY – NIGHT
BEAGLE BOY ONE throws the gun to BEAGLE BOY TWO – he FIRES up at the hotel window.

3/2
INT. HOTEL ROOM – NIGHT
Glass shards spray the room – Protagonist and Police Officer hit the deck….

Doing your Outline this way, helps you restrict the big print down to the bare minimum; this should reduce ‘over-writing’ … leave that for the novel. And remember it’s, ‘show not tell’. Elaborate on the script itself, if you must.

Okay, you’re now finally onto the Script. Refer to that wad of rough scene notes that you’ve been scribbling – at 2:00 a.m., in the shower, walking along the beach, in the rest room at the restaurant on ‘date night’ etc.

Having done so much work in the foundation stage, you now know these characters intimately, they’ve been present for quite a while in your life and now they’re not only talking, but surprising you with the choices they make and events that are seemingly coming out of left field. Now sit back and enjoy the process of just simply writing.

Scenes should adhere to the principle, ‘arrive late and leave early’ in relation to the characters, as to what’s just happened prior to the scene, and they’re leaving long before the ‘welcome mat wears thin’ – don’t slow/labor the pace. The scene should clearly address the scene objective without being ‘on-the-nose’ description and/or dialogue.

Beats are a way to amp up the pace and explore subtext, there should be underlying conflict and tension between characters, and with only one of them winning by the scene’s end. This is indicated by the character via word or action; achieving their objective via the dialogue or the action. If none of this is making sense to you, read my article: “Actor-Writer? No! Writer… No…”

On a technical note, as you’re writing the Script, have you got something compelling on the bottom of every page so that it’s a ‘page turner’? Supposedly, J.K. Rowling’s strategy. Go and check out one of the Harry Potter books and the adapted screenplays – see if this holds true. If you’re writing a teleplay, have you got something amazing just prior to an act break in the form of a cliff-hanger?

Take a bow. You’ve worked hard!

See you in the next article… TV Checklist – Part 5


Diana Black is an optioned screenwriter who has placed in competitions with features and teleplays.  She’s also a professional actor with a Bachelor of Creative Arts – Drama, Film & TV and a regular contributor to TVWriter™.

Diana Black: TV Writing Checklist Part 3

EDITOR’S NOTE: If you haven’t already read Part 1 & Part 2, now would be a good time.


by Diana Black

We’re now ready to step into the story-world and start seriously playing, but we do have some decisions to make first…who said screenwriting was easy…

Determine the Design Principle – how will you tell the story and through whose lens? I suggest you refer to Jonathan Truby’s Anatomy of Story. He maintains that most stories, while they’re much in need, don’t have a Design Principle.

Having a modus operandi on a card in your daily line-of-sight, will ensure that the story stays ‘clean’ in terms of its execution. Your narrative doesn’t have to be linear to follow a Design Principle.

Whatever way you want to tell the story, it just needs to be consistent.

You could go straight into writing the Scene Outline, but I’d suggest you write the story-book version of the narrative first, in the form of a Treatment. Think of it as telling a ripping yarn around the campfire. It’s useful if you’re writing a feature; especially if you want to novelize it later (but it works for both features and teleplays).

A story-book version will free you up from getting tied up in formatting issues associated with the ‘big print’ (description/action) of the script. We’re not even thinking about the dialogue at this point and by doing this before you start writing the script, you’ll be free to just see the ‘film’ in your head and your job becomes one of simply noting down the details of what you see unfold.

If you know the ending, from the get-go, which is a great idea, you can ‘reverse engineer’ (work backwards – determining how the characters came to that end – be it sticky or not). Make sure the ending is climatic, stupendous and surprising in a big, out-of-the-box way. Think back to the lead-up and finale of Breaking Bad (AMC, 2008 – 2013).

If it’s a TV series you’re writing, not only will you be considered awesome when you can rattle off what going to go down in later episodes in the pitch meeting, whether they follow your lead or not, you’ll have clearly demonstrated that it’s a cohesive narrative and that you’ve thought about its longevity – this beastie is alive and rattling its cage!

Have you thought about generating buzz? As you’re writing the Treatment, especially as you get closer to the ‘back-end’, deliver one pay-off after another such that, assuming the series gets picked up and airs to plan, viewers – especially binge-watchers – will have multiple sets of clues and “surprises” to keep them glued to the screen.

Essentially, you’re attempting to, and, we hope, succeeding, in generating buzz, AKA marketing gold!

Once you’re done writing up the Treatment, then you can think about structure… if it’s a television series, determine where you think the Pilot is going to end in that narrative arc and for both formats, go back and identify the Act breaks and the structural components therein.

If you’re not sure what I mean by that, pick up a copy of Syd Field’s Screenplay and if its strictly television that your writing for, LB’s Television Writing from the Inside Out.

Identifying the structure (after the fact*) is always a good idea because you don’t know the background, quirks and modus operandi of the gate keepers and suits who might read this document.

*I would strongly suggest at the outset, you don’t impose stereotypical plot points associated with a specific genre onto the narrative, otherwise you may end up with a formula-laden, generic mess.

If it’s a TV show and you’re really on the ball, you’ll have a cliff-hanger at the end of each Act break and a humdinger at the end of the Pilot.

Word of caution, it’s a slightly different ball game for television procedurals wherein the characters have come to us from the beginning of the Pilot, as relatively fully-formed individuals – their Character arc in terms of growth, is minimal. At least in comparison to a Feature or a character like Walter White in Breaking Bad.

We see ‘character growth’ in dramedies as well, such as Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce (Bravo, 2014 – 2018) via the character Abby McCarthy (played by Lisa Edelstein). Yet we don’t see it so much in the character of Sheldon (Jim Parsons) in The Big Bang Theory (Warner Brothers, 2007 -).

Having fully-fledged individuals in a procedural is a marketing decision. The police procedural, NCIS (CBS, 2003 -) has stood the test of time and has fully developed characters who’ve changed very little across the narrative arc, but we do see new characters arriving and some established characters leaving. But being a procedural, it means we can just focus on a new plot each week AND viewers can be recruited at any time within the season and not be lost/confused.

Now that you have your Treatment done, ask yourself, is it a fast read? Get industrial-level coverage if you can’t tell. Your aim is to create a fast, fluent organic read, rather than something that is stereotypical, cliché shlock.

See you in the next article… TV Checklist – Part 4


Diana Black is an optioned screenwriter who has placed in competitions with features and teleplays.  She’s also a professional actor with a Bachelor of Creative Arts – Drama, Film & TV and a regular contributor to TVWriter™.

Peggy Bechko on The Art & Craft of Character Naming

by Peggy Bechko

Character names!

They’re more important than most people readers and viewers think, as pretty much every writer in every genre and type of writing knows. If you, as a writer, DON’T know that, then it’s time to step back and ponder.

“Bond, James Bond.” Who hasn’t read and/or heard that line? Now, what if he had been named Harold Schwartz by Ian Fleming? Not quite the same.

How about Harry Potter? It’s pretty darn English, easy to remember and it has a certain strength and stability to the name. Fitting for a Wizard.

Names are important. They’re important for the screenwriter and the novelist, the short story writer, and the play write. Say any name out loud and instantly preconceptions spring to mind in the reader, the watcher of a movie and even the writer him or herself.

Names are many things. They can reflect culture, faith, family backgrounds (surely you know someone who carries a ‘family’ name as a middle name) and more.

Names can even play a role in forming a personality and they can have impacts on interactions. Katherine can be Katy, Kit, Kate, Cat, Kitten, or some other variation.

And, usually, the person with the name will have ‘professional’ acquaintances who perhaps know her as Katherine, a mother who calls her Kit, maybe a boyfriend who calls her Cat, and friends who know her as Katy.

I’m Peggy. Many think it’s a derivative of Margaret but in my case I was named Peggy. I usually go by Peggy. Some call me Peg but I don’t much care for it so it’s usually people who don’t know me well. If I were a character, and others called me Peg, it would mean they weren’t as close to me as they probably thought.

Whether writing a screen script or something else, a name helps define the character, expose the real personality. It can be fun searching for just the right name to put that character’s personality across or it can be a sort of hell.

Sometimes we just kind of go blank. One resource I check in on is, here it comes – The Social Security Administration’s records of baby names at https://www.ssa.gov/OACT/babynames/

If you’re writing something with a Victorian Era flavor you might check out http://freepages.rootsweb.com/~poindexterfamily/genealogy/OldNames.html

If it’s something SciFi/Fantasy, quirky, or you just need something really unusual you can try http://www.nexi.com/fun/rw/index.html

Nexi.Com, by the way, offers a cool bonus: “…if you want to generate some new girl’s names, feed it a list of girl’s names, and it will take them apart and discover how to make girl’s names, then come up with a list of words that are very similar, but probably never before seen.”

What makes that cooler, if you think about it for a minute, is that plainly that also would apply to any words you’d want to put into the generator.

All this is great, and I especially enjoy researching names and checking out the etymology. There are lots of name search engines out there and lots of baby name books and resources. Poke around and you’ll find an endless stream.

The KEY, though, is getting the right name for the right character and that said, being willing to change a name if it just isn’t right…and the ability to recognize, perhaps half way through, when a name isn’t right.

There’s no magic to choosing that name. It’s up to you. Just dig in, try to settle on realistic names that fit, don’t have everyone’s names begin with the same first letter, and be open to those few times when a story may demand an exceptional name.

Try to stay historically and geographically accurate. Don’t be afraid to use good ol’ stand-bys like Joe and John and Katherine, or even Margaret. And, in general, steer away from gender-neutral names as they just complicate things. Keeping those few things in mind just makes everything that much more real.

Name your characters like they’re your best friends. For many of us, readers and viewers and writers, they are!


Peggy Bechko is a TVWriter™ Contributing Editor. Learn more about her sensational career HERE. Peggy’s new comic series, Planet of the Eggs, written and illustrated with Charlene Brash-Sorensen is available on Kindle. And, while you’re at it, visit the Planet of the Eggs Facebook page and her terrific blog.