Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The Quality of Storytelling in Grand Theft Auto V.

One of the biggest reasons that I purchased Playstation 4 last year was that I was excited about some of the games that would be released on it later this year.  For just about any person that cares about adventure games, 2015 is likely going to be a pretty good year.

Nevertheless, I have recently played this game called Grand Theft Auto V lately, so let's review it a bit here. I'll try to pay attention to its storylines and not talk too much about how the game was programmed. I think most of us can agree that the game looks pretty good.

To be honest, I still haven't played through all the quests yet. I have done like 90% of the campaign so far but it's probably enough for me to rather fairly assess how well the characters and the storylines work in the game.

The game is a bit of a mixed bag. There are a lot of good things that can be said about the characters and the writing in general. At the same time, there are things that objectively speaking haven't really worked and have left me feeling somewhat bad about the game.

One of the things that I liked about Grand Theft Auto is the way the characters are introduced. You don't get to play them all from the get go. You get to meet them one at a time, based on the way the storylines develop. This really works well.

Of all these playable characters, Michael  who has a family is probably the most likable. Trevor is likely the most fun. He is an aggressive alcoholic, who seems to lose his clothes all the time. Franklin, the black guy, on the other hand, is a rather neutral character.

When it comes to storytelling, GTA V shows how challenging it is to write a game where you're supposed to steal cars, pull off heists and kill people without alienating the player. It's challenging to write the game in a way that would still make us root for the characters.

In my opinion the writers could have done better. There are moments that simply don't work. like when Michael is supposed to rig a phone that kills a "facebook" boss during an exhibition. All I could think of was that it was a massive misstep.

I also didn't like at all when the player - as in Trevor - was forced to torture a character in the game. It made me feel really uncomfortable. It was really difficult to keep continuing and I tried to choose the least violent method to get the job done.

On the other hand, I really liked the bit where Michael's daughter was doing an audition for "American Idol" and Trevor and Michael decide to save her. The way they humiliated that Ryan Seacrest clone was actually pretty funny and poignant.

I also thought it was fun when Michael becomes a movie producer - which was pretty much an 'Entourage' redux. Since I'm a fan of that show, naturally I was rather entertained about the whole thing. The 'premiere' and what happened after was well written.

Nevertheless, as a whole I think the storylines could have been more consistent. The motivations for the characters seem to be missing some of the time. There are also those token "buddy movie" tropes that I could have lived without too.

So taking all these things into consideration, perhaps the best way to enjoy Grand Theft Auto V is when you don't finish it too quickly. Playing this way you get to forget most of the flaws in the storylines, that may or may not bother you.

In the end, Grand Theft Auto V could could have been a better game had it been better written. But perhaps most players weren't looking for a plausible story. After all, even with its flaws most of the time even I have enjoyed playing it.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Claim: "you need five jokes for every page of your script".

One of the most common things that you can "learn" from a lot of sitcom books is the claim that your script can't have too many funny moments in it. According to these books, every page should have boatloads of them - five or more.

What these so called authors try to tell you is that you pretty much need to have jokes everywhere. Otherwise the audience might not laugh enough. "Jokes, jokes, jokes, punch it up! We need more jokes! Someone bring in the joke writer to save us!"

In my opinion there are numerous problems with this kind of approach to comedy writing. That is because if you pay too much attention to making every single line supposedly funny, the audience is going to get confused and tired pretty quickly.

Just because you're writing comedy doesn't mean that you can be funny all the time. If you try to do that, your script in most cases will become pretty incoherent. If you have too many jokes in your script, your writing is almost certainly going to suffer from it.

In order to put this claim and 'my' theory to test I decided to check the latest episodes of 'Modern Family' and 'Mom'. I decided to pay more attention to how many jokes there were, did the supposed funny moments work or did they make the episodes worse.

The sample size wasn't admittedly that big, but after I watched these episodes, I think I got enough information (or data) to draw the conclusion that sometimes more is less - that you shouldn't try to write in too many jokes in your scripts.

For example, when it came to Modern Family's 6x12 'The Big Guns", I had to shake my head when I watched it. Especially in that cold open where the writers tried to make every moment funny. Every character from Phil to Luke, from Haley to Alex tried to be a smart ass.

I counted six jokes for that one page. Of those jokes or supposed funny quips only the first one was okay. Objectively speaking all the following lines bombed spectacularly. To say that the writers tried too hard is an understatement. I was not amused.

Right after I had seen that episode of Modern Family, I checked the latest episode of 'Mom'. Needless to say - since the show is a multi-cam comedy - the 'joke' count was even higher. The studio audience was laughing at every line that was uttered.

To be honest, I didn't find any of those funny moments to be funny. Even though the studio audience was constantly laughing - and even though there were these so called 'jokes' - all I could think was that the episode didn't really make sense at all.

It became pretty clear that there was no story, so the jokes didn't work or matter. Clearly what the script needed was solid plotlines that would have gone somewhere. It needed situations for the characters that the audience would have been able to relate to.

All those crucial elements were missing, which is something that you shouldn't ever overlook.  'Mom' disappointed me because there wasn't anything going for it. As it is probably with every problem script, the lack of 'jokes' was not the issue.

The truth is that you just can't camouflage the problems with the script with more jokes most of the time. If you don't have a clue what should be done, don't take the easy way out. Don't try to add as many 'jokes' as possible - because it probably won't work.

In any case, comedy really is a lot more about story than it's about jokes - and you probably shouldn't trust a person who tries to convince you that your script needs more jokes. "Five jokes or more on every page", in most cases won't fix anything.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

A skill that can be learned: editing your scripts.

There are a lot of critical skills involved with writing that in my opinion simply cannot be learned. If you don't have a superior sense of drama or if you don't have the ability to read characters and people better than most, you can't become a great writer.

This of course doesn't mean that there aren't any skills in writing that can't be learned through hard work. In fact, one of the more important skills that you have to learn - well, at least you should learn - is the ability to edit your scripts.

There are are a lot of things that are included in 'editing' your script: for example finding typos in your scripts that need to be fixed, adding words, dialogue and paragraphs, cutting and deleting stuff that doesn't really work. Sometimes you need to edit your script's structure too.

One might think that editing mistakes would be pretty easy. After all, most programs have spell-checkers, so correcting those typos shouldn't be that hard. Other problems should be easy to detect too - because "only thing you need to do is to read through your script".

Yet, from my own experience I can safely say that editing your script is much trickier than one might think. Even though writing the script is the hardest part, that still leaves us with the part of figuring out what you wrote and what possibly went wrong.

What makes it so hard? One of the things that makes it usually so difficult to correct some of these mistakes is the fact that when we write stuff, we usually get too involved with the script. We can't see the forest for the trees and get too bogged down in the details.

We cannot see the typos (especially if English isn't your first language), we can't see that we went on a tangent and lost the plot, we thought that certain useless paragraphs were crucial, we didn't figure out that there was a lot of dialogue that needed to be cut - and so on.

These are mistakes that just about every single writer makes pretty much all the time at least to some extent. No matter who you are, no matter how much you have written and no matter how respected you are, you will still make these errors.

So how to approach this problem then? After all, it takes usually time to find out what the problems are and where. It's almost impossible to fix your script right away. No matter how much you'll try you probably won't be able to solve the problems with your script immediately.

As counter-intuitive as it sounds, usually the best way to give yourself a chance to fix these mistakes is to shelve your script for a while after you have written it. If only it's possible to not read it and think about it for some days - or better yet - for a week or two, do that.

It is after the break that you start to see the big picture. "What was I thinking there?", "I'm screwed", "so much work to do". It all might look so hopeless, until you notice that most of what you wrote is relatively okay and usually you just need patience to make the script work.

In any case, the upside to this all is that the more you write, the more you will likely become aware of the challenges involved. You know that you will make mistakes - but in the end almost every problem with the script is a problem that can be solved.

Friday, January 2, 2015

Things that I might do this year as a writer.

So, I happened to take a two week break from writing. Since Christmas was coming, I thought that I'd deserve to do something else than to update this blog. Writing forty-five articles last year wasn't that bad of an accomplishment - it was my personal record.

Now that I'm trying to get back to writing something - that is, trying to be me - I'm noticing that taking that Christmas break didn't really help. Going on a hiatus made me feel a bit confused and empty. I don't really know what I'm supposed to do now.

In any case, I'm trying to establish a writing routine and I think I'm supposed to think a bit and draw some initial plans for 2015. Am I just going to keep updating this blog about screenwriting - or am I going to do something else too?

I think one thing that I need to keep in mind is that even if I do nothing else than just write here and try to teach you and myself something about writing, that too has some value. I mean, some of the stuff that I wrote last year was at least in my opinion really good.

But what should I do if I'm going to write something else than articles for this blog? Could I write another spec for an existing television show? Could I write a movie script? Perhaps I could write a spec pilot for tv too.

So let's start with existing shows. When it comes to writing these specs, I think I have to keep in mind that I already wrote four The Big Bang Theory specs, three Modern Family specs and two Boston Legal specs. I learned at lot from those, probably enough already.

I could also write movie scripts this year too, but the problem is that just about every movie that was released last year was simply awful. I don't want to write another bad one that - if produced - would just make people angry as hell.

That leaves me with writing a spec pilot. It's not exactly a secret that I detest most shows that are currently on tv. I also haven't figured out yet how to write a tv pilot either. But that doesn't change the fact that I like television much more than I like movies.

So the question becomes, is it possible that I could come up with a great spec pilot? Considering the fact that last years have been horrible for new network shows, there's definitely room for quality tv. Very few are happy about the state of today's television.

The truth is that there are so many people looking for something better - and the network executives are apparently getting desperate too. So perhaps I should try my luck and try to come up with a pilot script. It won't be easy but I guess I'm finally up for something new.