Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Is it that good to have a 'voice' as a writer?

One of the most common things that you can hear from people in show business is the saying that you need to have a voice as a writer. Having a distinct voice is something that differentiates you from the rest of the pack and makes you special.

In my opinion, even though there might be certain benefits to having a so called 'voice', I don't think we should get carried away with the idea too much. Sounding or trying to sound too different from others isn't necessarily that good of an idea.

In order to illustrate this, let's think about the different ways that you could have a 'voice'. These are: 1) having a special 'voice' just for the sake of having one,  2) having a 'voice' that isn't really that good or 3) having a voice that means that you have something real to say.

So first things first. When you think about a voice that tries to be too different on purpose, is there a better example than the movie 'Juno', that was written by Diablo Cody? This was a pretty good film - except when it came to its hipster dialogue.

The reason Cody won an Oscar for best original screenplay - contrary to what you may have heard - is not because of the so called 'voice' (wildly implausible dialogue). It won because the story was relatively well crafted and despite its apparent flaws.

I mean, when I watched the movie, I did not like it, until it became obvious that there was more to the film too. It's still hard to get over the fact that the dialogue in the movie was really that awkward. It tried too much and it tried to be different on purpose.

This 'distinct, but not good voice' brings me to the second point. That is that I started to think about this 'recognizable but flawed' thing especially after I checked Netflix's 'The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt'. This was a new show by the 30 Rock creator Tina Fey.

As you might remember, Tina Fey used to be a big thing when 30 Rock was at its peak. That is when the show had a clear idea - a voice. There was a pretty believable premise, the characters were relatively well defined and the scripts were pretty strong.

There were however some obvious flaws with the show too. It tended to be too cartoonish in many cases. It had quick cuts, constant musical cues and a massive amount of those so called jokes. It was very much 'Tina Fey', enjoyable but flawed.

When it came to Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, all those 'Tina Fey' flaws were still there. Yet, all the good things were gone. The show was and is a total disaster, an absolute abomination. Nothing works - but it's obvious that it is a Tina Fey show. It's her 'voice' there.

This is why one should pay attention to the third point.  In my opinion, when it comes to having a real voice, it's not just about having a distinct style. You always need to have substance too. You need to have something real to say about the rest of us.

It's also about being able to bring something new and fresh to the table every once in a while. It has something to do with being able to be flexible and not getting stuck with your thingy. It's about not doing the same thing over and over again.

If you're too obsessed with having a so called voice and a style - or too blind about it -  the chances are that you don't have that much to say about things. If you're too married to your uniqueness, it will eventually, sooner or later, turn against you.

In the end, if you really want to have a voice, be the voice of truth. Pay attention to that and be kind too. Others might not be saying how quirky and unique you are, but at least you are trying to stand up for something that actually matters.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

What to think of "comfort zones" as a writer?

One of the most surefire ways to get anyone to feel doubt and guilt is to talk about 'comfort zones'.  It's about how we could do better than we're currently doing. We're supposedly playing it too safe, and we shouldn't be content with our lives as they are right now.

In any case, I think there are at least two ways to approach comfort zones. The first one is about trying to expand our repertoire - what's reasonable, possible and realistic to change. That can be achieved through stepping outside of our comfort zones.

The second approach is to create stuff by being inside our comfort zones. Despite what some people might think, being inside your bubble and your safe zone can be a good thing too. It isn't necessarily about being lazy at all.

So let's start with the first one. What are the things that I should or could change about myself by stepping outside the box? Would these changes increase my happiness or the happiness of others? What would the likely end result be?

In my case, would it be a challenge and would it take me out of my comfort zone if I for example updated this blog twice a week instead? Would it be a good thing to be even more active? Would the quality of my articles go up or down perhaps?

What if I wrote a spec television pilot? Would that be a challenge for me to create new characters and storylines? Me spending time writing that 30 page pilot sitcom about a family that people might be able to relate to.

What if I tried to get an agent? That would mean that I would have to start contacting people outside my immediate social circle? This would mean that I would have to do something that I'm not used to doing at all.

Or should I even try to move to United States so that I could have better chances getting hired as a screenwriter? Would big television producers think differently about me if they met me in person instead of reading this blog?

As you can see, these are some of the options that I could take. Some of them are pretty good. Some of them are more difficult to implement than others. Clearly there's value in challenging yourself in many cases. I probably should get out of my comfort zone more.

At the same time, let's not forget that there's the other side to the coin. Being a writer is mostly about being in your comfort zone. Writing good stuff, writing anything that has any value at all, is going to be done by you - the writer.

It's not going to happen anywhere else by anyone else. All the coolest things imaginable are going to be created by you - in a place where you're sitting next to your computer, writing with your keyboard, trying to make sense out of the chaos that is around us - in silence.

If you step out of that 'comfort zone' too many times, nothing is going to be done by you. There won't be anything to publish or anything that you could show to anyone - which in essence is what makes writing in general so fascinating - and difficult. 

Monday, March 9, 2015

I Can't Wait to Get to Play Uncharted 4.

The biggest reason that I managed to buy Playstation 4 last December was because at some point I would be able to play Uncharted 4: A Thief's End on it. For me this game is likely the one that I've been  anticipating the most. 

But why do I get excited about Uncharted 4? After all, it's not exactly a secret that I'm the kind of person that tries not to get excited about anything. In my opinion, the less you get excited about things, the less in general you're going to get disappointed and suffer in life.

In any case, one of the reasons that I'm excited is because I have always liked adventure games. I grew up playing games like Sierra's King's Quests, Leisure Suit Larrys and Space Quests. I also was a fan of games like Secret of The Monkey Island.

Another reason is that I'm a fan of storytelling and appreciate the craft of writing. Even though it takes a massive amount of effort and talent to create a game that looks good and is technically well made, I respect good storytelling even more.

With Uncharted series it's obvious that the producers of the game have tried to pay as much attention as possible to the storytelling aspects. Even though the game looks and sounds beautiful, the storylines in the series have been really solid too.

But it's not just that. I also like Uncharted and other games because I get to participate myself. Unlike with television and movies, there's much more interaction. You get to be a part of the experience. You get to control your own destiny (to some extent).

You get to meet some new and old characters. You get to solve problems. You try to find a long lost treasure and try to unravel a conspiracy. Perhaps you get to shoot some bad guys (definitely) and perhaps you'll fall in love too. 

Other than that, for me, playing games, unlike with television, is about having fun. I don't pay that much attention to the flaws. They aren't usually that obvious or significant. For me games are a much more forgiving medium.

I don't quit playing a game like I quit watching tv shows. I don't hold a grudge against the creators of a certain game. Unlike when it comes to tv, I don't feel that the producers should sometimes be sent to a mental institution or that they should just go home and die. 

I'm playing these games so that I could relax and that I could have my moments of zen. I'm simply playing to have a great time - and based on how the previews for Uncharted 4: A Thief's End look, it's going to be one helluva ride.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Checklist for a sitcom pilot script.

As expected, this 2014-2015 season wasn't good at all for new sitcom pilots. Most of these shows have already been cancelled and mid-season replacements like The Odd Couple almost certainly won't be renewed for another season.

So why were all these new shows so bad? In order to give a decent answer to that, let's take a look at what one should expect from a new comedy show. I believe that these are some of the basic ingredients that shouldn't ever be ignored when it comes to your pilot: 

1) Family concept:

It's not exactly a secret that Modern Family has one of the strongest concepts of current comedy shows on tv. So, whenever I watch a pilot, I immediately start to pay attention to whether there are characters that together might form a cohesive 'family' unit.

This seems like such a simple idea but writers still seem to overlook it and think that a (semi)-traditional 'family' isn't a cool or a hip concept. They think it's an old-fashioned way of seeing life through and that today it's all about individualism. (for example, New Girl)

Conversely they might think that having a sort of a family is good enough - meaning that you create four or five characters that live together and your show is good to go. The writers don't pay attention to the mechanics that make families function. (again, New Girl)

In short, you need to get the basics right. The reason that Everybody Loves Raymond is one of the best sitcoms of all time is because it perfected family dynamics. Every cast member had tangible strengths and weakness compared to each other. 

2) Relatable characters:

This is one of the simplest things to pull off. Nothing is dumber than making the audience resent the characters. For some reason many writers tend to think that unlike in real life, when it comes to television, we'd like to spend time with unlikable jack-asses.

First impressions count the most, so why do writers think that their characters shouldn't be likable? Perhaps they think that in today's postmodern society everyone's in it for themselves and being good to others is not cool at all.

It shouldn't surprise anyone that if the first thing that the main characters do is something that makes me hate them, I'm pretty much done with the show. After all, there are other options too than to watch that specific television program.

On a plus side, it really does pay off to be a relatable main character on a show. Let's not forget that Liz Lemon in the pilot of 30 Rock - if I'm not completely wrong - bought donuts for everyone who was in the cafeteria. I thought that was - ahem - pretty hip and cool.

3) Simple, effective storylines:

Storylines are pretty much derived from the first two examples. If you have failed at coming up with a creative family concept or if you don't have relatable characters, then I don't think it's possible to come up with a simple, effective storyline.

Indeed, this was a common problem with just about every new pilot script that premiered this season. I don't think there were any pilots that had even a decent storyline with a beginning, middle and an end. All we had were random scenes that didn't add up.

For example Odd Couple, that was one of the most highly rated of those new pilots, had a rushed episode that wasted pages on scenes that were redundant. At no point were they telling a story. It was just pointless exposition that went too fast nowhere.

Coming up with a good pilot is not easy but it's possible. Six years ago Modern Family proved that you can write an amazing pilot where you successfully introduce the characters and also tell a good, entertaining story - in just 22 minutes. 

4) Premise:

What is the show about and where does it take place at? Is it a workplace comedy - doctors, advertisement, office work? Does it exclusively happen in someone's home (almost guaranteed to be a multicam sitcom)?

In almost all cases it's best to make sure that the show is about something. The quickly cancelled Mulaney - a series that tried to copy Seinfeld's format  - was truly a show about nothing.  'Selfie' didn't do any better - a show based on an embarrassing viral video!

A good show like South Park gives the writers a chance to write just about anything they want. It's the only series on tv where there's social commentary in almost every episode. It helps that the show is a cartoon about kids that behave like adults.

Modern Family also works because it manages to combine many aspects of life into a twenty-one minute episode. There's well integrated family stuff, there's workplace stuff, there are cultural clashes and even a relatively safe gay couple on the show.

5) Multicam or a singlecam:

Should you choose a multicam (in front of an audience) or single cam as your format? Multicams are shows like Friends, Seinfeld and Two and a Half Men. Single cams are shows like Modern Family, Silicon Valley and Scrubs.

Currently everyone agrees that multicam sitcoms aren't doing well. In my opinion the last time that multicam sitcoms managed to be consistently funny was in 2010 when The Big Bang Theory had its third season. After that it's been very quiet on that front.

The last time that a multicamera sitcom won best comedy series Emmy was in 2005 with Everybody Loves Raymond. It's a pretty safe bet that singlecam shows like Modern Family - five wins in a row - are going to dominate in the future too.

It's not completely out of question that multicams could make an Emmy comeback at some point, but it's not likely going to happen in the near future. As a writer, I'd rather not write a laugh track pilot. It's doesn't seem like a smart move currently.


To learn more, don't forget to check the good pilots. I'd recommend  to watch at least The Simpsons (a cartoon), The Big Bang Theory, Modern Family and Everybody Loves Raymond. At least Raymond you can find from youtube too.