Every week, my daughter Freya and I have a “storytelling class.” Really, it’s just a fun opportunity to chat about writing stories. This week, our topic was beginnings, middles and ends.
We always start with two questions: what did we read and what did we write over the past week?
What Did We Read?
I read the usual blogs, more of The Wes Anderson Collection, and Damn Fine Story. I also read the first two trade paperbacks of Y: The Last Man (found among a pile of random Vertigo TPBs that my wife found at a garage sale for a pittance).
Y’s main character, Yorick is the literal last man on earth when a mysterious event causes all other men to simultaneously die. The premise is fine, and the world-building is done well enough, but the story frustrated me (at least in these first two books) because Yorick just isn’t very interesting. He has trained himself as an escape artist, but we don’t really find out why he has this odd interest, and his only goal in post-apocalyptic life is to get to Australia to find his girlfriend.
What made this more perplexing is that all of the secondary characters either had odd and interesting personalities, or hints of strange backstory, or both. I felt like a version of the story from any of these other perspectives might be preferable to following Yorick around.
My bedtime reading to the kids this week has been Poison for Breakfast.
Freya continues to read Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, and her class, having finished The One and Only Ivan, has begun the sequel, The One and Only Bob.
What Did We Write?
I’ve been banking up some scheduled blog posts this week, working on Razor Mountain as usual, and revived an old half-finished story for my class “homework.”
Freya wrote for her school work, as well as her story “Amber and Floria.”
In previous weeks, we’ve done thematic homework that relates to the class topic of the week. That hasn’t really been piquing our interest lately, so we decided to change tactics this week. After all, this isn’t school. It’s just for fun.
From now on, our homework will be more free-form: we’ll just spend time writing some kind of fiction each week and then talk about it. If we want to tie it into the topic of the week, we can. But we don’t have to. Just as the best way to get kids excited about reading is to let them read the things that interest them, the best way to get a kid excited about writing is to let them write what interests them.
So, this week Freya worked on a story in progress called Amber and Floria, about two sisters who have to rescue their parents, whose plane crashed and stranded them deep in the jungle. Which sounds pretty awesome.
I worked “Understump,” a story I started writing for my children a year or two ago and set aside when I couldn’t come up with a satisfying ending. Time away from it has given me a fresh perspective, and I’m excited to work on it again. Kid-lit is definitely a new frontier for me, which is a good thing. It’s also the sort of story that could easily be the first in a series, which is a good thing too.
After our third class, where we talked about turning ideas into stories, our homework was to come up with some new story ideas. Freya’s list included a couple ideas for homemade movies, and that got us talking about writing scripts.
I’ll be the first to admit that I am no expert on script writing. I’ve never completed a script. So this was an opportunity for us to learn a little bit together. What we covered in this class were strictly basics—the formatting and other differences between scripts and fiction.
Scripts, Scripts, or Scripts?
Not all scripts are created equal. Most scriptwriting advice I found was focused on writing for TV and movies. That’s probably what most script writers are hoping to write in this day and age, so it makes sense. However, there are other forms of audio-visual media with their own slightly different takes on what a script should look like.
Audio fiction was once a nearly extinct art form, a mainstay of radio before the advent of television. But podcasts went and reminded everyone that audio-only media is actually pretty cool, so “radio” plays are back and bigger than ever. Of course, this kind of script writing eschews camerawork and detailed descriptions of visuals, and focuses more on sound effects and dialogue.
Also, despite the best efforts of the pandemic, live theatre is still very much a thing. Stage plays have to work with the static perspective of an audience directly in front of the stage rather than flexible camera-work, and have more limitations on scene changes and special effects, thanks to being performed live by real actors and crew on a real stage with physical limitations.
I found a pretty good Studio Binder page that describes the pieces of a script and their formatting, with an example script. We read through this and discussed the different parts.
Scene headings and character introductions are much more straightforward and terse than the typical descriptions of settings and characters in fiction. However, more attention has to be paid to the viewpoint of the audience from moment to moment: what are they seeing and hearing.
Works of fiction get lumped together in rough categories like flash fiction, novella or novel by number of words. Scripts, on the other hand, are typically made to fit a particular format and hit a set length in minutes. Helpfully, the rule of thumb is that one page of script should equate to about one minute of on-screen (or in-ear?) time.
In the days when broadcast television was king, shows in the U.S. were written to fit in 30-minute or 60-minute time slots with a set amount of time dedicated to commercials, and perhaps a little extra set aside for an intro sequence and credits. Now we live in a world of network, cable, premium and streaming services, where commercial breaks may or may not be a concern and some shows even choose to have wildly variable episode lengths.
Movies follow similar rules, and much like streaming services you don’t need to worry about commercials. Movies typically run 90–120 minutes, but there are extreme exceptions like the Lord of the Rings movies, whose theatrical releases were close to 3 hours and whose directors’ cuts were even longer.
Script structure is an entirely different beast from fiction, and can depend quite a bit on the media format. How many commercial breaks? An intermission? Episodic series or one-shot? We didn’t get into this too much, because I don’t know much and it’s a big topic. If you’re serious about writing something to actually get made though, you’ll need to figure these things out.
As I said before, we’re stepping away from class-specific homework, so the goal for next week is to just do some fiction writing. Freya does want to make more home movies, but she has to wrangle her brothers into being the actors, and as we all know, actors (and brothers) are an unruly bunch who often don’t take direction well.
See you next week, when we’ll dive deeper into characters!