Storytelling Class — Scripts 101

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.”

Homework

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.

Scripts 101

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.

Formatting

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.

Length

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.

Structure

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.

Homework

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!

What I Learned From “Over the Garden Wall”

Over the Garden Wall is a strange show. It’s a cartoon mini-series of ten tiny episodes, less than twelve minutes each. It purposely evokes an old-fashioned style, and while it’s not afraid of a joke, the mood of the show is often one of slowly building horror.

The show is the story of two brothers, Wirt and Greg, who are lost and trying to find their way back home. Where exactly they are (in geography or time period) and where their home might be, are all left a little bit unclear. But that doesn’t stop them from continuing down the road, accompanied by a pet frog and a talking bluebird named Beatrice.

It is strange enough that it seems a small miracle that it was ever made. It’s the sort of thing that knows exactly what it wants to be, even though that doesn’t fit very neatly into television seasons or half-hour slots, or precisely-delineated viewership and advertising segments. I expect it’s the sort of thing that people mostly either love or hate, and I fall firmly into the first camp.

As usual, I’ll eschew a traditional review. Instead, I want to comb over this beautiful oddity to see what lessons we can learn from it, to improve our storytelling.

There may be some light spoilers here, but I’m going to try not to ruin the mystery for those who haven’t watched it. If you don’t want to be spoiled, go watch it first! It’s on Hulu, and only slightly longer than a movie.

Succinctness is a Virtue

When I was a wee lad, I loved giant stories that spanned many volumes. I loved giant jRPGs that shipped on half a dozen discs. I loved TV shows that ran for the better part of a decade.

There are still examples of those things that I love, but now that I’m kind of an old guy and there are never quite enough hours in the day, I really, really appreciate things that fit greatness into a small package. I love a good short story or novella. I treasure a good miniseries or single season show.

Over the Garden Wall clocks in at under three hours in total. You can watch the whole thing in an evening, and you don’t even have to stay up late. And although each episode is quite short, each one is gratifyingly complete. Across the episodes, every major character has an arc, and the little mysteries build into big mysteries.

Even the twist ending (which could have been disastrous) is satisfying, layering additional meaning onto the episodes leading up to it. When I finished the series for the first time, the first thing I thought was, “oh man, I need to rewatch that to find all the things I didn’t pay enough attention to.”

It’s easy to make a big, messy, sprawling story. The real artistry is in crafting that story down into a svelte package where every single word is in exactly the right place, and even doing multiple things at once.

Mood Matters

Over the Garden Wall is autumnal. And I don’t simply mean that it’s set during the fall, although it is. The backgrounds are scattered with orange leaves verging on brown. There are fields, ripe and ready for harvest. There are fall festivals and Halloween parties, and as the show goes on, the chill of winter descends over everything.

There’s also the music, which is original to the show but sounds decidedly old-fashioned. It’s sometimes jovial and silly, sometimes morose and melancholy. It hovers between major and minor keys. It captures the mood of Halloween, an old festival that has continued into modern times, stripped of its original meanings: a hint of the ancient and sacred, a hint of the otherworldly and evil, a hint of banal silliness.

Almost every single episode manages a difficult trick. Each one feels like a horror story, beginning with the mundane, leading into strangeness and rising dread. Then, in the end, that menace turns out to be overblown. Everything works out fine, but that dread lingers and grows as the episodes go on.

Autumn is the season of dying. The cold death of winter is on its way, and the plants and animals seek shelter and hope for the rebirth of spring. The show is keenly aware of this, and almost everything is built around these themes of fall, winter and spring, of death and rebirth.

An overarching mood or theme like this can elevate a story beyond the individual components.

Don’t Explain Everything

The last two episodes of Over the Garden Wall come out of nowhere. At least I certainly didn’t see them coming. And yet, they’re a satisfying conclusion. They provide an explanation for what’s going on, and they provide the emotional closure that makes the whole thing feel complete.

What the ending doesn’t do is explain everything. Did everything literally happen? Or was some of it metaphorical? Ultimately, it doesn’t matter, and we can each ponder and debate what we think really happened.

I know there are some folks who need to have every mystery wrapped up neatly with a bow, but…I don’t understand those people! Life in the real world is mysterious, and things often go unexplained. Hundreds of years of scientific exploration have only shown us how little we really know. Stories, like science, are a way to explore the universe.

By all means, resolve those big mysteries in your stories. Answer those burning questions. But when you get to the acknowledgements or let the credits roll, consider leaving one or two things open to interpretation. A little ambiguity can make a good story feel like it was just a little too big and too real to entirely fit onto the page.

Comedy Enhances Tragedy Enhances Comedy

There are great dramas and great comedies, but I’ve always felt that the greatest works of art straddle the line between comedy and tragedy. There’s something magical about laughing at the start of a sentence and crying by the end of it.

Over the Garden Wall has some amazing jokes that have become a part of my daily conversations with my family. None of them bat an eye when I talk about burgling turts, call harmless lies “rock facts,” or mention horses who want to steal. But the show also has some relatable teenage angst, tear-jerking brotherly love, and even maybe some life-and-death stakes.

Just because you’re creating “serious art” doesn’t mean you can’t crack wise once in a while, and if you’re crafting a work of comedy you can still sneak in an emotional gut punch or two. In fact, those things can be even more effective thanks to that juxtaposition. The real world isn’t all good or all bad. It’s a mix of both. Stories that acknowledge that feel true.

Wear Your Influences Proudly

Have you ever had a great idea for a story, only to realize it’s not your idea—it’s actually from a movie or book that you forgot about long ago? I have. It’s mortifying.

As artists, there’s an incredible pressure to create something unique and new, with your own voice. To be called derivative is an insult. But the fact is that each of us is a creative soup whose ingredients are all of our most beloved influences. The art and media that you consume inevitably influence the art and media that you create.

Over the Garden Wall emulates a turn-of-the-century style in its painted backgrounds (often with sweeping countryside or dark forest), its new-yet-old-timey music, and even in the mode of speech used by many of the characters. The animation evokes Felix the Cat, Betty Boop, and early Disney.

The show isn’t afraid to look, sound, or act like things that have come before. It pulls wholeheartedly from its inspirations. It wears its influences proudly. And wonderfully, by amalgamating all of these old influences with its modern writing, voice acting and processes, it manages to create something that feels unique and fresh.

Over the Garden Wall is a Modern Masterpiece

What can I say? I love this show. I love the mood that it puts me in, and I try to watch it every year around Halloween. I love how difficult it is to find any comparisons for it when I’m recommending it to people. I love that I keep finding little secrets hidden in the dialogue or visuals, even after multiple viewings.

If you haven’t watched it, go check it out. As I said in the intro, it’s on Hulu and only slightly longer than a movie. And I hope, like me, you get a little inspiration from it for your own creations.

“It’s a rock fact!”