Writing: Obstacles and Stakes

The other day, I was asked to give notes on a short script that had an interesting premise and main character and cool settings, but felt lacking in dramatic dramatic tension. In my notes I talked about obstacles and stakes, which are elements that come up commonly enough with clients or students, that I thought I might do a mini-lesson here.

Here’s a simple four-step structure you might use for a short film:

  1. A character has a goal.
  2. The character makes a plan to achieve that goal.
  3. The character attempts to execute the plan.
  4. The character succeeds or fails in the plan = outcome / aftermath.

Here’s an example that matches that goal. (EXAMPLE 1)

  1. A cat wants the kitty-treats on top of the fridge.
  2. The cat plans to jump on the counter, and then to the top of the fridge.
  3. The cat jumps to the counter, and then to the top of the fridge.
  4. The cat eats the treats.

What would happen if we added some obstacles and stakes to this story?

OBSTACLES in writing are pretty much the same as obstacles in life — they are whatever gets in the way of our progress toward a goal. These can internal, like self-doubt or external as in this case: Let’s say that there’s a pile of dishes on the counter, waiting for their turn in the sink. There’s only a TINY area of counter where the cat can land without dislodging a dish…

STAKES are what a character stands to gain if she succeeds or lose if she fails. We already know what our kitty-cat gets if she reaches the top of the fridge — delicious cat treats, but we can make those treats a little more important. Let’s say the cat didn’t get any dinner, so she is legit HUNGRY. Maybe her owner was making an important romantic dinner for someone, got distracted and forgot to feed the cat. (Then she brought the dishes into the kitchen, and forgot again!)

So what happens if the cat FAILS? If the cat jumps and lands badly, she will dislodge a pile of dishes — they will come CRASHING to the floor, breaking the good china and ruining the romantic vibes happening in the next room. The cat’s owner will be pissed, and will throw the cat outside — still with no dinner! Oh — and it’s RAINING outside!

What does our story look like now? (EXAMPLE 2)

  1. The cat, locked in the kitchen, looks mournfully at her empty bowl. Her stomach growls. She looks at the treats on top of the fridge and licks her lips.
  2. The cat evaluates her route to the top of the fridge. There’s a pile of fragile dishes on the counter, but there’s also just enough space for a pair of kitty feet. The cat decides to go for it.
  3. The cat jumps to the counter and lands perfectly on the counter — but what she didn’t see was — it’s WET. As she makes her leap to the fridge, her paws SLIP! She madly claws for the top of the fridge but doesn’t make it and falls backwards. Now she’s in danger of smashing the dishes AND seriously injured! [We’re RAISING the stakes.] BUT at the last moment, she TWISTS and sinks her claws into the CURTAIN on the window. She climbs the curtain, and drops down to the top of the fridge!
  4. The cat happily digs her nose into the bag of treats.

THE END

I Made A Short Film

I made a very short film — under three minutes. THE CHASE stars my niece and nephew, who are both much bigger now than when this was shot. I wanted learn a particular editing program, and my computer wasn’t robust enough for the task, and other work was on the front burner, so took a year for time and resources to finally align, but I’m happy with the result:

The credits go by fast, so I’ll call attention to the fact that even on a three-minute film, it works better if you have a village. My friend Christine was behind the camera, while another friend, Caroline kept things moving doing an A.D. / producer duties. My mom handled craft service, Paul acted as consultant and “spackle.” And, of course, the whole enterprise was elevated by the great original music. I’m very lucking to be able to use my sibling card to draft Greg Gordon Smith to compose and perform.

Podcast Coming Soon

In upcoming weeks, you’ll be seeing a new tab on this website. I’ve had the plan for awhile to make a landing page with some of my short stories and essays, but had been dragging my feet. Or maybe not dragging my feet, I was just running around in different directions — but it was on my mind.

Part of the delay was that I had to work through some trial and error: I had an okay microphone but my “sss”s were hissing so I needed to order a pop-screen;  I had time allocated to record, but the neighbors decided to do construction right outside my office, etc. I got an Adobe subscription so I could do an edit, but my computer isn’t up-to-date enough to run it the latest version of Adobe…

But then because my brother announced he was moving back to Los Angeles. Lucky for me! He has the skills and equipment I lack. As soon as he finished painting the walls and  be re-assembling his home studio,  I jumped to the front of the line before he got too busy. 

It’s been going well, but I’m discovering learning curves in new areas. This is the first time in a long time that I am “the performer.” I recently went back and re-recorded the first episode because when I listened to it, it felt a little lackluster and I realized it was because I wasn’t committing  to doing different voices for everyone’s dialogue. I think it felt a little silly so I only half-committed — and half committed is half-assed.  Listening to myself, I realized that there’s a reason it’s easy to get caught up in audio books and LeVar Burton Reads, and a reason it’s harder to get lost in the The New Yorker Fiction Podcast (although I listen to it still). For fiction, I like hearing actors who bring things to life, so I re-recorded to try to come closer to that bar, even though it’s out of my comfort zone.

The next hurdle is picking a “podcast host.” I can post episodes from this WordPress site for free, but they seem to be part of the blog post — and because I also blog about non-podcast things, that might be a little weird. I’d like to have a separate landing page, and, it turns out, my tastes aren’t as cheap as I’d like them to be. It costs not to run any ads, costs to have a pretty picture next your player  (also, I need to design the picture for the player).

Too late to make a long story short, we’ve got three in the can now.  I’m still figuring a few things out, but it’s coming soon!

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Greg adjusting the first episode.

 

Here is our theme song!

Still Working…

A couple items:

  1. I got  very nice note from the editor of the Chariton Review wanting to print a short story I submitted called “How to Write Your Own Biography.”
  2. I’ve been writing a treatment for new media project and last week I got a letter saying I’d soon be receiving a contract for an actual script.

I’ll update if/when either of these things become a reality.  Even at a “contract’s in the mail” stage, I’ve had projects disappear, so that could happen.

But for right now, I’m appreciating the good news…
… and I’m continuing to develop several other projects that I’m excited about…
… and I’m “visioning” that miracle TV staffing job…

… and I’m also browsing LinkedIn and Glassdoor…  looking at “real” jobs.

Hope and gratitude and passion can co-exist with anxiety and even grief.

Back when I was diagnosed with cancer and the odds were about 50-50, I exercised and meditated and read medical articles and nutrition books with the intention to nudge these odds as much as possible and survive.  And at the same time, because it was a real possibility, I felt I should try to mentally and emotionally prepare for a different future where I did not stay alive. Really considering the thought that I might not survive brought about an odd combination of feelings: grief  and loss, but, at times, also the possibility of relief. I figured that if it got to the point where I knew, then I could give myself a break– eat sugar, and drink alcohol and just mentally let go. I saw friends reach that point, and while it wasn’t what they would have chosen, they accepted that a choice had been made for them, and there was a kind of peace in knowing that. Once they acknowledged that their time on this earth was limited, all the “fighting time” became  time they could use in whatever way was the most rewarding for them.

It might seem ridiculous to say that contemplating failing to establish a writing career is comparable to contemplating dying of cancer.  Except that I have now experienced both, and — without wanting to sound overwrought — in my experience, there are similarities.

I’ve invested very heavily — money, security, and years of my life and just a lot of emotional intent — in the idea that someday I would be able to sustain myself through writing. I’ve hoped that would involve working and collaborating with other people in a writers room to make good work. That has been the dream.

But the closer I get without getting, the more I’m having to face the idea that the odds of this happening are not in my favor. They are much worse than 50/50.

And so I’m doing two things at once: One one hand I’m hoping I can beat the odds, and to that end I’m doing the work that anecdotally helps: I’m doing the networking and writing  and producing outside projects to help break through the noise…

But I am also trying to look at things honestly, and that means contemplating what it might be like to admit failure and give up. When I visualize doing that, I feel  is the grief. I feel so heartbroken that I start to cry at random moments.

But I’ve also begun to wonder if it might be a relief.  I think about the possibility of being financially solvent, of binge watching TV just because I like it, of  casually clicking the $25 or $50 dollar donations on people’s GoFundMe pages. I think about looking for a job that isn’t just a crutch to lean on while I give myself to an industry that doesn’t seem to need me, but a job that is also meaningful and where my employer sees value in me.

Those are the two things I’m thinking simultaneously each day when I wake. Carrying them both is work.

I’m still working.

 

Hangin’ Out, Thinking About Partiality

(As promised at the end of my last post.)

Much of the story we pitched for ADMISSIONS is built around three families — all New Yorkers, but with different backgrounds and socio-economic resources — vying to get their children into Ivy League colleges — and making some questionable moral and legal decisions in their pursuits. 

Last year, I wrote a pilot for an entirely different series — one with a sci-fi premise where a tech guru creates an Elysium-type alternate reality and the richest people in the United States pay to transport themselves and their families into this other reality.

What do this two projects– one grounded, and one sci-fi — have in common? They are both about families, and both about family members who exercise partiality. 

Partiality — if it’s not familiar to you, as it wasn’t to me — is basically, liking one thing, person or group more than another.  In philosophy, there’s a whole ongoing conversation regarding whether it can be right to act partially and privilege people who are closer in our affections over those who are more distant.

In both my sci-fi scenario and in the real world scandal, individuals act to procure opportunities for their children.  But in so doing they are are taking the opportunity away from other, random people.

Most of us exercise some form of partiality. We feed our own children and take care of our own families first. We help our friends more than strangers. Generally it’s regarded as honorable to help our families, friends, teams, companies. We talk about loyalty like it’s a good thing — something to aspire to.

But, is it also honorable to give a job to your nephew instead of reviewing applications from other hopefuls?  Is it okay to  vote to fund the parks near your neighborhood and not  neighborhoods where other people’s kids live?  What if everyone in your group made the same choices?

It seems like classism, racism, tribalism could all descended from this type of partiality when it’s not just exercised by individuals, but groups of people.

When I think about partiality, it’s difficult not to selfishly think about how partiality  affects me. I want to be a working TV writer. In order to do that, I need to be hired by a showrunner. It’s no secret that showrunners– not just as individuals, but as a class — are partial to people they know and trust, or to referrals by people they know and trust. Since I am not neither of those things, my chances of catching my dream are diminished.

On the flip side, I’ve been hired many times — to be on film crews, to teach, to work admin — because someone knew me.  In every case, I’m guessing Human Resources could have sent a hundred applicants as good or better than I was, who probably wanted the job more than I did.  Yes, I’m a hard worker, but that’s not what got me those jobs. I got those jobs because: partiality. The people with the power to hire already knew me.

The temptation is always there to help out a friend, to make your kid happy. When is that okay, and where’s the line? If you’re a bouncer at a club, is it okay to let your friends in for free? If you work middle-management at a company, is it okay to highly refer a friend for a job? And if you have a gazillion dollars, is it okay to buy your kid a spot at a prestigious college, or buy your family a new life in an alternate reality?