Posts from April 2008.

Research Day: The LOST Script Style

This post contains a minor spoiler from the first season of LOST. It also contains the word “fuck.” A lot.

Speaking of LOST (as I often am, these days) …

If you are interested in the show, screenwriting in general, or wanton profanity, head over to The Daily Script and check out some of the LOST screenplays. They are written in a style that is, as far as I know, unique within the industry:

And as Jack slowly looks up -- standing right in front of him -- just FIVE FUCKING FEET AWAY --

Is ETHAN.

            ETHAN
    Hello, Jack.

Holy. Fucking. Shit.

Jack looks at him, ragged breath, but EYES BURNING. And he asks the question that hopefully all of America has been asking for the past week --

            JACK
    Who are you?

And we're LOOKING UP at Ethan. SOAKING WET but seemingly oblivious to the rain. And his EYES. His FUCKING EYES.

That’s from “All the Best Cowboys Have Daddy Issues“, season one, episode nine.

J. J. Abrams (the series creator) established this style in the pilot with phrases like “HE SCREAMS BLOODYFUCKINGMURDER” and “this guy is a Class-A prickfuck” (wha-?!). Since then it appears to have become part of the show’s template. Most LOST scripts read as if the writer has just hit his thumb with a hammer.

Of course, most screenwriters put some subtext into the action descriptions. In his book Crafty TV Writing, Alex Epstein (author of the screenwriting blog Complications Ensue) dubs these “subtitles for the nuance-impaired.”

Subtitles for the nuance-impaired are legitimate when the episode, if properly shot and edited, will easily communicate something that the script might not get across. Producers and executives are used to reading dialogue, but editing, for example, doesn't read well ...

[But] be careful writing directly to the reader this way. It's slightly naughty.

The LOST scripts take naughty to the next level, going beyond “subtitles for the nuance-impaired” and into the realm of “before the nuance-impaired can fucking process anything, the writer SMASHES THE PORCELAIN FOOD BOWL RIGHT INTO THE SIDE OF HIS FUCKING HEAD!” (Actual line from Lost 220! Well, sort of.)

I asked Epstein why the LOST staff writes this way. “It gives an ‘energetic read’,” he replied. “Network execs like it. They don’t have to put too much energy into reading it.” He also speculated that it had become part of the LOST culture. “Everybody does it ’cause their boss, JJ Abrams, does it.”

Some do it more than others, though. Search the pilot for “fuck” and you’ll find it 28 times in 96 pages; do the same on “Two For the Road“, and you’ll get 96 hits in 56 pages. My goodness. I wonder if they write emails to their mothers using the same fingers they use to type these screenplays. (Though, as Epstein points out, “Abrams probably rewrites all the scripts, so he may put the f-bombs in himself.”)

So, is this a good style for an aspiring screenwriter to adopt? Epstein again:

I find it annoying. If I got a script like that, I might not keep reading. I find it vulgar and cheap -- and by cheap, I mean you're getting a zap! into your script without actually working for it.

It's imprecise. Use words like bullets, not like a spray of birdshot. Note how the porcelain bowl line does not mention whether the food bowl breaks, or whether his head caroms off the bowl. Is there blood or not? It's loud, but it's not visual. It's abstract.

JJ Abrams gets paid a lot more than I do, so he can do as he likes. But just because e. e. cummings wrote free verse in lowercase doesn't means you should write poetry that way.

Duly noted. Indeed, when I write my LOST spec script, I intend to adopt a different style entirely:

Jack is peeved as all get-out! His DANDER is TOTALLY UP!

He draws his gun and points it RIGHT AT JOHN'S GOSH-DARNED HEAD!!!!!

            JACK
     See you in aitch ee
     double-hockey-sticks, you
     good-for-nothing so-and-so.

Then, when the LOST staff reads it, they’ll be all, “Whoa, check out this FRESH NEW VOICE! This SON OF A BITCH can THINK OUTSIDE THE MOTHERFUCKING BOX!!!

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The Perverse Appeal of LOST

This post contains no spoilers.

The Queen and I are halfway through season three of LOST and goddamn I love this show.

It’s hard for me to admit because LOST is popular, and it’s crucial to my self-image that I only enjoy television shows that hobble along for a season or three, unappreciated by the unwashed masses, before getting unceremoniously axed. Freaks & Geeks, Arrested Development, Firefly, and so forth. (We are going to conveniently ignore that I also liked The Sopranos, and that I laugh until my stomach hurts every time I stumble across AFHV …) And yet here I am, a LOST junkie, just like half of America.

Intellectually I recognize that the third season has all of the same problems of the first two: it shows us the trees, so to speak, and willfully ignores the forest. In other words, the creators of LOST have inverted the traditional mystery formula by making the clues themselves the focus of the show, instead of using them as an means to a end (the end being the solution of the central mystery).

Here’s a hypothetical example (hypothetical in the sense that I just made all this up; again, no spoilers in this post.) An episode ends with someone on LOST finding a leather-bound tome entitled “Secrets of the Island.” Yes! Finally we’ll learn what’s going on! But in the next installment, that person opens the book to discover that the whole thing is written in ancient indecipherable pictograms. Dammit! But in the last five minutes, someone notices that the final third of the book is blank, and the ink of the last entry is fresh! “It’s a work-in-progress,” says Major Character. “Someone is still writing it!!” And in the last five minutes of the next episode it is revealed via flashback that Other Major Character studied Ancient Indecipherable Pictology in college–holy shit!!!! And this goes on for three more episodes, at which point Major Character confronts Other Major Character with the book, and he (O.M.C.) confesses that he is using the book to record the movements of the other castaways, but only because a giant, ambulatory, sentient coconut threatened to kill him if he didn’t. And you, the viewer, are, like, “well, I’m glad the mystery of the book is cleared up BUT WHAT’S THIS ABOUT A GIANT AMBULATORY SENTIENT COCONUT??!!!” Lots and lots of clues (and episodes about clues), but you’re not one jot closer to understanding the central mystery. And meanwhile the LOST prop department is hastily burying the book in a Superfund site, hoping that no one remembers the title.

I found all this exasperating during season two (during which I parodied the style with The Adventure of the Missing Stocking.) But I’ve succumbed to Stockholm Syndrome or something, because now I kind of enjoy the sheer absurdity of it.

The structure of the narrative reminds me, in many ways, of a computer roleplaying game (CRPG). A quick primer for my seven non-nerd readers: in a CRPG (such as World of Warcraft, a.k.a. WoW), you typically start out as a puny little nothing, a 47-pound weakling armed with a broomstick. As such, you only have the wherewithal to fight monsters of a comparable degree of fragility (rats, typically). But every time you dispatch one, you gain “experience,” and once you’ve acquired enough experience, you “level”. Leveling (as it is called) means that your abilities go up, you are able to buy and use better weapons, and can now go toe-to-toe with slightly more menacing creatures–giant ambulatory sentient coconuts, say. Kill enough of those, level again, and move on to the next class of baddies.

I love CRPGs (so much so that I’ve avoided WoW like the plague–if I wanted a all-consuming addiction I’d pick up some heroin from a Seattle street corner, thanks). I love them despite my frequent realizations, while playing, that in-game progress is largely chimeric. When you’re a level 1 squire it may take you two minutes to kill a rat; when you are a level 9 knight you can kill a rat with a single stroke–but you don’t fight rats, you fight ogres, and the time it takes you to kill them is … two minutes. You environment levels up as you do, such that you are pretty much playing the same game all the time, albeit with cool new equipment and a more impressive sounding rank. The excitement you feel upon leveling fades almost immediately, as you start accumulating experience to reach the next stage.

This is the LOST formula in a nutshell. During each show you gain a little experience in the form of new information: about the island, the characters, or both; every four episodes or so you level up, as some (allegedly) major piece of the overall puzzle falls into place. After leveling up in a CRPG, you typically head to Ye Olde Flail ‘N’ Scented Candle Emporium, sell all your current equipment, and buy the improved weapons that your enhanced abilities now allow you to wield; likewise, after a revelatory LOST episode, fans chuck all their old theories into the dustbin and cook up new ones consistent with the revised facts. Then, having done so, each–the player of a CRPG, or the viewer of LOST–is handed a brand new quest, or puzzle, or plot plot. The ephemeral thrill of leveling vanishes, replaced by a longing to hit the next milestone. You never disembark from the treadmill, it just goes faster.

This may sound like criticism, but it’s not. It’s admiration. Like the creators of World of Warcraft, the writers of LOST have managed to throw a saddle on the addictive lure of leveling and ride it to success. And bully for them. Like I said, I love this genre, even if I can visualize the levers they are pulling.

LOST is not the first program to attempt this, to be sure. Lynch tried it with Twin Peaks, but the wheels flew off the cart in the second season (and even before that, the ride was pretty bumpy). The X-Files came close to pulling it off, but it wasn’t certain if the writers would ever provide resolution to the core “mythos” mysteries, and after a while fans (such as myself) gave up on the series. That’s what CRPGers call an “endgame problem”–the game might be fun to play, but the whole enterprise feels pointless unless there’s a clearly-defined “ending” on the horizon. (Even WoW, which you could conceivably play forever, has a maximum level that a character can reach, giving players a concrete goal toward which to strive.) The creators of LOST obviated the “endgame problem” by announcing that the series will end in 2010, and swearing that answers will be supplied. (For details, see this commendably spoiler-free USA Today article from last year.)

Another piece of lingo that crops up a lot in CRPG circles is “grinding“: when your character has to do the same thing over and over again (killing rats, for instance) to acquire the experience necessary to level. If the CRPG isn’t intrinsically interesting, then grinding is just that: a grind. But if the world is well-constructed, and the game is well-written, grinding is tolerated (and even enjoyed) by players as a necessary evil, something to keep you immersed in the storyline as long as possible. After all, a game in which you started at level 70 and killed the End Boss in your first fight would be lame beyond belief.

Much of LOST is grinding, honestly: stuff to keep the viewer occupied until the next bombshell drops and the story is taken the next level (so to speak). But here, halfway through season three, it’s becoming increasingly obvious (at least to me) that the grinding itself is pretty fun. That’s high-praise right there: these guys can even stall entertainingly.

Yes some of the episodes are clunkers, and lot of the plot twists don’t endure a moment’s scrutiny, and I STILL REMEMBER THE TITLE OF THE BOOK YOU GODDAMNED CHEATS!! But the game’s been a lot of fun so far, and I’ll gladly play through to the end.

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defective yeti’s Kost Kutting Korner

Tip #22: Limiting your weekly showers to one or two can save you a lot of money on water, soap, shampoo, and dating.

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Up For Air

Hi! Hi! Sorry!

I’m still here. Everything is fine. I’ve just been busy on this thing. And this other thing.

Here’s the problem in a nutshell: I’m not one of those people who writes because he “needs to,” I’m one of the people who writes because, at the end of the day, he likes having written (in the much the same way that I would love to know how to play guitar, but am not particularly interested in learning how). So if, at 8 PM, I’ve already cranked out 1000 words on some non-dy piece or another, I’m pretty much done for the day. Sorry NetarWeb.

The flip side is that, for five years or so, all my other projects have been getting the shaft: I’d write on defective yeti and punt on everything else, having already hit my word count quota for the day.

My New Year’s Resolution for 2008 was to chip away at those projects that I have been putting off (crime stories, board game designs, etc.) This is the exact same resolution I made in 2007 and then more-or-less ignored for the subsequent 12 months. Last year I completed, like, one of my listed projects; right now I am wrapping up my third for 2008. Whether blog abstinence is contributing to my productivity or is a side-effect of it is anyone’s guess, but it would appear that I can only work on one project at a time, and defective yeti qualifies as a project.

Sarah Hepola wrote eloquently (as usual) about this phenomenon in her Slate essay Why I Shut Down My Blog. Which isn’t in any way to compare my ability to write to that of Sarah Hepola, only my ability to quit.

There have been some other factors keeping my out of the blogosphere as well. For one thing, the project I am currently working is about blogs, a upshot of which is that I am thoroughly sick of them. Except for yours, I mean. I still check yours twice daily.

(For the record, I am not being coy about the exact nature of this project because you’ll hear about it soon and I need to keep it under wraps, but because the chances of it going anywhere are fat and slim. That said, remember this post when you start seeing ads for “Bla-La-Logs! The Musical!!” I’ve said too much already.)

Also, about two months ago, The Queen read the first 700 pages of The Stand and promptly came down with the superflu, so I had to spend a week spoon-feeding her chicken soup. That signaled the start of my hiatus. I had only intended to take a few days off, but then banded together with a motley crew of exhaustively described characters to walk to Las Vegas and confront the Walkin’ Dude. So the whole thing took a bit longer than anticipated.

ANYway, my head is suffused with the observational detritus I have accumulated over weeks of not writing here, so I’ll be back for this week at least. After that, we’ll see how it goes. Cheers!

P.S. Thanks to everyone who who kept the home fires burning. It is comforting to know that, should I ever fall into a well, a crack team of blogonauts is standing by, ready to mock my absence.

P.S.S. My god, is there anything as intrinsically bloggy as a long and tedious post explaining why you haven’t been blogging? Someone should start a blog that consists solely of daily, long-winded, and humorous entries purporting to explain why it hasn’t been updated. Free idea. Yours for the taking.

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