Friday, July 27, 2007

WOW Day 4

Audio clips for Day 4 were the opening segment of TUMBLEWEED ROUNDUP by Great Northern Audio Theatre (out of Minnesota, I believe) and an excerpt of ISLAND OF DR MOREAU, performed live by WRW as part of OPB's Livewire show. Both had a lot going on in them sonically plus potential for listener confusion. TUMBLEWEED suffered from some mixing problems, so it was harder to hear and felt almost too much, but still fun cinematic-style old western. MOREAU was a great example of what you can do with live sound effects, the power of good direction, sound design & ensemble work. We talked about the strength of a big sonic hook at the top of MOREAU, and the impact of layered sound.

Next, we finished sharing descriptions of protagonists, opening dilemmas and conclusions. The variety and creativity of the pieces inspired a lot of rich conversation and questions. We wondered about techniques for conveying a character who is pure energy - ways she could communicate sonically. We talked about the importance of having a clear vision in the author's head when something will be hinted at but never directly shared with the audience. We examined listener's point of view - which character is our "in" to the story? How does point of view impact the listener's perception of whose story this is? We discussed how plot can affect and be informed by tone. Is your piece dark drama, light comedy, dark comedy? (In Shakespeare's day, "comical-tragical, tragical-pastoral" etc.). Several pieces will use flashback-style scenes to convey memories or information, the show-don't-tell of audio. We asked one another questions about character motivations. "How" and "why" were popular questions.

We closed with some discussion of the writing process. How do you approach building your plot? Some of us use a fairly organic process, starting with an idea, then unfolding it or writing it out or following it where it takes us. I voiced my need to strengthen my plot skills as a reason for approaching the topic of plot in a more intentional and analytical manner. One author suggested mind-mapping (some know this as making a web). Begin with a sentence - perhaps a central idea or event or character. Then ask "Why?" ("how" would also work). Write your answer. Ask "why" again. etc. (Rinse, lather, repeat). Another author talked about writing towards a feeling or emotional response, rather than towards a predetermined ending. Look at the big picture, then zoom in like a microscope. Someone else liked having a simple, clean through line, and viewing character and relationship as the ornamentation, like a christmas tree. I floated the idea of storyboarding as a tool. What pictures do you want your audience to have in their mind's eye?

As a parting gift for anyone who might need it, I shared following exercise:

1-Write out the key events in your story as sentences.
Each sentence should include the main character.
Follow the structure of person + action + thing acted on.
The verb in each sentence should show action.

2-Put each event sentence on a notecard or slip of paper.

3-Draw a graphic representation of the plot structure you plan to follow.

4-Arrange your event sentences on the graphic.

For next week, we'll be turning in character breakdowns with descriptions (remember, its audio - "Blonde, tall and buxom" is not an audio description) for casting purposes, and sharing sample scenes from our scripts, with our burning questions.

Tune in next week!

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Writers On-the-air Day 3

Our first Day 3 listening excerpts came from, Meatballs Podcast 7 - selections from the series SARATOGA SPRINGS. Music plays an absolutely essential role in these pieces. One participant said the style was reminiscent of Ken Nordine. The plot? Not so much plot-driven, although two of them basically follow the plot of a journey. Beautiful in their simplicity. These selections blow open what a story can be. At their heart a real sense of place and time. In addition, there were some great examples of the extraordinarily layered sound and remarkable location recording that are Tom Lopez' trademark.

We also listened to a clip from Episode 3 of THE LAST HARBINGER, by CrazyDog Audio Theatre in Ireland. The clip included the convention of a series intro summarizing the nature of the story and catching the audience up. The piece created a sense of place with very little time & info, though there was some discussion in the group as to how well that was achieved, whether we really had a sense of the characters or direction of the story. The intro was rhyming, and there were widely divergent opinions on that as well, which speaks to the range of tastes & styles. While the soundbed was rich, we again had stylistic & taste differences over "how much is too much." As one participant put it, "My ear didn't know where to go," though that experience might prove different when listening with headphones. We talked about the listener needing time to breathe & absorb what they're hearing. Finally, the clip had some great examples of creating "3-D sound," a sense of spatial relations through sound, a technique that can really expand the mind's eye of the listener.

We also discussed the nature of sci-fi, a topic we later returned to - science as the background rather than the focus, character as the focus, what can we tell about the world of the story and how is that information conveyed. One participant said that sci-fi is not about high-tech props & costumes, it's about characters and story.

We then moved on to sharing our descriptions of protagonist, opening hook/domino/inciting incident and concluding changes to the character. This proved to take longer than expected and will be continued tomorrow night. Among the highlights of the rich conversation: When you float an idea that sounds like an existing story, is that bad? As writers, we sometimes fear being derivative, but the point was made that everyone tells the story differently. There really are no new stories under the sun. So the question is, What will YOU do with that story?

Finally, we drew graphics to represent non-traditional plot structures, drawing on stories (books, movies, TV) we already know. The images included stairstep arrows with lines going back on themselves, spirals, squares dipping in and out of a central circle, a straight arrow with multiple lines traveling above and across, a triple Venn Diagram. Stories folks referenced included the movies RASHOMON and MEMENTO, among others. Some of the non-traditional approaches included backwards storytelling, telling the same story from different viewpoints, telling a collection of stories that all reveal something in common, embedding a section where the plot diverges into 3 or more stories as different lead characters are separated. Food for thought: What structure will tell your story best?

Tune in tomorrow for Day 4!

Friday, July 20, 2007

Writers On-the-air Day 2

Day 2 began with a selection of 4 audio clips shared by Joe Medina, creator of the AFTERHELL series. The clips explored the defining conflicts that shape the plot. First up, THE ODYSSEY OF RUNYON JONES, a Norman Corwin piece that, to my mind, is a marriage of Kafka and The Cinnamon Bear - in a good way. Small boy seeks lost dog and is faced with the worst of adult bureacracy in tracking his poor Tootsie between Dog Heaven and "Curgatory." (You can purchase this on a CD of Norman Corwin stuff from The SFX in this piece were pretty incidental. The dialogue was all.

Next up, DR CHRISTIAN, a country doctor series starring Gene Hirshel (forgive my spelling). Written in 1937 or threabouts, a relaxed dialogue style leads us to realize the conflict is that local wife Charlotte's new found fame as published poet leads her to seek a divorce. Her husband just isn't interesting enough. Can Dr. Christian help, or is he too clueless?

Third clip, from the STAR WARS audio series, gives us a taste of a more modern, cinematic style - lots of SFX and music. Notable in that it focuses on setting up a central relationship between two characters who are friends, rather than the central conflict, although that is embedded in there. We talked about the differences in plot structure with an episodic series, and the nature of writing a story that people know, where you may be able to establish the conflict later because the audience knows what it is.

Finally, a clip from AFTERHELL, the Hotel Giallo (apologies - I may be getting the name of the episode wrong). Richly layered sound effects here. Conflict is immediately established as the tough boss announces, "The job isn't done." What job? Why isn't it done? Stay tuned, as gangster hitmen grapple with the impact of zombies on their profession.

Next, we went shared our descriptions of the central conflicts in our own pieces. There was a terrific range: vampire drama, postapocalyptic inner conflict, detectives in hell, dog detectives, intellectual terrorism experts race against time, man battles ambiguous forces without and within, angel special ops or a society in which a professor can be jailed for discussing his encounter with the almighty, cops track a serial killer, noire detective or holiday variety show, docudrama of Flight 305, reporter searches for mysterious vigilante (plays with unreliable narrator concept), man's inner voice is broadcast and takes over, teenage struggles of puberty become manifest thru sci-fi, cowgirl tries to save the ranch. Whew!

Finally, we drew visual representations of traditional plot structure, with, again, a wide range of images resulting. There were graphs, both linear and circular, flow charts ( "If short story, end here. If long story, repeat loop"), stick figures driving cars, gravesites and headstones, a bee collecting pollen, a man climbing a tree and fighting off agressors, ever-increasing peaks and valleys, a doorway leading to stairs. We talked about decisions an author makes - plot driven or character driven? tragedy or comedy? Or both, which may sometimes be the most interesting. We discussed the role of the "inciting incident" and the little conflicts along the way. What supports those smaller threshold moments? Some of the pictures looked at plot structure from the view of character and how character change occurs in a story. Some looked at it from the reader or audience perspective - how we collect information as we proceed through the story. We kicked around visions of the climax - an explosion? a tree? Fireworks? The nature of your piece affects the nature of that final climax. What type of resolution will you have? Or will it be ambiguous?

Rich conversation! The assignment for next week: Write about the following three key plot questions:
1-Who is your protagonist? Get to know them, likes, dislikes, etc.
2- What is the "inciting incident" or hook, the action or change that starts the ball rolling? Not sure? Try writing a sentence or two telling what your story is about. Find the first active verb in the sentence. That may be your hook.
3-What will your conclusion be? That is, how will your character and/or their world be different? Will they succeed, fail, give up?

See you next Wednesday!

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Writers On the Air Workshop - Day 1

Day 1 was really about introductions and a little audio theater overview. We have a wonderful range of experience at the table, with many returning workshop participants and folks who have experience producing audio theater and stage theater, among others. We went over some key points about audio theater - that it's really about writing a good story, what are the limits on language for broadcast, the many narrative devices available (and how narrative is not so frowned upon in audio), about 6 main characters is a good limit, though you can have a lot more minor characters.

In discussint the challenges and guidelines for giving and getting criticism, one participant made the link between criteria and criticism. Once you know the criteria, e.g. what the author is going for, then you can give constructive criticism on whether that criteria was met. Another participant used the phrase "roses and thorns" to describe good criticism. A third participant suggested that, before giving a critique, you ask yourself: "What is it (the piece)? How was it done?" and then "My response to this is ______________."

In discussing how an audience talkback can sometimes run away with your work, someone pointed out a quote from Isaak Denisen: "Your only loyalty as a writer should be to the story."

We did an exercise to explore writing in the sonic realm and look at what sound effects can and cannot do for you. Each writer had a card with a sound effect that they had to describe. The other writers then tried to identify the sound. Finally, the writer shared some lines of dialogue that might help the listener identify the sounds. One of my favorites was the description of a low-pitched, slowly repeating, creaking (The description was more eloquent than that but I failed to write it down). Our guesses were all over the map. The dialogue was Amish-style and talked about pulling a heavy load and fixing the axle and led us to figure out that the sound was a wooden cart rolling.

The exercise highlighted the dangers of depending solely on a sound effect to convey information to your listeners. Also, when even a little context is provided, the listener tends to expand and build upon it to create a world and sense of time and place.

Here are a few for you to try to identify:

1. Loud, uninterrupted metalic buzzing with varying pitches
Dialogue: "How many feet did you want cut?"
"It's a six-foot fence, so-"
"Right, then - six feet." Followed by sound.

2. Slushy, watery crack, tearing, grunt, groan, scream, rustle, deep breathing.
Dialogue: "You've got a right arm. I'm gonna make sure you never use the left one again!"

3. metallic shwunk, swoosh of air, human gasp, splatter, drip, heavy sickening thud
Dialogue: "Take it easy! Put that down! We can work this out! No, stop! Stop!"

4. A slipping fabric sound like cloth being pulled taut, perhaps a grunt or "ah" and faint foot pad, followed by a zzzip and a tinkle of metal
Dialogue: "Hang on a second - wrong leg. There we are. These used to fit ... Ahhhh."

Answers: 1-power saw, 2-arm being torn off, 3-throat being cut, 4-man putting on pants.
(They were all fascinating - wish I'd written them down!)

Now, try your hand at the writing part. Choose a sound effect. Describe it, using only sound words that the listener would hear (no identifiers such as "sounds like a hose being turned on"). Then, write some dialogue that will provide identifying context.

1. Sound of a body being dragged through the mud
2. walking through snow
3. whip cracking
4.getting a haircut
5.stacking wood
6. running through the jungle

Finally, we listened to the first 5 minutes or so of the following WRW productions:
THE SHADOW: SILENT AVENGER (classic old-time radio style)
FALL OF THE CITY (completely different style, written in same time period)
CHRISTMAS AT THE TNT (modern piece, slice of life, rich atmospheric soundbed)

We noted the distinct styles of the writing, the flavor of specific genre writing such as noire. Also, we talked about how the listener needs adjustment time if there is an abrupt change in style, perspective, point of view. As authors, we need to be consistent OR be intentional when we shift. Finally, I pointed out that most strong pieces establish the conflict in the first 5 minutes or so. Which brings us to tomorrow's assignment - describe your central conflict, how it starts and how it ends.

See you tomorrow!

Thursday, July 05, 2007

4th annual Writers On-the-air Workshop (WOW)

WOW 2007 starts Wednesday, July 18 and runs Wednesday and Thursday nights through August 9, with script readings on Aug. 11 and Writer's Debrief brunch on Aug.12. This year's focus will be on plot structure. Over the course of 4 weeks, meeting twice a week, participants examine the storytelling process through audio theater and develop complete audio theater scripts. WOW culminates in a day of recorded script readings by professional actors. Many of the scripts developed through WOW have gone on to full productions through WRW and other entities. Previous WOW scripts include one Mark Time Award-winner, five Ogle Award-winners, and three National Audio Theatre Festival Award winners. WOW is offered at no charge to anyone committed to the process and interested in exploring writing through the audio medium, although participants are welcome to donate money, space or refreshments.

Schedule of WOW 2007 sessions:
Evenings (7pm-9pm) on
Wed, July 18 and Thurs. July 19,
Wed. July 25 and Thurs. July 26
Wed. Aug. 1 and Thurs. Aug. 2
Wed. Aug. 8 and Thurs. Aug. 9
Final readings of scripts on Saturday, Aug. 11 throughout the day
Final writer's brunch on Sunday, Aug. 12 , 11am - 1pm.

For more information or an application, please contact WOW Director Cindy McGean at

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