Writing/Gaming – Character 101 – Part 3: Abilities

We continue our look at Characters today. If you need to catch up – Part 1 and Part 2.

So far we’ve built a world with challenges for our characters, and we’ve given our characters some descriptive elements and attributes. Today we’re going to start diving into the meat of characters. Today’s component usually comes later in the series, but I’ve moved it ahead because it’s a nice springboard into the more detail material.

Component 3 of Character 101 is Abilities, and can be expressed like this:

Ability or abilities that differ from audience experience, such that an audience will desire to be like (or against) the hero.

Put more simply, this means distinguishing themselves from “the crowd” by doing different things than “the crowd”.

For superheroes, the answer is obvious – they can fly around and lift buildings. For detectives, they solve crimes. Every character, has some trait marking them as unique…even if that uniqueness is unto themselves. Generally, if you’re going to name a character, they’ve got something worth knowing about. Maybe not on that first page we see them, maybe not even in this plot, but somewhere, you had a thought that a particular character had something to offer.

Gamers, this is where mechanics can tie in – those things characters do, those things that make them unique – there should be mechanics to support them. Even if the mechanics are story telling opportunities or narrative concepts, there should be SOME kind of mechanics making it possible for the players to do it too (because, if you’ve not figured this out, the players want THEIR characters to be in the spotlight the way a novel’s characters are)

When we write these abilities, since we’re writing characters that are going to do something, and likely that’s something other people won’t have a chance to do (otherwise you wouldn’t be singling out this character for this story, would you?) the audience has to have a little envy – it adds to appeal.

We read about wizards because we are not wizards. We read about the genius billionaire crime fighter because we don’t have a cave and a secret identity. While these characters are like us, they aren’t exactly us – their deviance from our norm is what makes them memorable and attractive.

The same can said for villains. The reason we dislike the evil criminal is because he acts in a way we don’t and more specifically a way that evokes a reaction from us.

You want to create abilities that evoke reaction from the audience. Ideally, you’ve also expressed HOW those abilities operate and given good context to express any “rules” for them. (Does flying require sprouting wings? Does the detective use technology to solve his crime? Does the wizard have to shout in a foreign language when obliterating his opponents?).

Sometimes the plot and character will do something and elicit from the audience a strong response. Sometimes it’s celebratory (Yay, he blew up the Death Star) sometimes though it’s shock (What do you mean he killed himself to save his friends?). When you’re able to create a character that evokes that type of response, you know the character is strong in the minds of the reader/audience.

We don’t always want to root for the hero. We want the hero to win, we want to be along for the ride, but we need not agree with them every step of the way – and I would go so far as to say we shouldn’t always agree.

Just like in television and movies when you yell at the screen, “Of course he’s not the father, Maury!” or “Don’t go out into the barn to have sex you anonymous attractive teenagers, the killer is out there!” the act of disagreeing with the actions of the hero (on more than a this-is-just-crappy-writing level) shows that the audience is invested.

Gamers, you create investment by offering options. This is not to say you need to offer then a bazillion options, or even the same options as your more successful competitor, but you do need to make the player aware that they can do….stuff. And it’s not always the amount of stuff that’s important, but more the impact of those options. Anyone can roll a die or move a miniature, but the player who feels that what they do and can do matters to the world they participate in, is invested. That’s your goal.

So when crafting the experiences of your readers, players and consumers, look at what the characters do that empowers them to be different and distinguishing. And put the spotlight on it. Everyone will thank you for it.

Later in the week we dive into the much deeper waters of character philosophy (and I’ll even talk about alignment for my gaming friends).

Happy writing.

Writing/Gaming – Character 101 Part 2 – Character Description

This is part two of the Character 101 series. The first part is available here.

Earlier this week, we talked about the importance of defining a world and having limitations within that world so that a particular character can be tested, and hopefully overcome those challenges.

While that’s great advice, I’m sure many of you have said (and judging by my inbox, some did) “That’s great but what about the character? How can the first step in character building be about anything other than characters?

I point here, as I did to those who asked that for better defined characters, their world is as much a part of them as their clothes or eye color. Batman has Gotham and the Batcave. Superman has Metropolis and Krypton, Harry Dresden has Chicago, Coburn has his apocalypse.

If you can find me a well-crafted character where their world is not a part of them in an intrinsic way, please let me know, I’m curious.

Today, we look at something very concrete and very directly tethered to character.

The rule for part 2 can be summarized like this:

A description that contains audience-relatable elements of either a physical or emotional/mental nature

Your keywords here:

  • audience-relatable
  • physical
  • emotional
  • mental
We have all read poor character descriptions. I don’t mean descriptions that are intentionally undone (where the author chooses not to give details so that the audience can paint their own pictures), I mean descriptions where they give all the components poorly.
Like here:
Terry worked long hours at the dock. He was a blond, although dirty in both hair and skin. He was tall, but no bigger than the others he worked with. He was strong but not weighed down with muscle.
Yes, I made those sentences up, and yes, they’re really bad, but they’re bad on purpose. Notice how the description starts with Terry’s occupation…an all too-common notion is that if we (readers) know what a person does, we can pigeonhole them. (We make blanket statements that someone of X job looks a certain way, or that by describing someone by their profession, we eliminate a lot of other allegedly relevant descriptors — and by extension, when you mash a profession onto a set of descriptors that seems inappropriate, you create dissonance and a disconnect for readers)
From there, we move into a messy attempt at double-meanings, trying to tie ‘dirty blonde’ with dirty-from-work. We end with two ruinous sentences where the respective second halves cancel out the first halves. If a character is no taller than others, then they’re not tall. ‘Tall’ is only capable if you have something not-‘Tall’ for comparison.
When describing something, the majority of the words used can create perspective. And the use of that word creates a proposition that an opposite concept also occurs. (You cannot understand up if you don’t know down, or wet without dry). The character doesn’t need to exist in both states, but they do need to exist in whatever states you say they do, and consistency is key. If Terry is tall, then he’s tall compared to something-to-be-named-later that is “short”. Don’t trust that the reader will intuit their own perspectives (I’m talking to you game people — there are mechanics and dice to resolve these issues) and come to the same ideas you have. 
If you want the character to be a certain way, be decisive and clear about it. Game people, if you want the players to act a certain way, then you need to be a little obvious that the particular situation you’re putting players into has clear options (even if there are many many options, make that clear).
Returning to the specifics of description, readers look for 3 types of description. These don’t need to be successive, they’re not hierarchical and you don’t need to do them all at once, but you do need to do them at some point before you get too far into your work.
I. Physical – This is everything tangible and directly observable about the character. The goal is not to drown the reader in  broad information too quickly (then statements get lost and it detracts from importance) but rather provide for them multiple concepts for them to attach to (this is a variation of Velcro theory – you supply them concrete details that they affix their edduced aspirations onto).
II. Emotional – This is a subcutaneous level of description, wherein you describe how the character feels at whatever moment they’re being witnessed. If we’re on page 30, and the character has just discovered their best friend’s wife murdered (hours after sleeping with her), then you can provide us the sum total of emotions up to and including page 30. Yes, this whole story might be resolved by page 340, but here on page 30, we can only work with what we have to date. 
Gamers, do not overlook this level of detail – as your NPC emotions are most often impacted by interaction with PCs and all manner of circumstances around pre-existing agendas. (The megalomaniac going to blow up the city is going to have an emotional reaction to the players diffusing his bomb, for example)
III. Mental – This is a harder nut to crack, unless you’re writing in the first-person and can use your exposition to develop this. Mental description is a sense of how more than what specifically a character is thinking. Yes, in the immediate sense, the what should be apparent (it’s relevant to the scene/moment), but because sometimes characters aren’t actually powered with cogs and drive-belts, you only get a secondhand sense of “gears turning”. 
Mental description is a chance to see the character’s planning skills, their intelligence and their understanding of motivations and consequences in action. This is commonly expressed in mysteries as the moment when the sleuth gathers all the suspects together and explains who the killer is. Or the final moments of a heist when the mastermind reveals the plot has been on-going since page one, sentence one. 
The composite of these three factors builds a full character. To get you started, here are some questions to fire up your character forges:
I. Physical
  1. Aside from the obvious details of what the character looks like, what traits are they proud of? Ashamed of? Effort to hide? Effort to show off? 
  2. What things would this character change about their appearance if the circumstances allowed it?
  3. How important to the character are the aspects of his physical description? Does he value his height? Does he identify himself by his physique? Does she draw pride from her eyes?
II. Emotional
  1. What gets this character out of bed in the morning? What would send them running back beneath the blankets for a do-over?
  2. Can you identify your character’s three most frequent emotional states? What causes each one?
  3. Imagine a fight between this character and their nemesis. What buttons are getting pressed, and whose doing the pressing? Now imagine this same fight between this character and someone they loved.
III. Mental
  1. Is this the sort of character others go to for help and guidance, or is this a character who seeks out others? (Or are they only seeking others out for approval of their own plans?)
  2. How far ahead does this character plan? Does that plan include contingencies? If you had to sum up the character’s planning ability in a word, what word would you use?
  3. Does this character overthink? Does this character fly by the seat of their pants?
I hope these questions help you, I have others if you’re curious. 
Next week we’ll add more to characters, and I’ll revisit our sample character Timmy. Enjoy your weekend.
Happy writing.

Writing/Gaming: Character 101 – Part 1: Overview & ‘The Sandbox’

Good morning. On this particularly sleety and craptastic morning (the ground and the sky are the same color. I’m not sure if that counts as a Lovecraft moment or not), I want to start the new series on this blog, Character 101.

This series will be in up to 8 parts….(definitely 6, but there are two additional components we can bring in later). Now some of you have heard me talk about the first 6 steps when I taught this as a workshop 2 years ago – but a lot has changed since then, so update your notes. And unlike those previous workshops I’m not going to cover the whole list up front and reference it in every post. (So pay attention, and ask questions/leave comments if you get lost)

Character 101 is a series of posts aimed at ANYONE doing ANYTHING involving characters. This applies to novelists, short story writers, screenwriters, game designers, module creators…even somewhat to board and card game people, (though not all parts would apply there).

Much like my previous post about characters not being awful, this is more a walk-through on how to specifically do that – and although I don’t present the components in order of magnitude, every piece is an equal facet in making the gemstone that is your character.

Granted, if you’re only making some secondary characters or NPCs or background fluff, you don’t need to do all these steps. Maybe apply one or two. But if you want your main characters: your protagonists, antagonists, chief NPCs, mentors, sidekicks, love interests, bullies, your fan favorite characters to stand out and get some attention (like eye-popping, ‘Wow’ attention), then this whole series will benefit you.

Now, let’s go make your characters better.

Character 101 – Part 1 – The Sandbox

The Sandbox rule can be written out as follows:

A set of boundaries and a playground within those boundaries that is at times limiting or limited, causing the character to be tested.

If you had to highlight the key parts for this rule, look at the beginning and end of the sentence:

  • set of boundaries
  • a playground
  • at times limiting or limited
  • causing the character to be tested
No character should exist in a vacuum. They don’t just float aimlessly in Void-space, nor should they. They need to have some sort of area where they exist. Sometimes, this is a whole world, or on a more localized sense, this could just be the place(s) where the action occurs. 
If we’re writing the classic Oscar the Grouch novel, then we’re likely talking the trash can on Sesame Street and the surrounding areas. If you want to craft a game about masterless samurai in feudal Japan, then you’ll probably want a province, a town or two and the surrounding forests. 
Basically, the ‘playground’ I’m talking about here is the world of the character. Even if that means the whole world, don’t freak out and think that you have to create this monstrous real-time updating construct and deal with every living thing and every event on it all the time – you don’t. You only need to concern yourself with the world of the character.
If I’m the character, then right now, all you’d be writing about is me in my immediate surroundings (the office in the house), my immediate goals (to write this post then go do laundry) and maybe my plans for later in the day (go out and meet new clients). Notice that you don’t have to consider…the fate of a Sierra Leone diamond mine or the traffic in Acapulco when you’re working with me as a character. Yes those things exist, but they’re not in the scope of THIS character, and therefore not part of what you need to add to the recipe. 
Over time, you’ll discover that the playground for a particular character doesn’t have to be so large in order to be “good”. 
Note: As I’ve said elsewhere, you’re really going to do yourself a disservice the more you hang on to notions of “good” “right” “best” or “is it okay if…” as all those thoughts are subjective and contextual. Kill that doubt and move forward. If you need help, ask.
So, to build the best world for your character, think about their routine. Think about where they live. Think about what they do. Your set up here is to be concrete initially. Facts and statements are ideal right now. Those basic Who/What/When/Where questions come in handy here (we leave off Why and How for the moment) 
Yes, you can easily get a legal pad and make a chart. 
Let’s suppose I was going to make a character called….Timmy, so my chart starts like this:

Timmy the Character
  • Wakes up every morning at 8
  • Is currently a ‘salad technician’ at a restaurant
  • Is 18
  • Lives with his parents in a condo on 16th Street
No, I didn’t prioritize those facts, I just listed the things that came to mind as I sat here. There really isn’t a best order of magnitude, as this first column is just to list some of the pieces of Timmy’s world.
So those are Timmy’s facts, and in turn they are also boundaries. Timmy is 18, so he won’t have the experiences of a 90 year old war veteran. He’s male, so he won’t know anything about the struggles of being a girl in middle school. He wakes up at 8, so he isn’t going to have the same experiences as the crackhead who sleeps all day. Facts are good, and facts are boundaries. (Without these boundaries, Timmy is essentially an omnipotent, omnipresent, limitless deity).
Because Timmy is limited we’ve now planted the seeds for desire. Think of your own life here as well, you may be reading this at a job you no longer love, you may be reading this late at night because you’re afraid what your spouse will say if you tell them you want to be a writer, you may be reading this thinking, “I could do a better job…” Whatever the reason you provide, there is a desire you can tether to the fact
Let’s go back to Timmy and see if we can find some desires for him based on the facts we gave. (If you’re making a chart, these desires are a second column)
Timmy the Character
  • Wakes up every morning at 8 >> Wants to sleep in longer
  • Is currently a ‘salad technician’ at a restaurant >>Wants to be a professional sculptor
  • Is 18 >> hates that people think he’s a ‘dumb kid’
  • Lives with his parents in a condo on 16th Street >> wants to move into his own apartment downtown, nearer to where he’s seen college-age girls
Whenever you create limits on a character, you also plant the seed to exceed or overcome those limits. And yes, the character should want to overcome those limits (those conflicts are plot points) and the method the character goes about moving from his limitation toward his goal is essentially a plot unto itself. 
You could stop here with the chart, but you can also go one step further to see how each plot develops. (This would be a third column on your chart)

Timmy the Character
  • Wakes up every morning at 8 >> Wants to sleep in longer >> Starts setting his alarm later and later, angering his mother
  • Is currently a ‘salad technician’ at a restaurant >>Wants to be a professional sculptor >> Applies for a class in sculpting at night school
  • Is 18 >> hates that people think he’s a ‘dumb kid’ >> Spends all his free time reading college textbooks and trying to sound like a grad student.
  • Lives with his parents in a condo on 16th Street >> wants to move into his own apartment downtown, nearer to where he’s seen college-age girls >> Intentionally gets off at the wrong subway and bus stops so he can be around girls, hoping they notice him
We’ve built Timmy up pretty quickly, and given him a lot of different qualities and possibilities for our stories, games and wherever else we want to deploy him.
The key to that third column is that the plan the character undertakes to make the second column happen SHOULD NOT BE EASY. If it were easy, the character would have done it already, and they wouldn’t be limited by it not-being-done. The challenge for the character is critical for the audience to emotionally invest in the character – we want to see him succeed (or not, if he’s an antagonist), and we will only get to do that if we see the actions taking time and being done over the course of pages/chapters/sessions/etc. 
If a character’s desire (also called a motivation) goes untested, then it isn’t important enough for us to hear about. Having said that, let me also say that you don’t need to detail EVERY motivation and develop them all before advancing your story. 
Remember Rule #1 of Writing – Writing is the act of making decisions. You decide what motivations to pursue, when, and to what degree. You decide how to express the desires and the plans and their consequences. 
The short formula for today’s lesson:
1. The world of the character is the immediate facts and desires they experience/want
2. The desires are goals they’ve not yet realized and they will have to work (change their current state) to achieve them.
3. The plan they develop and engage to sate these desires is material for plot. 
Welcome to Character 101. 
In part 2 (due out later this week) we’ll talk about character descriptions. 
Happy writing. 
(If you have questions or comments about today’s lesson, leave some comments below. I would love to hear from you.)

What NOT To Send An Editor

As a consulting writer, I see a lot of submissions, either from people who send me their work and want an opinion, or people who send me their work hoping it will lead me to taking them on as a client.

Here’s a small word of advice – If you’d like to be my client, talk to me a bit BEFORE you send your manuscript/masterpiece/board game/script/etc, if only for a few reasons:

1. It is entirely possible you won’t like HOW I work.
2. It is entirely possible that you won’t like how much I charge.
3. It is entirely possible I won’t like how you comport yourself.
4. It is entirely possible that what you want to do/have done is not something I actually can assist you with. (Like website coding, managing your finances, making your ex realize the error of their ways or helping you figure out what to wear)

Talking to me first (send me an email or find me on Twitter if you want more immediate conversation) is a good idea. AND IT’S FREE. Take advantage of it.

Now, this evening, as I wait for things to be backed up online and people to reply to emails, I dig into my pile of “Things To Be Read” and grab a pen. This pile has already been vetted by TWO people by the time it reaches me, so usually, the contents of this pile are either things I need to follow up with, or fantastic teaching opportunities. Or they’re stellar shining examples of great work that I don’t shut up about.

But sometimes, things stay in the pile because they’re so…….bad (let’s be honest here) that, as the kids say, they’re there for the “lulz”.

Not “Oh wow this is comedy gold”, but “Oh wait, no, no this has to stop, please, I beg you, no more”. And it is to that point I speak tonight.

Please DO NOT SEND THE FOLLOWING THINGS TO AN EDITOR, EVER:

1. Please do not send your fan-fiction, relationship melodrama or “rewrites” of your favorite TV shows. Yes, I get it, you didn’t like the whole Dawn-is-a-Key angle in Buffy, but that doesn’t mean I want to read 300 pages about how you’d turn Dawn into a Slayer who kills with BDSM sex powers. Nor do I care that you think ‘Huddy’ was the ruination of House.

Chances are that what sinks your fan fiction isn’t the premise but the execution. You may have some very valid perspectives and takes on an existing world. You may suggest some interesting plot variants. But the quality of your writing…..well, let’s just say it should be professional. That means yes, check your spelling and grammar, and yes please oh please use paragraphs, complete sentences and punctuation.

2. Please do not beg that I take you on as a client. Yes, you may be the 99%. Yes, you may be deeply afflicted by terrible phobias and illnesses, and yes that is unfortunate. You may be the victim of abuses or neglect or short or tall or hungry or whatever you are — but it is my job to make your work better and make you a better producer of that work, NOT get you over some therapeutic hump so that you can THEN get around to writing. I am not Freud, Jung, Rogers or Skinner. If you need help, get help. I’m here to help your work, and by extension, you – not the other way around.

3. Please do not send photos of the people “you’d like to prove wrong” by getting your book published. First, that’s way creepy. Second, I would prefer not being an accessory to whatever plot you’ve cooked up late at night while you listen to Fleet Foxes in the dark.

4. Please do not send me information about my own life, to prove what you know about me. Great, you found me on the internet, and maybe you know who I dated, lived with, or what I did at this place or date. If you’re doing that to coerce my working with you, that’s creepy and mean. If you’re doing that to create some sort of friendship…that’s not how my friendships operate. Please don’t do that.

5. Please do not send the same material under multiple names. (Names are made up in this example) If I don’t reply back to “Erik”, I would trust that “Erik” moves on and doesn’t suddenly conscript “Erika” “Karen” “Skylar” “Darla” “Tim” and “Luigi” to send me the same email with the same attachment from new and exciting email accounts. Just like in life, NO means NO. Improve the pitch, improve the material, try again, yes, but don’t think you’re going to wear an editor into submission.

6. Please do not barter “favors”. If you want me to work with you, it’s easiest if you straight out ask, and make a good argument. Don’t suggest that you’ll wash my car, have your attractive friend sleep with me, offer to let me watch you sleep with someone else or, my personal favorite, “owe me one later.” Really, it’s not that hard to get me to work with you — do a good job asking, work really hard, take my advice. Done.

7. Please do not do something ‘above and beyond’ what’s asked. If I say, “Email me and we’ll talk.” I want you to….email me. If an editor says, “Send me a SASE”, then they want an envelope. This is not code for “I’d like you to come to one of my workshops and sit in the back and stare at me for ten minutes before you speak” or “send a packing crate with hearts and glitter on it.” An editor’s job is exponentially easier if we can trust the writer(s) we work with to follow directions. If the directions are unclear, ASK.

8. Please do not push. I am known to be a quick and efficient email writer. If you send me a message, my reply is prompt and thorough. If for whatever reason it’s taken me some time to reply to you (whether due to illness or busyness or business or the fact that I’m not in the office), sending multiple emails asking the same question is NOT going to help your cause. I do not respond well to being pushed. If the problem is urgent, yes, there are ways to reach me, but for the most part, you don’t have to push if you want an answer.

9. Please do not make your editor your last resort. Just like I don’t like being pushed, I don’t like hearing that if I don’t help you, you’re killing yourself. I neither want the guilt or the knowledge. Don’t.

10. Please do not send your editor dirt on other editors. So, you’ve come to me because Editors 1 – 6 weren’t helpful? And you’ve decided to detail their flaws to me in an email, as if this will help persuade me? Interesting move. I should point out that it is very likely that the afternoon after you’ve sent me that email I will see Editors 1 – 6 some where and we’ll have lunch or talk shop. Some of those people are my friends, I’ve been to their homes, played with their dogs and seen their babies. Yes I agree they can be irritating professionally, but you’re not currying favor by telling me my friends suck and here’s proof. Be professional, be adult, and as my mother says, “Suck it up, get a life, and move on.”

Now, go enjoy your weekend. Character 101 begins on Monday.

Writing/Gaming: Making Your Characters Not Awful

I don’t know if you’ve been outside lately, but it’s the worst time of year. Everything is gray and soggy and looks like Mordor. Also, it’s the only time of year I get sick. So do please imagine this blog post punctuated with sniffles and occasional sneezes and coughs.

Let’s get to it.

For today’s lesson, you’re going to need a piece of paper and a pen. It’s much easier to do this by hand than in something like Word or Google Docs, since there’s time spent/lost in making the formatting work, rather than just getting to heart of the issue. Of course, I’ll always tell you to use a legal pad, because it’s got the real estate to spare and because they’re pretty cheap in bulk. So go get something to write on (and write with), and we’ll proceed.

There are loads of ways to develop characters, I teach three or four different methods in workshops and seminars, depending on my audience. And those methods can get complex and even a little deep (there is a difference), but more and more I get feedback saying that people want a faster plunge into rich development.

Now part of that is laziness on their part – expecting and wanting a formula that will spit out masterfully crafted characters so that they can just put the pieces into play. And part of that is because for all the teaching I can provide, the truest and most natural ‘spark’ of life comes not from the recipe of creation, but from what the author invests in each character.

Said another way: I can teach you how to build characters, but YOU breathe life into them. Without that investiture of imagination and passion, all I’m giving you is a new way to sort words on paper. And while they may be very awesome words, if your goal is to make those words mean something and stick into the heads and hearts of readers/consumers/game players/humans/etc, then you’re going to need to pour out a little mind-juice into these stacks of words and concepts to make them zip along.

What I’m showing you here today is another level, a deeper level, of creation. Being deeper, it does require a base of something. You’re going to need to have done some manner of development already for this to work for you. It doesn’t matter what you’ve done – hell it could just be a name and a description, but the goal here is to add depth and velcro to your creation, so they fit into the composite of the world you’ve built.

Note: My next series will be Character 101, exploring different foundational elements in characters and how to craft good ones. Consider this your glimpse towards new territory.

Our goal today is make your characters better, so today, here’s what we do.

1. Divide the paper into quarters.
2. Label them: Occupation, Possession, Name, Intention

Into these boxes you’re going to write down sentences, phrases and words that describe, detail and develop what the particular quadrant is about. (Game people may recognize some of these things as ‘Aspects’, Novel people will see ‘traits’). But this is NOT just a simple laundry list, this is designed to get you thinking about the arc your character is on when readers/players/people meet them, and how that arc progresses over the course of whatever material you’re creating.

Let’s look at each box in detail and I think you’ll see what I mean.

I. Occupation – This is what the character does. In it’s most basic form, it’s a job title, but you can extrapolate out to describe why or how it gets done (the specifics of “why” go into Intention – you can be broad in box 1) Since no one else is going to see this, feel free to make heavy use of cliches and tropes if they help paint the picture. 2) This is the realistic side of the coin, so if this box is a little on the dry side, you’re on the right track.


II. Possession – These are the things the character has that helps make the character who and what they are (in box 1). (If you didn’t qualify it, this would just be inventory) We want specificity here, as possessions define and give context to a character (Batman’s utility belt, Lone Ranger’s mask, Superman’s S on his chest). Yes, socialists, buddhists and hippies, we are totally shaped by the stuff we own. And while I really want to spiral us off into a discussion about how we leave as large an impression on what we own as it leaves on us, this isn’t the place for that. Ideally in this box you’ve listed not just the item, but what it stands for or how it specifically aids the character’s nature/skill/abilities/presence. (Batman’s utility belt provides him access to supplies that make him prepared. The Doctor’s sonic screwdriver is the physical surrogate for his intellect, etc)


Note: Yes, you can prioritize the items in Box 2 by frequency of use or importance or whatever figure you like, but it’s not critical. It is, however, a great idea.


III. Name – This is not so much a rote entry of Dr/Mr/Mrs NAME HERE, this is how the character wants/has their name viewed by their peers. Optionally, divide this box in half and do half friends and half foes. For ‘friends’ this is how the character wants the specific other person (NPC, secondary character, love interest, etc) to view them. For ‘foes’ this is how the character sees the foe. 


Yes you can work this backwards and do a whole sheet (2 columns, friend and foe) of how these other people view the character, and we may well explore that exercise later this week.#notsosubtlehint


Intention – This is WHY the character does whatever they do, and only that. The specifics of how got answered up in Occupation, so here we effort to ascribe a reason to the action. And I cannot stress the importance of individual clarity enough. Boil it down as core as you like, concentrate it (tether it to a backstory event for maximum jaw droppage) but this intention is a tint on ALL things the character has done and will do.  


This should in theory start earlier than Page 1, but the audience/people/players is only meeting this at Page 1…which may or may not early in this Intention’s existence. That’s up to you, authors, to figure out how time relates to intention (here’s a hint – more time equals more opportunity for intention)


If you find that some boxes are more packed with material than others, or that you’ve entirely neglected some facets of creation in light of others, I strongly encourage you to figure out why. Ask yourself why you didn’t think in these terms at some point and why you’ve possibly resisted doing it. (Maybe you’re still resisting it…)

Sort through the feast and famine first before you tackle the material in terms of ‘boring’ or ‘I don’t agree with it anymore, I’m changing it’. Remember, writing is the act of making decisions, and if you’re unhappy with what you wrote, decide to do something different.

The goal here is to expand your character-icebergs so that they’ll sink (astound) reader-Titanics. I use icebergs here deliberately, as there should be so much beneath the surface, so much unseen but felt/feared/craved/desired that we’re propelled forward into inescapable collision and beyond (minus any freezing DiCaprio we have laying around)

Some notes of interest:

1. Yes I’m aware that in the most recent episode of Leverage, this was a prominent story concept.
2. Yes I’m aware that I talk a lot about characters, because characters make plot matter.
3. Yes I realize you can do this chart for any character (a villain) perhaps, and reverse-engineer a way for a hero to undo the badguy.
4. Yes, some characters won’t warrant this detail – but I tend now to say that if you can do this for even a minor character (and not use it) then the characters where this is important become all the more spectacular

Okay, I’m going to get some lunch, then take a nap. If you’re looking for me, find me on Twitter today.


Last minute addition – A lot of you have emailed me asking about my rates, and more specifically why they’re not posted on this blog. There are a few reasons:


a) I’m not sure where I’d host the pdf.
b) My rates aren’t as simple as a single list of tasks with numbers – they’re not a wine list.
c) I have a whole multi-page kit of rates and explanations that don’t format well here in this blog space.


So, if you want the pdf, email me or find me online (here or here or here) and let me know.

Happy writing.

Pitch 101 – Part 5: Common Pitch Problems

This is part 5 of an on-going series.

You’ve come far in this series. We started off learning about the mindset and the basic building block of pitches, the USP (Unique Selling Point), we learned about pitch styles, then the velcro theory and last week we autopsied a pitch to see how one is built from the ground up.

I could end the series now, call it the most popular thing I’ve ever put on a blog and move on to talking about something else. And, yes, as some of you emailed me, maybe I should. But there’s one more stretch of road to talk about, and if I’m going to end this series on the high note I think it deserves, then we have to talk about problems commonly found in pitches.

Yes, I know, there are TONS of variations on the ideas I’m exploring here, but I’m asking you to distill your problems down, concentrate them and strip out the subjective circumstantial material and find the flaw-nugget at the heart of the problem.

I believe there are 6 core problems with pitches, and that the majority of rejections, critiques and thumbs-down all stem from them. I’ll outline each, give an example, and a solution.(Yeah this could be a long post, buckle up.)

Note: These problems are not offered in any order of common to least common, or easiest to hardest, they’re just….six possible problems.

I. Not getting to the action fast enough. A good pitch uses an economy of words (we’ll revisit this idea a lot today), usually between a range 200 and 300 (I like to aim for a sweet spot between 250 and 280), but you can always use fewer if your phrasing is tight (I’ve seen great pitches done in 60 words). Even with that range, which sounds like a lot (it isn’t, it’s about a page worth of text, 4 paragraphs maybe), if you don’t engage the audience (either evocatively or dynamically), they’re not going to want to keep reading or listening to whatever you’re saying.

Example: In 1984, Sarah was adopted by Louise and Greg, who lived on a small farm outside Wichita, where they raised cows and grew wheat and lived well. Louise and Greg were a happy couple, never fighting too loud or feeling trapped under some big terrible bills. The farm was successful without being prosperous, and Sarah was very loved and popular and a good student at school. Everything is just great about Sarah, except that she’s really a time-traveling death robot sent back in time to prevent the next American Civil War.

Okay, so it’s 1984, and these two people adopt a girl, and they live on a farm. I’m already yawning but I’ll keep reading, just one more sentence. Oh, they’re a happy couple without flaws? That pitch is better than Nyquil. Chances are, the audience checks out about half-way into that second sentence. The fact that she’s a death robot is lost. The fact that there will be a second Civil War is also lost.

SolutionLead with a strong punch. If you have a lot of USPs, this isn’t difficult, as you have a lot of options to plug in throughout your pitch. If you’re a little thin on USPs, and you can’t generate any more, then make sure they’re front and center in the pitch. Hit the audience with them, hook them, and get out quickly, before people realize you’ve only got the two good bullets.

II. Not getting the audience to a character/vibe/POV fast enough. It’s not enough to have action (otherwise most pitches would be like those action-sound-effect words from campy Batman), you need to tether the action to something else to make it matter. Who’s doing the action? What’s the tone caused by the action? What’s the tone caused by the consequences of the action? If it’s unclear, and leaves the audience scratching their head more than shaking it along with you, then you’re going to face rejection.


Example: War! Two raging clans battle in post-apocalyptic Ohio, salvaging whatever raw materials they can to survive the cold nights, radioactive animal attacks and the on-going blood feud between their families that has gone on since before the first mushroom cloud bloomed. No one remembers what started the feud, but people suspect it had something to do with love.

Yeah, that’s the whole pitch. If I had to describe with a single word, I’d call it “vague”, because even though it’s got some racy language (there’s a war and a blooming cloud and love), it doesn’t actually say anything.

SolutionA two-part strategy – Engage & Lead. Using a combination of USP and evocative language, get the audience’s attention and steer them along the path that leads them progressively deeper into your creation and closer to saying ‘yes’. Provoke them into thinking and feeling, and tie your actions to characters (and motivations), and make the conflict or goal feel real. Make it interesting! Make the audience care and want to be a part of the experience you’re proposing. You can even go one step further and treat the pitch like a movie camera, zooming and racking us into hard focus with a character or scene to immediately connect the audience with a character or idea.

III. Giving too much setup, not enough payoff. Pitches are a tricky balance between informing and intriguing the audience, no matter the media. And the more invested you might be in something, the harder it is for you to have a sense of what is or isn’t working in a pitch.

Note: I did not say what’s ‘good’ or ‘right’ in a pitch because you cannot think of a pitch in terms of the binary good/bad or acceptable/unacceptable or worst (and most vague) okay/not okay. Pitches are more variable and dynamic than that, and there are lots of ways to accomplish the goal – it’s more a matter of efficacy and ease for the pitch-giver.

By giving a lot of extraneous detail, and not providing any hooks (remember your Velcro theory) gives the audience nothing to pay attention to or care about. The result is a lost audience.

ExampleMy board game, 57 Chances To Murder Your Spouse, is a collaborative story-telling game of alibis and plotting where players take turns crafting the best way to receive insurance money without the pesky court trial and corpse discovery. This game was created after my eleventh argument with my spouse, and if you’re like me, you’re probably wondering why they don’t listen to a damned word I say either. I mean all the time, I just asked them for help. Would they swallow this pill and tell me what happens? Could they take this hair dryer into the bathroom with them? Where did they leave the keys? You know, spouse stuff. I’ve been trying for eight years to get this game produced and I’m sure my hard work has created a product that will absolutely revolutionize Family Game Night. 

SolutionStick to what matters. What matters are the USPs and the emotions you want to instill in your audience. The path you took to reach the point where you could pitch may make for interesting anecdotes or great personal revelations, but it is not a factor for an audience, as nearly everyone can/does spin their story to be the most emotional. What should be emotional is the game (or product) experience itself.

IV. Expecting the audience to “get it” If you’ve developed something, it’s assumed that you’re telling interested parties. If you’ve got a script to sell, you’re probably not telling the clown at your son’s birthday party. If you’ve written a novel, the guy who puts the price tag on the pork chops is not going to publish your book. You know who your audience is, but there is a further assumption underneath that – that they will understand what you’re talking about.

Specifically, you’re not giving them the details relevant to your pitch’s concept, because you’re assuming they’ve heard it all before.

ExampleMy novel is 95,000 words, and has to do with a man, a shovel and his desire to own all the Twinkies. The lonely guy is going to do this because of love. And stuff.

Solution – Now, yes, maybe they have, but the big problem here is that you’re doing the thinking for them. Stop assuming the audience has enough information to make the conclusions you need or want them to make, and guarantee they’ll connect the dots the way you want by giving them crystal-clear and precise details, without preamble, fluff or excessive sentiment.

V. Beating the dead horse. If you’ve got few USPs, and even one or two USPs that are much stronger than rest, it is very tempting to use them over and over again to make multiple points. Even by stretching or altering the language, you’re still trotting out the same idea to serve many masters.

ExampleIn my movie, Fisheyes McSweeney 2: Make Easter My Bitch, our hero Fisheyes is released from jail, two years after trying to murder Santa Claus at the suggestion of his black adoptive grandmother. Now Fisheyes is out, and he has to save his buddy Stu from a horrible fate – Easter Dinner. Fisheye’s rollicking quest launches him back into action, better than the time he tried to kill Santa. In the end, you’ll say, “Fisheyes, I believe in you.”

SolutionRemember that there’s more than facts to a pitch. Yes, (Dragnet-style) just the facts is a good approach, up to a point, but without emotion to guide and intention to lead, facts are bland and easily worn out. Your facts plus how you want people to feel plus how you feel crafts a good body for your pitch. There’s no wrong way to do what you’re doing, so feel free to includes facts of all sizes great and small to serve your ends.

VI. Sounding desperate – Pitching is tough and scary, I know. It gets worse when you start thinking about how little speaking experience you may have or just how important this pitch is or how long you may have to wait to get another opportunity and the next thing you know you’reracingthroughallyourwordsandtryingnottosayum.

ExampleMy novel, Arrow To The Knee, is the story of a man’s adventure cut tragically short after an archery accident. It’s available in 10 parts on my blog and it’s a prequel to my upcoming series ‘Now I Guard a Jarl’ and I really think you’ll enjoy it because it touches on themes we all like, like guarding and Jarls and knees. This is my first attempt at publication, because normally, in my day job, I’m a professional data processor, I process professional data, and my librarian friend said that I should totally talk to you about my book and writing because I’m a writer and you’re someone who works with writers and I think this is a great relationship to have. 

Solution – Remember that you have more than one chance, ever. When trying to get things published or produced, or when trying to improve in whatever field you’re in, you’re going to face some adversity and get rejected. People are going to say no, not because you’re a horrible person deserving punishment, but because your pitch didn’t make them want to say yes. And if person A, B or C reject you, you still have D, E and F to talk to. Even if you run all the way through the list of people, you can always go back to your project, make changes and resubmit again. Remember Rule #3: You’re never stuck/trapped, you always have options.

We’ve reached the end of Pitch 101, and if you go through this series and make good use of the material, you’re prepared to tackle a lot of opportunities. Yes, for the curious, there is a Pitch 201, which will very likely end up on this blog eventually, but for now, I think I’ve drowned you in enough words. The real work begins now.

What are you going to do with this information? That’s what matters. Will it help you? Will you shrug it off because it sounds complicated? Will you ignore it because ten other sources have said similar things?

I end today with a reminder of Rule #1 – Writing is the act of making decisions. That includes the decisions about whether to write or not or whether to pitch or not.

Make great decisions.

Happy writing.

The Beat Sheet Of Game Design

Oh man is today ever a great day to read a blog post. Now this is a long one, and it’s dedicated entirely to game design, but I swear to you, this post is a gold mine for you designers out there.

Today I’m going to show you a complete system of game development, so that you can take your game, whatever it is, and work it through what I’m describing below so you can see where your holes and gaps are…and then fill them.

Before we get started, we have to go over the three rules I’ll be referencing.

The Rules

Rule 1: Writing is the act of making decisions
Rule 2: Be easy on yourself
Rule 3: You always have options, there is always a way out, you’re never trapped.

Critical here are Rule #1 and Rule #3. Rule #2 is there to remind you that you’re not a failure or bad or stupid or wrong for not being perfect the first time, every time.

(Side note: You’re also amazing, if you didn’t know)

Before we get into the meat of this system, I have a little questionnaire for you, to help sort out the finer points of your game. Answers to these questions will be USPs (Unique Selling Points) that you can immediately use in your pitches. If you can’t answer the question, or if your answer isn’t one of the options listed, that’s okay, it just means that your game is a little more niche and/or atypical.

Yes, absolutely, you should be writing the answers to these questions down, perhaps on a legal pad or in your ‘Game Development Notebook’ or wherever you store your ideas.

Question 1: Is this game about Character or about Plot? (Are you creating a linear game where people go from one place to another and do a single task to ‘win’, or is this a game where you create a character and they’re pretty free to do whatever, within the confines of the world, and this game is their biography?)

Question 2: Is this game a single serving or can this be a long-term game? (Is this a game I can get into for a few hours on a rainy evening with a few friends, or is this game something that I can play over the course of many weeks and months?)

Question 3: Does this game get easier/better/more enjoyable by using previous knowledge or can anyone pick this up? (Is this a game where I have to know about something else going in, or can someone whose never seen a particular show, read a certain book or had a certain game experience still get the same level of enjoyment as someone who is better read/experienced?)

Question 4: Do the characters matter in this world? (If players eliminate or disempower a major quest-giver or chain of events, do their actions resonate ‘locally’ or’globally’ or not at all? Or are the characters fighting a Sisyphean battle, with huge odds stacked against them?)

Question 5: Is this game about the experience or about winning and losing? (Does this game have specific ‘winning conditions’ or is this game to be played just to play and enjoy the company of your friends and have a specific experience along the way?)

Got your answers? Lets go meet the driving force of this design system.

Beats!

Previously, I talked a little about “Beats”, the moments and particular scenes that act as signposts from your project’s Point A to wherever you end up at Point B or Q or F or whatever. Now, some types of beat-layout and even some beats are optional, but in game design, there are three unavoidable beats, and they act as large umbrellas for sections of the game.

The Opening
The Mid-Game
The End Game

The Opening introduces the players to their characters and the world, as well as gives them a baseline of mechanics to operate within the world. Near the end of the Opening, you introduce them to the plot, as you’ll see and play intensifies from there.

The Mid-Game (or mid-Session, if your game is a long-play) develops and expands on what the players and
characters already know. They discover and use more mechanics, they receive more information about plot, and they advance themselves experientially. Near the end of the mid-game/session, they propel forward into end-game/session which is generally a moment of significance for them.

The End Game/Session is where the experience and development accomplished so far pays off. Armed with
material and knowledge, the characters and players are able to take significant actions and headway for or
against the plot, resolving it in some cases (situationally) and either concluding their development, or launching them forward toward another cycle of the same beats.

Now under those three big umbrellas sit a host of other smaller beats. Let’s break them down, one umbrella at a time. I should point out that although I’m expressing these beats numerically, your game doesn’t have to. You can adjust the order of these beats within these umbrellas as you like or need to. Further, you may omit
or relocate a beat to serve your purposes.

The Opening

I. The Introduction of Characters – Sometimes this includes character creation, sometimes this doesn’t (and
therefore considers that creation to be separate from play), but this beat commences the minute the first character does something in-character in-game. In older games, this is the ‘you all meet in a tavern’ moment, where suddenly and randomly a fighter, a healer, a thief and a wizard just happen to sit together at their local
restaurant. In plot-driven games, the reason this is done is because the plot gets explained here. “You’re sitting at the tavern, having answered the summons for adventurers…” In more open-ended plot games, possible plots are teased here, by way of what characters see (this is where flavor text helps develop and enrich the world, by showing the players what’s possible).

II. The Introduction of Conflict – For the more structured (read: less flexible) gamer, this is the beat that answers, “Why are we doing this?” This beat comes most often as a box of prepared module-esque text that
somehow you’ve asked your GM to make interesting, without a lot of dice rolling or random inflection. Here the characters learn about the conflict they face within the world. It may be pretty straight forward (Mario, go rescue the princess) or it can be far more layered (resolve the conspiracy, defeat the terrorists, save the hostages).

Time and experience pass and the characters learn more about the conflict and themselves. There are a few simpler beats to hit in the Opening:

III. First Combat/Mechanical Trial – Thanks to a particular circumstance (bandits in the road, a locked
door, etc), the characters must make use of the mechanics to resolve problems. Key in this beat are the ‘ease of play’ (how straightforward the experience is) and ‘depth of play’ (how this trial and resolution feel…not so much in terms of accuracy, but in terms of enjoyment). In some games, this trial is expressed as a mini-game (game within a game) and other times as a series of contested rolls and expressed actions (you rolled a 15 against a 3, you hit).

IV. The Disbelief Point – Up until this moment, what the players have done is fairly elementary statistical exercise: roll some dice, record the numbers in little boxes on a sheet, tell a shared fairy tale. But there comes a point within the opening third of the game where the story and character(s) grabs them, and involves them. Going forward from this point, the player is immersed. Now, yes, every player has a different disbelief point, acting via free will to suspend their disbelief and engage their imagination at whatever point they like. Perhaps Player 3 got involved during combat when she totally shot that guy in the face, and perhaps player 8 really liked the way the setting was described when he sat down at the table. Every player has one, and while no game can specifically address every player, a game designer can put together the best components within the product and remember Rule #2.

The Opening Ends with…

V. Launch Into Mid-Game/Session – Here, the players have completed whatever basics need be done, and they have discovered some element(s) of the plot. They may be suitably armed (physically, mentally and otherwise) and they often are (thanks to flavor text) relocated from one place to another, a physical migration to start this movement (they leave the tavern, they board the train, they go somewhere else, etc). Further, the characters have a purpose, a mission to do and a reason to do it.

The Mid-Game/Session

The Mid-Game is characterized by expansion. Everything gets bigger here, quantifiably more than qualitatively. Characters advance in level(s), gain more material and knowledge and the playing “field” (perhaps a board or the collaborative environment) is impacted by their growth and decisions (yes, Rule #1 is in effect even for players)

The Mid Beats all focus on moving things (people/places/plot) forward.

VI. Setback/Obstacle, Smaller – At some point, as the characters advance, the GM will want to add a wrinkle to the best laid plans. This is done through obstacles. Granted, some obstacles are opponents in combat, but Obstacles are not only combat constructs. Any impediment to some type of advancement (combat, social, plot, in-party) counts here.

Obstacles are designed to improve the character(s) involved without sidelining them too long from the actual
objective. The locked door, the puzzle in the room, the guard that needs to be persuaded, these are at best speed bumps on the road.

Now this isn’t to say the GM shouldn’t take delight in letting players overthink, but from a design level,
remember Rule #3 and plan for what they do after the obstacle. An obstacle is only as good as the action that follows it. It means less if it’s just a passing idea.

VII. Setback/Obstacle, Larger – These are the obstacles that will really teach two things: 1. Some character advancement or ability (in video games, these are the side quests that unlock new gear) 2. That the antagonists are bigger badasses than first realized. This is done because the larger setbacks run parallel and
concurrent to the main plot, without actually being the plot. Consider them practically sub-plots if you like, as
they can be involved and consume quite a lot of design/creation space.

A note about setbacks: They have to matter, and they have to provide knowledge. The bigger something is, the more steps involved and the more the pay-off should be.

Get out of the dungeon by picking a lock? Small success
Uncover the plot to smuggle a bomb in the fuel tanks of the plane before the peace treaty? Bigger success.

The bigger they are, the more open-ended they should be. If it’s a subplot, or something that adds context to the game world (an RP seed), then it doesn’t need anything more than a hook to snare players and a start of the path to head them on. Let the players resolve the issue in their own way, everyone will feel more rewarded.

VIII. Things In Danger – There comes a point in play where the characters are suitably powered and capable to defeat plenty of challenges, and the only way to up that scale is to raise the intensity of challenges. And while following a scalar model is a good thing in most games, sometimes you can’t race the players forward too quickly (often for the sake of plot). So what can you do?

Just before you launch them forward towards the end-game, give them one more reason or reminder to help galvanize them towards resolution (because it’s likely at this point they’ve spent a lot of time away from the reason that brought them this far).

Challenging the safety of something they care about shows the extent the antagonists/opposition will go, as well as remind the players that what they’re doing matters.

IX. Reconfirmation – This beat can be as short as a shared group look and nod, or as long as a Normandy
invasion planning session. Here, the players apply what they’ve learned to date, with what they hope to
experience to create their strategy for the endgame. The benefit here is that they’re not actually IN the endgame yet, and the GM is free to raid their ideas as well as ideas provided in the design to work with and against (a good measure of each) the players in the actual endgame.

Good design hinges on this beat by offering a lot of options that all converge towards resolution, in sort of
a “no matter how you got here, this is where things stand” moment.

From here we launch into the third act…End Game!

End Game

X. The Big Huge Setup and Execution – Carrying forward from the previous beat, here’s where the planning of Act 2 goes forward and begins to be resolved. If there’s a fight to be had, this is getting all the pieces in place before the fight begins. This is also the last chance for the game to make offerings outside the plot for a while, as what follows will be more strictly tied to the plot than at any other time in the game’s progression.

XI. The Loss is a Gain – As things ramp up towards the Big Battle, along the way there can and should be casualties. It’s difficult to avoid telegraphing this, but a good game can obfuscate it by creating options (which can be reinforced as being likely or unlikely in Act 2 with subplots). The goal here is to take away a key asset from the players but not deprive them of whatever knowledge or power it offered (Before you fight the guy in the black suit, your vaunted British actor has to get chopped in half by the lightsaber).

In one regard, the asset was just a tangible item or person, but as a teaching tool, RP element, magical device or wisdom, the asset can flourish to deeper levels (the wise teacher killed in Season 1 had a warehouse of material for Season 2….) and at this point, it’s time you remove any and all crutches you’ve given the players to date.

Of course, removing too many crutches too quickly does not have the impact of a systematic and deliberately tense extinction of resources, but it does have the benefit of strongly marking lines between pro- and antagonists.

XII. The Big Huge Battle (Climax!) – So, at some point, the players have done all they can and the only bridge to advancement is battle. (We can look at this in a micro level as a battle on an immediate scale or in the macro as part of the overall campaign/game design)

Here, the players should have to risk everything to gain the largest rewards available at the moment. And likewise, the opposition should be as strong or even a hair stronger for the fight to feel satisfying to everyone involved.

When it’s over, there should be quantifiable consequences and results.

XIV. Consequences! – If the climax was large enough, and the battle ferocious enough, and the danger great enough, the players should have really pushed themselves, the mechanics and their abilities to the limit here. But they’re not off the hook just for defeating the opponent – now there are ramifications for what happened. Did they just blow up a building? Look at the victims. Did they just crash a ship into a spaceport? Won’t someone go after them? Did one just use godlike powers to unmake something? I’m not sure a god would be pleased about that….

The point here is that in order to keep the players grounded, you have to provide consequences with tangible results that counterbalance the size and scale of the climax. Big tense climax? Big intense consequence. Don’t judge this solely by the specifical literal action, do consider the impact on the created world. Since the characters don’t live and operate in a vacuum, consequences should lead to a change in action, which springs us forward further…

XV. What’s Next? – Following the consequences, players should have more questions than answers. Yes, they should have answers for what they asked initially (did the badguy kidnap the girl, did the supervillain almost blow up Time?) but there should be other questions being asked. You can plant these seeds as early as Act 2 subplots if you want, or more traditionally lace them into the framework leading up to and throughout Act 3.

This is a cycle, don’t forget. Even at its most linear, this is a parabolic curve, arcing slightly towards more questions, more buildups and more payoffs.

In this system, even if the book ends, play and potential play shouldn’t. At worst the book is a self-contained experience, at best, it is a launching point for further cycles of development and character expression.

* * *

Now what I want you to do is take your game, and lay it out over this template. Adjust both until you get a snug fit (move some beats around, fatten up your game as needed, etc) and then tell me about it. Leave a comment below, send me an email…but let’s talk about your game. Nothing fancy, nothing forcibly professional, just some conversation.

You can do this, you’re awesome, and I most definitely wish you,

Happy writing.

Pitch 101 – Part 4: Pitch Autopsy

This was actually part of Part 3, which you can read here. It got its own section when I realized how long that post would be.

Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3 of this series are also worth your time.

Note: What follows are sample pitches I created for this post – they ARE NOT actual client pitches.
Note 2: They may be pitches I wished actual clients had used.
Note 3: Yes, I got their permission.

If you’ve been following along, you should be aware of and comfortable with USPs (Unique Selling Points), pitch styles and Velcro Theory (which was just introduced in the last section, but operates on the idea that a pitch hooks into particular interests of the audience).

Previously, we talked about our Eskimo Tim (Assassin who has to kill a senator) property. Let’s look at a sample pitch for the novel. (You may recognize this as a query letter, which is a pitch, written down.)

The corrupt senator Aloysius Fedora is about to engineer his largest political coup to date – an oil pipeline from Alaska all the way to Arizona, with all the contracts going to his company, EvilDoucheCorp. This pipe will run from the frozen north to the scorching desert, bringing black liquid wealth thousands of miles. 


But that pipe ran into a problem. A small village of Eskimos sits where a critical part of the pipe goes. And in the village, there is one Eskimo not ready to move.


Eskimo Assassin Tim is about to run muckluck first into EvilDoucheCorp and slice it to ribbons.

Yeah, that’s a rotten pitch. Let’s make it not suck. Drag that bloated word-corpse to the table, and get ready to learn how to dissect your pitch.

Step 1: Write your pitch down. In full sentences. And paragraphs. As if it counted.
Step 2: Don’t judge it, just write it down.

I combine these two steps because you’re not going anywhere until you can get them both accomplished. You may need to refer back to Step 2 often to get Step 1 done, which is okay. This isn’t the part where you edit the pitch as you write, this is where you just lay it out, all messy and not-how-you-want-it, so that we can in subsequent steps, make it better.

Bring our pitch back. And hand me a knife.

The corrupt senator Aloysius Fedora is about to engineer his largest political coup to date – an oil pipeline from Alaska all the way to Arizona, with all the contracts going to his company, EvilDoucheCorp. This is a great establishing, expositive sentence. 

 This pipe will run from the frozen north to the scorching desert, bringing black liquid wealth thousands of miles. This is still good, and even has a little cute turn of phrase.


But that pipe ran into a problem. Red flag #1 – This is a cliche. And it’s a poor bridge to whatever comes next, as most cliches are.

A small village of Eskimos sits where a critical part of the pipe goes. And in the village, there is one Eskimo not ready to move. While these two statements are true, and good, they’re also incredibly boring ways to relay this information. If I wanted to sleep, I’d go watch War Horse or listen to parade commentary. Boring sentences, especially when words count, the way they do in a query, will kill your pitch.


Eskimo Assassin Tim is about to run muckluck first into EvilDoucheCorp and slice it to ribbons. I like this sentence. I also like the idea about running muckluck first. Not happy with the dull ‘slice it to ribbons’ bit, but we can rewrite it.

I know, I’m basically asking you to be objective about your own work so as to dissect it. And I know you’re going to be blind to a lot of the red flags, errors, weak spots and loose connections in your pitch. This is why we get step 3.

Step 3: Get someone else to read your pitch. Get someone who knows pitches. Sales professionals, consultants, editors, writers…people in the industry you’re pitching to – that’s who you need to chat with for step 3.

If you can’t find anyone, email me. Put ‘Pitch 101’ in the subject of the email, and we’ll talk your pitch through. Seriously.

Now, wait, maybe you’re going to tell me that you did find people who knew pitches, but they didn’t help you. And I’ll ask you, who did you talk to about your novel (for example), and you’ll tell me you talked to a librarian.

And when I’m done laughing, I’ll say that a librarian knows books the way a consumer knows books – via popularity or similarity. They don’t know how to take your idea and make it excel or how to amplify it so that it can then become popular or super-successful.

Oh, and then you’ll say you’ve taken your script and given it to your three friends who go to the movies all the time, and that one time about fifteen years ago they all wanted to be Kevin Smith, so they know. Oh sure they know. They know what not to do, they know where the potholes were in the road forward. But if you want to get past the potholes, find the people who found the potholes, patched them (or are patching them) and kept driving. Yes, such people exist. And you should go seek them out.

Step 4: Rebuild/Rewrite your pitch to make the USPs stand out, while remembering your velcro.

The success of your pitch isn’t only the charisma you have, you need to back it up with substance. That substance is your USPs. If you’re more formula minded, try this:

Good pitch = USPs + Charisma + Hooks + Receptive Awareness

We’ll talk more about that formula in Part 5 of the series, but for now, understand that you can immediately control what the USPs are and how they’re presented to the audience. Do you build tension in your voice when talking about the tense parts? Do you race through way too quickly because you’re nervous? Do you skip around all over the place because, ‘you’re so ADD, lol’? (Please don’t ever write a professional email and use ‘lol’ in it. PLEASE.)

Let’s rebuild Eskimo Tim’s pitch:


In two days, EvilDoucheCorp will run a pipeline right through Eskimo Tim’s village. In two days, the ancient Eskimo ways will be gone, replaced by gallons of liquid wealth, fattening the pockets of Senator Aloysius Fedora. 


All that culture, gone. And it’s not just mucklucks and seal clubbing. Eskimos are also Assassins. And Tim is one of a long line of proud killers for hire. 


In two days, the village will be destroyed. In three days, EvilDoucheCorp will come to know that Eskimos have 40 words for snow and 41 words for murder.


BLOOD OF THE SNOWMAN is a novel of 92,000 words.

See how much more compelling that is? We added a time element (the two/three days bit), toyed with Eskimo knowledge (40 words for snow) and kept the mucklucks.

We made the product matter for our audience. We gave them a reason to keep their eyes moving down through the pitch. We made the story engage them, not just lie flat on its back like a bad date.

Pitches aren’t just for novels. Your game pitch (here’s a great one from Rob Donoghue) is built the same way, and can benefit from the same reconstruction. The same is true for your script.

But it all starts with writing SOMETHING, some kind of pitch down. And then getting eyes on it. And hopefully those are objective eyes. Then the rebuilding can begin.

Once the pitch is rebuilt, trust me, you won’t want to wait to show it off.

In Part 5 of the series, we’ll talk about that formula for making a good pitch.

Happy writing.

Pitch 101: Part 3 – Velcro Theory and the Audience

This is part 3 of an on-going series on how to pitch your product. Part 1 and 2 are available here and here.

Happy Year of Our Alleged Impending Apocalypse! If there was ever a catalyst for you to be productive and successful, it has to be the chance that suddenly all life as we know it could wink out of existence. It’s practically a Doctor Who plot. In fact, I think it was…..

So, let’s move right along to Part 3 of Pitch 101, and build on what we already know about USPs (Unique Selling Points) and types of pitches. Today, it’s going to get a little tricky, as we’ll turn the pitch around and consider it from the barrel-end.

Have you ever asked yourself what the audience hears when you pitch? If you’ve ever pitched to me, you know I have this…quirk/habit of making very clear whether or not you have my attention. This is remarkably helpful for people, but not everyone will have such a transparent audience.

I know the assumption is made and repeated in lots of books and websites that you’re fighting an uphill battle when you pitch, that you have only a few gasps of air to relay, hook and interest your audience, and while that is occasionally true, I do have to tell you that the majority of that fear-mongering is designed to drive you deeper into those books and to rely on them, rather than your own natural abilities to be interesting and appealing.

When you pitch, you’re not fighting a losing battle. You may have already lost, if your thinking is so negative or sentimental or emotionally suggestive, but the actual act of pitching, the speaking and exploring the idea is not a lost cause. Just as earlier we talked about the foundations of the pitch as being USPs, now we consider the foundation of your target audience– Interest.

Let’s assume you’ve got three products: A book, a script and a game. For the sake of future arguments, let’s say they’re all related and that you’re developing a “property” (fancy way of saying you’re thinking of stuff, write that down and impress your friends) about….Eskimo Assassins.

In the novel, you tell the story of Tim, the Eskimo Assassin sent to Washington to kill a corrupt senator.


In the movie, you tell the same story, but throw in a B-plot about how Tim falls in love with the senator’s daughter, saving her from her father’s tainted legacy. (Yes, I did totally roll my eyes when I wrote that.)


In the game, you offer the chance to BE Tim. 

We come to the first idea of the lesson:

I. Know the audience. I like the word ‘know’ more than the word ‘consider’ here, because you have to be a little deeper and diligent in your thinking. You have to know the sort of people you’re talking to, and know what makes them receptive and what turns them off.

In the above 3 products, you’re not talking to the same audience 3 times. The book has one group, the script a second and the third a completely different pool. Yes, they may overlap in some regards, but many of those overlaps don’t really concern your pitches (they all wear socks, they all think the Star Wars prequels are awful, etc)

Here’s the second idea:

II. Find the ‘hook point’ of the audience. When you think about your audience, the ideal group of people/consumers/aliens/humans who have purchased your product, there were several things that led them to pick up your creation and give you money for it. But of all the factors that contributed or led to the sale, ONE was special for them. That one item (hopefully a USP) ‘hooked’ them. 

A hook point is the moment where they shift from aware-of-your-product to interested/wanting-your-product. Ever audience has them. When I say audience, I mean at both the macro (group) and the micro (the individual) level.

This is where people freak out. They see that they have to hook the audience, think that their material is rubbish, think that they cannot do it and despair. Common thinking. Absolutely wrong thinking, but it happens.

Write this down, stick it on the wall of the room where you work on your projects:

Velcro! Be the velcro!

Third idea:

III. Velcro theory. When I was a kid, velcro was a godsend. It took me quite a while to get comfortable tying shoes, and years later, that memory of the texture and sound of velcro has stayed with me.

Velcro works by connecting little loops with little hooks.

I’ll say that again — little loops with little HOOKS.

HOOKS. And loops.

Your pitch has hooks in it. Your audience has loops. That audience wants to grab onto the pitch and stick to it, following it along until they’re buying your product late one night in a posh hotel suite on their way to a party. (or something, I don’t know where you guys buy your games, but hey, it’s life)

Build your hooks out of the USPs and whatever your natural talents are. You do have them. You may speak well. You may smile and be beguiling. You maybe express visual ideas clearly. You know your talents. Apply them to expressing your USPs.

The loops you’re trying to snare are the interests of the audience, which you’ve discovered by knowing the audience. That book agent you’ve just queried, do you think they really have the time to read 800 words about Eskimo Tim? NO. You need to get right to the heart of the action and the story.

The movie producer with the checkbook? They’re looking for beats and character growth. Movie Eskimo Tim better have that.

The game purchasing audience? Layout, boobs occasionally and some interesting mechanics all help. (And nice paper….and PDF support….etc) RPG Eskimo Tim has to hit some key targets

Practice making velcro. Get some paper, divide it into two columns. Call one column “Me” and the other “Them” (or if you want to be professional “product” and “audience”)

Down the Me/Product column, list your USPs.
Down the Them/Audience column, write out who that appeals to. (Name them)

For example:

Eskimo Tim is a character with a troubled past
—–  people who enjoy stories about redemption


Eskimo Tim RPG is a game with dice pools and incentives
—— people with a large number of d20s

You’re going to really be comfortable with Velcro for Part 4 – Pitch Autopsy.

Happy writing.