Orphan Black Is My Personal Trainer

Not only are the Sestras of Team Leda my personal trainers, but also, as a result, I can survive car crashes, get stabbed through the side with rebar, run, fight, shoot with accuracy, and dig a grave through a cement floor. Impressed?

Don’t be. I may be exaggerating. Let me back up a bit.

During the summer of 2013, I lost about eighteen pounds. This happened through a combination of hopping up and down on an elliptical machine at Planet Fitness, and eating mostly blueberries and almonds in order to win the respect of  [popular Philadelphia actor and local vegan] Doug Greene. It was fun, for a while. Then,
a) I learned that Doug Greene’s kindness is so vast that he really doesn’t care if I eat things which can not be easily foraged, and

b) The televisions at my local Planet Fitness succeeded in driving me out of there. That’s right. The terrorists’ televisions won.

Here’s the battle. I had a pretty good system for making regular exercise part of my life. Roll out of bed, pull on the pile of work out clothes I thoughtfully placed [okay, dumped] on the floor next to the bed the day before, put earbuds in ears, and with my gym only a few blocks away, I’d be at the gym and on the elliptical, chugging along to “Doctorin’ The Tardis,” before I really woke up.

OB1-596x335  Unfortunately, the Wall Of Televisions across from the elliptical machines were extremely distracting. The morning parade of anorexics, invented health scares, and celebrity bullshit which passes for news drove me far away from sense and sensibility. One day I saw Olivia Wilde, being interviewed about her role in a movie in which her character allegedly liked to drink a lot of beer. I thought, she doesn’t look like she’s ever touched a beer in her life. She’s as light and luminous as a snowflake. She probably eats nothing but organic arugula and pure mountain spring water. Then, some weird part of me thought, you could look like that if you ate only twelve handfuls of almonds a day. It’s possible. And just look how much better her career is than yours.

Fortunately, some reasonable part of my brain (the part that likes eating, moving around and having cognitive function) said, NOPE, that’s not a healthy mind set. I got my priorities in order. After that, the televisions at the gym made me so angry, that I stopped going to the gym. Music wasn’t enough to keep me going, with TV flashing and flickering away in front of me.

OrphanBlack_S2Ep10_251-596x335 Recently, I was talking with some friends about how I wanted to write a Tv drama spec script for my portfolio. My co-worker Kevin suggested that Orphan Black might fit my sensibilities. I hate sitting and spending copious amounts of time staring at something without doing something else along with it, so I thought, I’ll watch it at the gym. I bought the iTunes season pass for the first two seasons, and away I went on Leda’s Big Adventure.

This show is absolutely ideal as a companion for cardio, especially if you’re stuck indoors at one spot*. Its style, as a one-hour adventure-sci-fi-drama- is ideal for a 45-minute workout.

ob121-596x335  TV writing is formulaic, even for a genre-defying show like Orphan Black. Dan Harmon’s narrative structure method shows this formula best. Essentially, with a 40-45 minute show, you’re going to have moments of tension every five or six minutes. Every other moment of tension will be a major moment of tension, and they will increase in intensity throughout the story.

To try to make things simple, these are your big turning points of story.
1) A person is in a place of comfort
2) But they want something
3) They enter an unfamiliar situation
4) Adapt to it
5) Get what they thought they wanted
6) Pay a heavy price
7) Return to where they started
8) Having Changed.

OrphanBlack-Ep5-1-596x335In the case of a serial thriller like Orphan Black, you’re not going right back to the beginning, necessarily, you’re only back to square one in the sense that you’re still fighting The Bad Guys. Your favorite clone makes progress, but not enough for her to win freedom for herself and her family.

So, when you’re working out, these points of tension will make you move faster. The first ten minutes or so, even if they start with Sarah or Cosima or Allison or Helena in a major pickle, are at least a pickle with which the viewer is familiar. The episode is establishing itself, and this gives you time to get warmed up. After about ten minutes, our heroine gets presented with a new difficulty, and that makes the tension pick up. Usually, by about fifteen minutes into the episode, there’s a bar fight, a critical code to be cracked, or a chase that makes the viewer more tense. So, the natural response is to do what? Move faster. Each conflict increases the tension, leading to a plateau, and then another increase, until the inevitable cliffhanger ending, which leaves the viewer wanting more.

OrphanBlack_S2Ep9_20-596x335Mirror Neurons being what they are, we can’t not get tense along with our favorite characters. Every time they get into trouble, we do what they know they should do; tense up, and run, or fight. It’s a perfect thing to keep you going when you’re at the gym. There are some exceptions, however. When Paul pressed the stolen (spoiler object) into the palm of Felix’s hand, I hauled on the brakes on the elliptical foot pads so hard that I almost fell off of the machine. So, be careful. This show is not to be taken lightly.

It’s true that many television shows follow this formula, and probably any one-hour drama or police procedural could fit the bill. Why not just go to the gym a couple of hours after dinnertime, and catch one of the many variations on CSI or Law & Order? Because this is Orphan Black, and it’s a whole new modus operandi in story.

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The more things change, the more they stay the same.

One actress, Tatiana Maslany, plays the main characters, all of whom share the same DNA, but are as different as chalk and cheese. Each of them has secrets, and has to pretend to be something she’s not. Anyone who wants transformation, or has just had a very bad day (why else would you get on an elliptical machine?) can empathize with Clone Club. The clones battle and support each other in similar but unique voices, much as different facets of one human’s personality. Yet they all work toward a common goal; independence and safety for themselves and their family. Because one actress plays all the roles, the viewer gets pulled into the concept of transformation. The body becomes immaterial; what matters is the clones’ desires, actions, and manners of self-expression. For someone who’s trying to get more exercise, this hits home. Ultimately, the premise of Orphan Black is, “Is biology destiny?” Is our body all we are, or can be? For all women, we want to feel like our bodies are less important than our personalities, thoughts, and desires. In the case of Orphan Black, the human body is a part of oneself, but not the entire existence.

OrphanBlack_HelenaGallery_02-596x335  Having this show accompany me as I work out makes me more excited to go to the gym. It makes me think about the body in terms of strength, health and autonomy. It distracts me from all of the usual chatter in which we engage, concerning fitness and working out. Maybe I’m not doing this because I want to look like the women on The Today Show or Good Morning America. Maybe I’m doing this in case I ever have to dodge a sniper’s bullet or run for my life or fight off a bunch of armed goons. The characters on this show are flexible but tough, capable of change, but focused, and always moving up. It’s the best workout companion I’ve ever had.

I have not yet seen Season 3, other than the occasional trailer or sneak peek. Like I said, I don’t have cable (although Episode 1 of Season 3 is available online. BUT FOR HOW LONG???). As far as I can tell, some of what the new season concerns is how big business (i.e., Dyad), can control the human body, how the government and military can get involved (such as in the case of copyright), and what people can do with their bodies. These ideas scares me, particularly since we see this all the time. We see it when women starve themselves to fit a business’ idea of what a clothing size is, when people make choices about food, self-care, residence or birth control based on what corporations say is safe and healthy. I’m glad this show is exploring these ideas, in an interesting and inventive way.

And no, I never wrote the spec script, because I was too busy being in love with the show. I probably will eventually, anyway. Wide Open Spaces made the semi-finalist level for the National Playwrights’ Conference at The Eugene O’Neill Theatre Center, so I can’t possibly be that bad at this whole thing, right?

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What’s the one weird trick for absolute success?

Oh boy! One weird trick!  Dermatologists hate me! Mortgage lenders curse my name! Why? Because I know the one weird trick that will help you, yes, YOU, pay off your mortgage, get rid of your wrinkles, reduce back and belly fat, and crack your script into shape to ensure total and immediate Hollywood screenwriting success in just minutes!

All of this is a gross exaggeration for comic effect, but you knew this, Gentle Reader. However, it’ll be interesting to see if my SEO skills result in some interesting search engine terms leading readers here.

Once upon a time, I knew a struggling actor, beginning playwright, and reasonably successful waiter. Just one? This one in particular, let’s call him Phil, had some bad networking habits. He was a schmoozer, and he was pretty good at getting into conversations about the business of making art with people more advanced in their career than he was. If you’re in any aspect of art-making, this will probably sound very familiar to you.

This is the guy he would usually bother. he has the patience of mountains, yet somehow Phil would still find a way to test it.

This is the guy he would usually bother. He has the patience of mountains, yet somehow Phil would still find a way to test it.

Inevitably, once some cheap wine or craft beer was flowing, and people were warming up, he would find whoever it was in the room that seemed to be the most advanced or successful in their career, corner them, and interrogate them, asking, “what’s the one thing, the one thing, the one piece of advice you can give me?”  By then his interrogation had driven away anyone else, and the interrogated would be shuffling and hemming and hawing, until finally they muttered something about perseverance, and said anything Young Torquemada wanted to hear so they could slip out of the conversation.

What was never clear (to me, anyway), was whether:

A) he only wanted to know one thing, because he didn’t intend to take up too much of their time with his request for professional guidance

or

B) he thought there was one secret to success, one ring to rule them all, which could be easily summed up in one simple weird trick, task, or dance move.

The reality, as anyone with half a brain knows, is that there is no one weird trick that will get anyone where they need to go. While it’s true that someone’s life can be ruined with one weird mistake or choice, getting where you want to go takes many steps, lessons, and actions over time. Very few people get this until they’ve learned it the hard way (myself included). That’s why I’m using a bold font. 

Me, waiting in a stairwell at the Temple Performing Arts Center, to go get my degree.

Me, waiting in a stairwell at the Temple Performing Arts Center, to go get my degree.

This past Thursday, I graduated with my Master of Fine Arts degree in Playwriting from Temple University.  It was crowded and hot and fun and thrilling, and a big vindication of all the hard work I’ve done over the past four years. Now I have a bunch of scripts, an MFA, a rail pass, and a copy of Writing Movies For Fun And Profit. I can take the train anywhere I want (at least through Sunday at midnight, and as long as I’m not planning to go past more than 2 SEPTA transit zones).

I also have a lot of new neural pathways burnt into my brain, from a four-year regime of writing, rewriting, reading, reciting, reiterating, re-reading, re-rewriting, researching, rehearsing, late nights, early mornings, too little sleep, too much coffee, and occasionally too much bourbon.  I’ve built some good habits and learned a few things. Which means I think now is the only time in my life that it’ll be fresh in my mind to address the question I was asked, back at the beginning of this process:

“Why do you need to go to graduate school to be an artist?”

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This is what I do. Not only do I make puppets, I sew berets and knit scarves for them.

It can be assumed that art is subjective, originality is more important than craft, that meaning is in the perception of the beholder, and maybe learning too many of the conventional rules of art-making can destroy creative impulses. Therefore, graduate school could, effectively, stifle real originality and creativity.  There’s the NYC vs. MFA debate (as if New York is the only city in the world where anyone does creative work and gets paid for it), where some people feel that rather than attending grad school, young people should get a job in their preferred industry and do it until they become successful.

Some of this is true. Some of this is not. I would make the argument that work and education need to co-exist. The ivory tower can insulate and stifle, and the working world can make you honest, but wear you down as well. You need both to improve as an artist.

Prior to applying to graduate school, I had a pretty good cultural education. I had worked in a lot of theaters where I had the opportunity to see world-class plays, music, dance, and whatever the Flying Karamazov Brothers are, for free, as long as I didn’t mind standing in the back. I heard Randy Newman play from the trap room underneath his piano, I saw the first production of Anna In The Tropics from 8th row center in a 300-seat house, I’ve been hugged by Dael Orlandersmith and kissed on the cheek by Tom Stoppard. For ten years, I absorbed all the culture I could, read tons of scripts,  and sold probably thousands of tickets and subscriptions.  Through this experience, I learned a lot about playwriting. Some of it I learned in weekly writers’ workshops and self-producing. Some of it I learned by seeing what shows were selected every season and where, and what wasn’t.

One does not simply walk into Mordor-blank

You’re thinking it. Right now. Yes, you are.

The biggest thing I learned is that if you don’t clean up real pretty, you don’t get asked to the dance. The competition for what I wanted to do was so fierce that if I didn’t have the MFA making me stand out, anything else that would was probably The Sarah Kane Solution.*

Right before I started graduate school, I was asked, “How is going to graduate school going to make you a better artist, something which relies on originality?” and I finally said, “I don’t know, but I have to try, because I can’t work the overnight shift at the big-box craft store for the rest of my life.”

So, here’s what I did learn in graduate school, how it changed me, and why I would advocate a mix of graduate school and “real-world” work in order to improve as an artist.

IMG_2046  First of all, as Polly Carl said, it’s a terrible idea to go directly from your undergraduate years into a graduate writing program. You need to go out and make mistakes and get scared in order to fully understand risks, stakes, consequences and motivation. Many playwrights who come from Ivy League universities produce scripts which suffer from the consequences not of the stakes needing to be higher, but the consequences of your protagonist not reaching their goal be a fate worse than death. If you spend your summers playing piano and tending bar in Brooklyn or Prague while reading poetry, or using the word “summer” as a verb in Cape Cod, you don’t know what a fate worse than death is. You need to get lost in very bad neighborhoods, and find your way home all by yourself.  You need to run completely out of food but still scrape up enough change to buy enough kibble to keep your cat alive. You need to work double shifts for a bad boss and too many customers and ache like you’ve been beaten with hockey sticks with no end in sight. You need to get so broke that you will do anything to get enough to eat, and then do that anything. You need to let time and tide and experience work on you. You need to learn the hard way who your real friends are.  Then, when you do get a good job, survive the night, see the sun rise, sink your teeth into that excellent meal, you need to let yourself feel real, heart-warming gratitude and pay it forward.  After all that, you’ll have something to write about.

IMG_2369  Secondly, it is true that graduate school insulates you from the “real world,” but this is a good thing. Effectively, it is a safe space to make creative mistakes. If you make mistakes in a job, you get fired, so you learn very quickly not to make mistakes. What you’re really learning is what your boss, client, etc. wants to hear or see. So, you might not create the most meaningful or affecting work, but you might create what gets you paid. Then you’re making the work that makes the groupthink happy and innovation doesn’t happen. Next thing you know, you’re buying up creativity books and going to seminars on “Five Highly Effective Ways To Think Outside The Box And Move Their Cheese.”

So, okay, yes, in grad school you get some playground time, and this is necessary in order to learn new ways of thinking.

When I wrote plays back in 2009, I used to type drafts directly into my computer, maybe very rarely handwriting if I had to.

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Just before MFA Playfest, May 9, 2014. Audiences are the best thing EVER.

Now, I storyboard and collage through idea generation, use a whiteboard through organizing my thoughts and structure,  type in Final Draft, and scribble throughout the process on paper. I also listen and talk out loud. I’ve traded various iterations of the same sentence back and forth with director Liz Carlson to find the right blend of craft and intention. We had a great time trying to figure out which was better, “lie back with your bed full of cupcakes,” or “lie back in your bed full of cupcakes.” I’ve done improvisation and used puppets to find new ways of telling a story. I learned from the most powerful brains in art-making fields, all with widely varied perspectives and methods.  If I had been in a for-profit work world, the opportunity to learn from leaders, make mistakes and try again would never have happened.

It’s true that Mark Foster of Foster The People honed his skills in commercial jingle writing, and John Hodgman sharpened his scholarly sensibilities as a literary agent.  However, these artists also were able to use grassroots and non-traditional media to create their own sandboxes. “Pumped Up Kicks” garnered its initial success via a free download on Foster’s website. Hodgman wrote a column for McSweeney’s Internet Tendency and now hosts his own podcast, Judge John Hodgman.

This dog has a frog. Were I cornered at a beer-and-cheap-wine fundraiser, by someone like Phil, and badgered for the “one weird trick to ensure success” (See how great my SEO skills are? You guys can stop spamming me now),  there would be a lesson I learned the hard way, to which I would refer.

In my second year of graduate school, I was working on a docudrama, which I grew to loathe. It dealt with a brutal murder, a woman falsely convicted via the court of public opinion, and her exoneration. The source material was so savage it gave me nightmares.** Writing this play was Not Fun Anymore.

IMG_2296  Now, if you have a situation where you work nine to five and make your art on the weekends and in the evenings, you can, and probably should, walk away from it when it’s no longer fun. If you’re doing it for love, and the love is gone, don’t stick with it. If you’re making a project for money, and you don’t love it, you’ll take the path of least persistence and do what the money wants. Client wants a beagle with mustard-colored ears on the label, you’ll make the beagle’s ears mustard-colored, even though you know caramel would be better. But, in this situation, failure to take this painful situation and not give it the honest illustration it required, would mean disappointment from people I admired, and in myself.  It would have been failure without honor. I needed to rely on craft to carry me through the emotional pain of this project.

IMG_2228  So, I dropped back, took a good look at the project, and thought about what it was that brought me to this project more than anything else. The idea of being tried in the court of public opinion was the one thing of which I could not let go.

I invented a new character, Lucky Moskowitz. Lucky is a 35-year-old lesbian who wears a lot of black, has black spiky hair, big blue eyes, and runs Lucky’s Gas n’Gulp out by the Interstate. She comes from a Chicago family of cops, but moved to the heartland to get away from a painful past with a mob-related former girlfriend (none of this ever came up in the play, but it sure is fun). Lucky gave me a means to tie together the disparate strands of the play and move the plot forward. Everybody comes through Lucky’s Gas n’ Gulp, and everybody’s got an opinion.  Lucky’s presence allowed me to look at the story in a new way.  The point is, eventually, you will hate a project so much that it is impossible to continue in the same way you always have. Then, you have to get perspective, and either find or invent a new personal point of entry into the work.

IMG_2363  Then you have to do it again and again and again, using the right tools and with the right people, until it becomes second nature. Then you have to forget all that, back up, take a good look, and just do it.

I don’t think an MFA alone is superior to real-world work, or vice versa. Neither is superior or inferior to building one’s own sandbox and using new technologies to find an audience. I think all these components have to work together. I do know that I’m definitely a better, more confident artist with more tools and techniques for play writing and screen writing now, after four years in the playwriting trenches at Temple University, than I was in 2010, left to my own devices.

Picard has had enough of your weird tricks.

Captain Picard has had enough of your weird tricks.

I believe that the one weird trick for absolute success is going out there and finding it for yourself.

That statement may seem like an oversimplification, and I don’t mean it that way. I could not have the portfolio of scripts, confidence, or neural pathways burnt into my brain without the teachers I had at Temple University, or the colleagues. I am deeply grateful every day for their work, skill, and talent.  What I mean is that the journey is the destination, and the goal is the work is takes to get there.

———————-

*Which would make a brilliant band name.

**I dreamt that I was employed by a tourism board to find all the haunted houses in a given area, witness the ghosts living out their own murders, write them down, and make it into a book to sell ghost tours. After describing the dream to my prof, Bob Hedley, he suggested I take a couple of days off from the work.

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Free story writing advice, some of it might be good.

Pen and handwriting on paper to indicate this post is about writing.

In every post about writing, there is always a photo of a fountain pen and a piece of paper with handwriting on it. However, I know very few people who use fountain pens and hand write frequently. But, nobody would know this was a post about writing if I didn’t use this image.

Lately I’ve been reading a lot about what constitutes good storytelling, in playwriting and screenwriting, and what I’ve read has seemed to miss the point. I’ve also seen some really bad plays lately, and life is too freaking short for bad plays. There seems to be a lot of “make stuff happen” or vague metaphors trying to describe it, and nothing about simple, basic tools of storytelling.  I don’t know if this is because somebody wants to make money leading writing seminars while simultaneously pulling the ladder up behind themselves, or if they just can’t explain it well, or if I don’t understand them (and by now I should).  Anyway. Here are a couple of things which I have learned, which no one else has been able to explain to my satisfaction.

The best place to start is with your main character, what they want, and what’s in their way.  A really simple formula is this, which I learned in a writing class from Doug Wright:

Blank wants blank in order to blank, but is thwarted by blank and ends up blank.

I apologize right now for the phrase, “is thwarted by.” I know it sounds archaic and pompous. However, it’s hard to come up with a phrase that means exactly that.

To try to illustrate, let’s make a simple image. People in general get really excited about sports, because sports offers the simplest possible version of this narrative.

Football players, tackling on a snowy field.   Football player #88 wants to get the ball and run down the field to make a touchdown, but is thwarted by the other team’s player #66, who body-slams him to the ground ten yards from the goal line, and ends up injured.

To expand this somewhat, you can also say, Football player #88 wants to get the ball and run down the field to make a touchdown, in order to win the game and get the endorsement with a major soda company which will pay off the mortgage he has on the fabulous mansion he can’t afford, so that he can squash his memories of his tortured childhood growing up in a roach-infested apartment, but is thwarted by the other team’s player #66, who body-slams him to the ground ten yards from the goal line, and ends up with a broken collarbone.

But, when you’re starting, you want to keep things really simple. It’s easy to think a lot about the larger goal, because that gives us the why, and backstory is always a fun place to dawdle around in storytelling. But, when you’re getting started, especially when you’re writing a screenplay or a script, because they take place in the here and now.

So, you should take a blank piece of paper, and your favorite color magic marker, and hand-write in big letters,

_____ wants _____ (in order to _____) but is thwarted by _____ and ends up ____.

Put this on the wall over wherever it is that you write.

If you want to get academic about this exercise, Romeo wants to marry Juliet in order to experience perfect physical and emotional bliss, but is thwarted by the hatred between their respective families, and ends up dead.

Broad strokes. Keep it easy. Here’s a simpler one:

Phaedra wants to have sex with her stepson Hippolytus in order to experience perfect physical and emotional love, but is thwarted by Hippolytus’ disgust for her and ends up committing suicide.

Now, Hippolytus has his own set of issues, goals and obstacles, as do The Capulets and Monatgues, and as does Football Player #66, if your story is even close to interesting. Eventually, you will want to write out this formula for all of your characters.

Now, I know that we all love stories with huge ensemble casts of characters, and there is a lot to be said for ensemble stories. However, if you look at the story closely, you’ll see that the most successful ones center around one protagonist, and although the other characters have goals and obstacles and stories of their own, the story really follows this one character.

An example of a novel which translated reasonably well to film is Wonder Boys. It has a fantastic ensemble of characters, and their interplay is what mades the story so rich and exciting. So, one could argue that this story depends on ensemble and less on a protagonist.

To which I would say, bullshit. There are points throughout the story where Grady Tripp could have just walked out, gone home, and, as Michael Chabon said, “lie on the couch, watch reruns of the Rockford Files, roll numbers, and wait for the girl in the black kimono to take me away.” However, the journey of all the other characters would wind down and burn out as a result, if Grady didn’t stop moving forward toward his goal, which is to restore order to the chaos his life as become. Grady’s self-hatred would be consistent with him going home, smoking weed and watching tv until he died as a means to bring order to chaos, but no one else would be put in the places they need to be as a result. He needs to cause all the things which make the other characters get where they belong.

So, Grady needs to return missing things to their proper places so that he can get himself into the right family, but comes up against the chaos of a writer’s life and distractions.

Now, my favorite character in that story is Terry Crabtree. He is my spirit animal. However, he’s not the protagonist of this story. You can’t have it without him as an agent of chaos, but if Grady had handed him a finished manuscript on day one, and said, “Go tell your bosses at Bartizan I fulfilled their contract,” Terry would have said, “Awesome, thanks,” and gotten on the next plane back to New York. Your other characters have simpler goals and obstacles, and their goals and obstacles have to depend on the protagonist. Terry has to go to Wordfest because he needs a novel, at least one novel, which will save his career at Bartizan. If he falls in love along the way, that’s icing on the cake. The drinking and partying and so on is just an activity in which he engages. He doesn’t know this, but he needs Grady to bring him not only to James Leer, but also to what’s his face whose name I can’t remember who wrote the book about Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio. and all the other stuff.

This brings us to causality. This is harder than it looks.

A cartoon of Professor Butts and the Self-Operating Napkin.  If you go to YouTube and search for video of Rube Goldberg devices, you’ll see a lot of videos of machines in which, as a lot of screenwriters say, “cool stuff happens.” It’s true that in stories, cool stuff happens, but those cool things are caused by other things. There are two kinds of “happenings” in story, action and activity.

Although all verbs are actions, for storytelling purposes, some verbs you do are actions and some are activities. Your audience wants actions. Actions cause other actions, activities are just stuff you do. If I fill a glass with water, that’s an activity. If I fill a glass with water and throw it in someone’s face, causing them to punch me, that’s an action (the throwing, not the filling).

Here is a reductively simple example. Bear with me.

In the OKGo video for the song, “This Too Shall Pass,” at 1:14, a teapot swings into a wooden plank, causing it to move, releasing a lego car to drive across a mini-landscape, hitting a gate, which pops open, releasing a rope, which releases a blue electric guitar to spin on a carousel. The blue guitar dangles metal spoons over glasses filled with different amounts of water, causing them to play a simplified version of the song’s refrain. One of the spoons hits an object which falls causing a soccer ball to roll along a track. And the whole thing continues.

So, let’s look at the actions and activities in this segment.

Teapot swinging into the plank: Action.
Plank releasing the car: Action.
Car driving across the landscape while a band member lip-syncs in the background: Activity.
Car hitting the gate and releasing the rope: Action.
Rope releasing guitar causing it to spin: Action.
Spoons hitting glasses in a cool little tune: Activity. Spoon hitting thing which releases soccer ball: action.

This is why we love those stupid “fail” videos. Somebody wants to do something they think will be incredibly cool, they take a risk, they misunderstand the obstacle, they land on their ass. King Lear wants to divide up his kingdom between his daughters to ensure their perpetual loyalty, two of them take the kingdom and power and cast him out, he ends up naked in the rain talking to himself.

So, take another one of your favorite Magic Markers, and a piece of paper, and hand write on it in big letters:
Action is when a character does something which causes another character to do something else. Activity is just stuff you do.

Put that on the wall over wherever it is you write, too. 

Let me pick this up a notch for you. One of this things I’ve noticed, from working with undergraduate playwriting and screenwriting students, is that action, activity and image get thrown in under the same umbrella as “cool stuff happens,” and the reality is that they are not all the same thing.

Let me grab another youtube video for you.

Most people would say that in Pulp Fiction, a cool thing that happens is that Vincent Vega and Mia Wallace go dancing.
Is the dancing action? No. It’s an activity.
But, this scene is important to the plot of the movie, because it has actions in it. I would argue that this scene is important because Vincent and Mia seduce each other, while also building trust.

Let me break the scene down into beats for you.
Mia is in a very public place with Vincent, they are both high, and he knows that if he gets too close to her, her husband will kill him, but if he doesn’t please her, her husband will kill him. And, she’s the bored wife of a crime lord. So, pleasing Mia is a very high priority for Vincent, but he has to be very careful how he does it.

The master of ceremonies announces the twist contest. Mia announces their intent to participate as a couple. (Action: makes the master of ceremonies put them in the contest.)
Vincent refuses. (Action: makes Mia press him harder to participate .)
Mia reminds him of her husband’s power over him. (Action; gives Vincent a very good reason to get off his ass and onto the dance floor)
Vincent and Mia get on the dance floor and Mia announces their names. (Activity: whatever, we know who these people are. It’s a cool little piece of character business that Mia takes the reins and announces their names, it shows how she’s the boss on this date, but it’s not anything that causes anyone else to do anything)
Vincent and Mia take off their shoes, the music plays, and they start dancing. There are a lot of visual cues to show a breakdown of formality in the pair, but let’s just stick to action and activity right now.

Mia starts with a traditional twist dance move(activity), but her proximity to Vincent pushes him to move away from her, allowing her to take up more of the spotlight. Her increasing flourishes on the dance moves make him bolder with his. Finally, she pushes him back across the dance floor, and he backs up, she stops, and backs up, leading him back across the dance floor, and he follows.

So, in terms of activities: the moves with their fingers over their faces in closeup, the swimming arm moves, Mia’s hands on her abdomen; they’re all seductive and look cool. but they’re activities. okay, you could argue that Mia’s hands on her abdomen make Vincent want to touch her, but we don’t see the action he wants on screen.

In terms of action: she moves toward him seductively, he backs off, letting her have more of the stage focus (consistent with, “please Mia in order to please her husband”). She does some fancy non-threatening pretty dance moves, he feels more free, does some fancy non-threatening pretty dance moves. She moves toward him, he moves back; she moves back, he moves toward her. We see them becoming more harmonious as a couple, which is creepy, because we know what kind of risks and rewards are involved with that for Vincent.

So, to sum up:

Know what your main character wants and what their obstacles are in the simplest possible terms.

Action causes another character to do something else, activity is just gravy.

Go forth and simplify your story.

I might do this kind of post again, I might not. I have to go read and write more about Walter Lowenfels and Georgia O’Keeffe, and it’s noon, and daylight’s a-burning. But, if this kind of thing is helpful for you, give this a like, leave a comment, repost, whatever floats your boat, and I’ll do another one in the future.

Here’s my punishment.

I realize that there is a long tradition of writers with cat companions.  Ernest Hemmingway and the fifty-five or so who lived at his house in Key West, Rita Mae Brown and her claim that cats will only lie on good finished pages, Neil Gaiman and his furry wandering minstrels, make up only a few. I named our most recent rescue Mo Magee, her surname being after the street on which we found her eating trash she’d extracted from a pizza place’s dumpster, and her first name after what Google claims is the Chinese word for ink.

Mo Magee and writing

I’ve got about nine hours to finish the screenplay before I have to hit “send” on the e-mail to my prof.  She was originally determined to make sure my hands can only be used for petting, and that my laptop can only be used for lying. I’ve offered her a comfy chair, which suits the other cats just fine, and even a heating pad; she’s rejected both.

However, we seem to have reached a compromise. If I type fast enough, she will take that as a good thing, and just watch my hands and be aware of them. If I stop typing, she head-butts me, as if she’s telling me, “while you’re wasting time, human, you could make with the pettings.”

Okay. Back to work. Daddy isn’t going to shoot himself in the eye.