March 9, 2009

Writer of All Trades - Dotcomers.TV Kristin Johnson Talks Writing across Media

The Writer of All Things


A graduate of the University of Southern California Master of Professional Writing Program and member of Women in Film and Television, Ms. Johnson draws on her multitude of experience in writing and storytelling. She is an award-winning poet (Blue Mountain Arts) and short story writer whose fiction has appeared in anthologies including the Southern California Anthology and Aleatory’s Junction, a respected journalist, and a produced playwright with theatre award nominations (Desert Theatre League, Palm Springs, California). Three of her books have been published—CHRISTMAS COOKIES ARE FOR GIVING was “enthusiastically recommended” by the MIDWEST BOOK REVIEW. Her essay "Lincoln, YouTube and history Reconsidered" was excerpted for HAPPY BIRTHDAY, MR. LINCOLN, A National League of American Pen Women anthology celebrating the Lincoln Bicentennial and officially sanctioned by the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Celebration.

An experienced scriptwriter, she wrote two direct-to-DVD movies at the request of a friend. “Pirates of Ghost Island,” the second movie, was distributed by Lions Gate Films. Her short screenplay “Daniel’s Letter From Heaven” has been a finalist in the 2003 British Short Screenplay Competition, ‘The Best & Most Prestigious Short Screenplay Competition in the World,’ and a quarterfinalist in the 2007 Screenwriting Expo Screenplay Competition in the Short Screenplay category.

Wanna learn more about Kristin? Check her out at Dotcomers.tv, A Ghost Writers Blog, MySpace, and Facebook.



The Project


Teenage waitress Honey Dee battles the greedy, slick, corrupt businessman Dubious Diction, who owns her hometown of Greedville. She creates Dotcomers Café, the main setting for the series, and inspires the cast of quirky eccentric characters to resist Dubious.

"Dotcomers" is a creative blend of today's edgy, satirical cartoons and yesterday's zany, classic toons; that means its appeal is...we can almost hear Yogi Bear saying this...broader than the average cartoon!

Dotcomers explores the culture of social-networking entrepreneurs who don't wait around for a bailout to solve their problems. They fight the old corrupt system, represented by greedy Dubious Diction, which is open to excess. Although they are quirky and they clash on more than one occasion, Dotcomers represent the best of the Internet culture, and Honey Dee, founder of the Dotcomers Cafe, is a female role model who uses her mind and common sense to make a difference in the world.

The Dotcomers characters were originally designed by "Casper" creator and "Felix the Cat" producer Joseph Oriolo and have been redesigned by James A. Rumpf II as well as Kristin Johnson, Joshua Johnson (no relation) and Richard A. Crankshaw as well as a stunningly talented team of voice actors.


Watch the trailer below!





Writing for the Screen


For those of you who write for different arenas - big screen, boob tube, stage, page, web - what are elements that differ for you as the writer in regards to how you SEE the story unfolding in each arena?
That's an excellent question. As writers, we work with words, but those words have to perform different jobs depending on the medium.

Writing for the Web is a tricky animal that does have similarities to screenwriting. However, with writing for the Web, you have to consider where your reader is coming from. All the words in the world, and your most brilliant column or article, won't mean much if a reader can't find what they want. But this kind of user-driven writing delivers its own rewards, as with the storytelling medium of interactive fiction.

With a book, words are the window to imagination. You can get unabashedly poetic with words. You can create similes and metaphors. You can devote whole chapters, assuming your audience has the patience, to describing historical scenes, characters' thoughts and feelings, or a royal coronation on an alien planet - assuming that this is as fascinating for the reader as it is for you. You can let the action unfold as it will and take side trips in a novel. You can have subplots that may seem irrelevant but that pay off later - for example, Hermione Granger's passion to help house-elves in the Harry Potter series.

Onstage, words are still your medium. You can use different tools to accomplish the same ends, for example, the soliloquies written by Shakespeare and Lorraine Hansberry or Harold Pinter's quick exchanges that contain a wealth of subtext." Seeing Hamlet's father's ghost or Romeo and Juliet's suicide is highly powerful. Shakespeare purposefully designed those moments that way, not just with dialogue but direction.

Then we come to screenplays as well as television writing and the unlikely-seeming connection to writing for the Web. A novice (or even advanced) scriptwriter, like a beginning poet or an amateur blogger, will just dump every thought onto the page. You might - might - get away with this in fiction, as in superb stream-of-consciousness. You can't get away with it in poetry. We've all suffered through those poems or read those blogs in which an emo teenager, for example, details every detail of a bad day: out of coffee, girlfriend/boyfriend broke up with you, family is dysfunctional, teacher/boss hates you, and so on. There are slice-of-life screenplays in which all the incidents add up to nothing. There's no conflict, no meat, no substance. Words become empty.

People these days have the opportunity to change the channel, return the DVD, or in the case of Web content (and those viral Web videos we've all watched), push the "Back" button.

In a TV show, people are coming to you not necessarily from the beginning. I watched the entire last season of "24" without having watched the previous ones.

Yes, the concepts were a bit bewildering, but Jack Bauer's mission - save the U.S., save the world - was abundantly clear. (On the other hand, you might be, well, lost if you haven't seen any of the previous seasons of "Lost".) You have to make it crisp and intelligible and relevant, which more and more drama and some comedy shows have done. Famed scriptwriting teacher Robert McKee has said that the best scriptwriting today is done for television. Even though everyone goes into angst on "Grey's Anatomy," they don't spend an hour of inertia in which everyone talks but nothing happens.

There are some talky screenplays, TV shows and Web sites that are excellent, with great content, but the verbiage, whether at a dinner scene ("My Dinner with Andre" being an exception) or on a page devoted to movies, gets in the way. People have enough respect for books and fiction to keep reading even when the plot is slow but the words and emotions are appealing. Movies are something entirely different. When people go to a movie, they expect to be taken on a journey that will make them forget the world for two hours. There is already too much meaningless conversation in the ether. Our lives are filled with it.

"Seinfeld" got away with making that entertaining, but that was the exception. Words have to count in writing for the big or small screen. They have to do the job of grabbing your heart and mind and holding them in an iron grip until the end credits roll.

This is one of our tasks on "Dotcomers," the animated series producer James Rumpf II and I are trying to launch, We have great characters and we want to tell compelling stories about how the Internet has changed the world. We can't just talk about it through dialogue - we have to demonstrate these characters in action. The dialogue has to be sharp. The action in the screenplay has to be precise; otherwise, you're watching characters just sit around in an Internet
cafe.


What similarities, things no matter the medium, are important for a good story to be told?
The commandment of "Thou Shalt Not Bore Thy Audience" is still valid no matter what the medium. I don't mean that you have to have nonstop violence or sex, since many people, myself included, find *those* boring.

You have to care about the characters. "WALL-E" connected with audiences because, even though many people (including my movie buff friends) found the notion of a fat, childlike future population and a destroyed Earth depressing, you still cared about that cute robot. "Slumdog Millionaire" had depressing elements such as cutting out street kids' eyes to make them more sympathetic and earn more begging money for the gang lords, but in an economy that gives us nothing but bad news, we love the idea that people can improve their circumstances. "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" suspends disbelief and gives us a great love story.

Similarly, Richard LaGravenese made people care as much about the romance in the movie "The Bridges of Madison County" as people did in the book. The images were visual poetry."Gone With The Wind" was so powerful as a book that people forgot the changes of their world and experienced the changes of the Old South, and they immediately cast Clark Gable as Rhett Butler. The movie did justice to the book because it captured the essence of Scarlett and Rhett and Tara without getting bogged down in details. How many people find it impossible to forget the image of Scarlett in shadow as she swears she'll never go hungry again?

And two words: Harry Potter. Take an orphaned kid who turns out to be a wizard, and finds just as much trouble in his new life as in the old, but with more joy and a sense of purpose, give him a monumental challenge and a fascinating world to play in, and the result is gold.

You have to touch your audience. Make them laugh, make them think, shift them from their reality.


Do you think the way we write for movies, plays, TV, and the web has changed the way the novel writer comes to his or her page? If so, how?
Another great question. While the novelist still might approach plot and character and language differently as, say, writing for a Web site, we all know that first chapters and excerpts get posted on the Web and, as such, have to be top-notch in order to motivate readers to buy. MJ Rose published LIP SERVICE on the Web and successfully compelled a publisher. If you want your chapters or excerpts to get Dugg or Tweeted or shared on Del.icio.us, you have to make sure that those words are "viral," that people will e-mail their friends with your book excerpt the same way they now endlessly forward YouTube videos.

Plays, TV and movies force you to think about what characters want and how they go about achieving their goals. Lajos Egri talks about the dramatic premise, in which there's a three-part premise line that sums up each of the three acts that have dominated dramatic structure since Aristotle. Egri uses the example of "Romeo and Juliet": Great love defies even death. "Great love" is the beginning or inciting incident (Romeo and Juliet meet), "defies" is the action (Romeo and Juliet risk everything to be together), and "death" is the end result (Romeo and Juliet die but their love story affects everyone around them).

This premise can somewhat sum up the blockbuster vampire series "Twilight," in which Edward and Bella's love does indeed defy death since Edward is an undead vampire! Bella sees Edward in Chapter 1 after she has already moved to a town she dislikes, and the stage is set.

Often the novelist doesn't begin the novel with a compelling character or situation, but spends three or four chapters going through so much backstory or minutiae. In screenplays, the first five to ten minutes/pages (a page equals a minute of screen time) had better establish who the protagonist is and what the dramatic dilemma or call to action is. In "Chinatown," J.J. Gittes and Evelyn Mulwray are introduced within those first pages, and J.J. Gittes accepts the assignment to tail Evelyn's husband. We also see Evelyn's husband introduce another central plot element: water rights in Los Angeles.

Literary agents and publishers may read the sample chapters of your novel that you send them, but quite often those first ten pages, even the first page, will decide the fate of your manuscript. Granted, screenplays are not the same as a novel - they're far less reader-friendly - but anyone in the business can tell within five to ten pages if they like your script. And don't neglect endings. The studio or even the editor may ask you to change your ending, but it's important to have a powerful one that makes sense.

A good middle is as important as a great beginning or an unforgettable conclusion. Far too many novelists and scriptwriters meander along in the middle of the novel or in Act Two of the screenplay, relying on old cliches, contrived plot conveniences, new characters or implausible scenes, or anything else just to fill pages. Meanwhile, your main character or characters (in an ensemble script or novel) languish without their potential fully realized, and we just stop caring.

Movies are such a powerful visual language that they can inspire a writer to think visually -- how would the scene look? What are the characters doing physically? How are their actions putting them in conflict (stated or subtle)? Can you pull off a powerful visual scene that can show the hero's greatest moment of decision and sacrifice without spelling it out with the usual cliches or long explanations? Even the dialogue has to be original in its language.

Think of "Casablanca" in which Rick "I stick my neck out for nobody" Blaine explains his newfound spirit of sacrifice to Ilsa Lund : "Ilsa, I'm no good at being noble, but it doesn't take much to see that the problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world."


How has the internet and the marketing/promotional opportunities that exist there helped to create a buzz with the projects you do?
Another great question! On InkTip.com, I was able to market my work and land my first direct-to-DVD B-movie scriptwriting assignments, which I did more for the experience than anything else.

"Dotcomers" is all about the change the Internet and social networking/promotion has brought to the way people do business. True to the title and the essence of our project, we've used Twitter, blogs, our Web site, Dotcomers.tv, and the online Hollywood Creative Directory to market and promote our work. We found our animator and our voice talent online through VOPlanet.com. And I got the invitation to guest blog on this amazing site through my "Writing the Short Screenplay" online workshop at the third annual MuseItUpClub online conference.


What three things should writers have in their arsenal if they want to heighten their chances of success?
A thick skin combined with sensitivity (in the sense of being compassionate and attuned), passionverance (my own portmanteau), and a network of friends and contacts that you keep active.


What are three sites that writers of your field should bookmark for great information?
Simply Scripts - This is a treasure trove of great screenplays, often updated to include the latest releases. Besides the classics such as "Chinatown" and "Casablanca," the site had the script to the brilliant "Idiocracy," a movie from the creators of "South Park" and brilliantly based on Cyril M. Kornbluth's classic science-fiction story "The Marching Morons". The movie, with its satire on the dumbing down of our culture, was largely ignored when it was in theaters. There are also foreign film screenplays on the site as well as television scripts.

IMDB - Do you need the plot details of a movie you admire? Do you want to do research on producers? IMDB is the source.

Creative Screenwriting Magazine - It's not only a magazine, it's a fabulous annual contest.

I'd be remiss if I didn't plug Palm Springs Virtual Film Directory, The MuseItUp Club, and Absolute Write.

4 comments:

Christina said...

Very informative, Kristin. Thanks for sharing your time - you've certainly given me some ideas!

Rick Lance said...

Kristin... It's a pleasure to read more about your background and your work! And to see your pretty face.

GO DOTCOMERS!!!

Rick

Kristin, Poet Warrior Friend said...

Thanks, Christina and Rick! Comments by such incredibly talented colleagues and friends make my day!

Chick Lit Gurrl said...

I have to thank you, Kristin, for taking the time to do this. Reading your responses has been one of my learning highlights of '09 thus far, :-)