Series Info...#41: Movie Rules, Online Plots: A Coda

by Shannon Appelcline

August 2, 2001 - My OED defines a coda as "Music. A passage of more or less independent character introduced after the completion of the essential parts of a movement, so as to form a more definite and satisfactory conclusion."

Though I've now made all the points I wanted to make about movies and Marrach, there's still a little bit more that I want to say about the script format before I move on, hence this article.

You see, as I've mentioned previously in this column, I took a script writing class back in the Spring semester. That's what led to the whole series of Marrach movie scripts. But, as I was writing those scripts, I had to break some of the rules that I learned in class in order to properly address the fact that I was really writing a column that was going to be read rather than a story that was going to be seen.

So, this column is mostly about coming clean about the things that I shouldn't have been doing in a movie script, just in the horrifying case that anyone uses my columns as an example of what movie scripts should be like. But, I'm also going to do my best to relate all of my thoughts to online game design in general.

Here was my full title for this week's column: Movie Rules, Online Plots; or how I abused a medium to write a column, and what you can learn from that for online plots.

Excessive Verbosity

The worst thing that I did in my movie columns was that I talked. And talked. And talked. And then I talked some more. I tried to be clever and break up my speeches with occasional actions. I even cheated and tried to make things look less wordy by using lots of "(pauses)".

There was necessity in this, because my purpose was to write a column, and thus to directly convey information. But, if I'd sent that script in to Hollywood I would have gotten laughed right on the door.

In actual movies, speeches are very short – 5 to perhaps 10 lines in extremis. And there's good reason for that. You need to keep people interested. You're not trying to convey information, but rather emotion. Monologues are the province of plays not movies.

And this is a good lesson when writing online plots too. There might be a temptation to script long speeches, then paste them in as you run a prearranged plot.

Don't do it.

Keep your speeches short. Don't seize the center stage and hold it, or people will get bored.

Exciting Action!

My main point in my first column was that movies were a visual medium and that Marrach could be enriched by offering more visualization. This is really another way of looking at the same topic: you need to break up speeches and discussion with action.

I really tried in my scripts. That why I used so many examples, from Martel's duel to the romantic triangle between Martel, Morte, and Punzel. But when I introduced my columns, and when I drew my conclusions, things were a little more static. I wrote on whiteboards, and that was a nice gimmick, but in all honesty it wouldn't have carried a lot of visual impact on the big screen.

Again, this is really a reiteration of my first column, but let me suggest: when running plots you should figure out how exciting actions can replace or at least complement words.

You find this rule reflected in cliches all of the time. Show Don't Tell is one of many "rules" drummed into every writer's head. Actions Speak Louder than Words is of course familiar to every one of us.

Short Scenes

A general rule for writing movies is that you want to average one scene for every minute of screentime. And a minute of screentime tends to be about one page in screenplay format. Some scenes might go as long as three pages in length while others might be just a single image, taking up a quarter-page or so.

I think I did pretty well here in my scripts. I originally wrote them all in a script writing program, and so I could accurately gauge their length. I don't think anything ran over three pages, but there were probably more three page scenes than would have been comfortable for an actual movie.

So think about that one too when you're plotting for online games. Is there a way that you can keep scenes short, snappy, and concise? It's a little bit harder in an online game because there's some real cost for collecting people together, but still the ultimate goal of keeping scenes as short as they can be is worthwhile.

Entertaining Movies not Words

Especially in my last two scripts I started introducing some (hopefully) wry humor in my screenplay. I don't mean that I had funny things happen, but rather that I described scenes in funny ways.

This is pretty much a total cheat, only useful if you're trying to convince a slush reader at a movie house that you're the next Kevin Smith or Quentin Taratino. The problem is, you see, that your clever scene descriptions aren't ever going to be translated to the screen, and thus will never be seen by your true audience.

I did it, of course, because my true audience was you readers. But it's a bad habit.

And I can see how that applies to online games too. It's easy when you're writing plots or describing characters – or whatever – to be clever and witty in your descriptions. You just have to remember that it doesn't mean anything unless your players can somehow see your cleverness too.

The Core Rule

As I've written all of this, I've come to realize that my violations of the "rules" of screenplays all point to the same rule for online game designers: You must keep your players entertained.

Don't bore them with monologues or dialogues, and don't keep your scenes going forever. Don't amaze yourself with your cleverness if your players won't ever see it.

Instead, keep things fluid and exciting and entertaining.

Or, as the voice in the cornfield might say, "Amuse them and they will come."

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