Writing in Screenplay Story Beats

Can you write a story around screenplay story beats?

There are plenty of great screenwriting coaches, authors and experts out there.

We like Blake Snyder’s “Beat Sheet” approach. Chris Soth has been making noise recently with his “Mini Movie” method.

Check out Dave Trottier, Dov Simens, Jeff Kitchens, Robert Rodriguez and dozens of others, not to forget the guerilla
filmmakers out there.

They all share one belief: Stories told with film have a definable structure. Or the good ones do, anyway.

The individual coaches and experts have their own “take” on film structure, but the basics go all the way back to Homer:

  • Three acts – beginning, middle, end
  • About one minute of on-screen activity per page (110 to 120 pages total)
  • A dramatic arc that challenges a main character
  • A few twists to keep the audience wondering
  • A “satisfying” ending, which may or may not involve happiness, but should make sense.

You can dig a lot deeper into structure by checking out any of those experts (above).

But my main concern isn’t structure. It’s discipline.

Can you create story built around a pattern or – horrors, here comes that word – a formula?

If you cannot, you may be a really talented, really proud, really independent writer, but you’re not likely to build much of an
audience.

Even if your intended audience happens to be the avant garde, guess what: They can only remain “avant garde” if they jump on
your bandwagon for a while, use you for a few stories, then flit on to somebody else.

However, if you can write within the bounds of structure, there’s never been a better time to make it as a writer.

Why Screenplay Structure Matters

You may find yourself rebelling at the notion that some heavy handed producer or low level screenplay reader can force you into
a certain type of “structure.”

Get over yourself. It’s not about them. It’s about their audience.

Here’s the reality of our audience today: They’re ferociously time crunched. Yet they’re bored.

They’ve been going to the movies all their lives. Heck, for most of them, the movies have been coming to them all their lives.

They have an embedded, maybe subconscious, expectation for the way a story is going to unfold.

They especially expect a certain pace.

They know something big is supposed to happen at the beginning.

They know the lead character will fall in love or get a pet or take a trip or lose a favorite uncle somewhere along the line –
and it will have nothing to do with the actual storyline (it’s called a “B Story” in some quarters).

They know there will be a harrowing event about 2/3 of the way through that will change the way they anticipate the ending.

They look – at least surreptitiously – for an emotionally charged twist somewhere close to the end.

And they know that as the credits roll, they may not like what happened, but they should “get” what happened and how.

Still with me?

That’s a quick and dirty description of almost every decent movie you see these days.

Feel free to print those statements out and watch how they play out in the next film you watch (and like).

If your audience is watching movies – theater release, made for TV, straight to DVD, YouTube or Hulu original – and they are, all
of their experience gears them to expect a certain pattern and a certain pace from a story.

Why not write the way your audience expects?

That’s not the same as writing what your audience expects. That’s boring.

Writing the way your audience expects to be engaged is, well, engaging. It gives them what they don’t expect in a way they do. Sort of like pineapple on pizza.

If you’re trying to figure out how to craft a story that will connect with a 21st century audience, take a hard look at screenplay structure.

You can apply it to every type of story. And you can even apply it to many other types of writing, even blog posts (yes, feel
free to critique my failure to do so in the comments!).

Learning to Write Screenplay Story Beats

You are a writer. You deserve a process. Your own.

Don’t let me or anybody else tell you which path to walk. But I’ll share how I found my way up the path and maybe it’ll help
you, too.

I found Blake Snyder’s “Save the Cat” an absolute treasure. Blake’s enduring legacy was to provide a roadmap for great story
structure, including some fantastic and memorable terminology.

Get your hands on a copy of the classic “Blake Snyder Beat Sheet,” and pick up a copy of “Save the Cat.”

Aside: I also had the pleasure of “meeting” Blake via email and, though I wouldn’t claim to have known him, I certainly understand
why so many of his friends and family deeply miss him.

I found that by reading STC and reviewing it a few times, I started seeing variations of Blake’s story points in films I was
watching (even lousy ones, but rarely).

I then picked up a copy of the second STC book called “Save the Cat Goes to the Movies.” While on its face it looked like Blake
had just taken his formula and copy and pasted a bunch of application points from notable movies …yeah, that’s pretty
much what he did. But it was incredibly useful to see how real pro screenwriters had designed classic, popular films, sure
enough, around highly disciplined story points.

What You Can Do With Screenplay Story Points

If you’re reading along with these posts, you know that we’re developing concepts and technologies for the “21st Century Book.”

It involves creating story structure – built around screenplays, surprise, surprise! – and a story building app we’re calling
Qunaia.

We’d love to have you come along on the journey, so join the email list and we’ll keep you in the loop.

But beyond us and beyond Qunaia, telling stories in the 21st century is going to be all about good structure, images and a
very careful array of technology.

Learn to write on screenplay story beats. Figure out how to integrate good images. And write your stories so people can flip
through them on Kindles, iPads and other pad devices in about, oh, the same amount of time it takes to watch a film.

Post them on Amazon, iTunes and every valid ebook distribution platform you can find.

Build an audience. Blog and tweet and Hang Out on Google+. Work your chops as a writer who can reliably inspire and entertain.

Be fast. Have fun. Make stories!

Thanks for joining Ames Media Institute. Stop by again some time soon.

A Short History of Words and Pictures – Part III

Then along came the camera.

Imagine how hard it must have been for Louis JM Daguerre to get people excited about his invention.

Cameras have become so much a part of our lives that we don’t even think about the image itself.

We might care if it’s blurry. Or we may try to delete it if it shows something embarassing about us. Or we may HATE that the camera makes us look old and fat (hey, the truth is a tough neighborhood, but we all live there!).

But the image itself? We take it absolutely for granted that somebody can hold up a machine, push a button and capture a little slice of
reality to be kept forever. Or until the “delete” button, whichever comes first.

But in Daguerre’s day, it must have been much different.

…..

“So, what’chya workin’ on, Louie?”

“A machine that makes pictures, Clyde.”

“What’s a picture?”

“Well, its a …wait, let me get my dictionary… oh, darn, it’s not in there yet!”

“You’ve been on the cognac again haven’t you, Louie.”

“Non, non, non. Look, it’s a visual representation of something. It lets you capture something you can look at in real life.”

“um… Louie … why would I want to “capture” something if I can look at it in real life!?”

“So you can have a memory of it! Like, let’s say little Jacque is having a seventh birthday party. He has a bunch of his friends over and
they eat cake and wear funny hats and torture the cat. You could take a “picture” of that and save the memory forever!”

“Look, Louie, for one thing ‘little Jacque’ is twenty four. And for another, ‘birthday parties’ won’t become popular for another 50 years
or so. You’re gonna have to wait a LONG time for this invention of yours to catch on!”

“Mon dieu… That’s not the point at all, Clyde! Look, say you wanted to have an image of your wife with you all the time…”

“My wife! Now WHY would I want an image of that monster with me all the time!?”

“OK. Bad example. Let’s say you wanted to display an image of our glorious King Louis … whose spies are everywhere, by the way … to
prove your obvious and authentic loyalty …”

“Yes, of course! Obvious and authentic. THAT’S ME! LOYAL! … But, Louis, isn’t that why we have paintings?”

“Well… yes, but…”

“What are you trying to do, Louis? Put our painters out of work!? Is that your game Louis? You’re going to bring in these cheap “pictures” and the next thing you know, hard working French painters will be selling bread to make ends meet!”

“Did you use the phrase ‘hard working’ and ‘French painters’ in the same sentence, Clyde?”

“Oh, yes. Well, a minor oversight on my problem .. merely an expression … I meant to say .. well. hmmm … most of them have to sell bread to make ends meet, anyway, don’t they? … Anyhow, Louis, these “pictures” of yours, they sound like a horrible, horrible waste of time. You should go back to inventing something useful … What about that pedal-powered avocado slicer you were working on. How’s that coming along?”

…..

And Yet “Photo-Graphy” Somehow Emerged

Whether or not the French public – and the rest of the world – agreed with our friend Clyde, clearly the idea of capturing images captures the imagination.

If you trace the history of the camera, (at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_the_camera) you see that adoption was quite swift, given the relatively slow spread of information at the time.

As happens so often with inventions, the early years represented the slowest pace of change. But once the idea caught on – and frankly once George Eastman figured out how to make a fortune on it – development accelerated rapidly.

Within a century, cameras were mobile and powerful enough to enable an entirely new industry – photojournalism – as well as a revolutionary new medium – film – but that gets us ahead of the story.

What This Meant for Story Tellers

At first, the camera really didn’t have much impact on stories. The device itself was so bulky and the process so lab-intensive that there really wasn’t much practical application…at the time.

For the first 50 years or so, it was just too difficult to move the camera around and especially to difficult to “develop” the images – to move then from their captured state to a place where they could be viewed. And it was simply too expensive to duplicate.

But I’m inclined to speculate that the real problem was probably lack of imagination by storytellers. [That ‘ZOT’ you hear in the background is lightning striking my studio.]

If you, today, go back and look at early photographs, it’s almost impossible NOT to see a story in them, at least the ones that involve people and historical objects.

But we’re looking at them as storytellers with 20/20 backward vision.

At the time, I’m inclined to suppose that the storytellers of the day – writers, authors, orators – probably saw the fancy new machines as a form of competition.

That’s certainly speculation, but it’s interesting that photos don’t seem to show up in newspapers until around 1885, a full 50 years after our buddy, Louis.

And photojournalism, per se, doesn’t seem to have taken off until the mid 1920’s, and even then it was primarily a way to dispose of surplus war film (“blessings of destruction,” anyone?)

Seems it took storytellers quite a while to figure out how to integrate photos into their stories.

That’s interesting for a number of reasons, not least is that it shows just how attached storytellers had become to words in the several centuries since Gutenberg.

And it’s especially interesting as an anthropological study: Would our friend Og have ever drawn on his cave if he could have just picked up the phone and “Helped A Reporter Out”? Hard to say.

This much we do know: In order for picture-stories to emerge, it took a whole new kind of storyteller. Those crazy, bohemian filmmakers!

Let’s look at them next.

Can Images Carry Your Stories?

We’ve written a bit about the power of images to tell stories and about the limitations of too many images vs. written stories.

Can you use images to “carry” your stories?

Not just illustrate, but actually carry your narrative arc forward?

That’s a screenwriter’s task, right? And a director’s. Use visual imagery to craft a story for the audience – and often to add meaning and subtext.

Can you do that with single, still images? Let’s give it a try.

Example 1: Using an image to illustrate.

Prince Landon arrived at Lord Mortiger’s castle at the last light of day. The fortress, surrounded by sheer rock cliffs, could only be reached by crossing a single drawbridge.

To rescue Maia, he’ll have to fight his way over the heavily guarded bridge and then figure out how to enter the castle.

Most ominous: Mortiger’s have begun to raise the drawbridge for sunset.

Example 2: Using an image to carry the story

As Prince Landon rode up to Lord Mortiger’s castle, the fortress seemed to breathe its contempt for his puny efforts.

The heavily guarded drawbridge was only the first of many perils between him and Maia.

His biggest problem:

Do captions matter?

Is there a difference in the way you “hear” the two versions of the story?

It may be a little bit unfair to load up all of the detail (scant as it is) in the first story before presenting the second.

But can you intuitively pick up the detail in the second? The lateness of the hour (which, we know, could also be earlyness! but we’re not early risers, we’re writers!), the impregnability of the castle, the singular entry via the drawbridge?

And how does the caption help or hurt your experience?

Does it resonate any more or any less with your connection to the story?

This is all a bit experimental, as you can tell. Or it will be until somebody sells a million of these books via Kindle!

Then everybody can tell us they knew it all along!

In the meantime, we face two challenges:

If you’re a traditional novel or story writer, can you adjust your storytelling technique to “show more, say less”?

If you’re trained in screenplay story beats, can you add enough detail to your stories to engage someone who is reading the words?

And how does this apply to non-fiction or .. heaven help us .. technical writing?

Can’t wait to hear your input.

Thanks for stopping by Ames Media and the Qunaia project.

Image credits:
castle-dark
SL User Alex Bader (via KoinUp.com)
http://www.koinup.com/AlexBader/
http://www.koinup.com/AlexBader/work/180159/

This Is Your Brain On Stories

Your brain loves stories.

Your brain craves good stories.

Your brain is sitting at the control panel going “ho hum, another email,” “yeah whatever, another status update,” “yipee, a Tweet,” “oh
LOOK, Fred’s sending pics of his fishing trip last weekend! The one where he went out in a tiny little boat, got skunked all day and then
landed that HUGE marlin just before they were ready to turn back!”

It’s all about the narrative arc.

Maybe it’s because the human brain was made to solve problems.

Maybe it’s because our ancestors had to keep a constant eye out for tigers and taxmen.

Maybe it’s some weird internal monitoring system that’s always trying to interpret physical manifestations of the quantum world.

Whatever it is, phrases like “once upon a time…” and “and next I…” and “guess what happened after that…” hook us and keep us hooked.

As long as the narrative keeps progressing.

Now the term “narrative” suggests words, right? It seems we’re talking about the squiggly characters that leap off the page into our conscious processors.

Not necessarily.

Anybody who’s ever watched a silent film or read an old school Sunday funny cartoon knows images can work perfectly well to create a
“narrative.”

The “narrative” happens in the audience’s brain.

That’s why it’s useful to understand something about brain processing if you’re trying to write stories. (And non-fiction qualifies as a
“story,” too; it’s just a story based in real, true or actual events and the “facts” they generate.)

You see, our brains process stories they see differently than stories they hear.

And as we’re establishing in our “brief history of words and pictures,” written stories qualify as stories your audience “hears.” It’s well
documented that readers “hear” written words as if they were spoken.

Images, stories we see, are processed fundamentally through the eyes and into the visual cortex. There they’re interpreted and placed into a visual association area where they’re processed for familiarity, patterns and (selective) memory or recall.

They’re located at the back of the brain, just above the spine. Weird, isn’t it, that light has to travel all the way from your eyes to the
back of your head before you can recognize what it’s carrying.

Words, stories we hear, are processed in the audio cortex and sent to an audio association cortex where they’re processed for familiarity, patterns and (selective) memory or recall. They’re located closer to the front of the brain, just above your ears.

That’s where the massive number of words that come through your ears every day – via sound or via the “virtual” sound of the written word” – are classified and stored.

So who cares?

Brain scientists have figured out that there are in fact “gateways” between the visual and auditory areas of the brain. They’re mainly used for naming visual objects.

What is the two legged, winged creature that enjoys only limited capability for flight and was at least once famously misidentified as a
duck?

If you said “swan,” your visual-audio gateway works great. If you immediately recalled “ugly duckling,” then your visual-audio gateway is working extra well, because you just recalled a story, not an actual creature or event.

Why storytellers should care

It’s easy, in this era of multi-sensory hyperstimulation, to be seduced by the siren song of “multimedia” storytelling.

Are you reading blogs and seeing news releases about fancy studios making “enhanced” books or doing “gamified” projects?

That’s great. More power to them. They may be introducing the world to a completely new experience in media.

But in the short term – say, within the term that you’re trying to get a story published – I expect them to have limited success. Oh, the
critics will love them and the enlightened beings will embrace.

But I expect relatively limited commercial success in what I’ll call the “crossover media” genre.

Why?

Because they’re overloading their audience’s brains.

Mood, mode, modality

Verbal stories are processed in the verbal portion of the brain. In essence the brain “hears” the story and then “makes” a picture of the
events.

Let’s call that the “imaginal process.” (Not trying to be all brain sciency here. Just giving us terms to associate with ideas.)

Image stories are processed in the visual portion of the brain. The brain simply takes in the story, figures out what’s worth remembering and places the image in storage.

Let’s cal that the “experiential process.” (There’s a lot of brain science – a LOT – related to “experience,” so I know this is
unscientific. We’re using these ideas as storytellers, not brainy scientists, OK?)

If you think about this intuitively, you’ll easily sense the difference between your “imaginal” process – the way you read a book, for example – and your “experiential” process – the way you see (experience) a film.

There’s relatively little room for crossover, yes?

Let’s take this one step further. You can think of it as mindset or brainset if you want.

But it’s 9:30 at night, the day’s chores are over, the kids are in bed and the house is quiet. You’re tired enough to rest and wind down, but not really sleepy.

Living in contemporary Western society, you have a spectacular array of options, even at this late stage in the day: Take in a movie off DVR? Fire up the computer and check in with Facebook friends? Play a few rounds of Angry Birds? Read that novel you downloaded to the Kindle today?

Let’s see if I can guess the question you just might ask yourself:  “What am I in the …. for?”

Did you fill in the blank with “mood”?

That’s really important. Your “mood” – let’s call it your emotional state – is your brain’s way of expressing a signal about its capacity
for engagement.

In a case like this, we’ll naturally respond to our “mood” by making a choice in activity. That choice then puts us in the “mode” for what
follows.

In the mood for a movie? Turn on the DVR and settle in for a brainless hour of visual processing.

You’re in “movie mode.”

In the mood for a book? Kick back, fire up the Kindle and settle in for an hour of actively processing words you “hear” and making pictures to go along with them.

You’re in “book mode.”

Does it make sense to you that once you’re in “movie mode,” it’s kind of hard for your brain to shift into “book mode”? And vice versa?

You’re chilling, watching a great flick and suddenly the action stops and the screen fills with text. You’re like, “what the …”

You’re deep into a fantastic, action-packed thriller novel and at just the moment when the hero is about to kick down the door of the evil grape mogul’s private lair to rescue his beloved, the text says “to see what happens next, click this video.” Same thing: Your brain says, “what the …”

In either case, the shift in “modality” (the storyteller’s tool: text or video) has broken your modal stream – and kicked your mood, probably.

The storyteller is trying to take you to a place your brain may not want to go.

Why this happens

There’s a great open question about why this actually happens. We can probably find an answer in brain science (and if you know it, please feel free to share it with us).

But let’s throw out a theory: The brain has a “gateway” between the places where it processes words and where it processes images.

That’s why, if you’re reading a book about a photo safari and the author shares images of the Serengti, it’s not distracting. It can
actually be a very powerful storytelling component. (We’ll get into that elsewhere.)

Your brain sees words and images and is like, “OK, that’s a story and, oh, there’s a picture of a rhinocerous charging right at that tiny
white Jeep. COOL!”

But a film – or video – is just a series of images coming at you at 33 frames per second (at least) along with spoken words.

It’s literally a more immersive experience. All that processing takes place so fast that we actually “delete” the space between the frames so we can focus on the images.

My theory: The intensity of visual processing necessary to enjoy a moving picture experience saps away the brain’s ability to handle text in great quantities.

It’s an issue of focus. Your brain gets into “video mode” and directs its energy toward a video production.

It gets into “book” mode and directs its energy toward processing words and making up associated pictures.

Asking the brain to switch from mode to mode is like switching lanes on the highway. It can be done, but not instantaneously. At least not without causing grave discomfort.

And that’s what goes on in the brain. The vague sense of unease about “read this text” associated with a film or “watch this video”
associated with a book just represents the sensory overload your brain associates with switching modes.

So, just follow your mood.

And as a storyteller, remember that your audience has moods that lead to modes. Keep your modality aligned with them and you’re all set.

Thanks for joining the conversation. Feel free to disagree or add your insight.

The Cuneagraph – eBook for the 21st Century

It’s like a movie that you read.

I could not be more pleased to introduce the “cuneagraph.”

It’s our effort to create a book for the 21st century:

  • Written around the story beats of a screenplay, and formatted as an ebook.
  • Enhanced with large images – up to full-page size – that feature captions and carry the story along.
  • Designed for flipping on a pad device.

It’s like a storybook for big kids.

Are you from the generation that had bedtime storybooks?

How fun was that?

Books with enough text to tell a fascinating story, but the fun part – the part that sticks in our brains even to this day – was the pictures,
no?

Why should our love of image-based storytelling go away just because we (allegedly) grow up?

It doesn’t.

We may transfer it to another form – like, say, magazines – but we humans are wild about images and love it when they tell stories.

You can read one in an hour.

Give it about the same amount of time other people give American Eye Dull. You’ll be just as entertained, but sharper!

Or savor the story a bit and stretch it out over two or three days.

You can write one. You really can.

Here’s a writer’s secret: It’s hard to write a screenplay. I don’t mean a “good” screenplay, let alone a “great” screenplay.

It’s hard to put together the time and tenacity to pull off a completed script. Let’s not even talk about the talent.

But the story part of it? That’s not so hard.

And every writer is good at some aspect of the screenplay writing process.

Maybe you’re good at pacing and moving the story along. Maybe you create amazing characters. Maybe you have a gift for dialogue.

Any of those things can carry a story. But it takes all of them to craft an actual screenplay.

The cuneagraph process is not necessarily “easier.” But it’s far more accessible.

Learn the story beats

We use the “Beat Sheet” from the incomparable and much missed Blake Snyder. It’s a fantastic way to work out a story.

But you can use any structure that gets you through the three-act dramatic arc.

Learn to write concisely

There’s something about the screen that repels the audience from large blocks of blobby text.

We use 2 to 3 line paragraphs. They move the eye along and seem to help pace the action “on screen” as well.

Find great images

This can be tricky, of course. We always stay within the bounds of legality and honor intellectual property.

But it’s really the same challenge a filmmaker faces. Getting “the shot” that boosts a compelling story makes all the difference.

Flickr collections make a great place to start. We’re also experimenting with snapshots from virtual worlds like Second Life. (If
you’re not familiar, check it out. The artistry in there can be incredible. Here is a group dedicated just to landscapes in SL.)

It also makes sense to shoot custom images. Obviously it takes budget and planning. But it’s another parallel to the filmmaking process.

Some day we will see “image crews” dispatched to locations for the purpose of shooting still images, just like “film crews” do today.

It’ll just be much less expensive.

If you find the “cuneagraph” intriguing, stay tuned. Jump on the mailing list.

We’ll have a demo online very soon.

Then, we’ll be teaching the process more extensively.

And keep an eye open for our new app, tentatively called “Kuenaia.” (cue-NAY-a)

 

A Short History of Words and Pictures – Part II

A completely inaccurate but hopefully entertaining exposition on the development of language from “picture words” to “word pictures.” Yes, it’s pretty strange.

It took around 100 generations, but eventually the habit of using images and words to tell stories became fairly common.

The earliest languages were full of symbols.

It began, of course, with the kings. Why?

Well because they had the most stuff. They needed to write things down to keep track.

Kings were very focused on their stuff.

You see, it’s a little known secret of history, but kings are easily bored. I mean, really, what do they have to keep their interest?

Taxes? Feasts? Lopping off of heads? BORING!

But their stuff? Well, that’s pretty interesting if you’re a king. (I am not.)

Stuff always makes for lively conversation, especially if you have a lot of it and some of it is kind of obscure.

A king could wake up in the morning, harken the nearest courtier and ask: “How many birds to I have?” Or “How many arrows in the average warriors quiver?” “How many sets of bedsheets on hand at the summer place in the Hamptons?”

There’s almost no limit to the fun kings could have with their stuff.

And thouth the questions may be silly, believe you me: That courtier had better know the answer!

Lopping off of heads could entirely too easily ensue.

The courtiers and the bellboys and the waiters and the third assistant drain commissioners around the palaces soon figured out that when kings ask about his stuff, they’re bored.

What better way to entertain a bored king than to tell a story?

And what better kind of story than a story about their stuff?

So one day a particularly bright courtier was put on a particularly hot spot when the king asked about his inventory of headdresses.

As luck would have it, this particular courtier had a kid who had just come back from college with one of those fancy “lists” the profs were all trying to ban.

He had “borrowed” the kid’s list while the young scallawag slept off a heavy night and taken it to work to entertain the guys in the break
room.

But as the king asked about his royal headdresses, the courtier shocked him by pulling out a “list” some kid had put together on Spring Break.

Now, not only could the courtier answer the king’s question, he could also show the king a picture of a headdress.

Show AND tell!? Well, let me tell ya, you’ve got yourself one entertained king!

And that’s how it started.

Soon, every courtier and chambermaid and landscaper in the palace had to have one of these fancy lists of the stuff involved in their job.

Then they started taking their lists home (illegally at first, because the king wanted to keep the list network a “work only” thing, but that
never works).

And of course before too long their wives wanted to start making “lists” for their trips to the market and for vacation planning and makeup tips.

The Spread of “Lists”

Lists began to spread all over the kingdom. Then one day a travelling businessman hopped a caravan to the next kingdom over and took along a “list” of the things he wanted – all in pictures, of course.

When he showed the list to his customers, they were crazy about it and quickly knocked him over the head and stole his list and took it to show their king and claimed all the credit for the idea.

Their king was fascinated and insisted on having his own list so he could keep track of his stuff.

But now the group that showed him the list was in a pickle. They had no idea how to make a list. So they secretly sent a couple of their minions to the first kingdom and bribed the king’s staff to show them how to make “lists.”

But, you know how it is with kingdoms, once the second group figured out how the first group made their lists, they had to one-up them.

So they figured out ways to make their lists “better.”

It was like, “oh, the Abyssinian birds have their wing tips pointed down? Well, ours are going to be pointed UP!” “Their gold bars have
moons etched into them? OUrs will have STARS!” And so on.

“Improvement” is the great cover story for one-upsmanship.

But as you can imagine, one thing led to another and very soon “lists” were showing up in every kingdom.

And, of course, every kingdom had to do its own thing, each one more clever than the last. The Egyptians probably hit the peak of the madness with those crazy hieroglyphics.

Eventually, every major kingdom of the world had to have its own way of making “lists” using a unique set of pictures.

“Lists” Become Languages

And then, as things always do, things began to consolidate.

You had your major empires run by bored kings who, when they got tired of hearing stories about their stuff, went out an picked on people weaker than them.

The Assyrians and the Persians and the Babylonians and eventually the Greeks and Romans, they’d all go out, take over somebody’s land and property and what’s the first thing they’d do?

They’d be like “oh, you think you can make lists using YOUR pictures? Uh, no, sorry dude. You’re going to make lists using OUR pictures.”

And eventually, as the empires got bigger, there was a sort of consolidation of list making techniques. It was like one of the Assyrian
kings said “a bird is a bird is a bird, from one end of my empire to another!”

Never underestimate the silliness of a bored king.

Of course the other important undercurrent of list making, along with picture techniques, was advances in writing surfaces. From rocks to charcoal to slate to papyrus to actual paper, every step forward made it easier and faster to make lists.

You can never be too fast about making the king’s lists!

It’s a software and hardware thing right? The software (list making techniques) chases improvements in the hardware (writing or drawing surfaces).

Along the way, the pictures used to make lists became so commonly recognized that they could be used over and over again and actually be put together in combinations.

We call those combinations sentences and use them constantly. Or don’t. But it was pretty revolutionary at the time.

By the end of the Roman empire and the advent of the so-called “Dark Ages,” using pictures and words to tell stories had extended far beyond “lists.”

Bored kings figured out that they could use pictures to create proclamations, codify laws, chastise unruly priests and make themselves
look good in press releases.

They really got pretty good at it, but there was still one major sticking point: Getting anything drawn – or “written” as it came to be
known – required somebody with a quill, a scroll and a LOT of time.

Very inefficient.

Well, as always, technology to the rescue.

Next came the printing press.

It’s well established that the printing press was a revolutionary device. You know that already. There’s no need to get all up into it
here.

Gutenberg, blah blah blah, spread of knowledge, yada yada yada. You can read all aobut it if you want:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Printing_press

But you know who really deserves credit for the incredible updraft of knowledge after about AD 1500? The real unsung heroes of the
“information age”?

The book binders.

The people who figured out how to take all those loose pages of paper and parchment that were flopping around and falling all over the place and glue them together so they could be carried around and used as door stops? Those people were geniuses.

And for all the huzzahs and hoots directed toward old Gutenberg, the book binders are surprisingly anonymous. Sad.

But here again, read all about it: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bookbinding

What the Printing Press Meant for Stories: Brain Science Knows!

One of the real understated – and maybe unintended – consequences of the printing press is its impact on story.

The consolidation of pictures into figures we call “letters” made it possible to combine those figures into “words” and “sentences.”

(Why do we have a grammatical construct with the same name as a punishment handed down to a prisoner? Well, if you’re still reading this post, you probably feel like you’ve been given a “sentence” or several hundred of them.)

Words and sentences are verbal forms. They are directly related to the use of the mouth and the ears for communication, even though the actual scribbly lines on the page pass through the eyes.

Brain research tells us that words and sentences written down are processed in the same area of the brain as words and sentences spoken.

Pictures are processed in a completely different area of the brain.

The printing press made it possible to create bazillions and bazillions of words and sentences.

The nature of “type” made it reasonably easy to create words. The printer could use the same characters (letters) over and over again with minimal disruption – and minimal cost.

Images? Pictures? Not so much. They had to be more or less crafted individually, though some could be reused (like pictures of the bored king, for example).

For the most part, the printing press pushed us toward a verbal means of communicating with one another – words and sentences – and away from the visual – pictures.

What did this mean for storytellers?

It meant they had to figure out how to craft words so that their audiences would “paint” the pictures in their imaginations.

Like you just did, no?

It meant they had to use language to lead the audience’s imagination, just like Og tried to, back in the day.

It meant they had to convey place (setting), conflict (drama) and motion using just words.

The printing press was a fundamentally verbal invention that required artists to learn to “draw” with words.

Weird.

And that’s how it was until Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre came along in around 1835 and showed us an efficient way to create pictures.

But that’s a story for next time.

Believe it or not, this is about to get interesting!

A Short History of Words and Pictures – Part I

A brief, historically farcical “introduction” to the use of words and images to tell stories. Part I.

Pictures and words have always worked together to tell stories.

First there was the cave drawing.

The great warrior Og leads a crew out to the Savannah where they meet a mortal foe. Combat ensues, with Og and his band defeating the hated enemy with spears and swords fashioned from stout palm branches.

Og returns to the village a hero, enjoys a ticker tape parade and then basks in the glow of victory in his suburban cave.

A few of his wannabe warrior buddies stop by to congratulate him and they get to talking about the battle. Og gets extremely animated when one of the guys disputes a point in the story, claiming somebody else told a different version.

“No!” Og exclaims. And to make his point he grabs a hunk of charcoal, walks over to the cave wall and starts drawing. “I was HERE, see,” he says. “And the other dude was right HERE. Only a few gimbles away. That’s how I was able to get him with the shorter palm branch. THAT’s how it happened.”

Seeing the actual geometry of the attack, the guys concede Og’s point and the discussion turns to football and the upcoming elections. Og is all upset about the opposition party. “Neandrathals,” he spits derisively.

Meanwhile, Mrs. Og walks by the scene, notices her walls have been defaced, shakes her head and reaches for a leaf to clean up the mess. Unfortunately, at that moment the two little Ogs get into a fight and she’s distracted as she tries to separate them.

She doesn’t get back to the cleanup for a couple hours and by then a few more hangabout buddies have stopped by. Now they’re admiring the diagram and asking technical questions about Og’s workout regime (such forearms!).

So she’s forced to delay scrubbing the wall for a few hours and in that time, the charcoal adheres to the wall.

Now she’s got permanent “art” on her wall and all she can think about is how much it’s going to drop their property value.

But what she doesn’t realize is that every time somebody stops by – Og’s friends, his boss, the postman, even her friends – she’s got to explain that stupid drawing and why it’s affixed to her cave wall.

Over time, the story gets told and retold, and is often embellished in the process.

And, to this day, Og’s little scribble on the cave wall draws all kinds of attention from visitors. And very smart people work hard to recreate the story.

They almost always get the geometry wrong, by the way.

But they do their best to match the pictures with words to tell a story.

That’s why Og risked his domestic tranquility to write on his wife’s clean walls. He was just using pictures to tell a story.

You didn’t think people drew on cave walls to communicate some kind of message thousands of generations into the future, did you?

Of course not. They were just engaging in the deeply human need to share images that tell stories.

Then came image-based writing (Cuneiform).

So, a few hundred centuries later, two guys are sitting on a curb in Eshunna, a city in ancient Sumer. One of them is going on Spring Break down at the Persian Gulf and the other one is totally jealous because he has to stay home and work his piddly minimum wage job to save up for next semester because he flunked “Weights and Measures 101” AGAIN this semester.

So the second dude’s like, “Hey, bring me back some souvenirs.”

First dude’s like, “Sure. What do you want?”

He thinks about it for a minute and says, “Well, a t-shirt, of course. And one of those engraved grog mugs. And a headdress, you know, the one with the fancy feathers and gilded palms? Yeah. Love those. And pick up a bracelet I can give to my girlfriends. She’s royally honked that we’re not going down to the Gulf.”

First dude says, “You gotta be kiddin’ me. There’s no way I’m gonna remember all that!”

Second dude replies, “What do I need to do, draw you a picture?”

First guy thinks about it and says, “Yeah. Actually, that would help a lot.”

So the second dude goes and grabs a stone tablet and spends the next several days chipping out surprisingly accurate depictions of his
intended souvenirs, knowing his buddy is an idiot who won’t know a feathered headdress from one of those bronze jobs if he doesn’t draw the thing perfectly.

Spring Break rolls around and Dude 1 hitches a lift to the Gulf with some traders. He spends a week lolling in the sun, partying with the
infamous partycrats from Kush and hitting unsuccessfully on the girls who came down from Babylon (Turns out, they’re prudes. Who knew?)

But the fun part of the trip was all the adventures he had picking up his buddy’s souvenirs. Negotiating with a silk merchant for a t-shirt,
hanging with the grog girls and talking them out of a CUSTOM engraved grog mug, STEALING a feathered headdress off the back of a prince’s chariot while the prince was hanging in the beachfront pubs and charming an importer from Eridu out of a cheap knock-off bracelet for half price.

When he got home with all the treasures, nobody wanted to hear his stories about Spring Break. But they all wanted to hear the stories he told about the items on his buddy’s list.

He’d show up in the student commons and pretty soon people were asking him questions about one or the other souvenirs and wanting to see the list as he told the story.

Pretty soon, there were so many people around that somebody said “hey, let me copy that list.” So they went off and made a few copies, which other people passed around.

After that, any time anybody went on a trip or took off for an adventure, somebody would hand them a “list.” And when they got back,
the stories about items on the list were the hot topics for a while.

Next thing you know, a couple very enterprising young “scholars” took the idea of making “lists” and used it to create “study aids” to help people on their exams.

They figured out all you have to do is draw a picture and then remember the story the prof told about that item and, bingo, aces on every test.

Well, of course that idea caught on like wildfire and soon everybody had to have a “list” to keep track of their studies.

And, predictably behind the times on technology, the profs quickly put a stop to the “lists,” confiscated all the tablets and threw them into a locked cistern. (And THAT’s how all those tablets of cuneiform ended up in warehouses in Sumer. Just sayin.’)

But despite the academics’ best efforts to keep things in the dark ages, the fuse was lit. Young Sumerians had figured out how to use pictures and stories to remember things. Next they started using the techniques in their letters and love poems and bankruptcy proceedings (student loan debt was a killer back then, too!)

As always happens, advances in one kind of technology led to advances in others and before you know it, people were sick of having to chisel their “lists” out of flat stones (not to mention the cost of transporting flat stones).

So the startup entrepreneurs of the day went to work on a more efficient way of sharing information – does that sound familiar? – and eventually something called “papyrus” was born.

And something called a “written language” was born along with it.

Don’t you wonder how that all happened? Stay tuned for part II.

cBook 21 – Introduction

As “ebooks” flood into Kindle, iBook and other formats, smart authors and content creators have started asking: What’s next for the book? We think it offers a spectacular opportunity to create “cBook21” a book format for the 21st century.

Amid the torrent of ebooks finding their way onto the Kindle, iBook and similar formats, and in the midst of a total free-for-all in the promotion and support thereof, a few thoughtful authors have started asking an important question:

What’s next for the “book”?

Within the memory of most reading this it is easy to find a person who once said: “Oh, I’d never read a book on a computer. I LOVE the feel of the paper and the musty smell of an old friend.” (Wait. What?)

Most likely, that person is carrying around a Kindle or an iPad today, happily downloading and reading like crazy.

That person also might very well have a beloved, dog-eared old paperback on the bed stand (or a brand new romance novel).

The shift in platform technology – getting portable devices to the point where they create a favorable environment for reading – turns out to be revolutionary.

Not only are they suitable for reading books, they are of course suitable for visual experiences as well: videos, games, full-fledged movies.

The flat screen portable device is creating a completely new platform for creativity. It is opening mind-boggling options for delivering real-time data, communication and social sharing portals and truly mobile content creation. Kind of scary, really.

But for writers – both fiction and non-fiction – the question remains:

“What’s next for the book?” And, for that matter, the magazine, the newsletter, the product catalog?

Will we see “books” enhanced with embedded videos?
“Books” that combine audio with on-screen text?
Interactive “books” that feature gaming and gamifacation features?

Certainly all possible. With the sheer amount of brainpower and creativity at work on the task, expect this space to move quickly.

What’s Next?

That’s really the question, isn’t it? As an author or content creator, the big issue isn’t what’s coming down the pike in 36 months, or even 12-18.

The big question is: what should I be working on now?

We have a few ideas. We’ll be using this space to explore them. We call the whole project “cBook21.” It’s our effort to create a book concept for a visual, fast-paced, content-everywhere world.

We’d love to have your input.

If you’d like to stay up to date on the cBook21 project, you can join us on Facebook or visit our cBook21 page and join our dedicated, n0spamallowed list.

Full disclosure: We’re in the very early stages of working on an app for storytellers. So we have a few biases and, ya know, an agenda.

But hopefully the ideas we share will help you figure out your next, best move in this content-crazy environment.

Thanks for being part of AMI.

 

Writing for Facebook – It’s Not a Blog

Writing for the Now Media is always about creating the right combination of Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, blogs, email, copywriting and many other formats.

Given such a dizzying array it’s easy to 1.) get overwhelmed and then 2.) mash a bunch of things against the wall and see what sticks.

Both will eventually lead to early-onset dementia, no matter your age.

If you’re trying to create a career in “social media” or Engagement, as we call it, it’s really important to keep the media platforms and their purposes straight. And by straight we mean “separated” (although both could be used as a “status” on some media sites, no?)

Then, because the platforms are all digital and, let’s face it, tremendously competitive, they change fast.

An example: Facebook’s latest move to, for practical purposes, no character limits on a blog post. Yes, supposedly there are limits. But they’re in the zillions at this point.

Your pithy, short and (hello!) engaging status update can now be as long as a blog post. Or profile description. Or ebook chapter. Or long copy direct mail piece.

But should it?

In today’s tutorial Locker Gnome teases out some of the details of that question and adds perspective of his own.

 

The takeaway? Facebook is going to do everything they can to 1.) squeeze every minute of attention out of you while 2.) simultaneously squeezing every possible competitor out of the Now Media platform space.

All while, of course, rolling and roiling and rollicking in your data.

Locker Gnome makes a great point: Facebook is not a blog. It’s not a direct mail piece. It’s not an ezine.

But it’s going to try to act that way, because that’s how it serves adds.

This is really all about the wall separating Facebook and Google. The more Facebook can get you to generate content inside its walled garden, the less content that gets indexed inside Google.

If you’re writing for the Now Media, then it’s really about where you’re going to get the most …um… engagement.

Now Media Internship – The Indie

 

The Now Media is all about participation. Jump in. Get your feet wet. Create something great.

A good internship is a great way to boost your Now Media career. A great internship that actually involves Now Media is a grand slam.

The folks at social music service The Indie (http://www.theindie.biz/) have just posted internships in their College Music Internship program. They’re looking for bloggers, social media interns, digital product developers and even coordinators for their indie radio programs.

From The Indie’s “About Us” section:

The Indie is the premier social music promotion and distribution platform that encourages the discovery, and consumption of music (and related content) created by unsigned artists, independent artists and indie labels.

We strive to meet these goals by focusing on the following areas:

  1. Creating simplified, highly effective, social solutions that enable artists to exponentially promote their music and dramatically grow their fan base
  2. Providing artists with emerging channels where their music, performances and videos can be discovered and consumed
  3. Creating a marketplace the attracts and encourages music fans to explore, discover, share, and consume music socially

So check it out: http://www.theindie.biz/interns/summary