My blog has moved!

You will be automatically redirected to the new address. If that does not occur, visit
and update your bookmarks.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Loose Fish

Wavers, today we have a guest blog appearance by my dear friend, writer's group compatriot and appreciator of games and beer, Jay Bushman. Without further ado:


The Loose-Fish Project: An experiment in web storytelling

Ask yourself - am I screenwriter or a storyteller?

Are you in it to see your scripts on the big screen, or are you doing it because you have stories in your head that you need to get out into the world?

For the past several years, I've been writing screenplays, tv specs and stage plays. But I've gotten burned out on scriptwriting. I've come to see our scripts as strange little bastard creatures, at least in the straightjacketed fashion that we are made to write them in.

And make no mistake - it's only fashion. Your story doesn't care what format it's in, as long as it conveys its meaning the best way possible. Screenwriting convention has developed over the past hundred years by accident, as an industrial process, and not with any concern over the best way to tell the actually story. Mostly over the best way to sell the story.

(An aside -- conventional wisdom is that stageplays are more of a writer's medium that screenwriting, and that the respect that stage producer have for the written word is a natural outgrowth of the superior nature of the medium. This is total and complete bullshit. Playwrights have this right because their union, the Dramatists Guild, got it in a contract negotiation with theatrical producers sometime in the nineteen-teens. Think about that when somebody tells you that the WGA shouldn't be on strike.)

I've come to believe that screenplays are just not good vehicles for telling stories. They're not used as primary texts. They're blueprints for someone else to tell a story. Or in most cases, they're just used as sales documents, and treated with as much care. Now, I've never heard of anybody whose life's ambition is to write the Great American Powerpoint Deck. It's certainly not why I started writing.

How much of our discussions about screenwriting are about how to tell a better story, and how much of them are based on fear? I found I'd become less concerned with "am I telling a good tale?" and more concerned with, "how do I keep from doing anything that could make a script reader or development executive stop reading."

As a writer, I have always been drawn to adaptation. There’s something about using existing patterns to spin new ones, like a spider compelled to make its web just that specific shape, that I find incredibly satisfying. My creation process is primarily visual. Sometimes, I will read/see/hear a story, and the adaptation to another form/time/style will burst fully-formed into my head. On the truly knee-buckling ones, I’ll spend the following years trying to recreate that initial burst of vision on paper.

One screenplay I wrote took the Shakespeare play Coriolanus and made the protagonist into a modern-day baseball player. If you ever want to blow a pitch meeting, just say the word Coriolanus. Another project I worked on for a while, to a continuous stream or rolled eyes and glassy stares, was a sci-fi adaptation of Moby-Dick.

I think these ideas are highly commercial, but alas, I seem to be the only one.

Now, it just so happens, that we live in the most revolutionary time for the transmission of information since Gutenberg smelled ink. Internet distribution has completely upended the music industry, is a major driving force behind the current strike, and has given rise to a whole host of new conditions that have changed the rules for artists across all kinds of media.

Nowadays, there are loads of artists who don't worry about offending the middlemen anymore. They're using the Internet to go directly to their audience. Novelists, short story writers, musicians, video makers are uploading their work to the web, and viewers and readers can experienced it as their creators intended.

But for screenplays, or really any form of dramatic writing, it's not quite the same. You can't really just put your script up online and expect people to read it. It's an intermediate step in the storytelling process.

So, how do screenwriters get in on some of this hot circumventing-the-gatekeepers action?

You could produce the work yourself. Video equipment has fallen in price to where it's available to just about anybody. But what if your stories are of a larger scale than you can produce with even the most hardcore group of dedicated friends? You can't really self-produce Moby-Dick with and handycam and final cut. Well, maybe Orson Welles could, but he's dead.

So what to do?

I found an answer in Alternate Reality Games, or ARGs. What the heck is an ARG? I was fortunate enough to be involved as a player during the 1st great ARG, The A.I. Game, also known as "The Beast." Those of us who played it spent years trying to explain it to others, without a lot of luck. So let me defer to the wikipedia definition, which reads: "An alternate reality game is an interactive narrative that uses the real world as a platform, often involving multiple media and game elements, to tell a story that may be affected by participants' ideas or actions."

In an ARG, every available medium online and off is used as a vehicle for story content. Emails, websites, phone calls, IMs, tv ads, menacing popup messages, live events, sculpture and skywriting are all fair game.

The main interactive component centers around players solving complex puzzles, for which they are rewarded with the next little chunk of story. But like many other players, I was rubbish at the puzzles. We'd wait for other, more cryptographically-minded people to solve them so we could follow in their wake to find out What Happened Next. In the really good ARGs, like the Al Game or I Love Bees the story was the reason to keep playing, rather than the thrill of cracking the puzzles.

I found myself wondering if you could have an ARG without the Game component. Just story. And then I wondered if I could take these classic stories I'm so fond of working with, and adapt them into that shape.

There's an explosion of new platforms, and every week, there seems to be some new channel, technology or social network. I started to see how they could be used as narrative surfaces, as carriers of story content. But I was on the fence - I'd been working for over a year on this Moby-Dick screenplay. Was I really jut going to chuck it out the window so I could go in a completely new, experimental direction?

And then I read this quote from Warren Ellis and I knew I had to do it:

“The hurdle to credible publishing on the web, now, is the nine dollars it costs to buy a domain name from GoDaddy, which can be mapped on to a free Tumblr or Blogger space.”

Nine dollars to publish my own work when and where I wanted in, in a format that wasn't weighed down by a century's worth of cruft.

Thus was born The Loose-Fish Project. It's a storytelling hub with online distribution via the medium or media that best suits the particular qualities of each given story.

This week, we unveiled out first story: The Good Captain. A science fiction mystery tale told via the service Twitter. It's based on "Benito Cereno," a novella by Herman Melville. I chose Twitter because the original story hinges on the viewpoint of its protagonist. What better way to get inside the perspective of a character than the first-person descriptions of a Twitter feed?

This is still an experiment, so things could change, but I expect this story to unfold over the course of six-to-eight weeks. We'll start with a handful of updates per day, but shortly thereafter, the pace will pick up.

While the Good Captain is playing out, I'll be starting work on the second story, adapting Spoon River Anthology by Edgar Lee Masters, into a series of profiles on Facebook.

After that, I've got several more stories in development. A contemporary version of Pride and Prejudice where the Bennett Sisters run a group blog. A series of linked websites that retell the story of Dracula. We've got tons more, enough to keep me busy for the foreseeable future.

As a part of this online storytelling hub is a blog called The Fishery. It's a discussion site for brainstorming about new and developing forms of narrative. I'm also going to try to identify the works that have influenced me and pushed me in this experimental direction.

So ask yourself again - are you a screenwriter or a storyteller?

Are you in it for the money and the prestige of being part of the biz? Or are you in it to tell your stories to an audience? Because the audience is there, and you don't need anybody's approval to reach them, if you're willing to step outside the narrow bounds of what we've come to see as the scriptwriter's path.

And as long as we're talking about money - no there isn't any, not just yet. But if you believe as I do, that the Internet is the next great storytelling medium ,where we are now is analogous to the movie industry in 1905. Nobody knows yet what will work and what won't. It's the ground floor, and it's a chance to get in early and lay the groundwork for how stories will be told for the next hundred years.

Which brings me to one last thing. Why "Loose-Fish?" In Moby-Dick, there's a chapter called “Fast-Fish and Loose-Fish,” which talks about the laws that govern possession of whales on the high seas. A fast-fish is one which is claimed, or fastened to a ship. One that's been tied down. Any fish that isn’t fastened, is up for grabs, or loose.

The future of storytelling is one whopper of loose-fish.

Jay Bushman is the Producer and Story Designer for the Loose-Fish Project, a regular reader of the Rouge Wave, and a compulsive contrarian.

The Loose-Fish Project

The Good Captain

If you enjoyed this post, follow me on Twitter or subscribe via RSS.

No comments: