Writing with your eyes closed

My screenwriting instructors had many words of advice for me, but one point stuck out in particular: screenplays are for a visual medium. You are watching a film play out before it even hits theatres. It’s your job to present that. Ironically, my first solid screenplay, complete with a treatment, took this advice and ran with it — but it was based around an audio experience, with visual cues only there to assist. Writers most comfortably write what they know, and I’ve dealt with tinnitus for as long as I can remember. Writing a short screenplay based on that made sense to me.

So how does one apply this to a script-based RPG?

I’ve been writing in the Starbase 118 RPG for about a decade now, and no one writes the same as someone else. Some are very basic in their skills — they look to improve or are content with how they write out a scene, and that’s okay. Some are intimidating in their written excellence — those people who pressure you to do better, or crush your self-esteem because damn they are good and there is absolutely no way you can live up to that. And that’s okay, too. There is no ‘one kind’ of writer, and everyone approaches things differently, at different levels — in just the last year months, I’ve met and frequently speak to a player who’s writing calibre is beyond anything I could ever hope to achieve. Will I ever be that good? Maybe in a decade! What matters today is my willingness to accept my ability with the promise I’ll continue to explore and try new things.

I’m often asked by other players, “how do you write your scenes?”. I feel that the answer is actually quite simple: I can see a scene in my head, as if it were already on TV. Camera angles, costumes, atmosphere, actors, the whole shebang. I’ve been doing this since before I studied screenwriting, probably because I’ve spent more hours consuming television and video game media than I have the written word. Is that a good thing? Probably not. But it is a basic start. By understanding what a scene is meant to look like, I can give myself the room to manoeuvre my characters through the environment.

My second priority is the camera being on the character I’m writing for. If I can’t comfortably see my characters saying or doing something, then their part in the scene needs to be re-written before it’s sent out. Often this means knowing my character’s voice. Sometimes I’ll use the voice of their face-claim (such as what I do with Tristam Core (Jimmy McGhie)), and other times their voice can be found in a starter-sim I wrote years ago — for Blake, I often resort back to her first ‘reboot’ sim, Cakapunnual, sent over USS Invicta and USS Veritas lists. If my character is “in frame”, something the camera cannot see isn’t relevant to the moment until they need to be. If they are speaking, but the camera is on the other characters in the scene, then the written focus must be on them and their reactions.

Blake or Core’s thoughts are always important and should be priority regardless of any scene — we are in a written medium and need context and exposition behind words and actions. But their reactions are secondary to what’s in the frame.

I write some of my best sims with my eyes closed. Perhaps this is easier for me because I’m a touch-typer — I have that skill backing me up. But playing out a sim like it’s a scene in an episode has allowed me to experiment a little with the kinds of sims I’m able to write. I had a crack at jump-cuts for a “short episode” with Kidman I, while I was travelling. It’s a fairly rudimentary ‘sim’ where readers were tasked with filling in the blanks of what happened with the incredibly basic cues I provided:

She looked back down at her readouts.

Blake: Apparently not. Looks like they’ve lost power.

Core: Or they’ve detected us following them, and it’s a trap.

Blake: They’d risk being boarded by Starfleet officers? No way. They’d be trying to bolt.

Core: I’m not convinced.

Blake: Relax, it’s a happy coincidence.

Not a coincidence

Core: I’m never following you onto a pirate vessel ever again.

And now they wait.

She sighed, and slid down the opposite bulkhead. A malfunctioning escape pod. They’d been tricked into a malfunctioning escape pod.

Blake: How much air do we have?

LtCmdr Sky Blake, “Kidman I.”

It’s not special, but it serves a purpose. Whenever a character has an action, nine times out of ten the next piece of dialogue will be theirs, because they are the one ‘in frame’. We don’t get to use headings in-sim, but in this case, the name of the scene (no matter how short a scene) is relevant to what you’re trying to write to help keep you on track.

TLDR: Write your sims like you’re watching Star Trek. The camera is an important friend.

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