VGHS Season 2 Update and Writing Process
Posted October 15, 2012 by Matt Arnold in Blog

Where is Season Two!?

I can finally update you all on what is going down with Video Game High School Season Two… sort of. Nothing is “official official”. However, we do have a game plan, we are working towards a goal, and we are in the middle of the soul draining (but necessary) process of getting funding and figuring out how to actually make this show.

But, let’s get to the simple facts that you guys want.

Season Two is currently planned to release next June.

We are spending the rest of the year writing and polishing the scripts, and we’re planning on shooting in January 2013.

We have twelve episodes planned out. Season Two will be six episodes long. However, each episode will be TV length and probably slightly longer due to our action scenes. We are talking 22-25 minutes long, meaning the season as a whole will be longer than season one.

We hope to shoot and release the second set of six episodes by November. This is even less official “official” than the first six, but that’s our plan. We have the general story arc set, and yes, I think it kicks ass.

From now on, for the sake of clarity, and because I hate half seasons, I will simply call these sets of six episodes, Season Two and Season Three. We came to this decision after some Facebook polls which indicated that you guys preferred a more frequent release schedule.

So, if everything goes according to plan, we should have two six-episode seasons next year for you all. I think you will be very happy with them; we are expanding the world and scope of VGHS in a big way – more action, more games, and more time spent with all of our wonderful characters.

So if all you wanted to know is “Where’s Season Two?” you can go ahead and stop reading, and enjoy the rest of your day: and make sure you do something awesome with it.

Otherwise, let me fill you in on our writing process, maybe give you a bit of insight into how we work, and the answer the oft-asked question: “Why isn’t VGHS Season 2 out already!?”

This is not how to write

First off, let me say I am no expert. My credentials are what you have seen thus far of VGHS. Both Will and Brian are far better writers than I, and could (and should) teach you a lot more. That said, I am in the process of learning by doing and I think many of you reading this might want to learn as well. So my goal is to always be as transparent with you as possible.

This is not a lesson in writing – I am just sharing our process for VGHS. There are many great places to learn how to write, the best being your own pen and paper. I suggest you visit there often, and always overstay your welcome. Writing is the best way to get better at writing.

However, here are what I consider three essential resources to writing. I return to this articles and tools over and over again:

1. STORY by Robert McKee – the single best book on writing. Most writing books are by the numbers crap that you can and should know by watching any blockbuster film more than once. STORY is less about HOW to write and more about the mechanisms of storytelling.

2. FILM CRIT HULK’s Screenwriting 101 – Hulk is probably the best online critic out there. The guy knows his stuff and writes in a way meant to educate and inspire. His Screenwriting 101 does, in fewer words and with greater substance,  what all other “how to write” books do. To be transparent, Hulk has also helped us on Season 2 of VGHS.

3. Dan Harmon’s Story circles
There are a lot of tools for writing – suggested act structures, character trees, motivation charts and all sorts of stuff. They are all simultaneously useful and completely worthless – it depends on what helps you organize your thoughts. However, Harmon’s story circle forces you to ask questions that help your story, and it concentrates on character dynamics and change. These are the most essential and most ignored aspect of modern films in my humble opinion.

Ok. If you wanted to learn how to write, stop reading this and go read those. Start practicing now.

 

Why did people hate our show?

Or, “why did people love our show?”

The most interesting aspect of television and serialized storytelling is the ability to shift your ideas, and respond to audience criticism and interest (not to mention your own criticism.) This is another reason I really wanted to split up the twelve episodes into two production chunks – it gives us the ability to evolve and adapt.

We didn’t start writing Season Two until every episode of Season One was released. We took notes and carefully digested what worked for people and what didn’t. This isn’t to suggest we took everything people said and applied it to Season Two. The key was to not respond to what is being said, but to why it was being said.

For example – we didn’t take the “less FPS” comments and then decide to do fewer FPS sequences. We tried to figure out what people were actually responding to. Perhaps the more accurate comment would have been, “the action is repetitive,” or to dig further, “the action scenes didn’t have interesting stakes”. A simple example, but I hope you catch my drift.

I wrote up a list of must-haves in VGHS Season Two based on responses to Season One. We also wrote down stuff that we thought didn’t play as well as we wanted, but we stubbornly love and will never lose.

A little insight into us: regardless of how much we love our main characters, our hearts lie with Shot Bot and Scott Slanders. So the question becomes, “Why was the response to them lukewarm?” and “What can we do to make them work better?”

Finally we wrote up a list of everything we wanted in Season Two – every crazy idea we had, every idea that didn’t make it into Season One, and all the new ones we had watching it again and observing the response. “Totally happening in Season 2” was one of the most common things said in the writer’s room. We don’t say no to many ideas in this phase, we just put it all up on the board – a whole mess of ideas, criticisms, responses, wants, and needs for the show.

Now the fun begins.

 

What sort of show am I making?

A quick aside before delving into the next step of the actual writing process. While I’m a writer, I’m also a director and the showrunner. This means I need to have production on my mind as well. After looking at what we wanted to do with Season Two, Freddie and I had to figure out how we could actually accomplish everything we wanted to do. We had to plan around the length of the new season and address how we are going to produce it.

We immediately knew we wanted to make it TV-episode length. We wanted to create complete episodes rather than the serialized format that VGHS S1 was. Season 1 was a movie plot, but the world and side characters of VGHS is so rich that further stories are better servied in an episodic, or TV Season structure. Not a 2 hour movie.

We wanted expand the world, and spend more time with all of our characters; Ted, Ki, and Jenny. VGHS Season One being a essentially a two-hour movie meant that our focus stayed with Brian, the main protagonist. But we want to tell just as many stories about our other characters as well. Longer episodes allow you to mix up who the main character is each episode. You can tell stronger B and C plots. It allows us more freedom.

I like British television, and I like the feeling of a simple six episode series. It makes it feel like each individual episode is important rather than just a drop in a bucket.. Also, since we are making a more serialized show, a shorter season allows for tighter and more focused storytelling.

Having two six-episode arcs allows us to tell a nice long story over the course of one school year, while breaking it down into two tighter stories. We build to a fun cliffhanger with a lot of balls in the air and our characters in new and interesting places. The second set of six episodes is… well I don’t want to spoil anything, but it builds to a great end of the school year.

Ok, back to writing.


Hey Josh Blaylock, you took my BrianD!

Character, character, character. That is where I naturally approach story from. It is just the way I think – from action to comedy, to whatever little scene it is, I just personally find my mind going to what is the character thinking and wanting.

Thing is, what we write and what ends up on screen are two different beasts. The BrianD we wrote is a bit different than how Josh played him. Thanks to our amazing actors, what is on the screen was better and far more interesting than what was on the page.

So we decided to do a little homework.

The first thing we did when the three of us sat down to start Season Two, knowing we are doing twelve episodes, and having a vague idea of our story, was to write bios, observations, and breakdowns of all of our characters.

We rewatched the show multiple times and observed what it is those actors are actually playing. Jenny was much more like a Starbuck character when we wrote her, but Johanna is a lot more energetic, sensitive, charming, and vulnerable than Katee Sackhoff. She has some of the same tendencies, and certain background elements of her character remain the same, but Johanna as Jenny is different than the Jenny in our minds. This is true for all of our characters – in the process of acting, those actors became those characters and in a way, they own them now.

So after we write page after page of who these characters are, what they want, what are their hobbies, etc etc, we start thinking “What are good obstacles for them? What are their faults? What do they need to learn? How are they going to grow up?”

We go to Harmon’s story circle, and we start doing broad, season long arcs for these characters. Ted’s defense mechanism is to not deal with issues. He has problems being a “normal” person. He plays a part, wants love, wants to give love, but can’t handle emotional distress. He is not OK being angry with a friend. So, how does that manifest? How does that evolve? How do you challenge that? And does he overcome it?

I know that’s vague (as I don’t want to give away the stories), but I just want you to understand how time we spend on this. We spent about two to three weeks doing this for every character. After that, it came time to fit that into a season.

Outline and Notes

Armed with massive character sheets chock full of interesting internal motivations and objectives and important lessons for these characters to learn, our next step is to build a season around them.

First, we come up with tentpole events. For example, in Season One  we knew we were ending with clan tryouts. We knew we wanted to do a JV vs. Varsity scrimmage. And we knew we had a fluke shot to get Brian into the school.

Season Two we know we are going to see the whole FPS season for Brian and Jenny. An example of a tentpole event would be a homecoming game against VGHS’s crosstown rival. We brainstormed other fun high school tropes and events that could work for the show. I’m sure you can think of other logical ones too. At this point we start laying out events for all the characters.

We then start trying to see how those story circles for each character can fit into twelve episodes.

I really wish there was an elegant way to explain this, but there isn’t. Our process is inelegant.  Imagine twelve mini puzzles. There are hundreds of pieces that may or may not belong to any of those puzzles, and we start putting them together in different combinations. We might think Brian’s story works perfectly, only to find it clashes against Ted’s story later in the season. We’re not telling one long story – we’re telling twelve.

After about a month of this, we finally come up with an outline for twelve episodes. This outline is mostly internal conflict. We know what the characters are dealing with, even if we don’t know the plot, or external obstacles. This is the way we do it. It may not be the best way. But my thinking is that it’s easier and more fun to come up with external obstacles, but it is easy to lose track of character and theme. If you have this strong foundation it is harder to stray from the path. By establishing the internal conflicts first, you won’t have action scenes that serve no purpose outside of action, or funny subplots that don’t add any character growth, or are lacking strong character motivation.


Someone else needs to see this.

No matter how good you are, you are not that good. Stories are hard. Writing is lonely, even with three people. It’s difficult to be objective about your baby; the work you’ve been slaving over for months. You need extra eyes. So we hand our outline to a few trusted individuals. Obviously, Freddie who is involved in this process takes a look, and he and I start hashing out new story ideas, feedback and production issues. He throws out ideas, and as always, betters the product. Fresh eyes are invaluable.

I also have the pleasure to have met Film Crit Hulk. I sent him the first season of VGHS, and luckily he didn’t think it sucked that bad. He offered to look at anything we had for season two so he was one of the people we sent our outline to.

We met up one night and had a great feedback/brainstorming sesson where he gave us notes and thoughts on characters, stories, etc. His most broad remark was that we had the internal conflict down, and now it is time to go nuts with the external. We are doing episodic structure, so embrace it – treat each episode as its own world. Community is one of my biggest influences, and Hulk steered us towards that direction.

To say more of his feedback would once again, spoil much of the show, but needless to say, it was invaluable information, and he is a big green giant of a brainstorming partner. We came up with a ton of great ideas.

Episodes!

The structure of VGHS was difficult to put together, and outside anything we had ever done before. Also, we were just learning how to write as a three-man team. There is a reason why we rewrote Season One about five times over the course of an entire year.

Season Two would have been easier (maybe) had we stuck to the format. But we decided to go in the direction of more traditional episodic television. Now, I adore TV – I watch more TV than movies these days. I think the format is beautiful. But I haven’t written for TV, and both Will and Brian are feature film guys. TV is a very different medium.

So, we have to start learning how to write TV. We take the feedback we get, we look at our internal arcs, and we start asking ourselves “What is a fun episode?”

I wish I could give you a surefire way to structure TV episodes. The only advice I can give is to throw every idea up on the wall, think of external conflicts that represent and express the internal ones, and start piecing it all together.

As you start coming up with episode ideas, you also start running into pacing problems for the season. You can’t have three FPS matches in a row! It has been four episodes since we saw drifting! Brian has the “A” plot twice in a row – can’t this episode be more about Ki?

Half-hour TV structure is the only thing you should write with a real three-act structure. So what we wrote up an  “Act in” and “Act out” for every character for every episode. We know Brian wants X at the top of episode three, we know the coach makes him stay after practice preventing him for getting what he wants. That is an “Act out.” Act Two might be about Brian trying to get someone to cover for him, he wants to sneak into the coaches office to find X, but he gets caught. “Act out.” Then we move to Act Three.. We compile all of these objectives and scene ideas onto notecards when we are working.

BRIEF ASIDE: Our notecards, word docs, binders, and scraps of paper start to number in the hundreds. So we started to use a program called Scrivener to keep track of everything. It may not be necessary for a single movie script, but for a season of TV it has been essential to me.

At this stage we got a pretty fun set of 12 episodes. They are vague, but every episode has a “thing,” a “hook” – something we are excited to write about, and the episodes seem to hit the conflicts we want.

Break it down, scene by scene

This article is getting immensely long, but hopefully you have some insight into all that goes into writing a show like this.

What works in broad strokes may not work as you look a bit closer. The next step is to start breaking down each episode scene-by-scene.

Looking to McKee here for a moment, but every scene should have a character starting at one point, have inherent conflict, probably coming from the previous scene, and have a turn. If your scene doesn’t turn, if there is no change of stakes, no new story beat, it is useless. It doesn’t matter how funny or clever it is. It is useless.

And with a 22-minute episode with four characters, preferably your scene has these turns and changes of stakes for multiple characters and serves multiple storylines.

This is hard as hell. It is one of the hardest things you can ever try to do. And it is the reason the number of perfect movies is exactly zero.

So you do your best.

We have the acts generally laid out for the characters, so the main work is finding where they meet. Where can these stories interact? Let’s say Ki’s act involved going to an underground gambling ring to test out her new game, and Brian is currently dealing with a moral issue on the team. Right now they are two completely different scenes in two places, with no overlap. But couldn’t we maybe have the person Brian has a problem with, be in this gambling ring? Could his moral question inform Ki’s decision to gamble in the first place? Could Ki be the one to help Brian?

This is a storyline that, by the way, is no longer in the show. However, you can see how you have to start doing this with every character for every episode.  There is nothing worse than when we realize we have three really funny stories for Ted, Ki and Brian, but there is no overlap, and nothing connecting them thematically.

As we said back in Season One, writing involves a lot of killing your own babies. We have wiped clean so many stories and gags we love because ultimately, it doesn’t serve the whole episode.

This process took us a bit over a month, and now we come to where we are today.


Where we are now

Three heads are better than one, but they’re also slower. Now that we have done the heavy lifting in terms of structure and character we split up the episodes. Sometimes you have to divide and conquer, and often someone can break down the more detailed issues better by themselves. Also, you can just go faster when you don’t have two other people disagreeing with you all the time, even if they are right.

Each of us are taking two episodes and breaking them down into a multi-page treatment. A treatment is essentially a partial script. It will lay out the scenes and the story, but may be missing many details and dialog.

We are taking a week for the treatment of an episode, and then the next week we are writing the first draft. Rinse and repeat for our second episode.

We are emailing these back and forth, and meeting up for the occasional lunch to go over what we have done. We share ideas and changes, because it may change the continuity of the scripts.

This will take us into early November. We will then have 1st/2nd drafts of all six scripts.

Finally, we go through the single most important process: rewriting. We will have 2 months for the three of us to sit down 6 days a week, 10 hours a day, to rewrite every single damn word we have written multiple times.

The ultimate lesson is that everything you do up to that point serves as a foundation for what you eventually end up with. The draft of Season One that we shot with is at least 70% different than the one we had a month before we shot, and that was our 4th draft.


Time to write

Hopefully you have a better understanding of how we write the show and you can see and appreciate why it takes so long. And ultimately it is because we just want to make the best damn show we can. If we could, we would take longer, but life is short, and audiences forget.

If you have any questions, comment below. I will be happy to answer them.

Now I have to go back to writing episode 1 of VGHS Season 2.