Tag Archives: development

The challenges of plotting Mrs. Hawking part 4

Bernie and I have begun work on Mrs. Hawking part four, tentatively titled Gilded Cages, and we’re running into some challenges. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised, as we’ve had this happen with each subsequent installment, but this one has presented some difficulties that are thus far unique.


The biggest thing to deal with is the fact that we’re writing a colonial story. Part four is going to be split into a present day case in 1885, and a flashback story to Mrs. Hawking’s youth in the colonies. We haven’t decided WHICH colony, though, as we are still doing research to figure out if there are any historical features that would serve our turn. What I’d really like to display is that some terrible event that happened during Victoria’s childhood demonstrated to her how corrupt and broken the system is, which helped to shape her worldview in the present. A natural possibility is witnessing something of the horrors of Victorian colonialism. But I really don’t want to just turn the suffering of the local people to be just a lesson for my white hero, or make her into a white savior for those same. And I definitely don’t want to sidestep the issue and just end up tell a story set in a colony that’s only about the white invaders.

What I’ve got here is a Problem of the Protagonist, to use my own theory– when the need to centralize a particular character ends up objectifying or dehumanizing other characters. Because my hero is white, it runs the risk of turning any characters I include of the local people into objects who exist only to facilitate my protagonist’s story. And I definitely do not want to do that with characters of color.

I’m going to put in the work on this. I’ve got a lot of researching and developing to do yet. But I do know a good way to keep a character human is to give them their own arc, demonstrating that their story is one worth following, and affording them agency in the story, making them take actions in the service of achieving their goals and needs. So, while I’m by no means certain yet, my current idea I’m exploring involves having a local character whose personal mission is the central arc of the flashback’s story. This character, who’d probably be female, could have the protagonistic qualities of wanting something, taking actions to pursue it, and driving the plot with their efforts. Perhaps if she drives the story, and other characters are in the position of being reactive to that, I can avoid making any such person being subservient to Victoria’s development.

I’m not sure yet. I’ll have to do more work. But I’m resolved to figure out how to do this in a respectful, conscientious way.

Vivat Regina and Base Instruments by Phoebe Roberts will be performed January 13th-15th at the Boston Westin Waterfront Hotel as part of Arisia 2017.

BlueCat feedback on Tailor at Loring’s End screenplay!

As with the Adonis script, I submitted my Tailor at Loring’s End screenplay to the BlueCat Screenwriting Contest at well. I was nervous at first that the feedback on this one was taking so much longer to arrive, but I finally got it the other day. I am pleased to say that it was quite positive as well! Though this is the first screenplay I ever wrote, the story idea was a solid one, and I have revised it many times. It made it to the Quarter Finals of the Big Break contest last year, so I had some confidence in it.

“What did you like about this script?

The Tailor at Loring’s End is as lovingly crafted and detailed as the debutante dress that is a center piece throughout the film. It deftly takes the audience back into the luxe and mysterious past of a powerful family, giving a really rich and suspenseful tone to the story.

Sometimes flashbacks can be clumsy, but The Tailor at Loring’s End uses them well. Not only do the flashbacks carry the same rich tone as the present, but the two stories parallel each other while still allowing for each of the characters to show their own personalities and uniqueness.

The idea of a powerful family betraying their country during the war is a great one, filled with complications and opportunities for conflicting emotions for all the characters. Do you cherish your father for building an empire? Or you despise him for then betraying the country in order to continue his legacy? Do you reject the idea of classism or do you relish in its bounty? This is also seen in the setting; there’s a sense that Lorings End is both very airy and light while being repressive and cavernous.

The side characters of The Tailor At Loring’s End are really great additions to the story. Della, Kenneth, and Crier are all vivid and unique, putting all their separate know how in order to help what is good. There is a satisfaction in a team that helps out two young lovers and inquisitors, despite their aged wisdom knowing that the world is more complicated than it seems. Della fills in as an excellent maternal figure to Tom and Crier is charming due to both his bumbling nature and commitment to the job.”

The core of the story, the themes, and the supporting cast are what this reader responded to most strongly, which I’m very happy to hear. They picked up on the purpose of the team drawing together to fix things in the end, as well as how the flashbacks were designed to parallel and compare with the modern-day story. I knew all that, the plot, themes, and setting were the parts I was most confident in, but it pleases me to hear that a reader responded to them.

The negatives were not extremely negative, but they were a bit perplexing to me.

“What do you think needs work?

There could be a little more development on both Tom and Alice. They are the focal pieces of the script and the audience’s heroes, but it’s hard to truly describe them outside of their external journey. What makes them unique, the only people capable of figuring the Loring mystery out? While the backstory of Alice and her family is the main plot of the story, what about Tom? There are mentions of his past; learning from his talented mother, leaving a more commercially successful shop to make dresses. These things could be developed more. Where is his father? Did he go to school? Has he travelled at all? Who is Tom outside of a talented tailor?

As for Alice, does she go to school? Is she trapped inside the estate both physically and mentally? Does she have any hobbies, particularly any hobbies that she might share with Tom? Her bond with her family is the initial element of the mystery so unfolding her relationship, both emotionally and historically, with each member of the Lorings would make the story even more compelling.

Establishing their personalities more, their wants and desires outside of the family mystery, could really heighten the tension and further push the audience’s want for the two of them to somehow be together.

It was a little unclear if Kenneth knew of Reginald’s betrayal and wanted to expose him or if he just was still lovesick over Bethany. There are two very different motivations for both reasons. If Kenneth needed the papers to prove that Reginald was a traitor, it seems that he would have been trying to convince the public of this for years, and not just after Emma’s death. If he was searching for the papers in order to investigate Bethany’s mysterious death, this would be a bit simpler.”

I’m of several minds about this. On one hand, I’m a bit skeptical of the criticism that Tom and Alice are not strongly defined enough, as three of my professors saw this script and none of them found the leads to be too thin. In fact, rather hilariously, Barry Brodsky, the teacher I wrote it with initially, gave me the exact opposite feedback– he found Tom and Alice compelling, but thought my supporting cast like Della and Crier to be lacking in dimension. An unfortunate feature of making art is that there is no uniform standard by which to grade it, so it’s common to get educated opinions formed from two entirely different impressions. On the other hand, defining characters for people who are not in my head has been a problem in another thing I’ve been working on recently, enough that I’m inclined to worry it’s actually a problem.

Because I want to progress in the contest, it probably doesn’t make sense not to make the attempt to edit and resubmit to improve my standing, even though I’m not entirely sure I agree with the critique. And I’m not sure how to go about making it clearer. I don’t think just sticking in answers to a lot of those questions is the way. “Where’s Tom’s father?” He’s dead, he’s not important to this story. (Also I notice you don’t mind that Alice’s mother’s not dealt with, probably because I dealt with her father to your satisfaction. Moms being important is weird, dads being important is normal, amirite? :-P) “Does Alice go to school?” She just got out of school, I’m pretty sure that’s mentioned in a line and not that important anymore.

Bleh. I’m probably just being defensive. I am prone to that. I just wish I could more clearly envision way to fix that problem (if it really exists). I find “define this character more” to be particularly hard note to address, for whatever reason. Maybe it’s because they seem plenty clear to me, and I don’t know why others can’t see it. But it’s worth making the attempt. The other note, about Kenneth’s motivations/knowledge being made a little clear, is a fine one; concrete and easy to take, so no problem addressing that there.

As I said, I’m mostly happy with this feedback, and if it’s this positive it’s probably got as a good a shot as any in the contest.

God willing, Tom, Diana, Alice, and Aidan will take this contest by storm! 😉

Encouraging feedback on Adonis from BlueCat Screenwriting Contest!

This past month I submitted Adonis to BlueCat, one of the more significant screenwriting competitions, which before they judge gives you feedback on your script. I nervously opened what they sent me about Adonis, and I was pleased to find it encouraging!

"What did you like about this script?

The opening of the script is incredibly effective. Without ever going into any unnecessary explanation, we see from the very opening that this is an interesting subversion of the usual gladiatorial epic. There are so many stories of the hardened soldier who is made to see how the other half lives when he falls in love—and then to go native as a result (“Avatar” also immediately springs to mind); that this gender flip seems so obvious and clever, it’s almost hard to believe no one else has done it before.

The scene in which Aidan is forcibly held down and raped by a group of Roman soldiers is quite chilling; it also really effectively demonstrates what many men are unable to grasp about sexual assault. By envisioning a world in which women had dominance over men, the film acts as a sort of subtle feminist corrective to ancient history, and perhaps it will force men to see the historical patterns of subjugation have existed since the days of Rome.

The script hinges on the basis of its characters, and it succeeds based on the fact that they are each given their own legitimate grievances and motivations. Diana's need to maintain the status quo makes perfect sense within the context of her character’s position as a general, as does Aidan's need to see the system changed, because he is a slave.

The script never tries to make its characters “right” or “wrong” however; Aiden’s arguments with his sister Morna over which is preferable: to live as a slave, or to die seeking freedom, have a real emotional complexity and weight, precisely because neither is wrong; it depends solely on one’s vantage point.

The most emotionally affecting parts of the script then, are watching Aiden's confusion at Diana's behavior. He cannot understand that she wants him to love her, as he has only ever lived in a world where he has been someone's property. This is the kind of story line that we are so often used to seeing in many gladiatorial films, but the gender reversal brings it into sharp relief; again it's the sort of thing, where it is strange to watch men being stripped of their agency–and it is only then we realize that the script is making a very salient point about the treatment of women throughout history."

This makes me feel good about it because this person GOT it. They got the point of the script, the flipping of the gender conventions to make a feminist point about behavior– and of storytelling –down through history. They even seemed to think it was something new and never before been done! The point of Aidan's assault came across, and had the desired creeping effect. They bought the characters and found their relationships and interactions compelling, which are the heart of the movie.

I can't tell you how glad I am of this. It's proof of concept that our ideas READ, and that there exist people outside our little sphere who are able to read them. An actual reader, trained in the studio process of evaluating scripts, got the point of our transgressive film! That is huge!

"What do you think needs work?

While there is something to be said for the element of surprise, the fact that we never see more of Morna's plan coming together, almost makes the uprising feel less impactful than it could be. If we could see her passing the messages back-and-forth, or even more moments of Brigin helping her discuss the plans, I feel that the beat would land better.

And given the importance of Morna's belief in rallying the slaves to seek their own freedom, it seems a little strange that we never see her recruiting the other slaves, nor do we ever see them discussing their options. It would be intriguing, and the theme of freedom versus slavery could be taken further, if there was dissension among the ranks, and some did not want to fight. Aiden may be a symbol among the slaves, but this does not make him the stand in for all slaves, or all the plebians of Roman society.

And all though the successful uprising certainly does not mean they have won, something feels incomplete in the ending. Yes, we know that the greatest fight is to come, but it would be nice, if we could focus on their successes just a bit more, before we fade to black."

This is good criticism, though. It's useful, doable, and on-point with the rest of the film. That's the best kind. Basically the reader wanted to see more of the mechanics of Morna building the revolution so they could believe in its existence more. That was something that was challening for us the first time around, so I can understand it still needing more to come across. We can definitely add more with a little effort. And the last part, wanting a little more character presence in their victory at the end, is a very easy fix.

It's possible to edit and resubmit before the final judging. Bernie and I definitely think we will do that. The fact that an actual respectable screenwriting organization responded so positively gives us hope that this script has a prayer of getting somewhere in the real world.

Reflections on 31 Plays in 31 Days 2014

This year’s 31 Plays in 31 Days is, in my opinion, my most productive and useful yet. I decided to use it to focus on the particular projects I wanted to develop.

When Bernie and I were working on Adonis, we mostly worked well, except we experienced the occasional clash over how how we generated ideas. I tended to be very targeted and to the point— perhaps over-influenced by my dislike of wasted effort —whereas he often needed to work up to things, spin details that may or may not be useable just to see what might come from them. It often frustrated me if I needed an answer to a specific story problem, but he often was able to think outside the box to find solutions when I was getting stuck in it. I bring this up because I notice even in 31P31D, I had a resistance to working on any scene I didn’t think was going to work in context. But experimentation of that nature often brings up things you can’t think of if you only stay in your current paradigm. A thing like 31P31D lowers the barrier for me at least a little bit, and helps me break out of that mindset. Which I definitely think is good for me.

Mrs. Hawking – 12 – 39%
Base Instruments – 7 – 23%
– What If I Don’t Want To?
– Haven’t I Always?
– Your Vessel Has Not Betrayed You
– Look Where That Got Him
– Family Dinner
– Glad to Be Your Man
– The Cuff
Miss Stanton – 1 – 3%
– The Hand You’ve Been Dealt
Ripper – 2 – 6%
– Distinguished Matron in Widow’s Weeds
– Being Married
Otherwise – 2 – 6%
– A Few Days’ Leave
– Do You Miss It?

Disgraced – 6 – 19%
– Companion
– No One Knows You Here
– Repute
– Humiliated
– Adventure Abroad
– No One’s Cad

Brockhurst – 2 – 6%
– Because I Know You’re Not
– As Sisters Should

Fan fiction – 6 – 19%
Cabin Pressure: San Tropez
– Meet Trudy and Cliff
– The Bobsled
– Not Speaking to You
– Ordinary Level of Horrid
– Old Romantic
– Vibrant Rays of Sunshine

Adonis – 4 – 13%
– I Have Weathered You All
– The Stuff of Their Dreams
– Make History
– Burn Your Empire

Other – 1 – 3%
– Never Really Here

Last year I made a good start on Vivat Regina with 31P31D, so I wanted to do the same for the next installment Base Instruments. I wrote myself a whopping SEVEN scenes for it, and though they may not all be ready for inclusion, or even possible to use at all, I am pleased at the raw material I generated. As with that, I know I have a ton of work to do to figure out the overstructure of the plot, but this is a very good start on the trajectory of the characters.

My favorite scene I wrote for it was Look Where That Got Him, which was very emotionally important for Nathaniel and Clara. I also liked the ideas in Your Vessel Has Not Betrayed You. Though honestly there’s something I like in every single one. Of the non-Base Instruments Hawking scenes, I like the intensity and impending violence of Distinguished Matron in Widow’s Weeds, and the way the future Mrs. Frost lays the smackdown on the totally different young Victoria Stanton in The Hand You’ve Been Dealt.

The Cabin Pressure fan fic pieces were harder than I expected them to be. Humor is not my forte, and I was trying to imitate another writer’s distinctive style. Especially for the later pieces, when I was just struggling to finish them on time, I don’t think I did a great job. I plan to do a lot of editing, and hopefully I’ll nail it then. My favorite of them is probably The Bobsled; I think it’s funny and I got the most right in it.

Working on Disgraced made me realize just how little I know about that idea. I know pretty well what I would want for Elise’s trajectory, but other than that, I don’t know much yet. I want Rosaline to be an equal lead with her, and I need to figure out what’s going on in Newport at that time, and what other figures would be in that world. My favorite scene I wrote for this was Humiliated; I really love the character of Marcus Loring, even though he’s a total ass. I didn’t write nearly as much for Brockhurst as I thought I would. But I think there’s a lot of material there. I think I was a little stalled because I wouldn’t just want it to be a Downton Abbey ripoff.

I’m really excited to eventually work on the Adonis sequel, which is why pieces showed up this time even though I know like nothing about it. The shape of the first one required really careful planning, so I’m certain the subsequent parts— of which I think there has to be two more —will as well. Enough that I hardly had enough to go on in attempting scenes. But I just think there’s such powerful potential there. I think my favorite scene I wrote was either I Have Weathered You All or Burn Your Empire because I love the stark truths they reveal about two of my leads.

The characters I wrote about most frequently are, in order:
– Victoria Hawking – 5
– Elise Charnmore – 5
– Douglas Richardson – 5
– Martin Crieff – 5
– Mary Stone – 4
– Nathaniel Hawking – 4
– Carolyn Knapp-Shappey – 4
– Arthur Shappey – 3
– Trudy Cadwallader – 3
– Clifford Speedwell III – 3
– Clara Hawking – 2
– Arthur Swann – 2
– Rosaline Bay – 2
– Abigail Bellamy – 2
– Aidan – 2
– Diana – 2
– Morna – 2
– Saturnina – 2
– Elena Zakharova – 1
– Elizabeth Frost – 1
– Queen Victoria – 1
– Beatrice Hawking – 1
– Reggie Hawking – 1
– Daisy Marcotte – 1
– Eleanor Haverhill – 1
– Enid Brome – 1
– Marcus Loring – 1
– Rowan Loring – 1
– Christian Chase – 1
– Claudia Bellamy – 1
– Callisto – 1
– Beast – 1
– Maid – 1

Obviously property leads tended to appear most often. And some characters are just inspiring to me. I like having lots of scenes with the same characters, as it helps flesh them out.

Other trivia for this month. Longest scene was Look Where That Got Him with Nathaniel and Clara. Shortest was I Have Weathered You All with Aidan and Saturnina.

The one with the most characters is Meet Trudy and Cliff, which has all the Cabin Pressure lead cast plus my two original characters.

My favorite was Look Where That Got Him. My least favorite is probably either Make History or Vibrant Rays of Sunshine— I was struggling just to finish and it shows.

My favorite lines? Clara’s “The Colonel loved her too, Nathaniel. And look where that got him.” Douglas’s “Do you at least take the hat off for that? Or does she like you to keep it on?” from The Bobsled. Marcus’s “You didn’t scream for me because I was a saint,” from Humiliated. Elise’s “And I do so enjoy the, uh… the persistent cherub motif in the décor,” in No One Knows You Here, at least in context. And Morna’s “All that I did when I was only a slave. And now? Now I am a slave no longer,” from Burn Your Empire; her entire speech at the end, really.

I’d be curious if any of you had favorites, scenes, characters, whatever. Or anything you particularly hated. If you care to let me know.

The naming gymnastics I went through for Adonis

In Adonis, there’s a name scheme going on that’s even more complicated than what I usually do. Adonis is not the name of any character in the story; rather, it’s kind of a title, perhaps most analagous to a stage name, for one of my two leads. I chose it for two reasons, as I mentioned yesterday— it’s a cultural touchstone for a beautiful young man, and because I always felt what happened to him in “Venus and Adonis” was a depiction of rape.

I named my female lead Diana first. I chose it because of the obvious connotations, the Roman name of the goddess of the hunt, alluding to her martial nature. Also I like the sound of it; the sound of names is often even more important to me than the meaning, as people will have to say them over and over.

My male lead– the titular “Adonis” –I knew needed a Celtic name because of the background I gave him, so I looked up some options online. There are a number of Celtic names I have a fondness for and briefly considered; Taran was a frontrunner, or possibly Galen, until in my searching I came upon Aidan. Not only was its meaning referring to a sun personification a nice counterpart to the moon connections of Diana, the spellings are anagrams of each other. That moon-sun dichotomy also tied in nicely to the secondary epithets Aidan is assigned, "Apollo" and "golden god" in reference to his beauty and his blond hair.

A lot of this just worked out this way, but I did do even more work than usual to keep the themes unified in the naming.

The myth of Adonis

I am working away furiously on my new film script Adonis, set in a matriarchal alternate history Ancient Rome. It’s a hard road, but it’s coming, and I’m really starting to believe in this project. I need to get it finished so it can be read on the last Sunday of the month.

I have so many thoughts about this story, about the process of putting it together. I can’t spare the time to write them all down now, because I need to hit that deadline. But it’s challenging and at times even wringing. But I think it will be worth it in the end.

I gave this piece its title because the myth of Adonis always stuck in my mind. I’m not sure why. Perhaps because it was one of the rare touchstones in our culture referring to a beautiful man. I wasn’t always as invested in the beauty of men as I am now, but since becoming so, the character has stood out even more for me.

Trigger warning: sexual assault

I read Shakespeare’s version, the poem Venus and Adonis, when I was sixteen or so. The goddess is so taken by his beauty that she cannot hold off from pursuing him, even in the face of his disinterest. In fact, she basically harasses him until he gives in. I’ve never seen anybody else take away what I did from the poem. But even since then, I’ve never been able to stop from asking the question that occurred to me from my very first reading of it– “How was that not depicting a rape?” I guess that was inspirational, in part, for this piece– or at least, for where to take the idea when I started developing it.

I wonder what Shakespeare’s intention was. If he meant to depict a rape. More likely, I bet he meant to depict a man who was basically bullied into sexual activity he didn’t actually want, but had no concept that for a man that could be rape. I’ve been reading a lot of male survivor narratives in order to write this movie, so I can treat it with accuracy and respect, and it’s actually very common for men who have been assaulted by women to describe with the definition of rape and never actually think to use the word– because they don’t realize it could apply.

My story doesn’t have that problem. My story calls it what it is. I am doing my best to deal with it in a respectful and meaningful way. I guess I never could let go of how much it bothered me that nobody ever seemed to acknowledge what happened in that poem. Hopefully I’ll do better now.