Interview with the "Stranger Adventures" Writing Team
When the first Emmy Award category honoring new media programs was announced, it ushered in unprecedented opportunities for screenwriters. Not since cable television has the industry experienced such a shift. Those willing to write for the Internet and portable devices now have the chance to gain recognition from the most respected leaders in the industry, and at the same time help shape the new cross-media form of storytelling.
"It's the future of TV," said Brent Stanton, director of the Daytime Emmy Awards. "It was not hard to get this category launched -When setting this up, we had no idea how many entries we were going to receive. Seventy-four were submitted - more than any other Emmy Award category."
The six nominees included an online program, a mobisode, an animated blog, live webcasting, short-form broadband episodes and "Stranger Adventures: Helen Beaumont," the pilot episode from the ground-breaking online interactive adventure Web series produced by Riddle Productions.
Chris Tyler, entrepreneur and CEO of Riddle Productions, assembled a creative team for "Stranger Adventures" realizing if the idea took off it would help shape the future of Internet programming. Their next episode, "Stranger Adventures: Danny Bowles," begins Sunday April 30.
"Our broadband television series 'Stranger Adventures' has developed a strong following and our membership is growing rapidly," said Tyler. "More importantly, the players are just raving about the game and that gives us the most satisfaction. Clearly, this engaging entertainment platform offers advantages over the traditional uni-directional broadcast television platform and the advantages are pulling viewers away from traditional television. This won't be a movement, it will be a revolution."
The show hires experienced writers such as Aaron Couresault, who co-wrote the episode that earned the Emmy nomination, and non-Writers Guild of America (WGA) scribes who have talent and a great story to tell. Writers come having crafted screenplays, TV series, novels, and games, but they start fresh when it comes to working for this online interactive adventure Web series.
"We are a Writers Guild-signatory project which has allowed us to go after some established talented writers," says Richie Solomon, development executive and writer for the series. "However, we have also hired writers who had no produced work and weren't in the Guild based strictly on the simple fact that they had a great story to tell. After all, isn't that what it's all about, telling a great story?"
"Internet programming doesn't have the gatekeepers that traditional outlets like features and television shows have," he adds. "New writers have a greater chance of breaking in strictly based on their talent and not their relationships in the industry."
Head writer Christopher Kubasik designed games and wrote for New Line Cinema before joining "Stranger Adventures." His novels include "The Ideal War," "Changeling," "The Longing Ring," "Mother Speaks" and "Poisoned Memories." He penned the upcoming "Stranger Adventures: Danny Bowles" and says this is the most dynamic medium in which he has worked. The Writers Store asked the "Stranger Adventures" writing team where they thought this new medium was headed. Kubasik answered first:
How would you describe "Stranger Adventures"?
It's a kind of anthology show - like the "Twilight Zone" - where each show is unique unto itself. From Sunday to Saturday you have one story. In "Stranger Adventures," the puzzle is the one thing that's consistent. You have a character who is out to find something and he needs your help. He communicates with you by e-mail and video, offering clues and as the story develops, players must unlock a 10-digit code. Participants don't need to know anything in order to play, just a compulsive curiosity. The first player to unlock the 10-digit code wins a substantial cash prize. A total of $35,000 will be awarded to the top players for "Danny Bowles."
How is "Stranger Adventures" different from an Alternate Reality Game?
ARGs are big multimedia platforms that you push into the world and as you find out more about it, the world often pushes back. If you find a global positioning system (GPS) coordinate, something will be revealed at that time. ARG has an element where players must be so invested that they keep pushing forward. That's the whole alternate reality thing. On the other hand, our show is a show. It's a complete experience that has a beginning, a middle and an end. It finishes. Basically, our show is for people who want to go online and have a great time.
What distinguishes the writing in "Stranger Adventures"?
The intimate and confessional aspect of the storytelling. If I am a protagonist, I am writing to you. I am sending you e-mails. I need your help. When I'm shooting the video from a cell phone or webcam, I want you on my journey with me. You and I have a connection because I'm desperate. All the protagonists are set up that way so that they have no one else to turn to or trust.
What determines the series' success?
The show can't just be about finding the treasure; it has to have an emotional core. As a writer, you need to give the protagonist something so that whatever happens on the journey of finding the treasure is more important than actually finding it.
We next spoke to writer Richie Solomon. Richie has written scripts for the big screen and small, including a few for the giant screen. He has developed projects at companies such as Harvey Entertainment, Fuzzy Logic Productions, ZOO Film, GSD&M, and Chemistry Pictures. Solomon is the development executive and a writer for "Stranger Adventures."
How does "Stranger Adventures" incorporate its sponsors into the story lines?
"Stranger Adventures" involves sponsors as a part of the adventure itself. The premiere episode was sponsored by Prudential California Reality. Beyond just receiving traditional signage and product placement, the story line drove players to Prudential's website to recover clues integral to cracking the code at the heart of its narrative.
The Stranger (main character) needed players to search through Prudential's real estate listings to find "his" house. In the virtual listing was a clue the player needed to recover. Did every one of our players buy a house right then and there? Of course not. However, every single one of our players is not only aware that Prudential has an online real estate database, every one of them now knows how to use it. And not a single complaint came back that they felt they were being "advertised" to because their actions were seamlessly justified by the adventure. It's not just product placement, it's product involvement.
Has anything changed for "Stranger Adventures" since being nominated for the Emmy?
Being an Emmy nominated series certainly has drawn the attention of many people to our show, but in the long run, it's the entertaining episodes that keep them coming back.
Freelance writer Joshua Rimes placed as a finalist in Scriptapalooza's Teleplay Competition for his spec episode of "Lost." After attending Writers Boot Camp and hearing "Stranger Adventures" was looking for writers, he applied. He says this about joining an experienced team:
What qualifications did you need to write for "Stranger Adventures"?
Most of the qualifications come from the fundamentals of good screenwriting. Also, this had to be approached with an open mind. Each "Stranger Adventures" episode seems to be getting better and better and that is a testament to the producers and writers perfecting this new medium.
Did you need a background in technology since this game is so interactive?
I am not a very tech savvy person at all. I have the basic knowledge of computers, the Internet, e-mail, and of course Final Draft, but I'm not what you would call tech savvy. I guess I'd say tech aware. This type of online game was pretty new to me, but it is also new to the Web.
How does writing for "Stranger Adventures" compare to the other writing you've done?
The most important thing to think about is character. If you find a great, original character, then you think of a unique adventure or treasure hunt. Unlike most movies and TV, the fourth wall is totally removed from this. The player at home is the main ally to the main character, so developing someone you root for and want to help over the course of the week is the most key aspect in my opinion.
Aaron Courseault has written and directed music videos and short films, and his first motion picture, "MacArthur Park," debuted at the 2001 Sundance Film Festival. Courseault co-wrote the Emmy-nominated "Stranger Adventures: Helen Beaumont" and says this about translating his screenwriting skills to the small screen:
How does writing for "Stranger Adventures" differ from screenwriting?
This is just like writing a screenplay to me in that you do have to write shootable scenes as if it were a movie script. However, each of the scenes you write don't necessarily have to connect to the next one, so it's like writing individual movies, some with beginning, middles and ends. Others have no ends, just cliffhangers.
When it comes to the e-mails [that characters send to players] it reminds me of when I first began to write screenplays and I used to explain what was going on in the scenes instead of letting information come out in the scene itself. Writing the e-mails to participants logging on and playing the game is committing one of the cardinal sins of screenwriting, where you tell the reader what's going on in the scene rather than letting the scene speak for itself. I think it's great in this format because you have to keep the viewer or the player interested and give juicy information without having to think of a clever way of showing it. This gives a very personal touch and allows the player to connect with the character like a real person.
Do you find yourself looking to unusual sources for inspiration, or following games/TV series you otherwise might not as you're writing for "Stranger Adventures"?
No. I treated this like I was writing a script. I outlined it like I do when I write a script and used the outline to create the story, including the e-mails. I looked at each day like its own movie. The thing that tied the entire piece together was only the character's arc from day to day or a situation (running out of time, finding a clue), or person (a villain, and ally) or the segues at the end of each day where the character tells you the clue for the next day. But each day was complete in itself for the most part.
I will say that at the end we did try to wrap everything up in one last scene or block of e-mails, which gave a sense that the story was a complete story. Still, if you took each day separately it could stand as its own story.
How do you see "Stranger Adventures" changing as it goes forward?
I recently wrote another episode in which there are multiple cameras. This allows us to get more coverage, wider angles, intimate close-ups and action sequences where we can see our heroes escape danger. This will pull the viewer into the story more because of the amount of visual information they can receive. This also makes it more like a movie without breaking the rules of the game.
My style as a writer/director with "Stranger Adventures" will be to come up with stories that allow me to make use of several different camera techniques, making the game more cinematic without breaking the rules we created originally.
Eric Heisserer wrote and designed "The Dionaea House," an online story whose website received four million hits in one week. That resulted in a feature and television deal with Warner Bros., and Heisserer says this about writing for an Internet audience:
What is the secret to writing for this medium?
The iPod is the new screen. It's the fourth screen people are using. You have to write content with big details that people can see on those screens.
How much technical knowledge do you need?
In "Stranger Adventures," the basic structure was that each day three e-mails and one video segment would be delivered to the audience, so you have to find a way for your character to deliver those messages. A couple of times, I found my character in the middle of a situation where he didn't have access to a computer to send an e-mail, but he did have a cell phone, so I had him send a text message. It's really about knowing the technology that's out there and how people use it.
Kamran Pasha wrote and co-produced Showtime's hit "Sleeper Cell" and is working on an upcoming "Stranger Adventures" episode. He also holds business and law degrees, and is particularly interested in the new direction "Stranger Adventures" is charting for interactive Web-based TV series:
How does writing for "Stranger Adventures" compare to writing for TV?
The similarities are that there's a time crunch. You have to get entire episodes produced from scratch, but it's a different kind of act structure. In TV you have a three, four or five act structure. Here you have a different story in essence every day. It's almost like five different TV shows in a week.
Because of the interactive element, does the audience have input into what happens?
Only in that the game is evolving because of their response. Each of the episodes has gotten better than the last, with more activity, tension or action. We have found that there is a greater response from our audience when the hero or heroine is the driving force, so we're making sure shows that have that element.
What happens during the actual writing process - start to finish?
Some writers came to "Stranger Adventures" with their own ideas, but I was asked to take an idea of a woman being haunted by an ancient curse and write about that. Most of the writing happens independently, and after each episode, we talk about how it worked or didn't. We also do extensive character analysis - most of which never makes it into the show.
"Stranger Adventures" implements technology but still has an old-fashioned feel. Is that something you pay attention to when writing?
I thought "Stranger Adventures: Helen Beaumont" was a great opening salvo to this game. If you combine an entertaining serial show with what feels like a throwback to the Buck Rogers cliffhangers, you kind of begin to get the idea. Players are participating in a world created by someone else. There is an old-fashioned sense to it - almost like cinema in the 1920s. No other avenue is resurrecting that and "Stranger Adventures" is re-creating a really interesting time in the history of cinema.
What do you recommend for someone who wants to write for "Stranger Adventures"?
I feel like "Stranger Adventures" has started a new kind of trend. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, I'm seeing more and more worlds being created like this that are spin-offs. If someone wants to write for this medium, they should be playing the game.
Intrigued? View "Stranger Adventures" distributed exclusively online at www.strangeradventures.com.