Of faxes and futures — Agile storytellers March 2019

How can an idea go from a light comedy about a weatherman getting accurate weather predictions by a fax machine (of all devices) become a Cold War industrial thriller set in Antartica about sex discrimination? Through the power of Agile of course.

At the latest Agile storytellers session we focused on Agile brainstorming and idea refining techniques to make ideas good enough to proceed with.

So this was a two part operation — not just coming up with ideas, but using Agile methods to focus on getting results quickly. And we did it using loglines.

20th Century Fox

Out of many, one idea

Loglines are one-line summaries of a film’s plot. Examples include:

“A New York cop in LA to reconcile with his wife must save her when her building is taken over by terrorists” — Die Hard.

“The youngest son of a Mafia don is reluctantly pulled into the family business when he must avenge an attempt on his father’s life.” — The Godfather

We had a lucky dip of print outs of different loglines we found on the internet, each drawing about half a dozen and then putting forward the 1 or 2 we thought best from our selection.

We then held a simple version of forced ranking, an Agile method of making people have an opinion on things they didn’t have.

The first logline we lay down was set us our middle rank and the other ideas were then laid as either better or worse in relation to it. We then reached the top 2:

Logline A: “After discovering a fax machine that can send and receive messages one day into the future, an impossibly inaccurate weather man struggles for career advancement while trying to maintain the space/time continuum.”

Logline B: “Two gay men from San Francisco move to a small Wisconsin town to open a sushi dance club.”

Deciding on and refining an idea

Both loglines had an equal amount of supporters in our vote. Taking an inspiration from 6 hats thinking we looked at it beyond our initial feeling. While we thought the sushi club sounded fun, we didn’t know enough about being gay men in San Francisco and/or Wisconsin, nor sushi or dancing to be able to make a story that didn’t rely on stereotypes and assumptions.

We then took our chosen longline as our draft vision statement. This meant it needed to be unambiguous, clear, fit with our values, be realistic, and short.

How to do this? First we thought about the questions and ambiguities that the statement prompted. We wrote each question on a sticky note then reviewed and grouped each question around a group, deciding on and labelling the groupings as:

  • The character
  • The rules
  • The setting

Now we could have had these groupings already planned as these are fairly standard throughout stories, but it was good to see them come about organically.

Everyone has ideas — everyone

Now it was time to get ideas on how to flesh out the story from these questions. But not everyone said that they had ideas. They were wrong.

The idea ball (roll of tape in this case) was thrown around the group. Every time the ball was received the holder had to come up with a suggestion for one of the 3 groupings or else pass. The ideas were noted.

Each idea could be independent of what went before and the aim was to generate ideas, not to critiquing or question too much on previous ones (although we did slide into that some times).

By the end and despite initial protestations of being bereft of ideas we had a rough idea of the character, where they were and when it was set and the rules of the world.

Being led by ideas, not forcing them

It was near the end that the rule about the fax — which had generated the most queries in the sticky note section — went from being a magical fax from the future to a regular fax, but with a message picked up by someone who shouldn’t have.

In part it was because we kept asking how the fax worked, what the timeframe of its predictions was, what the protagonist could do to solve the problem. Seeing as we saw it related to climate change, fixing it in a day was unrealistic, to put it mildly.

So we asked where would climate be important, the most visual place? After debate we decided on Antartica and once we did that ideas flowed.

That the protagonist would be locked up at some point and have to escape, that something big had to happen (a glacier collapse). That it had to be man-made so that a man could stop it.

But then we realised why a man, why not a woman, particularly as most of the group at the meetup consisted of women?

So why was she in Antarctica? To prove something? And while sexism is certainly no longer vanquished, the fax as a sole means of communication coupled with a more sexist time seemed appropriate.

Short time, many ideas

By now time was catching up on us and we still lacked a story, though we had ideas and a protagonist.

With pass the card we each wrote an idea for one topic then passed it on to be added by the next participant. Read out at the end we modified it somewhat but ultimately had a rough spine of a story and its key players.

Pass the card

But a story needs its memorable moments. So we took a sheet of paper each, divided it into eight and each drew a key scene or sequence — crazy eights.

Crazy eights ideas by one of the more artistic members

An MVP output

Once we shared we cherry picked the ones we liked. And behold we now had a minimal viable product (MVP), or minimal viable story, as an output:

  • a setting — Antarctica, during the Falklands War, due to faxes being key and the reason why they may be even more cut off
  • a big idea — what if someone found a message that they shouldn’t have, was trapped with the bad guys and isolated from help by thousands of miles
  • a protagonist — a female meteorologist who has something to prove (yes this is still fairly 2D but better than before)
  • an antagonist — the corporation that wants to carry out a mining test that could fracture an ice shelf (again, 2D but has a motive)
  • a ticking clock — the test that will cause a glacier to splinter off that will cause flooding and other damage
  • a series of key events — finding the fax, the entrapment, the escape, the finding of one of Scott’s old supply bases just when all seems lost, the climax (sorry, you had to be there)
Less artistic ideas by myself

Summary and lessons learnt

So in the space of 2 hours we went from a pool of wildly different ideas to one that only had the word ‘fax’ in common with what we created.

We were proud of how much we got done in such a short time. It wasn’t perfect but it was a lot more than the zero we had 2 hours prior.

As usual we ended with a retrospective to find out what worked and what didn’t work.

Overall the team liked taking a few ideas and building from there, the collaboration and how we got different points of view yet agreed on an outcome.

The team felt they learnt about listening, sharing and expressing, and to build on ideas.

But the venue didn’t score as well. We were in Queen Elizabeth Hall on the South Bank and while the staff and bar were lovely, we did get a few interruptions for spare change and had neighbours who disturbed us.

This was a pity as the last venue, WeWork, was seen as too formal. So the hunt for the Perfect Venue (R) continues.

For the next Agile Storytellers session visit the Meetup Group.


Gravity as a story

If you’re looking for a film that exemplifies the idea that scripts should keep putting the protagonist into even more difficult situations and that each respite is merely brief, then go see Gravity.

It is also a textbook example almost of the Save the Cat process and of McKee’s storytelling in three parts, so if you want a film to analyse that has a minimum of characters to focus on then this is it. It is also a damn good story and the first film I’ve seen that’s worth seeing in 3D since Avatar, and the first film I wish I’d seen at the Imax.

Best Books on Writing

Best books on writing and storytelling

Buying a book on how to write is one of the best ways to improve your writing, whether you are a new writer or an experienced one. However, with so many to choose from it can be hard to separate the wheat from the chaff.

This is particularly tricky as each writing medium has its own particular guides. Books on how to write a novel are extremely popular, but there are also guides on how to write a script, how to write essays and reports, as well as particular types of books, such as how to write children’s books.


Olympian uncertainty principle and the Olympic opening ceremony

The 2012 Olympic Games open in London next week but before the running, jumping and the like can start the games are officially opened – but will the London Olympics’ flame set the world on fire?

The opening ceremony, like any good introduction, sets the tone for the games, and while they’ve tended to become become grander and more expensive each time, as Hollywood has proved a fair few times, big bucks do not automatically mean a blockbuster.


Twist in the tail or twist in the neck?

The twist ending – is it for killer writers or dead lazy hacks?

Two recently read books made me ask this question this in different ways, Rob Grant’s Colony and David Baboulene’s The Story BookThe Story Book because of what he says: that if you have a twist that changes everything you should consider making it your inciting incident; and Colony because it seemed to be a example of not following this advice.


Dr Strangelove, or how I stopped worrying and learned how to love all my characters

Screenwriters can fall into a jealous love with their protagonist, wanting their beau’s life to be as simple and worry-free as possible, leaping in to push aside obstacles and tribulations.

And like many a relationship, the rest of the world doesn’t see things through gooey eyes and instead are sickened, or bored by the company of turgid, lacklustre secondary characters and pedestrian stories.

So it is to Stanley Kubrick I give thanks for Dr Strangelove and showing that proper love for a protagonist is to surround them with the worst kind of people – people who don’t want to do as their told, or what you want, but what they want.


Writing for video games

Writing for video games is, to me, an underrated area for professional writers.

I was reminded of this the other day when I went to Sony Computer Entertainment Europe (Playstation’s big daddy) and was asked about what I made of games and said that ones with strong stories stuck in my mind – but they were few and far between.


What’s the story, Salmond?

Scotland could be independent, but for the life of me I can’t figure out why.

Perhaps it’s the London media bias that means I don’t know the narrative, for while the press is writing about the for and against of a referendum, the vote’s wording and timing, I want to know the bigger thing – what’s the story that the SNP and the first minister Alex Salmond are telling about why they want independence?

Understand me, I am a Londoner and would need the genealogical flexibility of a American to call myself Scottish, but I do count myself British more than English, partly is it’s a more welcoming identity to those of us who aren’t ‘pure bred’ English.

I like Scotland and its culture and visit often. And I also like that Britain is one of the bigger boys in the EU and UN.