Writers Group Meetings

Details covering the who, what, why and how

Introduction

The Dramatica Writers Group (DWG) is an opportunity to creatively apply the principles of Dramatica theory to actual works-in-progress. Authors submit their projects to benefit the development of their story, and participants review the material to hone their analytical skills.

The DWG meets twice a month, on the first and third Tuesdays. On the second Tuesday of the month in the same location, we have the Dramatica Users Group (DUG) meeting, led by Chris Huntley, where we analyze a film or other completed work. The fourth Tuesday of the month we are off, and if there is a fifth Tuesday, we are off then too. When a scheduled meeting falls very close to a major holiday, usually that meeting will be cancelled. Occasionally if circumstances compel it, I will call a meeting on an otherwise off week, if group members are agreeable.

The meetings always start at 7:00 p.m., and we try to finish by 9:00, though often we run later than that. (If you have to leave before we're finished, that's okay -- we'll try not to take it personally.) The meetings always take place at the Write Bros. offices in Burbank (location & directions).

The only qualification for joining the DWG is a desire to practice using Dramatica. It is, however, strongly advisable to have read the Dramatica Theory Book (free online), or to have attended a class or workshop on Dramatica Basics, so you can more-or-less keep up.

You are not required to submit material in order to participate. However you are expected to participate if you submit material (that's addressed later on this page). Otherwise there are no minimum attendance requirements or anything like that -- show up when you can and apply yourself as much as you wish.

There is a sign-in sheet for each meeting that includes some language that basically states that you agree to treat the author's material with complete confidentiality, that all ideas raised during the meeting are the property of the author, etc. Be sure to glance over that language when you sign in the first time, and understand those are the parameters you agree to by being there. They are there to help protect everybody.

Authors ready to submit their work for review at the DWG arrange with me to take the hot seat for an upcoming date (we normally only do one project per meeting), and to distribute the material beforehand. Any form of writing that involves a story is an acceptable submission, and it can be at any stage at which you're ready for feedback. If you're writing a screenplay or TV script, you can submit a completed draft, a treatment, a beat outline, or even a verbal pitch (you'd be surprised how deep an analysis you can get from just a pitch). We will also accept short stories, plays, comic books, epic poems, interactive games ... again, anything with a story. The only thing we shy away from is a complete manuscript for a novel, because it's a bit too much to ask people to read. But if you are working on a novel, feel free to submit an outline or synopsis, with sample chapters if desired.

And we do accept revisions of work previously submitted -- in fact, we encourage it. But keep in mind the submission should be a work-in-progress that you intend to revise after getting feedback. If you don't plan to make any changes, please don't submit it to the group.

On occasion we will have a night where no material has been submitted. But the meeting will go on as usual. In such a case I usually invite people to bring something they can pitch on the spot. Otherwise, we will conduct a Story Embroidery exercise, or watch and analyze a short subject (e.g., TV show), or hold a general Dramatica Theory discussion on a topic of the group's choosing.

The Writers Group section of Dramatica.com stays pretty up to date with the goings-on at DWG. But ideally you should get on my mailing list of meeting notifications. Contact me if you're interested. The e-mail notices I send out almost always have "DWG" in the Subject line, usually in some silly little wordplay. So watch your inbox for that.

MEETING GUIDELINES

To help ensure that we make the best use of our time when we gather on Tuesday nights for the Dramatica Writers Group (DWG) meetings, I've drawn up these guidelines that I'd like to ask your cooperation on. We want to get the maximum benefit from the Dramatica process during the meeting, without staying too late into the evening, so I request everyone's participation in these protocols. But nothing's set in stone; we will adapt as circumstances require.

Pre-meeting

First, a few general guidelines regarding DWG participation:

1. Keeping in mind that authors are and should be protective of their work, we've established a rule that if you receive the material, you are obligated to attend the meeting and participate in the discussion. If circumstances prevent you from being there in person, please draw up your comments in writing and e-mail them to the author -- or phone the author if you mutually agree to that -- before or shortly after the meeting (and please, try not to delay more than a couple of days). Basically, the author needs to hear from everyone who receives a copy of his or her work. So unless you're sure you can participate, please don't take the material.

Generally the author will generate a PDF file of his or her material to e-mail to people for reading, or provide hard copies to hand out at a prior meeting, or both. (If you don't know how to create a PDF, contact me.) Usually I ask the author to send the PDF to me first so I can be sure it's in proper shape to send out to others -- that the file opens properly, that it's readable, that your name and title appear on top, etc. And then I will announce the project in a group e-mail, and forward the material to those who specifically respond, "Yes, I will definitely be at that meeting...or else I promise to e-mail my comments." You can also take responsibility for distributing your material yourself if you wish; just coordinate with me. Ultimately it's your call how it should go out, but I will be there to facilitate the process.

NOTE: It's a very good idea to get your material registered with the Writers Guild (see WGA.org) or even officially copyrighted (www.copyright.gov) before sending it out to a lot of people. It's not absolutely necessary -- I have yet to see anyone "steal" someone else's ideas or material in this group -- but it's still advisable to have some degree of legal protection for your intellectual property, even if it's not in finished form.

2. Remember that when you bring in a script and get it reviewed by the group, you are receiving free story consultation. Your only payment is to give back to the group when others have their stuff up for discussion.

People have very busy schedules, and we all recognize that, but it doesn't sit well with the regulars when someone breezes through, gets their script reviewed, and then disappears.

I have never established a rule that, "Before you can get your script reviewed, you must attend X meetings," and I don't want to. I simply ask that you take it on as a matter of honor and obligation to commit yourself to several meetings (at minimum) as recompense for services you receive. (If you're working with a partner and that partner comes in for only one meeting, that's okay -- as long as one of you is giving back.) Besides, you shouldn't miss out on the benefit of analyzing other people's work.

3. To authors submitting material for an upcoming meeting: We want to give the group a reasonable amount of time to read your work before the Tuesday meeting. Ideally the script (or whatever) should be available a week in advance or more. At the very latest you should get a PDF to me by Thursday so I have time to send out a notice, get it to those who respond by Friday so they can print it out at work, so they have the weekend to read it. (Even if you will e-mail the PDF out yourself, I ask that you send it to me first so I can check it and make sure there's nothing wrong with the file.) If your material is a treatment or something else relatively short, we can set a later deadline, but I hate to cut things too close. Remember, people are busy.

Meeting

Here is the agenda we generally try to keep for the Tuesday night meetings:

  • 7:00 - 7:10 Announcements, business
  • 7:10 - 7:15 Story synopsis (recap)
  • 7:15 - 8:00 Individual comments
  • 8:00 - 8:10 Author feedback/questions
  • 8:10 - 9:00 Group discussion leading into Dramatica process

This shall be considered our "standard" agenda, which will apply to 80 or 90 percent of what we do. There will be exceptions. For instance, if the author pitches his story verbally to the meeting, we'll judge on the spot the most productive way to proceed.

I also want to point out that the meeting really belongs to the author; I'm simply there to moderate things to his or her benefit. If the author feels he wants to vary the agenda -- say, to spend more time on individual comments -- then I am happy to oblige.

To the author on the hot seat for the night: Yes, you may audiotape the meeting.

7:00 - 7:10 Announcements, business

Inevitably people trickle in late due to traffic, parking, etc., but we should always try to start the discussion no later than 10 minutes after the hour. Let's use that 10 minutes to go over past and future business, pass the sign-in sheet around, and whatever other business we should cover. But let's get the meeting rolling no later than 7:10, okay?

7:10 - 7:15 Story synopsis (recap)

Since the Writers Group began many years ago under another moderator, part of our routine has been to kick off the meeting by having a volunteer "recap" the story we've read. The purpose is to let the author hear his or her story from another person's perspective, and it also helps to ground the group in the discussion.

In the past there's been some debate as to whether the recap is useful or if it's a waste of time. I think the real reason it's been questioned is that too often the recap simply takes too long. So to rectify this, I will do two things: Strictly limit the recap to 5 minutes, and also call it something different -- "synopsis".

"Recap" tends to imply a beat-by-beat recounting of the story. That's not what we want. "Synopsis" implies a broad overview, which in written form would be a couple of paragraphs. THAT'S what we want.

So if you volunteer to do the synopsis (or get volunteered, hee hee), think in terms of how you would pitch this story to a producer or executive. You have 5 minutes. In that time you need to give us a sense of the overall plot, you need to give us a sense of the main character and any other important characters, and you need to give us a sense of how it all wraps up. We want the whole story in a nutshell, but there's no need for a detailed blow- by-blow.

I think the ideal pitch starts with a one-sentence logline: "This is a story about so-and-so, who finds himself in such-and-such a situation..." or "This is a story about such-and-such, and so-and-so steps in to deal with it..." And then that would be followed by a several-sentence synopsis. You don't have to spend a lot of time thinking about it (unless you want to), but it is a good exercise for writers, and I do think the author benefits from hearing his idea fed back to him by another person. As long as we keep it short & sweet.

By the way, be sure to keep any editorial commentary out of the synopsis. Save that for next.

7:15 - 8:00 Individual comments

After the recap...ahem, "synopsis"...we then go around the circle and let each person in turn give their individual comments to the author. Generally we allot 45 minutes of meeting time to this phase, so I ask your help in sticking to that so we can get to the Dramatica questions in a timely manner.

I will divide up the 45 minutes by the number of people present (accounting for one or two latecomers), and give each person that much time. In any event, though, it should be no less than 5 minutes, and no more than 10.

Now, here is the meat of this document. Below are some guidelines regarding the individual comments to help ensure the most efficient, productive use of this time:

  • Generally the etiquette for comments is to start off by telling the author what you like about the script (or short story or whatever). The author needs to know what works, i.e. what shouldn't change. Then you move into "constructive criticism," which is basically talking about the areas you feel need improvement. The operative word, of course, is "constructive" -- we're not here to pass judgment, we're here to contribute to its betterment. And that means being honest while being positive. (Even if you think the script really, really sucks, you can find a way to be constructive about it without pandering. It can be tricky, but we're all smart, creative people.)
  • What I want from you in this initial round of comments is your subjective, gut reaction to the material. The analysis part will come later. It's okay if you have a storyform in mind, but let's not hear it at this point -- let's refrain from the Dramatica-ese right now. First we want your genuine response to the script as an audience, and from that basis we'll apply the analytical tools afterwards.
  • I ask everyone to refrain from interrupting the speaker who has the floor, except for something very very brief. This goes for the author too. While you should ask the speaker for clarification if necessary, try to resist posing any involved questions or making any counter-points. That's what the Author Feedback time at 8:00 is for. Remember the speaker's time is limited! Besides, your job right now is to listen.
  • Many of you write a lot of specific notes on the script, or even type up a page of comments. That's great, and it's really useful to the author. But since you've done that and are going to hand it to the author anyway, you don't need to take up meeting time reading it all. We do want to hear your take and have it be part of the mix, so please summarize your comments for the group's benefit, leaving out the finer details (chances are you don't want to eat up your time that way).
  • Along those same lines, sometimes you all have comments about historical, geographical or technical details in the script. The author needs this feedback from people who know about the subject matter, but the group doesn't necessarily need to hear the details and it usually has little bearing on the storyform. So please write down those notes and just make reference in your talk that you have such notes.
  • In the Goes-Without-Saying department: Please don't disparage anyone else's comments. You can disagree! And please say so openly! But always keep it constructive and respectful. Don't be a smug know-it-all, and don't imply that other people's opinions are less valuable than yours.
  • On the other side of that coin, assuming that everyone is being constructive and respectful, please keep in mind that there is no place in these group meetings for hurt feelings -- for the author, or a participant. From the author particularly, we expect an open mind, and a thick enough skin to take honest, constructive criticism without taking anything personally. For the other participants, you should expect disagreement on your opinions -- that's what we're here for, to express a variety of views. Take no offense for any reason. (Unless offense was intended, in which case it'll have to be taken outside.)

8:00 - 8:10 Author feedback/questions

As mentioned above, I ask the author who's on the hot seat for the night to refrain from directly responding to an individual's comments during the initial round (unless you need clarification on a point). Please save up your questions and counterpoints and arguments for this phase of the meeting.

I show 10 minutes allotted for this, but in reality this will naturally merge into the next step of the meeting.

8:10 - 9:00 Group discussion leading into Dramatica process

From this point I'll let the discussion take its own course according to the unique dynamics of the project on the table. In this phase I'll allow more-or-less unlimited back-and-forth, but I will attempt to control the conversation so that no one's perspective is left out. (It's natural for certain people to dominate a discussion, but I'll try to make sure everyone gets a word in edgewise when they want it.) I ask your cooperation in not repeating the same point over and over, focusing on trivialities, refusing to let go of an argument that's been settled, or other things that'll hinder the discussion's progress.

At an appropriate time I'll jump up to the board and start guiding the group through the Dramatica storyforming process. The goal of each meeting is to arrive at a singular storyform and take time to discuss its implications. However, every project is different and results may vary. Some projects take longer to arrive at a storyform than others. Sometimes we simply can't arrive at a storyform, but that doesn't mean the discussion hasn't been productive. Sometimes we may have to consider alternate interpretations and thus end up with more than one storyform.

The purpose is to be as helpful to the author as possible in realizing his or her story to its fullest potential according to his or her own vision. We must be careful not to impose our own tastes and biases upon the author, but rather attempt to interpret the author's instincts on their own terms into concrete story points that resonate with an audience.

And try to do it by 9:00 ... 9:30 at the latest.

Thank you!