At LGND, we turn good ideas into stellar stories with strong emotional connections. Internally, we talk a lot about design and development, and how to make our storytelling stand out, but it’s essential to come back to the foundational elements of what actually makes a narrative strong.
The inspiration for a good story can come from data, stunning design, or perhaps an old friend. For one LGND-er, Brendan, hearing from the guy whose Yale pole vaulting record he’d broken provided just that.
Known for his work on NCIS, Nancy Drew, and the Call of Duty video game series, Jesse Stern is an accomplished screenwriter, producer, and consultant. With experience writing and producing over 100 television episodes on various shows, crafting multiple Call of Duty games, and building Respawn Entertainment, it’s safe to say that Jesse knows a thing or two about writing a good storyline.
Read about our fireside chat with Jesse to hear about the relationship between writers and actors, how not following the formula can keep your audience coming back, and what actually makes good television.
“The best actors make something out of nothing. The same way you’re looking for the juice, the thing it needs to work, they’re looking the same way. The best performers make something out of nothing, something you didn’t even realize was there. The trade-off is that they’ll also make nothing out of something. With the best ones, you take the trade-off. Where that comes out the most is during casting. You’re watching a dozen different people come in and read the things you wrote. When the readings suck, you wonder if you fucked the scene up, if it’s any good. You know it works, but only if somebody finds the same path through it that you laid down.
“There’s the death of the thing that you thought you were making, it happens over and over. You try to capture the ideas in your head on the page or in front of your camera, but if you get too entrenched, there’s a fine line between commitment and insanity. If you’re holding on too tightly to the thing you want to make, it’s going to crumble, slowly. You have to have a loose commitment to the thing. Keep your arms around the baby. If there’s a part in it that is absolutely essential to you, know what that is, and protect that, and guard that. But that can’t be everything. If it’s everything, there’s no opportunity for other people’s input to come in, for it to grow, for it to evolve. In that process, whether it’s in the conception, execution, and post-production, there’s always the opportunity to get something better than what you already had. You can take the time to mourn the death of the thing you thought you were making, then embrace the life that’s actually in front of you.”
“I like to tell people that you have to keep one foot in the familiar, and with the other look for the next place to step. Keep your audience somewhere they recognize, but add a stretch, push it as much as you can push it. You have to know the formula, know how to do it, and then screw with it as much as you can.
“We don’t have to figure out the ending. We don’t have to know the ending. We don’t have to know where it leads. We just have to provide the right pieces. We’re giving a kid pen and paper, or blocks, giving the right pieces to see what they build. That’s something you can really only do in video games. In television, people crucify you for doing that. If you don’t have an ending, what are we doing here? Video games, we can give people an experience and the ability to create an experience that’s satisfying, that’s balanced, that makes sense, that they can take it wherever they want to take it.
“The thing that I look for when I watch a show or a movie is ‘does it turn that switch from construction to enjoyment’ in my brain. I can’t stand when I’m editing while I’m watching. It happens when I read a book or I’m watching something, I’ll start fixing it in my head. If that switch goes off, I know I’m enjoying something. If I absolutely don’t want to deconstruct something, if I just enjoy it, that’s how I know I’m watching one of my favorite things.”
“The biggest thing I look for is how they use their time. The pendulum is swung so far in television now, there are things that are 10 hours long that should have been 3. That’s unforgivable to me. The pendulum used to be completely the other way, why are you racing through this, let the moment breathe, let there be some silence. Give me four pages of dialogue that’s just fun, that’s just character. I look for that balance. Are you using your time wisely, so I’m using my time wisely? Is this thing really drawing me into a place that I want to go?
Have thoughts on what makes good and bad TV? Let us know!