Exploring New Forms of Storytelling with Ed Solomon – Part II

by John Bucher (@johnkbucher)

Best known for writing cultural blockbusters such as Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure and Men in Black, Ed Solomon has created characters that became house-hold names and stories that are still enjoyed by audiences, long after their initial theatrical run. Most recently, Solomon worked with Steven Soderburgh to craft HBO’s new series and storytelling app, Mosaic. While the series can be watched in a linear fashion on traditional HBO outlets, a more immersive and user-driven experience can be had navigating the story through the app.

Solomon sat down with LA Screenwriter’s John Bucher to talk about how this new approach to storytelling was created and developed. Read Part I of this interview here.

John Bucher: You mentioned some of the elements of story that you brought with you into this process. Obviously some of the elements of script writing — like three act structure and some of those beats that we’re used to seeing — they’re not going to work in this format. Do you still hold onto things like external goals and internal goals and a traditional relationship between a protagonist and antagonistic force? How do you decide what to keep and what to let go from the larger world of storytelling?

Ed Solomon: Well, that’s a great question. I would say that I actually don’t rely on those phrases in my “normal writing” anyway. I don’t really think in terms of internal and external forces. I think in terms of protagonist and antagonist, but not in the traditional way. To me, it’s about asking, “What does the character want? Why is this character in the scene? What’s the truth of this moment?” I rarely think in terms of three acts. In fact, sometimes I find that can be limiting and it can cause your stuff to feel like other things that have come before it. Every time I’ve relied on that, I don’t think I’ve been happy with the results. I mean, does your script need a strong set up for the characters? Yeah, it needs to be interesting and it needs to be confident. It needs to be well-written. But I don’t find that applying these external rules is a way to get to those things.

I find those to be  helpful at the very beginning of your career, where you need them, and then internalize them and get rid of them as fast as possible. To me, they’re more good reminders. So that’s why they didn’t make any difference to me in terms of writing Mosaic. What did? The notion of protagonist and antagonist did, and in the new one that we’re working on, we’re really toying with the idea of a protagonist unit.

Part of the problem when people adhere too closely to these screenwriting rules is that they start to use their left brain to solve problems to get things to happen by a certain page counts or to get other characters into a scene that might provide whatever, an opposing force, or I don’t even know. But what happens is you start to think externally about your script. To me, successful screenwriting to me is not about reaching certain page quotas or things happening by a certain page number or these sort of external ideas. It’s about the dance between you being deep and internal and inside your story and then jumping out and looking at it objectively from a distance, affecting the patterns that are forming and the emotion that’s happening in the story… It’s that dance between in, out, in, out, in, out which happens faster and faster and faster the more you do it.

For new writers, I often say to them, get deep inside and stay inside for as long as you need. That could be a day, that could be a week, it could be a month, it could even be six months or a year. Usually it’s less than that. But let’s just say, stay inside as long as you can. Just let yourself create. And then step away, pop outside, and stay outside as long as you can, and assess it. Look at what you’re written, and what is it telling you about what it is. What is it telling you about what it needs to be? And get your own stupid ego out of it as well. Meaning, it’s going to be different than what you wanted it to be.

Try to look at what it’s telling you it is, and compare that to what you wanted it to be, and then like a good healthy parent, looking at their child who might be telling you what they are as opposed to what you want them to be, look at it and say, “Okay, so what is it becoming? And how do I now make a healthy adjustment between what I wanted it to be and what it is now becoming?” Then my job becomes just shaping this thing as it’s growing and growing, which is super cool.

Most people who are starting out, their critical eye is so much more well-developed than their ability to be creative. But they create something, and then they judge it so harshly that they kill it. Or they think they’re creative facility is much stronger than it actually is, because we all think that, and they misunderstand the other joy of having things come up that you’re transcribing into… You’re putting something into the world, you’re actually writing your thoughts and feelings and your characters down. There’s such a joy to that that they’re mistaking that joy for the feeling you get in your body when something is actually good. And they can’t distinguish between those two things.

John Bucher: I’ve experienced Mosaic both through the app and watching it on my standard HBO service, and I felt a little different about where the story ends in both experiences. Can you talk about that? Was that deliberate on your part, or was that something that came together telling the story through the app?

Ed Solomon: When we realized we had to do two different versions of it, we knew that they would be different, but we didn’t know exactly how they would be different. And most of our focus was spent on getting the app with the branching narrative done, mostly because it was a brand new form, we were making it up as we were going along. So there was a lot of trial and error.

Along those lines, when you’re following a character subjectively, as you do in the app, when you’re making a choice to choose a perspective and then watching the story through that perspective, there are different story rules that come into play. You’re seeing something more subjectively. The tension builds in a situation like that, and the tension builds at an entirely different pace, and it’s not until you’re well into the body of the app when you start to see more and more perspective, you start to really feel the complexity of the world and the true predicaments the characters are in, etc.

That’s a very different way of telling a story. Oh, and also there’s the difference when you ask a viewer to have a certain amount of agency. When you ask a viewer to question, decide, and then choose a character, that creates a different relationship between viewer and that which is viewed. It activates a different part of the viewer’s brain. And so you as the person who is communicating to the viewer tell the story just organically differently when you understand that the viewer is going to be receiving the story differently. Just like you would tell a story one way to your boss, another way to your college roommate, and a third way to your six-year-old, but it’s the same story, right?

Similarly, you have a different relationship with a viewer who is holding a device in his or her hands, and manipulating the screen as they’re moving through it. If you’re actually asking a viewer to sit back at a distance, either because they’re watching on their television or they’re watching on their computer, you are engaging in a different relationship with that person.

And so, how do you tell the story in a way that seems to optimize that form of communication? And one of the things that we learned, or certainly I learned, was about the nature of tension in storytelling, which I knew, but it took me 35 years of writing to learn this at this visceral level, meaning composing two different versions of the same story. (And by the way, it’s not even two different versions, because the app is multiple versions of a story, and told under one umbrella of a branching narrative. And then the linear version, the HBO broadcast version, is an entirely different version of that same story, told in an entirely different way.)

In the broadcast version, you’re shown features from all different parts of the story right up front. You immediately know more than any character on screen knows. And that creates a kind of a tension that you do not have when you’re watching the subjective version of it. In the subjective version of it, you’re asking different questions. In the subjective version, the branching narrative version, you’re asking, “What next? What next?” In the objective version, the first question you’re asking is, “Why did that happen? What happened to make this happen?”

It was really important for us to not say, “Well, this worked in the app, therefore let’s shove it into the broadcast version.” Instead, Steven went back to the original page and just rebuilt the story shot by shot for the broadcast version, because it would have different requirements based on some internal logic.

So toward that end, in answer to your question more specifically, definitely one version is more definitive than the other version. Maybe it was because we figured, well, if you’re making someone go through all the work of poking, and poking, and pushing, and choosing, and figuring out which way to go, you couldn’t have it resolved in a way that was not definitive. That could be frustrating and maybe break a narrative contract you’re making with the viewer. However, it seemed like the most interesting version of telling the story in the six-hour linear version was to be less definitive. So maybe in the universe of the six-hour version, the answer literally is not as definitive as it is in the app version. I don’t know if ultimately that will hold water, my theory. But that’s sort of what I’m operating on, because there was never a branching narrative story told at this level of depth and detail before. People have done branching narrative films, but nobody was on Steven Soderbergh’s level as a director.

There’s also never been a story told two entirely different ways at the same time, branching and linear. So, we don’t claim we got everything right, because we know we were learning as we were going through it, we were just doing everything we could to make it as meaningful and as interesting and as valid as we could. We said from the beginning that we have to make every character and every scene worthy of the best thing we’ve ever been involved with. We never want to condescend or patronize the viewer, and we never want to act like just because we have this device, this thing is special. This thing is only special if the story works and the characters work, and the device augments that. Anything short of that, it’s not special and not worth your time.

John Bucher: What you’ve done with this story is really remarkable. I’m a part of a group of writers here in Los Angeles that are working together on immersive storytelling and branching narratives. We feel that there’s a connection between branching narratives and depth psychology. There’s a reason that there’s an openness to branching narratives, in culture right now.  Do you have any thoughts or ideas about why this type of storytelling is finding its voice right now as opposed to other times in history?

Ed Solomon: One of the most basic answers is that technology is changing. But, while tech opens up possibilities, it does not create quality. The hard work remains, just in the same way that having computers available didn’t make for more great novels.

So the tech opens delivery systems, and makes certain things easier. But the percentage of good and the bad content is going to be the same, because the hard work, which is the work of digging into yourself, exposing yourself, being vulnerable, being courageous, having discipline, having dedication, having patience, knowing how to both create something that is delicate and fragile, and also to test it brutally and then criticize it honestly without having to fly or be destroyed, and articulate how to keep your own ego out of the process, or actually more importantly, how to have an actual healthy ego in the process so that there’s enough ego to kind of keep you going, but not the wrong kind of ego so that when somebody criticizes your work, you can see that it’s your work they’re criticizing and not you, etc, etc, etc. The list goes on for a very long time. And that’s to me why there may be more things created, but there still will be a very small percentage of good things created because the hard work has nothing to do with the tech.

Bear in mind most human beings are used to interacting with their stories, meaning novels have been around a lot longer than TV and movies have been around. And if you think about the process of reading a novel, you hold it in your hand, your finger touches the page every sixty seconds or so when you flip it. You turn the page, you put it down, you pick it up, you put it down, you pick it up — you choose the pace. So I’m not a big fan of the “choose your own adventure” approach in film. That to me seems like a gimmick. I think it trivializes the experience because there is a very profound thing that happens when you as a viewer projectively identify with a character in a story that is being told to you. Something that happens in the gap between what that character is doing and what is happening in you when you project onto that character creates a kind of power and creates a kind of resonance that does not happen when you are a first-person shooter, let’s say.

People have not yet mastered this idea that there is a difference between the first-person experience, which is what gaming tends to be, not always but mostly, and a third person experience. Even narrative gaming tends to be a first-person experience. There’s a difference between that and when you project onto a character and identify through that character onto the story, as personal or as impersonal as it may be. It’s the thing that allows you to follow a story about a hit man, or a story about a high school girl, or a story about a cricket or an ant, and still feel like it’s a story about you, because you projectively identify.

But when you are the central character, i.e. in a first-person game, you’re having a series of experiences, but you’re not having a story be told to you. One of the problems is people confuse the gaming experience with the storytelling experience. Another problem is people confuse choosing a path with choosing a story. I personally am more interested in picking a perspective in a story that already exists, and having that be what your story is about, so that the form and your function are more organically interrelated, meaning I feel an experience in a curated story where the director/writer/film maker is in complete control no matter where you go. I think that has more power than you picking a path that determines outcomes.

Now, having said that, I bet you someone will come up with a great version of that type of storytelling, but I’m not able to foresee that. As I go forward, I’m not really interested in the stuff where you decide what your character says, and then decide what your character does, and then decide if your character lives or dies. To me that’s a game, and that’s just a different thing.

I would say one last thing: not every story works in this form I’m working in, either, just like not every story works as a novel, or as a short story, or as a movie, or a play, or an opera, or whatever. This is just another form to explore stuff in. And I think that certainly now that I’ve done it for a few years, I’m now thinking more in the form, the ideas I’m coming up with work better in this form, and are more organic to this form. I think the problem is people fall in love with the possibilities of the medium, and they forget the most important thing, which is the human beings in the stories and why you are telling it in this form.

Download the Mosaic app for free here.


John Bucher is a writer, speaker, and story consultant based out of Los Angeles. He is the author of several books including The Inside Out Story and Master of the Cinematic Universe: The Secret Code to Writing in the New World of Media. He has written for entities ranging from HBO to U.S.  Ambassadors. He teaches at The LA Film Studies Center and has conducted story seminars on five continents. He can be reached on Twitter @johnkbucher and through his site, tellingabetterstory.com.

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