Monday, October 19, 2020

Creating, Pitching and Producing, Meet Lars Kenseth

Lars Kenseth will be joining Willamette Writers for the first time live from Los Angeles to discuss his varied career as a cartoonist for the New Yorker, writer for TV and show creator for a new series recently acquired by Amazon. He’s also looking forward to giving practical advice and answering members’ questions.

Lars Kenseth is a cartoonist and writer whose work has appeared in Barron’s, Playboy, MAD, Esquire and The New Yorker. A TV writer by day, his credits include Chuck Deuce (Adult Swim) and Norm Macdonald Has A Show (Netflix). Currently, Lars is developing I Hate Mondays, an animated comedy for Amazon. He’s a 2016 Sundance Institute Fellow and a long suffering acolyte of the New York Jets.

Lars wisely lives in Santa Monica with his wife Liz and their two feline slaves, Omelet and Honeybear.

Learn more about Lars at

To see some Lar's cartoons at the New Yorker, visit here

He's on Twitter @larskenseth

This meeting is on Monday, November 2nd, 7 - 8 pm, to avoid the Tuesday election.

Learn more about Willamette Writers and about becoming a member at

This Portland/Salem Chapter meeting of Willamette Writers happens on Zoom. Details about joining the meeting are below.

The meeting host is Debby Dodds.

You are now able to receive the link in advance for our Chapter meetings. Click the registration link below, and you will receive the meeting link immediately. You will also be able to add the meeting to your calendar.

Register in advance for this meeting:

This is not the meeting link, it is the registration link. After registering, you will receive a confirmation email containing the link to join the meeting.


Saturday, July 4, 2020

Heavenly Birth Insurance (Show)

Bill Johnson's play Heavenly Birth Insurance was produced as part of the Short+Sweet Theater Festival in Dubai. The play was directed by Nikhil Mittal and produced by Emotive Productions.

Sunday, June 14, 2020

Quora Answers About POV in Movies & Other Writing and Movie Questions

The question reminds me more of the movie The End of the Affair. The movie starts with a husband confiding to a friend that he thinks his wife is having an affair. The friend offers to hire a private detective to find out. This only convinces the husband that his friend had an affair with his wife in the past.

The movie goes back into the past and shows the affair from the friend’s point of view. And it shows the affair ending, from his point of view.

Then the movie shifts and shows the affair ending from the wife’s point of view, which creates an entirely different understanding of why the affair ended.

The movie Hilary and Jackie explores what can be done with switches in a point of view in a more profound way, Hilary and Jackie (1998) - IMDb

Again the shift of point of view completely changes an understanding of what happens in the film. The film even ends with an omniscient pov, where a sister as an adult sees her younger self and sister playing at a beach.

Beautiful film.

There was a TV show called Boomtown. The basic set up was to show a crime/event, then shift the POV to give a different understanding of events.

Question, 'What is the redemption in the movie, "The Shawshank Redemption"?'
Tim Robbins goes from being emotionally numb to an ability to feel. There’s a shot early in the movie when he goes to prison showing the width of the walls. That is symbolic of the internal walls that block Tim’s internal life.

Morgan Freeman’s character gains an understanding of how he ended up in prison.

Two men who appear beyond redemption are redeemed.

Originally Answered: 'How many points of view (POVs) are too many in a novel?'
The problem with a question like this (or doing a prologue) is that someone skilled at storytelling can accomplish many difficult tasks, including telling a story with multiple points of view.

Someone who lacks skills in understanding POV will screw it up.

Years ago I read a manuscript for an author with a background as a TV producer. She didn’t understand POV. She would shift POV if someone mentioned an article of clothing and she’d go off into a POV shift about what someone thought about it.

No point to the shift, served no purpose, just wrong.

I told her how to fix it. She said she did. She got an agent to read her novel, which was rejected by the agent’s reader because of POV problems. The agent’s reader refused to review the novel.

So the author asked for my help. I again explained how to fix the POV problems and she asked me to ask the agent to again look at the revised novel. The agent’s reader came upon the same POV mess and refused to read the novel.

Suggestions that inexperienced writers avoid POV shifts are for the same reason people are told to avoid doing a prologue and children are advised not to play with gasoline and matches.

More than ONE point of view shift is too many if someone doesn’t understand POV and how to use it.

Question, 'In novels, do you believe that theme is always more important than plot?'

This needs to be broken down.

To say a story has a theme is a way of saying it has a point.

A novel that doesn't have a point risks appearing to be pointless.

When I would be asked to critique pointless novels that eventually had a character dealing with redemption, the author would put the word redemption in the 2nd paragraph of the 2nd page and say, 'See, I have a theme. Everything should be okay now."

Not really. Consider Harry Potter, which is storytelling/plot 101 in terms of mechanics.

Harry wants to fit in. He's the symbol of a war about pure versus mixed blood (about allowing more people to fit in versus a smaller group of pure blood).

That issue connects every character in the novels.

Each novel is a step in Harry's journey toward fitting in.

Each chapter in a Harry Potter novel is a clearly defined step along a plot line, that large step that will resolve the issue of fitting in for Harry in that novel.

Rowling uses a process I call question, answer, question. Each short chapter starts with a question. The answer to the question at the end of the chapter raises a new plot question to resolve that gives meaning to the next chapter.

Returning to the issue of fitting in, even the Dursley's want to fit in by appearing normal. Harry Potter by his existence is a mortal threat to that desire.

See the conflict this creates? It creates what I call narrative tension, the tension an audience feels about whether Harry will be expelled from Hogwarts back to the Dursley's.

As the plot of a Harry Potter novel increases the obstacles Harry must overcome, the narrative tension increases, making each novel compelling (to its audience).

Now, compare that to a novel that appears to be pointless.

The reader has to memorize details until they have a context. By the time you get to the third character who acts to no apparent purpose, getting through that is like getting through a swamp.
Using another example from a popular novel, The Hunt for Red October. Ramius wants to be free of oppression. That's what the story is about, it's theme, if you will. Each step Ramius takes to gain his freedom increases the obstacles he must get through. Once a reader is hooked on the question of whether Ramius can gain his freedom, they have to finish the novel.

Note that any character in the novel, a Soviet pilot for example, can be in the novel for two paragraphs, but his actions clearly have a purpose within the scope of the story, trying to stop or aid Ramius in his quest.

Like in Harry Potter, every character in Hunt is on a side and their actions have meaning that advance the plot.
But these mechanics of storytelling also apply to literary fiction.

In Joyce's short story The Dead, an intellectual doctor in Ireland takes his wife to a salon, where other intellectuals debate the issues of the time. After the salon, riding home in an open sleigh in the snow, the doctor images his wife is waiting for him to explain the intellectual arguments of the evening she didn't understand and that will be a prelude to intimacy.

Instead his wife is thinking of a time when she was a young girl and a suitor came to see her in the snow just before he passed from consumption (tuberculosis).

The intellectual doctor realizes that with all his vaunted intellect, he could not recognize the mood of his wife. That all the intellectual arguments of the night are like the snow covering the earth, some frozen water vapor covering the deeper reality of the earth.

The plot and characters of The Dead revolve around ideas.

The Dead as a story is an inch wide and a mile deep.

The Hunt for Red October is a mile wide and an inch deep.

But both operate to a dramatic purpose and both have a plot.

I recently read All the Light We Cannot See, which is a novel about how war impacts ordinary people. The plot is about which of two main characters will survive a city being bombed, and then who will survive the war.

Simple story, complex plot.

Returning to the issue of theme, in general I avoid using the word and just come to an understanding of what a story is about. Typically for an unpublished novel that starts out pointlessly, that revelation can come deep in a novel.

Another way to consider this is to think of a story in terms of music. Lets say Harry Potter is told in the key of C. That means there are particular notes that work and have an effect in that key, and notes that are discordant. Struggling writers are hitting notes/words in the wrong key.

The audience can hear the difference. Coming up with different verbs for how something crosses a room - siddles, glides, dances, strides - doesn’t change anything if those words are in the wrong key.

Fixing an unpublished (or self published) novel written by someone who doesn't understand what key/theme they are playing in can mean conveying an understanding of storytelling and not thinking changes in grammar or proofreading or changing the order of opening chapters will fix the overriding problem.

Also, someone who doesn't understand what a story is about generally doesn't understand how to create a strong plot.

Bill Johnson, A Story is a Promise

Thursday, March 26, 2020

Using a Mystery to Explore Race

Using a Mystery to Explore Race

Review by Bill Johnson

Cover of Allen Esken's novel Nothing More Dangerous.
Allen Esken's novel Nothing More Dangerous is set in the Ozarks in the early 70s. The main character is Boady, a 15 year old boy raised by a poor mother. Boady attends a nearby Catholic high school on a scholarship, but has no friends in a new school. His dream in life is to save enough money to flee his small town at 16.
The initial thrust of the plot is that Boady hears the story of Lida Poe, a divorced colored woman accused of stealing money from the local manufacturing plant before disappearing. What happened is a clearly defined plot question.

That same day, Boady overhears three seniors talking about dumping some pudding on the one colored freshman girl in the school. On an impulse, Boady trips the senior with the pudding and races away, managing to avoid a beat down in the moment. But he can't avoid the bullies before summer recess, and the leader makes him an offer.

An African-American family is moving in to an old mansion across the gravel road from Boady's house. The father will be a new manager at the local plant.

If Boady spray paints a racial slur on the new home, he will avoid a beating.

Boady agrees so he can get away, but then finds his new neighbors have a son his age. The two become friends, and Boady discovers his casual use of racial language offends.

When the boys go out camping, they find a building in the woods where a racist group called CORPS meets. Close by, Boady's dog finds the hand of Lida Poe sticking out from a shallow grave.

The title of the book is revealed. It is based on part of a quote by Martin Luther King Jr. that there is nothing more dangerous than racists finding each other and organizing.

Boady expects the revelation that Lida Poe died and didn't flee with embezzled funds will get him on the news. Instead, the local sheriff casually destroys evidence and refuses to follow up leads on who embezzled the money if Lida Poe didn't.

It turns out a leader of CORPS initiated a relationship with Lida Poe and induced her to embezzle, and then had her killed by his son as his initiation into becoming a full member of CORPS.

To keep details of the theft from coming out, a closeted gay man who works with Boady's mother has his house burned down.

With the help of a kind neighbor who has watched out for Boady and his mother, the killer of Lida Poe pays for his crimes.

Nothing More Dangerous explores how racism can be rooted in a small community.

There is never an attempt to call attention to Boady's transformation from small town lad who accepts the racial divide in his town to someone who becomes part of breaking down that division.

Influenced by his friend, Boady decides he will go to college.

The readers of the Allen Esken's novel share Boady's journey, a journey woven into the fabric of the story.

On a personal note, when I was 40, I took a girlfriend to meet my parents. She asked a question about a woman in a family photo album. It turned out my father had been married to an African-American woman before he married my mother. I never knew until that day.

Return to Essays on the Craft of Dramatic Writing Home Page 

Thursday, February 13, 2020

Bill Johnson Play Performed in Dubai Short + Sweet Festival

Nikhil Mittal is with Zille Rehman and 2 others at The Junction.
Putting up “Heavenly Birth Insurance” on stage has been a learning experience like no other.
Thank u
Bill Johnson
for the beautiful script. It was exciting, enriching & challenging to bring your story to stage.
Thanks a lot to my actors
Zille Rehman
Shital Adesara Gusani
for believing in my vision and having faith and patience as we worked on it as a team giving it our all. We all pushed our boundaries and worked outside our comfort zone. You guys have been just awesome #GODBless
Thanks to everyone who gave us their feedback and boosted our confidence and morale.
@shortnsweetdxb #Theatre #DubaiTheatre

Bill Johnson's play Heavenly Birth Insurance will be presented by Emotive Artz at Short + Sweet Dubai, 21st & 22nd Feb 2020 at 7:30pm at the Junction in AlSerkal Avenue. Directed by Nikhil Mittal,

Thursday, December 5, 2019

Mental Illness as a Literary Device, Notes on Allen Eskens' The Life We Bury

                                               Mental Illness as a Literary Device

                                         Notes on Allen Eskens' The Life We Bury

by Bill Johnson

The use of mental illness in Allen Esken's The Life We Bury demonstrates it as a powerful technique to create drama.

Joe, the novel's main character, has left a chaotic home to attend college. He works odd jobs as a bouncer to pay his tuition. His mother is untreated bi-polar and she self-medicates with alcohol. Joe also has a young, autistic brother that he has left behind to go to college. Except when his mother is arrested and he must either return home or take his brother to stay in his cramped college town apartment. When his mother is arrested, Joe simply tells his brother his mother is attending a meeting. Some of the meetings last for days, which the brother mostly accepts.

And soon, the mother will put at risk Joe attending college, which Joe considers his best shot at creating a new, better life for himself

Eskens starts the novel with this sentence...

'I remember being pestered by a sense of dread as I walked to my car that day, pressed down by a wave of foreboding that swirled around my head and broke against the evening in small ripples.'

This naturally creates drama around the question, what is the cause of this dread? The prime directive of a first sentence is to give the reader a reason to read a next sentence. Esken has accomplished that.

The first paragraph ends with...

'Or would I still travel the path that led me to Carl Iverson?'

The outcome of this premonition is named, Carl Iverson, while raising a new question, who is Carl?

The novel continues with this note about Joe's mother and her effect on his life...

'Or-and this is where I'd place my bet-maybe she {a high school counselor who doesn't think Joe is college material} knew who my mother was and figured no one can change the sound of an echo.'

This is a cryptic way of saying that being raised by his mother will affect Joe's choices in life, not in a good way.

In this opening chapter, Joe has traveled to Hillside Manor, a retirement home and a place...

'...with its gray walls streaked green with moss, its raggedy shrubs run amok, and its mold, the color of oxidized copper, encasing the soft wood of every window sash.'

Even the details of the environment convey illness.

Joe is at the manor because he needs to interview an elderly person for a class project that he is late to start (increasing the tension). Because so many of the inhabitants are senile, Joe needs permission to interview a prisoner who has been sent to the manner to die of cancer. Carl was sent to prison for life for raping and murdering a young girl.

In the manor, Joe has a memory of his grandfather that foreshadows learning why Joe blames himself for his grandfather's death.

'There were weeks, however, when the sound of rain splashing against a windowpane would seep into my subconscious and he would visit me in my dreams-dreams that would end with me sitting bolt upright in my bed, my body covered in a cold sweat, and my hands trembling from the memory of watching him die.'

The details of how the grandfather died and why it had such a major impact on Joe's mental landscape is revealed deep in the novel. Here the question is framed for readers to expect an answer.

Joe decides he will interview Carl, the convicted, dying murderer, but he then gets a hysterical call from his mother. In between screaming at her arresting officer, Joe learns she was arrested for a DUI and will be detox and jail for several days.

Joe must now make decisions about how to take care of his brother and continue in school. The first chapter ends with...

'A block away from Hillview, I pulled into a parking lot, gripped the steering wheel with all my strength, and shook it violently. "God dammit!" I yelled. "Dammit! Dammit! Dammit! Why can't you just leave me alone." My knuckles turned white, and I trembled as the wave of anger passed through me. I took a deep breath and waited for the throbbing in my throat to subside.'

In spite of his rage, Joe must now return home to take care of his brother and later deal with his mother and her latest boyfriend when she is released from jail.

In the next chapter, the town where Joe grew up and his mother lives is detailed. Note the structure. First we are drawn in to Joe's life and drama, then we get more details about his environment. Struggling writers often start with the details of environment.

Because his mother lives hours from the college, Joe must make a decision about how to care for his autistic brother who can't be left alone.

Returning home, Joe has a memory of an accident that hurt his brother. After the accident, he has to visit local bars to find his mother and bring her home. When she sees Joe's brother bleeding from the head, she explodes...

"You had to use my good towel," she yelled. "You couldn't just grab a rag. Look at this blood in the carpet. We could lose our damage deposit. Did you ever stop to think about that? No. You never think. You just make the goddamn mess and I have to clean it up."

This scene conveys the emotional minefield Joe must navigate each time he needs to deal with his mother.

Joe also has to be artful to convey a new living situation to his autistic brother.

'It was easy to lie to Jeremy, his trusting temperament being incapable of understanding deceit. I didn't lie to him to be mean. It was just my way of explaining things to him without the complexity of nuance that came with the truth.'

Eskens does an excellent job of setting out the dramatic situations Joe must deal with to try and gain a better life by going to college.

The second chapter ends with...

'As I pulled out of the driveway, I contemplated my work and class schedules, trying to find gaps that would allow me to keep an eye on Jeremy. On top of that, distracting questions ripped through my brain. How would Jeremy get along in the unfamiliar world of my apartment? Where would I find the time or money to bail my mother out of jail? And how the hell did I become the parent in this wreck of a family?'

Excellent questions that increase Joe's inner tension and that pull readers forward to turn the page and begin chapter three.

Chapter Three begins...

'On the drive back to the Twin Cities, I watched the anxiety pace back and forth behind my brother's eyes, his brow and forehead as he processed what was happening.'

Bringing his brother to his college town apartment has an unintended but welcome introduction and connection to the girl next door, Lila, who volunteers to help with Jeremy.

It only comes out much later how damaged Lisa is.

Returning to Joe's mother...

'Add to that cauldron {untreated bi-polar} an ever increasing measure of cheap vodka-a form of cheap medication that quelled the inner scream but amplified the crazy-and you get a picture of the life I left behind.'

And the life that won't stay behind.

At the end of chapter three, Joe considers...

'When I finally fell asleep that night, I did so wrapped comfortably in the belief that my meeting with Carl Iverson would have no down side, that our encounter would somehow make my life-easier. In hindsight, I was at best naive.'

Joe ultimately discovers that Carl was suicidal while serving in Vietnam over his inability to save a young girl from rape. Which is how, in part, Joe comes to believe that Carl was not guilty of raping and killing a young girl who lived next door to his house.

Carl is yet another character with a deep mental wound.

The Life We Bury does a great job of using mental illness to greatly complicate and add drama to Joe's life. The drama is organic to the story. It creates a situation where there's no easy path forward for Joe, the hallmark of creating narrative tension in a novel.

This is a novel with excellent story dynamics.

Copyright 2018 Bill Johnson