Part of our mission here at Daily Fuel has been to illuminate life and early career insights for our readers. As part of that continuing purpose, we're excited to announce our new blogger, Christian Zilko, will be providing first-person accounts into one young professional's journey. Enjoy.

Short-Handed Screenwriting

Ensemble pieces are hard.

In the multitude of writing classes and books I’ve consumed, this is one of the few pieces of advice that remains consistent. The more characters you include in a script, the more likely it is to fail. Audience members want a single character to root for. See: why everybody thinks that Brokeback Mountain should have beaten Crash for Best Picture.

In television, this rule is slightly less hard-and-fast, as shows like Friends have found incredible success. But the fact remains, scripts with more characters are always harder to write.

But I’m never one to turn away from a challenge.

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m finishing writing a web series, tentatively scheduled to film in early 2019. The show follows six characters, who all hold equal importance to the show. Balancing airtime for that many characters is a challenge in any project, but particularly difficult when your episodes are under ten minutes. The writing process had been going well, but I wouldn’t describe any of the product as “insanely great.” Then, over the weekend, I had a realization.

I was practicing online poker (as I often do), and I found myself curious about the differences between online and live games. Elite professional tournaments, like the World Series of Poker Main Event, are always played with nine players at a table. Yet the most popular form of online poker is “short handed,” where only six players sit at a table. I won’t bore you with the strategy differences between the two variations, but short-handed poker certainly offers more in terms of instant gratification. It’s more aggressive, people are forced to play more hands, and it generally entertains people who have less patience. Just like a web series.

As I watched every hand, patterns that I had seen thousands of times began to interest me. Six players get their cards, 3-4 fold immediately, and the remaining 2-3 fight each other with extreme aggression. And then it hit me. My scripts could follow the exact same format.

All six characters could appear in the beginning of every episode, then a conflict can emerge that causes four of them to drop back. The two remaining characters would be the primary drivers of the plot. Then for the next episode, I’d just repeat it with two different characters.

Suddenly, the show started to sing. The episodes never felt too thinly spread. All of the characters began to shine more, because their screen time was concentrated in longer segments. I went from cautiously optimistic to extremely proud of the work. The episodes are fast and fun, but with a stronger emotional core, because the character relationships are fleshed out.

When I hit a creative wall, I took a break from the work and focused on my favorite hobby. And before I knew it, it provided me with the very solution that had been alluding me. Not a bad weekend.

I guess you could say the moral of this story is that inspiration comes from unexpected places, which is increasingly becoming a theme on Daily Fuel. Or, if you’re like me, the moral is that studying poker is ALWAYS a good use of time.

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You never have to change anything you got up in the middle of the night to write.
— Saul Bellow
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