Monthly Archives: November 2010

127 Hours… To A Better Story

Nothing says “I get it!” like seeing it done, and done well, at a professional level.

It’s impossible to turn pro at anything – and make no mistake, writing stories for publication is at the top of this list – without watching and appreciating proven professionals at work.

Writers need to understand everything about every story we read or see.   About what makes them work, or not.  This is more important, in fact, than actually applying butt to chair and writing for ourselves.

Because practice is only productive when done in context to principles and physics.  When it comes to storytelling, growth is always informed, never inevitable.

Good stories are a collision of architecture and art, a collusion between sensibility and intention.

There’s a new movie out that illustrates this brilliantly.  I recommend you see it, and soon.

Not so much because it illustrates the four-part story structure I write about here – it certainly does, but there are clearer structural models out there – but rather, because it’s one of the best examples of how a writer leverages more subtle and evolved principles of storytelling to get this tale under your skin.

The movie is 127 Hours, the true story of hiker Aron Ralston’s ordeal when he was trapped – his arm was pinned – by a falling rock while in the middle of nowhere.  Which is known as Utah.

He remained stuck, alone with his terror and confusion and the weighing of options – live or die – for 127 hours.

And then, with all other options exhausted, he cut off his own arm and walked away.

The story isn’t about what happened.  Everybody in the theater already knows what happened.  

The story is about the journey he took during those 127 hours.

Watch and recognize.  Look for those subtle and evolved storytelling skills that make this otherwise linear story work.  The astute writer will see the empowering essences that will, when applied to virtually any story, turn it into something special.

And I’m about to tell you what they are. 

One is what I call the Six Core Competencies – concept, character, theme, structure, scene execution and writing voice.

Master these and you’re in the game.  Be weak in any one of them – any one – and you’ll be among the millions who can write like a poet but can’t seem to ever sell anything.

But beyond those six core competencies, know this: you can’t win the game – write something that stands a chance of being published – until you layer the other realm of writing physics, skillfully-rendered, on top of them.

And that’s what this movie shows you, as well as any I’ve seen lately. 

But you have to know what to look for.  It’s an essence, delivered only through skill and intention, broken down into two pieces that become a sum that vastly exceeds the parts themselves.

The Two Magic Pills of Storytelling

Observe a stand-up comic sometime.  Notice how the appeal, the laughs, rarely come from a punch line.  They come from the storytelling.  You’ve heard people at parties command the room simply by the way they hold court on a given topic without a punch line of any kind on the horizon.

When you combine that “journey experience” with character appeal, then you’ve got it. 

If the storyteller isn’t appealing, if you’re not engaged and rooting for them along the way, then even the best story falls on deaf ears.  Because those ears are paying more attention to another tape of their own creation.  Rather than buying in, they’re fighting it off.

That’s the twofold trick of storytelling:

–         take the reader/viewer on a vicarious ride, to somewhere or in some way that they’ve never experienced, or wouldn’t dare experience, and make them feel every moment of it…

–         … and make us root for the person actually having that experience in your story.  Make us be them.  Envy them or empathize with them.  Make us feel what they feel.

This is why Aron Ralston didn’t get to play himself, and why the screenplay, which he didn’t write, is deeper and richer than the true story from the book, which he did write.  James Franco is no doubt more appealing and likeable than Aron Ralston, or at least a better actor by a mile, and the movie is more illuminating and dramatically poignant than the nightmare itself.

It’s that simple.  Fiction and the tools and conventions it uses trump reality every time, even when the reality exceeds our capacity to comprehend.  Especially then.

This is why love stories almost always work on some level, and why they so often fail in real life.  Because we’re all into falling in love.  And because it’s so hard, we are drawn toward stories that deliver that experience on a level we seek, have lost, or can never attain. 

It’s why crappy reality shows like The Bachelor and Survivor work.  Not because of any meaningful outcome hanging in the balance, but because of the vicarious experience – a journey – they deliver.

That’s precisely what director Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionare) and actor James Franco do for us in 127 Hours

And it’s why both will almost certainly be up for Oscars.

The ending isn’t the juice of this movie.  It’s a payoff of a different sort. 

No, the juice of this story is about what it takes to make a man arrive at the moment at which he decides to do the unthinkable in order to survive.  It’s about the human experience – vicarious as you’ve ever been through – of getting there with Franco over the course of those dark 127 hours of immobility and self-reflection.

It’s about a character that we root for, relate to, and empathize with.  Not because he’s perfect, but because he is, for two hours, us.

Sure, the first plot point jumps off the screen at you – the rock falls on the guy at about the 20 to 25 percentile mark, right on time.  Everything before that moment was a set-up for it – classic Part 1 structure for your learning pleasure.

Watch and learn on that level, too.

But after that you forget all about structure and get lost in those two other realms of effective storytelling: the vicarious ride, and your empathy and hope for the character.

We all wait on pins and needles for the moment when the arm comes off. 

Not because of some morbid fascination – which perhaps you began with when you bought your popcorn – but rather, because it is the emergence of the protagonist’s heroism, the victory of courage over certain death, the weighing of cost against benefit.

It is a moment you feel more than you believed you could.  Not because of the pain and horror of it, but because of the freedom and victory of it.

You have to see it to feel it. 

You have to take Aron Ralston’s journey with him for this to work.  Which is something the writers of this film (Boyle and Simon Beaufoy, based on Ralston’s book), understand.

To tell the story sequentially and linearly wouldn’t have worked.  That would have been an hour-long docudrama on the National Geographic cable channel.  No, to make this thing cinematic, to make it a story that is garnering five star reviews across the board, it required the artful storytelling sensibilities of a writer.

And as a writer yourself, someone who is in hot pursuit of your mastery over the six core competencies, this film will show you what comes next: the artful layering of vicarious experience in glorious context to an immersion and alignment with heroic, courageous character.

Six core competencies, frosted with two artful essences.  That’s all it takes.  Even when everybody in the room knows how it will end.  Even when it’s true.

It worked for Titanic, and it works even better in 127 Hours

And it’ll work for you, too, once you know it… see it… understand it… practice it… master it… and then put it on the page.

If you’d like to learn more about the six core competencies, click here and here.

If you’d like to learn more about what publishers are looking for, over and above those core competencies, click here.

1 Comment

Filed under Write better (tips and techniques)

Know what “No” Really Means

“Nobody knows anything.”

– William Goldman, Oscar-winning screenwriter and novelist


You are a writer.  Which means you will hear the word “no.” 

Frequently.  Cruelly.  Usually without explanation.  Often without reason.

They will tell you no.  And it will suck.

You may not hear anything at all.  When that happens… it means no.

You are left to interpret the word “no.”  To assign meaning.  And this is the great abyss of writing.  It has a slippery slope at its precipice.  Once you fall into it, everything gets harder.  You become part of the problem.  The bottom of the pit is littered with the dreams of genuinely talented writers who heard and believed the word “no.”

But here’s the thing.  When it comes to writing, “no” doesn’t mean “no” at all.

It means, “I don’t know.”

Even if they tell you what’s behind their “no,” they still don’t know.  The wise writer listens, filters, applies, and moves on.

“I don’t know” is truer than “no.”  It means more to you than “no.”

No is a lie.  I don’t know is the absolute, take-it-to-the-bank truth.

And that, dear writer friends, it what sustains us when the abyss calls our name.

Martha’s Story

A friend of mine named Martha had a great concept for a provocative thriller, one that challenged religious paradigms and personalized our own response to the question of belief. 

Great theme.  Wonderful drama.  High tension suspense.  I loved it.  Martha loved it.

Her critique group didn’t love it.  No matter how Martha spun it for them – it was just a concept at this point – they wouldn’t gift her with an endorsement. 

They said no.

They didn’t get it.  They couldn’t see it.  And they wouldn’t be swayed by Martha’s enthusiasm for it.

And so they said no

Martha wrote it anyway.  Thus avoiding the abyss.

They still said no.  They didn’t get.  They couldn’t see it.  And they weren’t swayed by Martha’s execution of it.

But what they said really meant was this: they didn’t know.  Either at the pitch stage, or the manuscript stage.  They just didn’t know.

Martha recently pitched this story to a handful of agents at a writing conference.  None of them said no.  What they did say was: send us more.

Here’s the irony.  The agents don’t know, either.  The publishers they submit your work to won’t know

Nobody knows anything.

Which is why, in this context, “no” means nothing other than I don’t know

Because if what you’re writing is solid, if it meets the criteria for solid story architecture and dramatic resonance leading to thematic impact, someone along the path will say something other than “no.”

Getting them to do that is your job.  Recognizing it when they see it is their job.  And both jobs are as imprecise and subjective as any work on the planet.

You’re working to find that one person who counts who says something other than no.

Larry’s Story

Bef0re I sold my first novel I was a struggling screenwriter.  I’d had an agent for nine years, and we’d had a couple of options and some success in the Nicholl Screenwriting Fellowship competition, which hatches the occasional produced script (14 of them, in fact, like Mike Rich’s Finding Forrester, and, less frequently, a handful of viable careers… especially Mike Rich’s).

I wanted to turn one of my scripts into a novel.  My agent said no.

I started it anyway.  My agent said no again.

I finished the adaptation.  My agent said “hmmm.”  Totally forgot that she’d said no, but that’s fine, this isn’t about that.

She submitted the draft to four publishers.   Three said no.

One said yes.

That publisher (Penguin-Putnam) threw some national advertising at it and propelled Darkness Bound onto the USA Today bestseller list for three weeks.  A couple of hundred thousand copies and an open door for more novels going forward. 

All leading toward a website called Storyfix and the book that it would become.

No meant I don’t know.

Even the publisher who said yes didn’t know.  That’s the game we’re stuck with, this isn’t a sport in which an object either goes into the goal or it doesn’t.

Yes means: I think I know

They’re not always right.  But that’s the best we’ll get.  Because once we hear yes, we’re pretty much done.  What comes next has almost nothing to do with us.

We’ve reached the goal.  The ball (or puck, your call) went into the net (or out of the park) this time.

Nobody knows anything when it comes to deciding which book is good, which will find a market, and which won’t.  William Goldman said it first, and he’s right. 

At least, at the level at which this game is played.  Some manuscripts scream “amateur” so loudly you might as well stamp it on your cover page.  That’s what this site is all about – avoiding that particular abyss.

Once your story and your execution is at a certain level… nobody knows.

And most of the time, because it’s their business, they say “no” instead of “I don’t know.”  Saying “I don’t know” is career suicide for agents and editors.  And so they say “no” instead.

Even when they think they know, they are often wrong. 

Three of the editors who rejected Darkness Bound were wrong.  One — the one who published it — wasn’t wrong.

Harry Potter was rejected nine times.  The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance was rejected 104 times.  Stephen King’s Carrie was rejected 30 times.  Frank Herbert’s Dune was rejected 23 times.  Gone With the Wind was rejected 38 times.  Jonathan Livingston Seagull was rejected 18 times.  Watership Down was rejected 38 times.  M*A*S*H was rejected 17 times. 

Chicken Soup for the Soul, which inspired dozens of spin-offs and more money than the White House spends on Air Force One catering, was rejected 140 times.

Those authors didn’t let no stop them. 

They understood that “no” means “I don’t know.”

But they knew.  In their heart.  In the deepest crevice of their gray matter.  These authors knew.

“Know” translates to “believe.”

The Only Way to Know

Notice how most of the books mentioned above were risky, freshly-minted concepts.  A school for magic.  A society of rabbits.  Philosophical seagulls.  Shenanigans in a military field hospital.  Thinly masked pop psychology masquerading as commerical fiction.

Our stories are always delivered on two levels, from within two realms: the conceptual and the executional.  (Don’t look that last word up, I take great liberties here… but you get my drift.)

The first can seduce you.  The second will never betray you.

If your belief in your story – if knowing – is based on the appeal of your idea, and little else, then you will hear “no” until you wake up and smell the embalming fluid.

What begets belief most is an understanding and practice of craft, of storytelling principles and criteria.

Your heart will tell you if the soul of your story is a winner.  But it’s your mind that knows.  Because this is where craft resides.  In your inner story architect, your inner fiction engineer.

The heart and the mind can yield a product that exceeds the sum of the parts.  Make sure you employ both in your storytelling.

Will craft guarantee success?  No.

Ah, there it is again.

But in this context, no doesn’t mean I don’t know.  Because nothing guarantees anything in this business, unless your name is already on the A-list.

But it – craft – is your only shot.  That much is certain.

Craft is what turns no into I don’t know when you hear it.  Once spoken, they are speaking the truth: they really don’t know.

But you do know.  The author is always the first to know.  This is what keeps them from slipping into that dark abyss.

It is craft that allows you to know.  And knowing is the imperative magic bullet of getting published.

Don’t submit your work until you know.

Learn more about story architecture here and here

My new book on the subject comes out February from Writers Digest Books, see more about it here.



Filed under turning pro, Uncategorized