Monthly Archives: July 2012

When Your Passion Kills Your Plot

 I wanted to call this one, “The Great and Silent Story Killer,” but I chose to put the real two-by-four-between-the-eyes point in the headline instead. 

Because passion is an intoxicant.  A promise without a plan.  And its addictive.  It is cheering rather than playing the game. 

Good to have, worthless as a story planning asset.

In fact, your passion for a story, the very thing you might believe is your biggest asset going into the writing, might instead be silently, insidiously overwhelming it to the point it smothers the story entirely.

Like a lover who drowns you in affection, yet gives you nothing that you need.

A politician can rant for years about how a proposed tax cut can help the middle class.  But can he shut himself into a room in the back of IRS headquarters and rewrite the tax code that will make it happen?

Not a chance. 

Some of us want to save the world with our novels.   

Some reign that back a bit, we merely want to save a few souls or at least unburden our own.  We are serious about this.  Our novel is important, it is necessary, a story that must be told.  It matters.

If you asked Kathryn Stockett what her novel, “The Help,” was about, you might get two answers.  The first is a thematic target and rationale, the other a window into the story that reflects a narrative plan: 

The Help is the story of black maids in 1962 Jackson, Mississippi and their oppression and injustice at the hands of their prejudiced white employers. The story will show the strength and humanity of these women, and how they helped change the course of racial history in this country.

Yeah… but where’s the story? 

The Help is a story of a young writer looking to break into publishing, who senses a story in the experiences of the black maids of 1962 Jackson, Mississippi.  She struggles to enlist their help for a book that sheds light on these secret injustices, and in doing so discovers both darkness and humanity that exceeds her vision and, in writing it, threatens her own position in the community.

Now that’s a story.  Theme will EMERGE from this story organically. 

A writer needs both answers, always.

Because great craft and an understanding of the mechanisms, architectures and chemistries involved – a compelling dramatic premise… tension and conflict… antagonism causing that conflict… optimal pacing… heroic empathy… a vicarious reading experience (the ride)… stellar craft in execution… 

… that’s the real work behind the thematic promise. 

These should be the things the writer talks about FIRST, and become most passionate about once the work is underway.  Because inherent to this understanding is the certainty that the thematic promises – exciting and important as they are – aren’t even in the ballpark until these players are in the shower. 

Thematic power is the product of dramatic effectiveness.  If your passion is on the wrong end of that sentence, then your story needs a bodyguard, because its life may be in danger.

What is your story about?   

That last word is a loaded gun pointing at the heart of your manuscript.  Your answer exposes you, strips you naked in the light of your story’s commercial and mechanical viability.  It tells you what you know, and by its absence, also exposes what you don’t know. 

Which is how to make this story compelling in execution… through plot 

Passion without plot will drag your manuscript to the bottom of the Priority Mail bin on its way back to you.

A great story is about a problem, not an ideology.  It’s about a person, your hero, who has something to win or lose in squaring off with their problem and their issues.  An external antagonist (bad guy) who stands in their way.  A journey to take as the battle builds, ebbs and flows, and allows the hero to grow into the nametag (Hero) and begins to act in a manner that solves the problem. 

Your hero doesn’t need to be a soldier in the problem, but the problem issue needs to contextually bear on whatever conflict-driven path you put them on. 

Read any published story, these dynamics will be there.   

Read any unpublished story, and they might not be.

Too many writers don’t even consider this when approaching a story about pain and injustice and healing and finding love again.  All of those targets are themes, and when they work, they are the product – the outcome – of a story well told.   

A story with a plot.

I’ve been seeing a lot of this lately in my work as a story coach.   

I have a couple of programs in play where writers send me either an entire manuscript for review, or just a few pages of summarized outline and intentions.  I’ve done about 50 or so in the last couple of months, and I see a trend. 

A disturbing trend. 

Writers are summarizing something that isn’t a story.  Instead, they’re describing the issue they want to write about.   Passionately so.  World peace.  Finding love.  Finding one’s true self in a cold cruel world.  Resolving family stuff.  Forgiveness.

I read these opening paragraphs intended to convey the idea and concept of the story, and I have to ask… “Nice theme, but where’s the story?  Where’s the concept?  Because a concept is NOT a theme, though it may lead to one… and vice versa, a theme is never really a concept, it’s an intention, a goal for an outcome.” 

Paragraphs then ensue describing the politics of the day (in historicals), or the backstory of the hero and the dysfunctional family.  About how the character feels.  And, in a misguided attempt to resolve the story, about how the problem (if there is one) is resolved when the hero one day wakes up and realizes something.   

As if the juice of the story resides there.  It doesn’t.  It resides in the power of the conflict you bring to it, and in the hero’s ACTIONS to make things right. 

Still no story.  The writer is practically weeping onto the page.  This pet issue of theirs, their NOVEL, will be their cathartic salvation, and they get all of their pain and rage and passion into it.  Often because it’s their story.

But into what?  There’s still no story, I tell them.  No hero’s problem.  No external antagonist.  No overriding problem to solve, just a litany of internal issues holding them back.  Nobody, and nothing, to root for. 

They don’t see what I mean, until I tell them this:

A story is about a character, a hero… not a theme.  Theme only emerges from the vicarious emotional participation on the part of a reader who empathizes with (and roots for) the hero as they face a problem, a challenge, a need, and launches them down a path of reaction to this new quest, under pressure from the antagonist, with a ticking clock,  then proactively managing it toward their desired end. 

Variations on this model abound.  Without really ever shifting it.

That’s a story.  Hero, problem, antagonist, respond, change, attack, regroup, grow, DO SOMETHING HEROIC, solve the problem. 

The word “theme” isn’t in there.  It doesn’t mean anything… until it does.

A story is about characters DOING things.  That’s it in a nutshell.  The sequence and sum of what they DO is the story.  Its not what they see, what they feel, it’s what they DO in response to pressure and stakes and need. 

What the story means is sub-text, not the narrative point guard.  And in that little model you’ll notice that it isn’t there.  Themes – the messages and focuses you are so passionate about – are OUTCOMES of your narrative efforts, like fruit from a planting. 

Bad dirt, no water, no sun, no care or craft… no fruit.  And here you are, having promised everyone a lovely fruit salad. 

Once you realize that the power of your intended thematic outcome is in your hands, you must comprehend the limits and the upside of what this means

This isn’t about bombs and criminals and murders… this is about ANY story.  Because they ALL need conflict, they all require a PLOT.  And they can all lead to strong thematic resonance. 

Plot is the stage upon which your characters reveal themselves.

Characters are the catalytic moving parts of the plot. 

Emotions are the currency of everyone’s involvement in the plot.

Stakes are the consequences of the ACTIONS of the characters in context to that involvement. 

A good story coach won’t care much about your theme, or the issues.

We’re looking for story, in all its phases, contexts, forms and functions.  Just like a doctor doesn’t care about your upcoming promotion… the doctor just cares that you’ll be upright and breathing when the day arrives. 

******

About the Storyfix newsletter… it’s now a bi-monthly distribution, to ensure rich content.  The July-August issue will be out around August 1… you can sign up HERE (input your email only, don’t need your street address). 

Coming soon… an announcement about how you can have your story basics – premise, concept, basic structure and narrative plan, including your 9-sentences – evaluated for… well, you won’t believe how affordable and easy it is.  Just answer a few questions and submit up to 10 pages of outline or beat sheet… I’ll tell you how your core competencies and story physics are lining up, and how to take them to the next level.  

There’s never been a story coaching concept like this… it’s like a physical exam and a training protocol prior to entering an extreme sporting event (and believe me, writing a novel or a screenplay is totally an extreme undertaking), telling you where you’re strong and where you’re vulnerable before you actually finish the work.   

Have your story appraised and improved… so you can not only get it right, but get it nailed, too.  It’s called “The Amazing $100 Professional Story Coaching Adventure,” and based on feedback from the beta test, it changes the game for writers who are serious about getting it right.

Coming soon!

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More Goodness from Art Holcomb: “Forget Jagger – Learn How to Move Like Sorkin”

I’m a lucky blogger.  When I take a hiatus, which has just about run it’s course, I have folks like Art Holcomb and Jennifer Blanchard (InkyBites) ready to step in.  Here’s another winner from Art, who (like Jennifer) never disappoints. 

Back soon.  Larry

***** 

Forget Jagger – Learn How to Move Like Sorkin

A Guest Post from Art Holcomb

All writers have their gods.

It’s just the way we’re wired.

When I was a boy, it was Robert Heinlein and Harlan Ellison and Tennessee Williams because I loved the language and the cadence and the way they could drop me out of my everyday life into the fantastic with the simple turn of a page. I would read them with a pen and notebook at hand and try to figure out the magic that they brought so easily to their stories because I desperately wanted to be able to do that too.

I tend to read different authors now (with the possible exception of  the eternal Ellison) and, as a screenwriter, I found myself seeing patterns in the types of screenplays I enjoyed. Films like A Few Good Men and Charlie Wilson’s War and television like Sports Night and The West Wing stand out above the crowd as profound examples of the power behind iconic dialogue and burning-white issues.

And this led me Aaron Sorkin.

Among his many other talents as an Academy Award ™ winning screenwriter and playwright, he is a master at the art of dialogue.  His words can pour over you like a song or buffet you into submission with images dense, meaty and vibrantly alive. To be in love with both what a writer says AND the way that s/he says it is a rare treat, and Sorkin brings it every time.

And since dialogue offers considerable challenges to both scriptwriter and fiction writer, I know that he has something that can speak to every writer’s struggles.

While I’ll leave it to you to discover (or rediscover) Sorkin’s exceptional body of work, I wanted to share a rare opportunity for writers: a chance to have a master discuss not only his own work, but to walk you through his technique and process.  Below is a reprint of an open letter from Sorkin and an excellent example of his dialogue style from his brand-new HBO series The Newsroom. (Sorkin’s teaching points are in italics below).

I find something new each time I read this piece. 

I think you will too.

I’ll see you at the end.

********

How to Write an Aaron Sorkin Script, by Aaron Sorkin 

A song in a musical works best when a character has to sing— when words won’t do the trick anymore. The same idea applies to a long speech in a play or a movie or on television. You want to force the character out of a conversational pattern. In the pilot of The Newsroom, a new series for HBO, TV news anchor Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) emotionally checked out years ago, and now he’s sitting on a college panel, hearing the same shouting match between right and left he’s been hearing forever, and the arguments have become noise. A student asks what makes America the world’s greatest country, and Will dodges the question with glib answers. But the moderator keeps needling him until…snap.

Will: It’s not the greatest country in the world, professor, that’s my answer.

Moderator: [pause] You’re saying—

Will: Yes.

Moderator: Let’s talk about—

*Start off easy. First get rid of the two noisemakers.*

Will : Fine. [to the liberal panelist] Sharon, the NEA is a loser. Yeah, it accounts for a penny out of our paychecks, but he [gesturing to the conservative panelist] gets to hit you with it anytime he wants. It doesn’t cost money, it costs votes. It costs airtime and column inches. You know why people don’t like liberals? Because they lose. If liberals are so f**kin’ smart, how come they lose so GODDAM ALWAYS!

*The use of inappropriate language has a purpose—the filter’s off*.

And [to the conservative panelist] with a straight face, you’re going to tell students that America’s so starspangled awesome that we’re the only ones in the world who have freedom? Canada has freedom, Japan has freedom, the UK, France, Italy, Germany, Spain, Australia, Belgium has freedom. Two hundred seven sovereign states in the world, like 180 of them have freedom.

*The fact-dump that’s coming now serves several purposes. It backs up his argument, it reveals him to be exceptional (what normal person has these stats at their fingertips?), but mostly it’s musical. This is the allegro.*

And you—sorority girl—yeah—just in case you accidentally wander into a voting booth one day, there are some things you should know, and one of them is that there is absolutely no evidence to support the statement that we’re the greatest country in the world. We’re seventh in literacy, twenty-seventh in math, twenty-second in science, forty-ninth in life expectancy, 178th in infant mortality, third in median household income, number four in labor force, and number four in exports. We lead the world in only three categories: number of incarcerated citizens per capita, number of adults who believe angels are real, and defense spending, where we spend more than the next twenty-six countries combined, twenty-five of whom are allies. None of this is the fault of a 20-year-old college student, but you, nonetheless, are without a doubt, a member of the WORST-period-GENERATION-period-EVER-period, so when you ask what makes us the greatest country in the world, I don’t know what the f**k you’re talking about?! Yosemite?!!!

[Cell-phone cameras are everywhere— people are tweeting and texting away.]

*Now we slow down and get a glimpse into his pain. The oratorical technique is called “floating opposites”— we did, we didn’t, we did, we didn’t… But rhythmically you don’t want this to be too on the money. You’re not just testing the human ear anymore; you want people to hear what he’s saying.*

We sure used to be. We stood up for what was right! We fought for moral reasons, we passed and struck down laws for moral reasons. We waged wars on poverty, not poor people. We sacrificed, we cared about our neighbors, we put our money where our mouths were, and we never beat our chest. We built great big things, made ungodly technological advances, explored the universe, cured diseases, and cultivated the world’s greatest artists and the world’s greatest economy. We reached for the stars, and we acted like men. We aspired to intelligence; we didn’t belittle it; it didn’t make us feel inferior. We didn’t identify ourselves by who we voted for in the last election, and we didn’t scare so easy. And we were able to be all these things and do all these things because we were informed. By great men, men who were revered. The first step in solving any problem is recognizing there is one—America is not the greatest country in the world anymore.

*To resolve a melody, you have to end on either the tonic or the dominant. (Try humming “Mary Had a Little Lamb” right now, but leave off “snow.” You’ll feel like you need to sneeze.) So Will ends where he started. Then, just to acknowledge that he just sang an aria— which is unusual in the course of a normal conversation—he turns to the moderator who’d been needling him and casually asks…*

Will: [to moderator] Enough?

*******

Did you find something there that you can use? Does it make you think of your dialogue differently now?

One of the lessons in the piece is clear: there are always greater depths available for our characters and ever more chances for us as writers to make a real impact.

Until next time, keep writing!

Art

Art Holcomb is a successful screenwriter, comic book writer and frequent contributor to Storyfix.com.  A number of his recent posts appear in the Larry Brooks’ collection: Warm Hugs for Writers: Comfort and Commiseration of The Writing Life.  He appears this summer at the San Diego Comic-Con and the Greater Los Angeles Writer’s Conference, and begins teaching screenwriting and graphic novel writing classes at the University of California in Fall 2012. His most recent screenplay is FINAL DOWN (a NFL team disaster film) and his short story OLIVER AND THE FOUR-PIECE, REGENCY-STYLE BEDROOM SET OF DOOM is being adapted for the screen.

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