Finding Enlightenment Behind The Scenes

Not quite a two-parter.

By that I mean, what began as one big honkin’ post quickly evolved into two.  When the intro/set-up — how I came to the stuff I’ll talk about in the forthcoming not-quite-Part 2 — started to outgrow itself, when it became a separate yet valid topic for discussion, I made the executive decision to double up.

It’s what I get for pantsing my posts. 

The good news is, twice the juice for you.  And, I’m already done with the mid-week article.

Love it when a plan comes together.  Even when it’s the result of one falling apart.


One of the best ways to skip a rung or two on the storytelling learning curve is to rent DVDs.  Lots of DVDs.

This is just as true – if not more so – if you’re a novelist rather than a screenwriter.  Other than the printed page itself, the core principles of those two avocations are close enough to make them more than literary cousins, more like twins separated at birth.

I’ve already written here about the value of deconstructing stories.  Dissecting the scenes and story-beats and then fitting them back together. 

Sort of a literary C.S.I. thing.  Find out why and how the story worked… or why it croaked.  It works equally well for DVDs and novels, with hardly any difference other than the time required.

But there’s another avenue of writerly growth available on most of those DVDs, and it’s right there on the Main Menu.

Hit the Features or Extras button after you’ve seen the movie. 

Go ahead.  Click it.  What you find there can make you a better writer.

Chances are this is where you’ll find interviews with the actors, the director and producers, and the screenwriter.  Easy to skip this stuff… but don’t.  Hearing what those people have to say can be just as illuminating as watching the story itself.

Because they just might tell you how they did what they did, and why.

You can eat a great gourmet meal anytime, but you can’t cook one up yourself until you hear the chef talk about how it was done. 

I just finished with the DVD of the screen version of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, starring Viggo Mortensen (highly recommended, though dark and very character-driven and thematically-intense, even within an astoundlingly high concept), and the way the cast and crew discuss storytelling is just such a revelation.

I’d also just done this after watching the entire first season of HBO’s Hung, and while markedly different in tone and structure (Hung being a 10-part serial versus a two hour film), I was stricken by the literary similarities.

In particular, I noticed one specific way of thinking about your story before you write it… as you write it… as you rewrite it… and as you pitch it, either to an agent or publisher or producer, to the intended audience.

The way a world class chef thinks about the ingredients before even entering the kitchen.

It’s the thing that keeps the narrative on task, rather than wandering around a character-driven dramatic landscape with a scarcity of tension. 

And it’s as ridiculously simple, even obvious, as it is powerful. 

And yet, I’m willing to bet you’ve never boiled your story down to this level.  I know I hadn’t.

What it boils down to this:

What dramatic questions are you asking in your story?

Boiling your story down to a few simple – key word there: simple – questions allows you to wade through the self-induced quagmire of side-trips, sub-plots, setting-up, paying off, pacing, character arc and resolution…

… all of which are already clarified through a keen grasp of story structure and the six core competencies of successful storytelling that prop it up.

It’s the essence of knowing your story, which is nonnegotiable when it comes down to finally writing it well.

Next up: the not-quite Part 2 of this not-quite two-part post.


Filed under Write better (tips and techniques)

12 Responses to Finding Enlightenment Behind The Scenes

  1. Patrick Sullivan

    I can’t speak to the movie, but The Road as novel is tear-inducing. One of the most heart wrenching and profound things I’ve ever read. And I don’t even have kids!

    This post feels appropriate because, while I’m writing one book, I’m also prepping the next and I’ve been trying to focus on the higher concepts, namely theme, and build the entire story around that.

    I started with one main character, picked a second… then the second’s story actually redefined how I was looking at the whole thing, AND gave me a theme, AND gave me the third viewpoint character I felt the story needed to give it enough to hang itself on.

    All the while if it holds up how it’s looking, it will all be part of one very unified idea of a story, three disparate pieces of one whole that shapes the lives of three characters.

    Best part I’ve found so far in the planning stages is, any time I come up with a scene, a minor character, etc, I just have to ask myself “how does this fit into the theme” and if it passes that “where does it fit along a particular character’s arc.”

    In the end, it’s making the entire story building process a million times easier for me.

  2. Design, design, design. Put down maybe 30 “what-ifs” and pick the major or broadest one. Ramp it up about 10 times and then maybe you’ve got something.

    Otherwise, you’ll end up with a mixture of stuff which won’t really fly. That’s like a chef starting on a meat entre then halfway through deciding to create a sugary dessert. Ain’t going to work.

    Re the extras on DVDs: I often do the first viewing cold then go through the extras. The second viewing gives me a lot more. The third viewing with the director’s comments turned on (if available) really gets me down into the nuts and bolts.

    By the way, Larry, is there any way to hurry up the publisher on the Six Core Competencies book? I’d be glad to write a begging, pleading, groveling letter to them if it would help.

  3. I love the first scene in Tarantino’s Inglorious Bastards. It’s really a study in tension and suspense that can teach writers a lot about the craft.

  4. Gary

    Another superb post. This is something I’m probably needing to ask in relation to the story idea I’m working with. I bought ‘Story Structure – Demystified’ and ‘101 Slightly Unpredictable Tips for Novelists and Screenwriters’ a day or two ago. I have sailed through them, and they have really opened my eyes. I scrapped my original plot/layout, because I feel I did not have the key plot points mapped out. This is one thing I am still having great difficulty with.

    I am writing a love story (not a romance – my book would not conform to their requirements), and with my old plot layout I was struggling for something plot wise that would pull the reader through the story. I’m not sure if I should have the love elements as the key plot points, or if the love side of things should be working along side some other external story which is what the plot points are about?

    The story involves two people falling in love again after 10 years apart. They split as teenagers due to work commitments in other countries and lost contact. She only found out later that she was pregnant, and she has raised their child alone for 10 years. Now he is back in the country, and she has this secret. I want the story to involve them falling back in love, and before she knows it, she is in too deep in the relationship, and has to struggle with telling him he has a child. The ending would appear very self explanatory with the climax being that she has to tell him the truth and risk the relationship.

    I just don’t feel that the love story side alone is enough to carry the story, but I don’t want another storyline to overshadow the love story side of things and the climax I need. Should I have two stories working side by side (the love story and another story line) and therefore two of each plot point? I have no idea how I should be thinking about this. You were definitely correct in the article you wrote where you said that romances/love stories were the brain surgery of fiction!

  5. Martha Miller

    “What is this story REALLY about?” is a question I ask myself before I write a word, and then again and again as I’m writing. As usual, your post hit home. If I can put what my story is really about in one succinct sentence, that becomes the first line in a pitch, a synopsis and a query letter. From that one sentence, the story evolves and that sentence keeps me from going outside the lines when I color it in with my writing. Not that coloring outside the lines is always bad, but it does keep me from digressing.
    I’m so glad you’re sharing this wise idea with us all.

  6. Jeff

    Thanks for another great post, and some really insightful comments. Your timing on this was perfect. I’ve been hung up on some outline revisions and your suggestions have allowed me to look at my structure and plot in a new way and helped move me forward.

    I think sometimes we get so involved in the complex nature of our plots we lose sight of that bigger story goal.

    Thanks again .

  7. Jean

    As a counterpoint, I’d like to submit that using the screenplay structure to approach novels, as is so often done in how-to books, is somewhat deceptive.

    Movie structure is easy to understand, and literature on the subject is abundant. But a novel is very different, according to writers of both novels and screenplays such as Richard Price or Richard Russo.

    In fact, the orphan/wanderer/warrior/martyr is a four-part movie structure that, I recently found out, is the basis of a story development software for screenwriters called Contour.

    It doesn’t mean it’s not interesting to use such a grid to analyze novels (of course, it works best to analyze movies or genre books made for movies).
    But the interesting, yet difficult question of what makes Benjamin Franzen’s “Corrections” or Richard Russo’s “Nobody’s Fool” work, besides the great writing, is skirted.

    I’d like to be proven wrong, of course…

  8. Pingback: The Most Important Question(s) in Storytelling and the Ensuing Two Questions That Allow You to Answer

  9. @Jean — as a counterpoint to your counterpoint… there’s so much wrong with your point of view here (my opinion on some things, pure fact on others) that I don’t know where to start.

    First off, the “orphan, wanderer, warrior, martyr” model was first introduced in a 1989 book by Carol Peterson called “The Hero Within,” and is actually part of a 6-element dramatic model. Contour, and any other software for writers, are simply using it (because it works), they didn’t invent it. It isn’t remotely a purely movie-related model as you state, it’s a universal concept.

    When writers like Richard Price (who criticizes absolutely everything, and often, qualifying him as a total jackass) and Richard Russo claim to be the authority on dramatic structure, they are simply voicing their own limited paradigm. Even writers who wouldn’t cop to any form of structural model write from it all the time, including those two.

    You’re completely off base in stating that movie structure is easy to understand and therefore different than the dramatic structure used by novelists. That’s just the ego and soft-brained inability of some novelists to grasp structural principles sounding off, and the unfortunate thing is when newer writers believe it. The principles — 4 part, 3-part, whatever and however you want to call it — are universal in nature, they are the physics. They spring from the absolute necessity for dramatic tension, which implies by definition a set-up and a resolution. They are as basic as gravity.

    The only form of fiction that defies those principles — two forms, actually — are experimental fiction written for college professors who couldn’t ever publish, and much of the fiction that fills the return-t0-sender bins at publishing houses.

    You are right about one thing… there is indeed an abundance of screenwriting knowledge out there in the form of books and workshops, much more so than novel-writing. But the proof of the issue is in studying novels themselves, not the novelists who talk about it. Those books, even THEIR books — I defy you to cite an exception and then hold it up as the icon for all dramatic literature — all take the basic dramatic structure and principles and make it their own, in some form or another.

    Which is precisely what I advocate. The spacing, timing, weighting and nature of structural elements are significantly more flexible for novelists than they are for screenwriters… but it’s all there. To claim it isn’t, to claim there are no “rules” or principles, to claim that novelists work from a somehow higher and more free and liberal place is to either a) be clueless about what makes a story work, meaning you’ll have to either be a natural-born storyteller or a prodigy, or just plain lucky, or b) be so blinded by a right-brained world view that the existence of that structure isn’t something you can wrap your head around.

    Within genre fiction, multiply the validity of what I just said by about 10. Submit a story that violates the principles of story structure — even if it resembles the latest movie — and the manuscript won’t get past the door guard.

    The shelves in bookstores are full of writers (including Price and Russo) who get it, even if they won’t admit it or don’t wish to call it by it’s name, who write with such art and nuance that most readers (and apparently some writers) can’t see the inherent structure within it, and how it aligns with accepted principles. However, the writing conferences that populate every weekend are full of dreamers who don’t get it… and won’t join the former until they do.

    Notice, too, that Franzen has completely disappeared. Sometimes stories leak through – like “The Sixth Sense” in the movie world, a huge hit that violated every storytelling principle there is – and when they do, unless the writer develops a better structural craft moving forward, they’ll go away.

  10. Jean


    “…to claim there are no “rules” or principles, to claim that novelists work from a somehow higher and more free and liberal place…”

    I didn’t make such claim. There are rules, principles; they are not higher, more free or more liberal. They are, I believe, different, and as I was trying to understand them I found that the so-called universal story telling paradigm (which you nicely analyze in your ebook and blog) falls short of providing a structural framework on which to hang those works. I may well be wrong.

    “Notice, too, that Franzen has completely disappeared.”

    Not sure what you mean by that. I meant to write Jonathan Franzen, of course (not Benjamin).

  11. @Jean — hi again. You’ve got me curious now. I’m going to read those three guys (again) — Franzen, Price and Russo — and see how/if they are structuring things differently than I believe they are. Not to prove you wrong or to prove me right, but to learn.

    My call — the basic structure will be there, and no differently than described here and elsewhere. And, it will artfully and gracefully integrated with character, POV and expositional gymnastics to an extent that it’s not as obvious. The structure will be on a thematic or deep inner character level, rather than surface plot, but it’ll be there.

    When that happens, we can all take a page from those guys to finally decide once and for all that story structure principles do exist, that you don’t mess with them, and that you still get to be as free and artistic and creatively original as you please.

    If it doesn’t happen, then I’ll be the first to acknowledge it an learn from them.

  12. Michael

    I think you mean The Hero Within by Carol Pearson, Larry, not Peterson.