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.