The Most Powerful Two Hours You’ll Ever Spend as a Storyteller

I’m about to introduce you to the most exhilarating and useful hands-on writing exercise I’ve ever experienced.  So effective, in fact, that it’s more a tool than it is a way to limber up the ol’ creative muscles.

So which is it?  An exercise or a tool?

Doesn’t matter.  Either way, I urge you – I  challenge you – to try this. 

Why?  Because just sitting there waiting for the blood to emerge from your forehead and plop onto the page in the form of an idea probably isn’t going to do the trick anytime soon.

If you’re blocked, this will unblock you. 

But that’s only one reason to give this a shot.

If you’re fuzzy about story structure, this will clear the fog. 

If you’re looking for a way to turn an idea into a story, this is like growth hormones for that seed. 

It’ll take you two to three hours to complete.  What comes of that investment of time, though, just might change – or even save – your writing life.

Your mission is to generically deconstruct a story.

It’s like shooting video of Tiger Woods’ golf swing.  You’re not ripping him off, you’re breaking down the fundamentals of what works.  When you then apply what you’ve learned to your own game, trust me, nobody will accuse you of plagiarizing greatness 

Because the principles of greatness are always generic, available to everybody.

When you’re finished, you’ll have a generic template for a story from your chosen genre, something you can apply to your own work as you see fit, in part or even in whole.

Or, at a minimum, you’ll have something that will enhance and reinforce your understanding of story architecture.

First step: go to the video store and rent a movie. 

It’s critical that you pick something from your genre.  Doesn’t matter if you’ve seen it before, entertainment isn’t the point.  The closer you can come to your project, the better.

Why a movie instead of a book?  Because a book will require two to four days of hard work to complete this project.  A film, two to three hours.  Your call.  The outcome will be the same.

Now, grab a pad of paper and a pencil.  Or watch it with your laptop and the DVD remote.  Either way, you’ll be stopping the film about every 90 seconds or so.

The next part isn’t rocket science, but it’ll be tougher than it sounds.

Watch the first scene, then pause the DVD. 

Now write the generic mission of what you just saw. 

For example, the first scene in the film version of The Cider House Rules is a train arriving in a remote location during a snow storm.  But don’t write that down. 

For this exercise you’d write: establishes location.

The next few scenes of that film are quick cuts – a montage, really – to familiarize the viewer with the orphanage, which is the stage upon which this drama will unfold.  For this, you’d write: montage, establishes setting and dramatic stage

Do this for every scene in the film.  Remember, the idea is to stay as generic as possible. 

Your notes will be bullets, rather than sentences.

They’ll look like this 

–         meet the protagonist;

–         see where hero works;

–         glimpse of hero’s inner demon and backstory;

–         suspicious character, possible foreshadowing;

–         antagonist appears, but hero unaware of danger;

–         hero is unhappy, but hiding it;

… and so on.

At some point you’ll encounter scenes that are the major milestones of the story.  Be sure to note this, as follows: plot point one, hero’s wife is murdered.

Sometimes you’ll come across establishing shots that aren’t really scenes at all – skip ‘em.  It won’t take you long to catch on to what’s important to the storytelling process and what isn’t.

Sometimes, too, you’ll encounter a series of short scenes that combine into a meaningful sequence.  For these, make your notation accordingly: series of scenes showing the approaching storm.

Write down whatever you need in order to clearly understand the mission – not the content – of each scene when you study the list later.

When you’re done you’ll have a roster of 40 to 70 scenes, all written in a generic manner to the extent that if you showed it to someone, they wouldn’t have a clue what movie you’re describing.

For all they know, you might be showing them a blueprint for your story.

If that happens, you’ve done this right.

If you’re doing this as an exercise, you’ll experience the power and magic of story structure, perhaps as you’ve never comprehended it before.  You’ll have transitioned from student to apprentice in two hours time.

If you’re doing this to unblock your story, you’ll see how similar complexities can be worked out, perhaps in a way that will kick-start a few new ideas of your own.  Bells will sound, alarms will go off, and you’ll practically run to your computer to bring your story back to life.

If you’re looking to expand an idea into a story, you’ll have a roadmap that you could, if so-moved, use to plan a completely different story using the same sequence of generic missions.

It’s not plagiarism, it’s inspiration.  I promise you, even the author of the original piece wouldn’t recognize what you’ve written as a result of this process.

At least if you’ve remained completely generic, front to back.

Doing this is like the first time you had sex. 

You’ve read about it, heard about it, talked about, imagined it.  But until you actually do it, there’s no way to truly grasp what it means, how it works, and how it makes you feel.

Because this process allows you to actually experience a story in a manner that is orders of magnitude more intimate than simply watching a movie or reading a book.

And if there’s one thing your story needs, it’s intimacy.  Not just with the readers and the characters, but with the storytelling architecture that makes it work.

And if you’ve been paying attention here on Storyfix, you already know that story architecture is a generic phenomenon.   One you can learn, one you can and should adopt.

This exercise – this tool – is one way to help you get there quickly.


Filed under Write better (tips and techniques)

25 Responses to The Most Powerful Two Hours You’ll Ever Spend as a Storyteller

  1. Sandra

    I’m feeling distant from my story so intimacy sounds good. However, part of my problem seems to be that I keep thinking “What part of my story am I writing now? How is that supposed to work? Is it in the right place? Is it . . . ? Am I . . . ?” and I think that is part of what is shutting my imagination (and the actual physical act of writing) down. So I’m concerned if this will really open me up or just make the mental nagging worse.

    I have an appointment to take my car to get repaired today, but I’ll give this a go tonight and see where it takes me. I think “The Rosary Murders” will work well. I’ll let you know how it goes.


    • @Sandra — what you’re feeling here is classic panster syndrome. It’s a trade-off between the discipline of structure and the freedom of random, organic writing. But the latter isn’t really free at all, because the price is some combination of inefficiency and failure.

      At the end of the day you need both. A successful story WILL end up aligning with the basic contours of the 4-part story structure. If it doesn’t it won’t sell. And when it does, it will still deliver powerful themes and characters… even more effectively than within a story in which the writer has tried to make up their own structure. That, by the way, almost never works.

      The thing is, one doesn’t have to compromise the other. If you write freely from within the 4-part model, you won’t have to rewrite it several times to get your genius creativity into the proper structural format, where it needs to be if you want to sell it. There is nothing constrictive about it, and more than the rules of marriage or golf or flying an airplane are restrictive… they are necessary to make it work.

      You mention not knowing where you are in the process. It’s simple math, really: the first quarter is a context of story set-up… the second quarter is a response to the new hero problem… the third quarter the mounting of an attack on that problem… and the final quartile is the resolution of it all. From within those very broad definitions you are totally free to create as you please. Nothing restrictive about it.

      Of course, if you don’t know the ending — another downside of classic panster syndrome — none of this works. Which is why pantsing a story is so inefficient, and with only a few exceptions, largely ineffective, too.

      Stick with it. Writing is a discipline, and if you give yourself permission to abandon the discipline you’ll be even more frustrated. The goal isn’t just to get the story down on paper, the ultimate goal is to get in on paper in a way that works.

      Hope this helps. Let me know if I can shed more light for you.

  2. This is a great idea, Larry! I am going to try it this weekend with one of the chick-lit-turned-movies I’ve seen a million times. I think this will really help me continue to develop the scenes I need in order to rewrite my first novel. As always, your ideas, suggestions and words of wisdom are inspiring 🙂

  3. Hi Larry. After reading your series on story structure, I did a smaller version of this exercise over the weekend — I sat down with three different movies of three different genres and wrote out the story structure of each one. Looking for the plot points, the 4 parts of the story. It was astounding how easy it proved to be…and my husband was with me at the time, and he picked it up quickly too. The hardest part for me was the pinch points, those weren’t quite so easy to pick out. But this exercise sounds like a great way to focus on the scenes. I’m definitely going to try this next.

  4. Larry, I wanted to add one other thing… on the story structure parts. It helped me makes sense of an agent rejection I received a few years back. She said she thought the setup went on too long. There was obviously more that wasn’t right for her, but that was one of her specific comments. At the time, I didn’t understand what that meant. NOW, I absolutely get what she means. In a later version of the same story that was sold, I condensed the first 6 chapters into three. (Putting it all in the right place.)

    So thank you, you have demystified a rejection letter for me. LOL

  5. i write fantasy, so the only movies in my genre i have are the LotR trilogy, and my boys have the Potter series. The next time i catch Conan, or another movie that isn’t quite so long in the genre, i will remember to do this.

    my wife likes watching movies, and i’ve been able to apply structure to those movies really easily and it has been a great exercise. the next time she pops a movie in, i’ll sit down and go bullet point by bullet point and compare with my story outline (which is a bullet point list practically) to see how that structure compares with mine.

    Thanks Larry! all your guidance has been very helpful.

  6. Larry,

    Loved all your books, and eat alive your tips and advice here, but this one is the cats meow! I have had an idea for a story for about a year. I know the basic “structure” and I have even done character outlines and plot outlines….again and again and again, then it all falls apart before I get 20 pages into it because it just doesn’t “flow”.I think this may just cure it. Thanks!

  7. Larry, this is brilliant! I’m trying to incorporate more stories into my nonfiction writing and this is a great way to get some practice.

  8. Marilyn

    Thanks for this good suggestion. I just watched Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino and am puzzling over where the first plot point hits. Some points are easy to spot — the resolution/martyr couldn’t be more obvious, with the sacrificial savior dead on the ground in a cross shape — but the first one? Maybe it’s cumulative, but I’d say it is when Walt looks across the street and sees the Asian boy helping a woman pick up her fallen groceries. There’s a change in Walt’s expression and his attitudes and actions start to shift after that. What do you think?

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  10. @Marilyn – I’d have to see the film again (loved it) to be sure, but that sounds like a possible first plot point. Glad you’re getting this!

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  12. Thanks! This is so great, I can’t wait to try it!
    (my creative writing blog)

  13. I often feel like I have problems with structure but I definitely think this makes a lot of sense. More people could find that they write better if they pay attention to movies.

  14. @ICY — I’d to borrow your comment and put it in bold neon headlines and billboards for anyone looking for an edge in their writing:


  15. @Larry I tried this exercise this weekend….and failed. My main problem was not knowing the purpose of each scene. I was wondering if you’d be willing to give us a full example…of an entire movie and its scenes generic missions? This would be extremely helpful. And prolly not just to me. Think about it!

  16. @Jennifer — sorry to hear you struggled. Maybe you’re over-thinking this. You don’t need to know the purpose of the scene to write down what happens within the scene in a generic sense. For example:

    Hero meets girl, could be future love interest.

    Hero meets new girlfriend’s ex, could be antagonist.

    Plot Point: old boyfriend tries to kill new girlfriend.

    See how generic that is? It could apply to any story.

    Now, that said, one way to do this in context to the mission of a scene is to watch the movie again. Now that you know the ending, you know the context and mission of each scene in relation to where the story is going.

    Hope this helps. I’ll consider doing it for a whole movie sometime soon, that’s a good idea. But don’t wait for that… keep at it, it’s a very powerful learning tool.

  17. @Larry Yes, I’m definitely over-thinking it. I do that all the time! I’m going to re-watch the movie and then try it again. I look forward to you posting an entire movie sometime. Thanks again!

  18. This is one of those cases of “Hey! I knew this, I just haven’t thought it through and done the blasted homework.” Thanks for making this clear and giving me a boot in the behind to actually do it.

    Now comes what might be the toughest part of the assignment: choosing the right movie.

  19. @Alan — thanks for commenting. Wanted to add that, in my view, actually choosing the movie is the easiest part of this exercise. Because nearly every story offers a template, as well as some form of demonstration of standard story architecture.

    Two of my favorites are “Collateral” (a character-driven thriller, useful because it has a “false first plot plot, then a very soft real first point), and “The Island” (the one directed by Michael Bay, rather than the one starring Leo Decaprio). It’s sci-fi, but structurally perfect, and the plot points really jump out at you once you know what to look for.

    Enjoy the process. Glad to have you here on Storyfix. L.

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  22. Brandon Tackett

    Hey Larry,
    Just want to say that I love your blog and in the past week since I found it, it has been very helpful. I love this exercise but I find my problem is I can’t seem to figure out how much information to include in my generic summation of the scenes.

  23. Kyla

    This was very helpful to me. I chose to do this exercise on a movie I had seen many times before, so that I wouldn’t get bogged down into the story as much. This exercise opened the story up in a whole new way for me. It was pretty fun and instructive.

    But I can’t help thinking this is how Shades of Grey came from the Twilight series.