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.