Story and the “Good Stuff”

Story is one of the most complex yet simple art forms in existence. It isn’t until you attempt to tell one that you realize how difficult it is to keep an audience interested.

I often think about the natural growth of a story. The more you focus on a single character and dramatic incident the more clear and concise your story will be. At our core we turn to story to learn about the world around us. Despite the human mind having the ability to understand great complexities and details, it will always require extra effort to do so – effort your audience isn’t looking to produce when they are seeking to be entertained. The more your story is packaged in a centralized question the more digestible your story will be.

My favorite thing about screenwriting has been the impact and significance required for each line. There is no place for waste, laziness, or meaningless repetition. Because screenwriting requires more dialogue than description, I have a bad habit of “hearing the conversation” and writing according to how I imagine it might play out. This isn’t a fundamental error, as it improves the natural flow, but it becomes easy for a character to repeat themselves and shine a spotlight on their personality rather than the problem that is being overcome. Furthermore, the natural progression of a conversation does not incorporate any character change or overwhelming obstacles. The most memorable and impactful moments of any story are the actions your character performs that betray what their former self would do. How common is it for a parent to be petrified of their child drinking, smoking, or using drugs? Yet the origin of that fear often comes from knowledge of our their own experience and how it affected their lives. That is a character change.

I do feel our most fascinating ideas and concepts should always reserve page space in what we write. One of the most entertaining shows of the last 20 years is South Park. It is easy to watch this show, enjoy it, and feel it is nothing more than an escape from the pressures of the world. But in reality South Park incorporates a 3 act structure, a climax, and a theme. One item that differentiates South Park from other comedies that fail to hold our attention is the constant comedic gems. Family guy, on the other hand, is all comedic gems with no importance given to the story. I am convinced each episode of South Park is guided by an absurdist idea that brings the writers to crack up laughing. They know their idea is hilarious and find a way to make it a staple that falls within the necessity of the story requirements.

I feel there are far too many suspense, mystery, and action stories that stray so close to plot points that they lose sight of what keeps viewers interested in the first place. Your audience will never be a soulless academic who marks off a story-checklist with each page that they turn. You’ve got to include the good stuff that makes your audience uncertain about how they would handle a similar situation. Such is the conflict that produces an intriguing premise.

On top of writing this morning, I am hoping to record the content for another YouTube video. I return to work tonight and will be preoccupied with the daily grind for the following week and a half. I am eager to make the major changes to my script today in order to begin casting the roles and finding my locations. Enjoy your own daily pursuit and make the most of the hours you have been given.

Hermeneutics – 6/8/20

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I re-watched an awesome video that I’ve linked to below. It’s the first of a 3 part series concerning Christopher Nolan’s philosophy. How the creator knows that Christopher Nolan crafts his stories according to the philosophies he mentions, I do not know. Chris Nolan may not even know what Hermeneutics is, for all I know. Nonetheless part 1 has most captivated my interested.

Wisecrack, the creator of the video(more specifically written by Tommy Cook and researched by Austin Smidt), discusses a subject called Hermeneutics – the theory and methodology of interpretation. The video argues that Christopher Nolan applied this theory to films such as Following, Memento, and The Prestige.

Hermeneutics can be observed in regular life with regards to news articles, biblical passages, or honestly any form of information. We collectively interpret news articles with polar opposite degrees of satisfaction and disdain. According to the above video, Christopher Nolan applies hermeneutics to his films in a unique way – His protagonist changes his emotional interpretation of the same information at different points in the story.

In Memento, the protagonist views pictures with accompanying notes as clues he’s written to enable his damaged mind to hunt down his wife’s killer. At the end of the film, it is revealed that he created the puzzle of photos and notes to avoid feeling the pain of realizing that he was the one who actually killed her. That is emotionally impactful due to its irony. I feel this is genius, and an incredible tool to strengthen your storytelling ability. It is almost enough to build the foundation for a character arc all by itself.

Let’s create a 1 paragraph story to see how this might play out:

After the disappearance of his son, Bob discovers an ownerless dog who barks at him. The dog appears starving, homeless, and alone. Bob takes the dog in, feeds it daily, and gradually the dog transforms into a healthy, loving, joyful spirit. One day Bob walks the dog past his angry neighbor’s home. The angry neighbor’s jaw drops – he tells Bob he needs to give up the dog. Skeptical and cocky, Bob replies to him that there’s no way in hell he’d listen to his grumpy ass about anything. Then the neighbor tells Bob that the dog was formerly his until the day he found it tearing the corpse of Bob’s son to pieces. The neighbor left the dog in the streets and never spoke of the matter to anyone.

Do you feel how powerful that is? The dog hasn’t changed – it’s still as fun loving and playful as it’s ever been since Bob took care of it. But we desperately want to know what happens next. Why? Because Bob’s next decision will determine his character. More importantly, you are waiting to judge Bob based on what he does next. As a writer, here are the conflicts you will have to resolve –

1.) What do we do with the dog – kill it? Forgive it? Blow off this new information as nonsense?

2.) What about the neighbor? Call the cops? Kill him? Assume he’s lying? Investigate for the truth? Figure out an alternative reason he’s telling us this?

All of this conflict is strictly internal. Bob’s next course of action will determine his character – who he is. The heroic course of action depends on the viewer – It doesn’t really matter what Bob decides, his decision will ultimately alienate a certain audience while fortifying the support of another audience. That’s what news articles do – they are designed to showcase an event that will capture the judgment of our core values.

Anyways, I’m in love with this new writing tool. I hope you see the value in it as well, because I have yet to read about it in the many books on story telling I’ve devoured.  I can’t wait to incorporate it in my next episode of Mountain Cult. Play around with it and let me know what you think. In the meantime, feel free to check out episode 3.

 

Number 1 Deadliest Sin for Writers

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Writers Group… or maybe it’s just a pic from Thanksgiving that seemed more convenient to include, but who knows?

I’ve been writing for a while now and have had the pleasure of connecting with a large number of amateur writers who share hopes and aspirations similar to my own. During this evolutionary journey, I’ve realized their is one common trait that hinders nearly all of us from realizing our dreams:

Egoism.

Don’t get me wrong, maintaining confidence in pursuit of your goals is crucial. It takes an enormous amount of stubbornness to believe you can become a published author when so many realists jump to criticize your chances.

The ill-side of ego I’m referring to here is the tendency of writers to fall so in love with their own unique concepts and ideas that they disregard the story-saving input of others.

I spent one full year working on the same book everyday without allowing anybody else to glance at it. One. Full. Year. In my mind, this book was so incredible I actually worried about people breaking into my Tacoma just to steal my USB flash drive(spend too much time in your own head, you will go crazy).

When I finally allowed people to look it over, their obvious indifference to the material shocked and defeated me. Somehow I summoned the courage to rewrite the entire book, but my ego took even more of a hit when I found my drastic alterations did nothing to sway the opinions of my readers. I wound up rewriting again and again, and even revised the first chapter over thirty (!) times before accepting the fact that I was missing something.

For the first time in my writing career, I decided to study writing. The book that changed me was called Story Engineering. This book describes rules and structures that all good stories abide by, essential tools I never could have found on my own. Though I’ve since read books that discuss more advanced topics, Larry Brown’s work laid the groundwork for my writing education.

The only way to grow as a writer is to learn. It is impossible to learn something you already know. Therefore, if you wish to improve your craft, it is absolutely vital that you listen to readers who criticize your work. You will be amazed at how quickly criticism can turn to praise.

  • Thomas M. Watt

Author of Master