(Emmy winner Erik Bork is back with a follow-up article. Erik's website is www.flyingwrestler.com. I've worked with Erik in the past and he's provided excellent notes at a great rate. He's motivated to help new writers develop and I wish him all the best.)
TEN KEY PRINCIPLES SUCCESSFUL WRITERS UNDERSTAND
1. Concept, then story, come first
2. “Compelling, unique, real and entertaining”
3. Stories consist of constant conflict
4. Stick to a clear and singular point-of-view
5. Entertainment is about emotion
6. “It’s real” or “it’s cool” is not reason to include it
7. Get feedback from the right people and use it
8. You must have passion for what you are writing
9. Our intellectual mind doesn’t create
10. Seek more “to give,” than “to get”
(1) CONCEPT, THEN STORY, COME FIRST. People tend to think writing is about the words on the finished page, the surface product that others will read (and possibly use as a blueprint for production). But those words on the page are the final and least important step in a process that begins when you start thinking about what your story is going to be about. The invisible underlying choices behind the words are what really matter, and the bigger the choices are, the more important to the success of the work. The first decisions about basic premise matter the most, and have by far the most leverage in determining whether your work will “work,” or not. The secondary choices in turning that premise into a story (and ultimately outline) come next. The final choices of specific description, action and dialogue come last.
This is reflected in the way Hollywood does business. Concept is king, in both film and television (as well as commercial fiction), and it is the basic idea for your story or series that sells it – the “logline,” if you will. An idea that the marketplace would see as viable invariably sounds very intriguing in just a couple of sentences – it sounds like something fresh, entertaining and compelling, that we can imagine paying money to see or read. Agents and managers will advise their clients against writing any spec feature or pilot that does not meet these criteria. But it’s rare that a concept really “sings,” just as it’s rare that a piece of writing does. It can take a significant amount of time and energy to craft such a premise. But that’s where you have the most leverage, and it’s what you should make the biggest priority. It's worth getting quality feedback on it, just like you would on a finished draft before sending it out. In fact, it’s more important to get it then.
If concept is what sells, “story” is what decides if a piece of writing is going to be “good” or not, whether it’s really going to work. By story, I mean all those choices made before writing a single word that a reader will ever see. The underlying architecture of “what happens,” scene by scene, that adds up to a complete and satisfying piece of literary material, is far more important than how “what happens” is written down and described. When a story really works, writing (or rewriting) the words on the page is SO much easier. They even call it “polishing” when you rewrite virtually every word of a script, but don’t change any of the story choices – and you usually won’t get a share of writing credit for that. That’s because something like 90% of what matters in the execution of a concept – to the business, and to the public – is contained within these “invisible” story and scene decisions that are behind what’s on the page.
I’ve learned this lesson over and over again – through mistakes and mis-steps that mentors, partners, and colleagues have pointed out. Now when I read others’ work, I’m always reacting first to the core idea, and then to the story choices. Often the execution of the script on the page is almost irrelevant, in comparison to the vast importance of these two elements. And this is how professionals who evaluate writing for a living look at a piece of material. So when I work with a writer I always start out by focusing primarily on these two things – usually more than they’ve ever done before – just as a writer’s representative, producer, or buyer would typically do.
(2) There are four qualities I think every good concept, story, and even scene should possess. I use the acronym “CURE” as shorthand for:
COMPELLING, UNIQUE, REAL, and ENTERTAINING
Virtually every criticism about a piece of writing has to do with the perceived lack of one or more of these qualities. But when all four are consistently present throughout, success is virtually inevitable.
First it must be COMPELLING. Do we care about the main character and their predicament? There are usually two reasons why we don’t: (1) we’re not “inside” the character emotionally (we don’t have to love them, we just have to feel what they’re feeling and relate to it on a human level), and/or (2) what’s coming against them isn’t clear enough or large enough in terms of the stakes: what they have to lose (or have lost), and what they could gain.
Secondly, it’s UNIQUE in some key way, preferably a “fresh twist on something familiar,” that we haven’t seen a million times before in too similar a form. Of the four qualities, this is the least crucial one, in that projects do get made and succeed that seem awfully derivative of their predecessors. But the best ones, the biggest successes, usually break new ground in some way. And when you’re trying to get noticed as an unknown writer, you definitely want your work to be perceived as original, and never tired.
Third, what’s happening needs to seem REAL. We must believe its events could reasonably happen, and the characters must do and say things that seem believable, given the circumstances. Even in a fantasy premise, once the initial “rules” are established and accepted, the story and scenes must be grounded in what’s real, given the circumstances (which is often also the best place to look for what should happen next in your story). Nothing alienates an audience faster than not buying into what’s happening, and thinking the writer contrived it for entertainment’s sake. Always err on the side of recognizable, understandable human behavior, because we’re ultimately most entertained by that.
Which leads to the last, and perhaps most important quality: it must be ENTERTAINING. It’s easy to forget this, even though it’s called the “Entertainment Business,” and it’s what people ultimately are paying us for. Many scripts don’t seem to be trying to deliver real entertainment value, and writers don’t always make this a priority, or understand what it means. My simple definition of entertainment is this: it makes us feel more alive in some way that you want to feel – fascinated, amused, scared, passionate, moved, inspired, etc. You are really well-advised to consider which of these you’re trying to give to your audience, and how you’re going about doing it – and to make sure that you’re succeeding, all along the way! It’s not enough to be interesting, true, unique, or even emotionally compelling, though all of these are important. Our audiences and our buyers are most looking for material that entertains.
It’s a tall order, achieving all these things at all points throughout a project. And I don’t mean to pile on the challenges, or imply that absolute perfection is possible or necessary. But I do suggest using these qualities as a guideline, and seeking to maximize them in your concept, your story elements, and your scene writing. Because whether it’s put in those terms or not, these are the central criteria your work will be judged on.
(3) Stories consist of CONSTANT CONFLICT. We like to watch people trying to solve problems, with other people and situations opposing them. Even in sports and in the news, conflict is what compels us – and certainly in fiction, movies and television. George M. Cohan described a three-act story this way: Act One, Get the hero up a tree. Act Two, Throw rocks at him. Act Three, Get him out of the tree. That “tree” and those “rocks” are the main things we create as storytellers. As a beginning writer, I thought “conflict” wasn’t so interesting, because I thought it only meant “arguments and fights.” Later, I realized that any time your character doesn’t have what they’re after, that’s conflict. It’s about unfulfilled desires. Conflict means problems.
The key to understanding what makes a good scene is conflict/problems. A worthwhile scene begins with a conflict which is its focus, and reason for existing. This conflict connects to the MAIN PROBLEM of the story – that primary question we’re reading or watching to see answered, which won’t be resolved until the end. As it’s explored in the scene, there is eventually a “turn” or change of some sort, which results in new, different (and usually more) conflict. The scene (every scene) thus ends with a new “status quo” regarding the story’s main problem – things are not the same as they were. There’s a new state of conflict that leads to the next scene(s). And then the process begins all over again.
I almost never read a story or a scene that seems to have too much conflict. It may not be Compelling, Unique, Real, or Entertaining conflict, but the problem is almost never “too much conflict.” But there is often not enough “story,” which means not enough conflict, enough problems, enough tension that builds. When people are happy and things are good – or even when the conflict isn’t changing and advancing – the story goes slack, and we quickly get bored. We don’t want to watch people enjoying themselves, or things to stay the same. We want to see people deal with an endless stream of problems that grow continuously and coherently to a climax – and don’t stop until “The End.”
(4) It’s almost always best to stick to a CLEAR AND SINGULAR POINT OF VIEW. I believe our first job as writers is to make an audience care about what’s happening, and to make them feel like they are experiencing the story from the inside – to get them fully emotionally invested in it. To do that, it’s essential to pick a main character and tell the story from their perspective – so that we see things the way they see them, feel what they feel, and thus look at the other characters (and events of the story) through their eyes.
This means we have to be with them more than any other character, and rarely (if ever) have scenes they’re not central and present in. It means we’re clear on what they’re feeling at all times – and events are told in such a way that their meaning to this character is emphasized. We don’t need to be “inside” any other characters, and in fact shouldn’t try to be – it will only confuse things, and decrease our investment. Other characters we WITNESS; this main character, we BECOME.
Are there exceptions to this? I think they’re more rare than you might think, at least in terms of big commercial successes that really worked as a complete and satisfying emotional experience. One exception I know of is THE BIG CHILL – where each of the group of characters has their own story (or you could say the story is about the group as a whole), with no one person becoming the clear and primary emotional point-of-view.
I did a blog post on this topic, which you can find at:
http://www.flyingwrestler.com/2009/11/main-characters-and-dramatica/, where I discussed how the Dramatica theory of story (and software) has influenced my thinking on this. (I recommend their free online comic book, explaining the basics of their theory, at: http://www.dramatica.com/downloads/Dramatica_Comic_Book_2004.pdf.)
Dramatica says that great stories have a “main character” and “impact character” whose individual and relationship “throughlines” interweave with the larger overall story, making for four throughlines in all. I recently met its co-founder Chris Huntley, and he helped me see that even romantic comedies, which you might think have two equal main characters, usually don’t (one of the two is generally the impact character).
He also told me about a partial exception in the form of one of my favorite movies, JERRY MAGUIRE. E-mail me if you’d like me to explain…
One of the most common flaws in scripts that I read is that the story plays out too “objectively” – where I’m not clearly inside a main character’s perspective, and thus don’t get nearly as emotionally involved as I would like to. It’s relatively easy to fix, if you understand the importance of this, and make it a priority. And it can make a huge difference in the impact of what you write.
The first script I ever wrote professionally had this exact issue (Episode 9 of FROM THE EARTH TO THE MOON), which was the main thing I had to work on to improve it…
(5) ENTERTAINMENT IS ABOUT EMOTION. As writers of stories, our mission is not so much to engage people’s minds by presenting them with things which are interesting. Our primary job is to stimulate them to feel something – and that’s they pay us to do. At the end of the day, we all want to be uplifted into states of greater joy, greater passion, and greater aliveness. We want to feel part of something we care about, relate to and feel connected with, and through that, to experience big emotions that will provide a release and escape.
Along the way, if we are intellectually engaged and informed, that’s great – but it’s a side benefit. It’s not the main event. I learned this writing for the HBO miniseries FROM THE EARTH TO THE MOON – a project that originated with Tom Hanks’ personal fascination with both the big achievement and the specific details of the American space program. It came on the heels of the successful movie APOLLO 13, which took the most viscerally emotionally compelling story within that program, and turned it into a wildly entertaining movie.
But the other missions didn’t have those kind of big, obvious emotional elements. The underlying life-and-death stakes they contained usually didn’t amount to real tension that could sustain a story. They did, however, have unique details and problems differentiating them from each other, and that’s where we started in turning them into one-hour scripts. But because things didn’t tend to “go wrong” in the kind of coherent and compelling fashion like they did on Apollo 13, it was sometimes a struggle to find a way to make an audience FEEL something. I didn’t initially understand the importance of this, and set about trying to communicate the most interesting details of these missions, only to be pushed by the producer who mentored me through the project to look for and mine the emotional content, as my first priority.
What was driven home for me was that we all look to movies, television, books and other art forms primarily to have an emotional experience – to be transported through story into feeling something powerful. We may want to be interested and informed as well, but what really drives and motivates us is about emotion. When you can deliver a compelling emotional experience that lifts people out of normal life in some way, yet feels real, then you’re really onto something that can both advance your career, and be of real value to readers and audiences.
(6) “IT’S REAL” OR “IT’S COOL” IS NOT REASON ENOUGH TO INCLUDE IT. We all have ideas for scenes and moments in a story that on their own, seem interesting, and may even be Compelling, Unique, Real and Entertaining – but if they don’t connect to and advance the basic problem of the story, they will likely siphon off the emotional connection and investment the reader is feeling. And this is the last thing we want to do! That investment is everything to us – we want people to always be engaged, and always wanting to know “then what?”
To keep that investment, every scene ideally should change the status quo on the central driving question that forms the spine of the story. It can be hard to stick to this, and often the reason is that we truly have a shortage of “story” – we don’t have enough developing conflicts and “status quo changes” to continuously advance the problem all the way to the end. This is very common. We tend to be shocked at just how much “story” we really need, and how quickly pages can eat it up, and demand more. I’m often coaching people to front-load elements of their story so they happen more quickly than they originally envisioned – which results in them needing even more! But this is not as hard a problem to solve as it might seem. When you don’t know what could happen next, the answer (if you have a robust basic concept and structure) always comes from asking what each of the different characters’ attitudes, points of view, and desires are. As you check in with them, and think through what they believably would do next, you invariably come up with ideas for more scenes, more conflict, and more “story” to keep it moving forward. This is one of the main things I help writers do.
Another reason we get “off spine” is because we’re including the “real” and the “cool” even though it doesn’t clearly and compellingly move things forward. This is especially a potential issue in adapting true stories, where all the “highlights” of what “really happened” seem to demand inclusion in the story. I have made this mistake and seen it made a lot on such projects (including on BAND OF BROTHERS), and have concluded that our job as writers is to find our own unique “take” and point-of-view on a true story, which turns it into something that could exist as a fictional piece and still really work. That means that we decide that our “true story” is really “a story about x,” where “x” equals a compelling character and central problem/question that propels us through the entire narrative.
If you’ve read SAVE THE CAT (which I highly recommend), you know about the ten basic story templates (and their five sub-types in SAVE THE CAT GOES TO THE MOVIES), which the late Blake Snyder discovered are repeated over and over in the most successful and beloved movies. I suggest that even with true stories, it’s worthwhile to find which of these “genres” your take on the material is best suited to, and then STICK TO THAT. This decision, about what the central thrust of your story really is, will then inform what events are worthy of inclusion, and which aren’t.
Ideally, they should advance the central story. But all good scenes serve multiple purposes, and there can be room for informational, interesting, “real,” or just “cool” elements that don’t develop the main problem, as long as they are weaved into something that does –which should probably make up the main thrust of the scene.
A compelling emotional journey with a coherent emotional impact is our goal. If everything we include is in service to that, we’ll be in good shape – and we’ll have a clear direction to help us through each stage of the writing.
(7) GET FEEDBACK FROM THE RIGHT PEOPLE AND USE IT. I’m not a big believer in “natural talent,” or that “some people have it, and some don’t” (I have a blog post about this at http://www.flyingwrestler.com/2009/05/talent-is-overrated/.) What I think makes the difference between success and failure – and what “talent” really is all about – is a combination of passion, persistence, and openness to feedback – through which one continues to improve their craft.
But who do you get feedback from, and what do you do with it? Ideally, you get it from others who write or work creatively with writers on a professional level, or as a serious avocation – and whose opinion you trust and respect. Friends and lay people who don’t meet this criteria will tend to be vague, too soft (or too hard!), and not particularly helpful, because they don’t really understand what you’re trying to do and how to assist you.
If you don’t know any professional writers, directors, producers, book editors, creative executives, or writers’ representatives, and can’t or don’t want to hire a pro to evaluate your work, then I think it’s key to find peers – fellow writers or people aspiring to be one of the above, who are at your level and thus willing to barter serious feedback on your work for whatever value you can provide them. (It’s important to realize how big an imposition it can be to ask someone to read your material and give a detailed and honest reaction to it – it can easily take the better part of the day, may not be enjoyable to them, and they risk alienating you with what they have to say about it.)
As writers, we definitely need encouragement along the way. And hopefully the people who read your work will be constructive and find things to praise. Getting demoralized about your work and your abilities is not helpful. But at the same time, we need a reality check and perspective from others – all of us do – and that can often be a big “ouch” to hear. But that’s how you grow. I recommend encouraging your readers to hold nothing back – and not punish them if they do just that.
That does not mean you have to agree with everything they say, and follow their specific guidance. But being defensive or trying to explain and convince them just shuts them down and makes them not want to give more. Your job is to get as much out of them as they can, collect the information, and then later decide what you want to do with it.
It helps to have multiple readers, and look for what there’s a consensus about. It also helps to ask yourself what you, in your heart of hearts, really believe isn’t working, after collecting feedback. The key is not to get distracted by their suggested “fixes.” Instead, seek to get at what the problems are that they’re trying to fix. You have to ask them, and be willing to hear the difficult answers, like “I didn’t care about your main character.” You may even have to ask such things, point blank: “Did you find x to be compelling or entertaining? If not, why not?” Sometimes they will be unwilling or unable to identify what the reasons are that they have certain negative comments or suggested fixes. But that’s really what you’re looking for, and have to ultimately decide on – “Where is this work falling short in being the things I want it to be? Why is this happening with readers?”
And then, YOU decide how to fix that, through the filter of your sensibility. You want others to help you find the problems, period. Only use their suggested fixes if you really believe in them. If not, find your own. They may be trying to help with suggestions, but it’s not their project, it’s yours.
Of course, you may disagree even with the perceived problems people are observing, and there is a time and place for ignoring criticisms and keeping things, because you think they work, regardless of what others think. But I think stubborn defensiveness stops writers from growing, and it’s better to err on the side of humility and acceptance that there is probably more work to be done, and gratitude for others’ help in identifying the problems. If you take that attitude, people will want to work with you more, as well.
Your work has to please you first, but its ultimate goal is to have a positive effect on others. Getting quality feedback is essential to achieving this.
(8) YOU MUST HAVE PASSION FOR WHAT YOU ARE WRITING. You can’t successfully create something that isn’t “you” – that you don’t truly believe is good, and don’t really care about. That doesn’t mean you’ll love every moment of working on it (that’s rarely the case), or think it’s good while you’re writing it (also rare), or fully understand what it’s ultimately going to be, and what its value might to be others (ditto). But you can’t be disinterested, disengaged, and doing it only because someone else wants you to, even if they’re paying you. For it to be good and succeed, you have to be truly interested in it. It has to be something you would want to read or watch. You have to give it your all, and make it “yours.”
We each have a unique point-of-view, voice, and set of interests, and that’s really what we are best-suited to deliver to the world. When we’re doing something that is not that, at all, it will usually not be successful in its impact on anyone else. We may be tempted to work on something for the money, or because other people believe in it and want our help, or because we want to please someone else, or fulfill their vision. But if we don’t find a way into it that excites and engages us, that we creatively vibe with and think makes sense, then we are destined to fail, and be miserable along the way.
Write what you wish there was more of, what you would like to watch, what you love. Find your unique “take” on your material that really grabs you and works for you. We’re not mechanics assembling a product, according to a manual. You can’t entertain people and compel people, and seize their emotional connection, if you don’t have it, yourself.
It’s good to consider how your work will impact others – even essential. It’s not “just for you.” But it has to please you first. Others may be paying you to deliver what they think it needs to be. But if we don’t fully buy into that, too, it will show – and it will end up not pleasing anyone. Always look to find a way into it that you fully believe in, and can be personally passionate about. And deliver that.
That’s our job. And that’s what people ultimately want and need for us to provide. And only we can do that in our own unique way.
(9) OUR INTELLECTUAL MIND DOESN’T CREATE. In the daily process of developing our material, generating ideas, writing and rewriting, our tendency can be to try to “figure it all out” – to wrestle story questions to the ground, if you will, by using the logical left brain. We would like writing to be less mysterious and more concrete, to make constructing a story predictable and manageable. With screenwriting, especially, which has a big structural component, and where pre-planning is essential, we may feel our main resource is our intellect – and its ability to compare and contrast, analyze and critique, order and arrange.
While there is definitely a place for these capacities in the writing process, none of them are really “creating.” They are about working with something that has already been “created” – ideas that have come to us, at some point, which intrigued, inspired, and compelled us. These ideas need structuring and development with the intellectual mind, but without them, we have nothing to work with, because this reliable “left brain” is just not set up to generate new material that grabs us emotionally (and can grab others).
So what part of us is? I know what Mozart said about this: “When I am, as it were, completely myself, entirely alone, and of good cheer - it is on such occasions that my ideas flow best, and most abundantly. Whence and how they come, I know not, nor can I force them...” I don’t think he was just talking about the initial inspiration for a project. He was talking about the daily process by which ideas were “downloaded” to him for him to record. Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way says, "Writing is about getting something down, not about thinking something up." I agree. Receiving ideas from wherever they come is the first and most important part of the creative process. And I mean every kind of idea, every day – whether it’s about a character, a scene, or a line of dialogue. I suggest our top priority is to be a conduit for those flashes of insight that just come to us, and feel right – and keep the intellect in its rightful secondary position as a tool that can then work with these ideas, once we’ve received them. That is true creativity.
(10) SEEK MORE TO “GIVE,” THAN TO “GET”. This is an overall practice and approach to a writing career (and life) that is perhaps the hardest, but most important thing I have learned in my ten-plus years doing it for a living. It’s ironic that it seems as though the only way to really achieve what you want is to put your energy into continuously bettering yourself, your craft and your work, and trusting that the rest will take care of itself.
Like all these principles, I say this not from the perspective of one who has mastered it, and preaches “perfection” (which is an impossible and therefore unworthy goal), but as one who has learned the lessons of it, over and over again – and continues to see it as a best practice, though a very difficult one.
A writer told me recently that he asked one of the head feature literary agents at CAA (coincidentally the agency I’m with) what they needed to do to get their attention, and get a good agent or manager to want to represent them. The simple, but hard-to-hear answer was: “Nothing. We’ll find you.”
This agent’s point is that the industry is forever seeking writers and writing that they believe to be viable in the marketplace. Our job is to work on our writing until it meets that criterion. When it does, there is no stopping it – doors start to open when they didn’t before, with less effort. When it doesn’t, there is little that can be done to successfully “market” it.
Of course, we don’t know when we’re ready, or how close we are, which is why we depend on others to give us perspective and guidance. And there are no hard and fast rules on this – it is a subjective undertaking. But when I’m asked the biggest mistake writers make, my answer is always that we tend to underestimate the amount of continuous forward motion that is required for any project (and ourselves) to be “viable,” and focus instead on trying to market what we’ve done – to see what we can “get,” if you will. I think our energies are always better expended on diligent creative progress – with professional feedback and guidance, if possible.
We all struggle with this (self included) – no matter how many years we’ve been doing it for a living. We’re focused on getting the sale, getting the positive reaction, getting our agent to do something, etc. Getting, getting, getting tends to be our obsession. But more focus on getting almost never seems to have the desired effect.
However, continuous focus on giving – as in bettering and improving what you’re offering to the world, staying upbeat and open, never giving up, seeking to grow and serve – is always a winning approach. I’m not saying don’t try to move your career forward. I suggest taking every step that seems right to you at the time, especially if you can do it in a positive way – be it query letters, contests, pitch fests, etc. My point is that the real business of building a writing career is not about that. It’s about the writing, the craft, the creative process, and your own growth; so that what you have to give is something others find huge value in.
Screenwriting and commercial fiction writing are rarified professions, which one could argue take as much specialized training as law or medicine. The difference is there’s no clear-cut educational or employment plan one can rely on. Our only path to success is about writing and writing, and growing at it, in the way I’ve talked about. It may take just as long, and be just as hard, but it’s a lot cheaper, has better hours, and more freedom! Most importantly, for us writers, it’s a calling that feels like one of the things we were put on this earth to do. And so we keep at it – we keep giving, and hopefully, we keep growing.