Writers, we are doing it BACKWARDS

Oh, it kills me to say this: we are doing it backwards.

Maybe you’re the exception to the rule. Perhaps you’re that rare writer who figured this out 10 years ago.

But I doubt it. Most of the writers that I know — novelists or journalists, speechwriters or screenwriters — go about it roughly the same way:

Step 1) Research, whether it’s six months of intense study or six minutes of looking at Wikipedia and playing Angry Birds “to let it all percolate.”

Step 2) Boil down the research into useful nuggets of meaty goodness.

Step 3) Use their secret recipe of writing methods to cook up their piece (outlining first or winging it, 3 x 5 index cards or spiral notebook, Word 2016 or Scrivener, one draft or six drafts, coffee or bourbon).

Step 4) Hand the draft to our editor, writing partner, spouse, co-worker or cousin Joey to get all coffee stained and edited. 

Step 5) Spend five or fifty minutes thinking about how to present and sell the sucker for suitcases stuffed with twenties.

Those first four steps, they’re essential, right?

Here’s the thing: We writers are incredibly talented at screwing up Step 5.

Backward is bad

Step 5 is the monster lurking under our typewriters. (Yes, I know most of you use computers. Maybe I have a magic typewriter connected to the Series of Tubes.)

It’s the troll under the bridge, snarfing our lunch and saying, “Whatcha gonna do about it, tough guy?”

Now, boiling down a novel clocking in at 100,000 pages is rough. I have author friends who’d rather leap out of a perfectly good airplane, trusting in the bouncy power of their Nike Air Jordans, than write a three-page synopsis. Tagline? Logline? Forgetaboutit.

Doing Step 5 for anything, long or short, is tough.

Tough for screenwriters, who need to boil it down to an elevator pitch.

Tough for editors in newsrooms, who have to write headlines that fit into tiny nooks and corners of the newspaper layout.

Yet nothing else matters if we botch Step 5. Because nobody will see the fruits of our labors, the hard work that went into Steps 1 through 4, if we can’t condense the whole idea into a killer pitch and hook.

Reversing course

Instead of performing the labors of Hercules before even attempting the torture of Step 5, reverse course.

Start there.

Before you invest hours, days,  weeks or months into research. Before you sweat bullets to put words on page after page.

Begin with the shortest and most important words.

The  logline (or pitch, but in a sentence, not a paragraph) — “An alien monster stalks the trapped crew of a spaceship.”

The tagline – “In space, nobody can hear you scream.”

The headline – “Alien devours spaceship crew; heading for Earth?”

Test that out, not with friends and family, who are constrained by the need to live with you, and be liked by you.

Try that single sentence on people in line at Safeway or Starbucks, neighbors you barely know, visitors from out of town, tourists, people who won’t wound you forever if they make a face and tell you the idea is stupid.

And to get inspiration, use the series of tubes to check out “movie loglines” and “movie taglines” and “great headlines.” Or head to The Onion and read their headlines, which are seven separate flavors of awesomesauce.

Don’t do a thing until you have a logline, tagline and headline that sing.

Not one thing. Don’t spend six months writing a first draft or six minutes plotting the first chapter.

Go do it. Throw ideas around on a piece of paper or whatever — and not about whatever you’re working on. Dream up a few crazy ideas and write down loglines, taglines and headlines that are shorter than short. Then kill every word you can to make them shorter.

You’re going to notice a few things.

First, the hero doesn’t matter.

Second, the villain matters a whole bunch. If you remove the villain and threat, it kills the logline, tagline and headline. Because stories — even newspaper stories — are about conflict. No villain, no conflict. But if you take out the hero, it usually makes the logline a lot shorter and a lot better.

Here’s another example I’ve used before and will use again, because it is short and sweet and the logline for about six movies that have already been made: “Asteroid will destroy Earth.”

See? We don’t need Bruce Willis and Ben Affleck (Matt Damon‘s buddy, the one who dates & marries Jennifers) in there at all. Heroes just clutter things up.

Third, shorter is better. If you can get it down to three or four words, you are golden.

A new way to write

Let’s get practical. Here’s a new way to write anything.

New Step 1) Nail the logline, tagline and headline.

One sentence apiece, as few words as possible, and yes, it is cheating to have sentences that go on and on forever, sentences with six different commas and possibly semi-colons, which are a sin against the English language in the first place and should be taken out and shot.

New Step 2) Make it work as a paragraph.

Expand it a little, but not too much. Half a page, maximum.

New Step 3) Nail it as an outline on ONE PAGE, treating each side fairly.

Whether you’re writing an oped or an opera, a novel or a speech, figure out the biggest possible difference between the beginning and the end — and do it from both POV’s. The villain and the hero.

So: if it’s a romance where the heroine ends up as a great cook who’s happy and in a great relationship, what’s the greatest possible distance she can travel? On page 1, make her  (a) the worst cook in the world, (b) unhappy and (c) alone. How can you take that up a notch? Make her a nun who loses her sense of smell (and therefore taste) in a car accident. I’m half kidding, but not really. You get the idea. 

If the ending is crazy happy, the beginning better be insanely sad.

If the ending is full of sad, the beginning should be Happyville.

If the hero is a tough guy in the end, the best story shows him start out weak. Only after he suffers and sacrifices does he prevail (THE KARATE KID), and not necessarily by wining (ROCKY).

And you’ve got to make it a fair fight. Nobody thinks they’re a villain. The other side — whether it’s an speech about taxes or THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK — has a point. If you don’t give it credence, your writing will be one-sided and weak. Cartoonish.

I used ALIEN before. What’s the story for the alien creatures? Maybe they’re a dying race. Maybe that crashed ship contains the last of their kind. The stakes just got a lot higher for the alien, right? You are our only hope, little facehugger. Get in that ship and lay some eggs.

Put yourself in the shoes of Darth Vader and the Emperor, who don’t see themselves as enslaving the galaxy. They’re helping people by establishing law and order. If nobody is in charge, it’s chaos and confusion. A strong empire means safety, security and economic growth. The rebels are violent terrorists who don’t appreciate what they have and will kill whoever it takes to gain power.

Now figure out your turning points. Put in your setups and payoffs. Make it work as an outline before you move on.

New Step 4) Research only what you need.

New Step 5) Write and have a professional editor bleed red ink on the pages until the draft is A SHINY DIAMOND MADE OF WORDS. 

You’ll notice that what used to be an afterthought — Step 5 in the original way of writing — becomes the first three steps.

I did that on purpose.

Say you write a beautiful oped, 700 magnificent words about why the death penalty should be abolished or whatever. Now you’ve got to pick up the phone and pitch an editor at The Willapa Valley Shopper or The New York Times.

The first five seconds (aside from the “hello!” nonsense) will determine if they even look at the piece. Maybe six or seven words, if you talk fast. Part of that will be confidence, tone of voice and other things you can’t learn via a blog post.

Your pitch, though, will matter. A lot. A great speaker with a muddled pitch will lose out to a mumbler with a tremendous idea they can convey in four words. That’s what a logline, headline and tagline are really about, three different ways of explaining something in the fewest possible words.

Hollywood calls this five-second kind of thing “the elevator pitch.” There are websites that devote many, many words to it. Use the powers of the google and check them out. They are useful.

Bottom line: those four words matter more than all 700 words of the oped, all 3,000 of the keynote speech, all 15,000 of the screenplay or all 100,000 of your epic novel about elves with lightsabers riding dinosaurs.

Make those four words count.

Everything they taught us about stories was WRONG

writing cat, writers, writing, why is writing so hard, writer's block

reading, books, types of stories

Let it be known: Romance authors have a good point when they say, “Romance is not a type of story.”

There are all sorts of different romance stories.

Which brings me to a deep, dark truth that needs to be said: They’ve done us wrong.

All of them.

Teachers and professors, authors and instructors and writing gurus of all stripes.

You’ve been done wrong, bamboozled, hornswoggled 

My secret lair includes a turret that is a library, full of Every Book on Writing, Rhetoric and Journalism Known to Man, and those books are 99 percent useless claptrap about either (a) the correct placement of semi-colons, which I believe should simply be shot, or (b) finding your happy place while you write at the same time every day. These books are only good for kindling during the zombie apocalypse.

Your corduroy-clad creative writing teacher was wrong to say there are only three kinds of stories: man vs. self, man vs. man and man vs. society. Those are three types of conflict. Not stories. Also, there are far too many reference to “man” in there.

Aristotle was full of falafel when he told his eager fanboys there are only two stories: tragedies and comedies.

George Polti made things far too complicated when he gave us 36 Dramatic Situations, when what he really did was list 36 complications and conflicts, and if you want to drive down that twisty path, hell, I can write you a list of 532 Dramatic Situations before noon. If you gave me a pot of coffee, by 5 p.m. we’d get to 3,982 Dramatic Situations. (Yes, Mr. Internet Smarty Pants, you a genius for using the google to find a Wikepedia thing explaining that Polti was merely following in the footsteps of that literary giant Carlo Guzzi, but hear me know and believe me later in the week: Carlo Guzzi was also an overcomplicated doofus.)

Also: just as there is no romance story type, there is no such thing as a Western, though if you watch THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY, you are required by law to take a swig of decent tequila whenever Clint shoots a man and down two shots if he actually speaks a line of dialogue.

For you D & D and World of Warcraft and Lord of the Rings dorks–I say that lovingly, though I want you to put down the Cheetos and the Playstation controller to go out in the world to kiss a girl, though please make sure she wants to be kissed first, and does not Mace you–there is also no such thing as a sci-fi or fantasy story.

You can set a novel or movie a dusty Arizona mining town in 1875, or put the guts of that same story into a space station orbiting the second moon of Zenon or whatever. Either way, it’s the same story.

You can add dragons, trolls or elves with lightsabers and it’s still the same story in a different setting and context.

Because in the end, story is about structure–how you put the pieces together. Is the ending up, down or mixed? What are the setups and payoffs, reversals and revelations?

They don’t really teach us structure or storytelling

Blake Snyder cut through all this tradition and nonsense with his SAVE THE CAT books.

Blake points out that it’s patently stupid to call FATAL ATTRACTION a domestic drama and ALIEN a sci-fi movie and JAWS a horror flick, because they all three classic movies are the same basic, primal story: there’s a monster in the house. Either you kill it or it kills you.

Period. End of story.

I will not summarize Blake’s book here by giving away all his other evil secrets. He’s boiled things down to ten primal stories, and yes, you can insert as many Dramatic Situations as you want into those ten stories.

Blake has done all writers a great service with his two books, which have silly titles and a cover with a cat. As the writer of a silly blog, I give him slack for that. He’s not pompous, arrogant or overly complicated. Blake was simply a freaking genius when it comes to storytelling, and the world is a poorer place now that he died young.

If you write, and care about your craft, go buy his book. DO IT NOW. Then come back here to talk smack about structure, the real secret to writing of all sorts.

Writing dialogue

Notes: So my genius sister, Pam, won a Nicholl Fellowship and does this series on the YouTube, which is worth watching no matter what you write: screenplays, regular plays, novels, newspaper stories or speeches.

First, because we need to tear down the artificial walls between different disciplines of writing. Second, because screenwriters are the absolute best at structure, which is the secret to any sort of writing. And third, because she’s insanely good at cutting through the nonsense and getting at what really matters, which isn’t comma splices and the proper use of gerunds.

Plus she’s funny. Thanks for doing these, sis. Hugs. 🙂

Welcome to the age of the meta-story

There’s a disturbing trend in Hollywood where studio execs would rather greenlight movies based on board games and toys from the ’80s than original ideas.

Yet I’m not overly worried about getting swamped with a sea of sequels to BATTLESHIP or RAMPAGE.

The deeper, more enduring trend in books, movies and video games? Meta-stories.

STAR WARS, HARRY POTTER, LORD OF THE RINGS, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the Batman Arkham games, WESTWORLD, GAME OF THRONES–they best series are true meta stories.

Notice I didn’t list some big franchises, like the STAR TREK reboot, the DC non-universe and the MISSION IMPOSSIBLE: TOM CRUISE DOES ALL HIS OWN STUNTS movies. They don’t fall in the same category.

So what’s a meta-story?

A book or movie can have sequels with the same hero (or group of heroes and sidekicks) without being a meta-story. Think of 99 percent of most shows on HBO, Netflix or this thing I called “network television.” They’re episodic. Sure, it’s the same universe and same characters. The stories being told, though, are separate and distinct.

This is why you can binge-watch LAW AND ORDER: PICK A SERIES, ANY SERIES, WE HAVE LOTS and it doesn’t matter if they skip around seasons and whatnot.

This is also why you can take all 20-some of the Reacher novels by Lee Child (my fav) and read them in any order. Because yes, Reacher is in every one of them, but otherwise, they aren’t really that connected. Separate stories each time. Different villains, different themes, different locations.

Meta-story is the difference between Marvel owning a license to print money while DC, with better characters (they have Batman, for God’s sake) struggles and reshoots and just can’t get it going.

Building the beast

It’s simple, really. Forget about the hero.

Yes, the hero is what people focus on, typically. That’s the star of the show, right?

Meta-stories often don’t have a singular hero. Think about Marvel–there are dozens of heroes.

The acid test, the way to see whether a series of books and movies is episodic or a meta-story, is to look at the villain(s).

Is it Villain-of-the-Week or does the series feature One Big Baddie?

HARRY POTTER is all about Voldemort, who’s winning the whole time until Harry literally dies and comes back to beat him.

THE LORD OF THE RINGS has a fellowship of heroes–not a singular hero–facing off against One Big Baddie who happens to be a big glowing eye.

Marvel was brilliant in planting Infinity Stones in every movie and having Thanos lurking in the background the whole time as the One Big Baddie, a villain so good they’ve managed to do what, 20-some movies as part of this arc? Amazing.

 

You get the idea.

If you’re writing a series, just remember this: Villains rule, heroes drool.

Honor your muse

Notes: So my genius sister, Pam, won a Nicholl Fellowship and does this series on the YouTube, which is worth watching no matter what you write: screenplays, regular plays, novels, newspaper stories or speeches.

First, because we need to tear down the artificial walls between different disciplines of writing. Second, because screenwriters are the absolute best at structure, which is the secret to any sort of writing. And third, because she’s insanely good at cutting through the nonsense and getting at what really matters, which isn’t comma splices and the proper use of gerunds.

Plus she’s funny. Thanks for doing these, sis. Hugs. 🙂

Video

How to format your screenplay’s title page

Notes: So my genius sister, Pam, won a Nicholl Fellowship and does this series on the YouTube, which is worth watching no matter what you write: screenplays, regular plays, novels, newspaper stories or speeches.

First, because we need to tear down the artificial walls between different disciplines of writing. Second, because screenwriters are the absolute best at structure, which is the secret to any sort of writing. And third, because she’s insanely good at cutting through the nonsense and getting at what really matters, which isn’t comma splices and the proper use of gerunds.

Plus she’s funny. Thanks for doing these, sis. Hugs. 🙂

Here’s why THE MEG works

The surprise hit of the summer? THE MEG, starring Jason Statham.

Here’s why this movie works, even if you know the ending. (Spoiler: I don’t need to tell you the ending. Come on.)

1) Monster in the House is a powerful and primal story

THE MEG isn’t a horror movie, actually.

In a true horror movie, the hero is actually the monster, who’s punishing society for its sins. That’s why the monster in horror movies is the star who keeps returning for the sequels.

Cineplexes around the world are littered with the corpses of horror movies that forgot this rule and let the monster lose. It doesn’t work. That’s now how the story is structured.

Monster in the House is the phrase screenwriter Blake Synder gave to stories like THE MEG, JAWS, ALIEN and FATAL ATTRACTION.

The setup: There’s a monster in an enclosed place and either you kill it or it kills you.

Nothing could be more simple or powerful. This story hits us right in the caveman feels.

And it’s a story that’ll always work.

2) Jason Statham sells tickets

There are actors like Gary Oldman who can disappear into their roles.

Jason Statham and Dwayne Johnson never disappear. Neither does Chris Pratt, whether he’s saving the galaxy or saving dinosaurs.

You could send a film crew to follow Statham, Johnson or Pratt around as they did their grocery shopping at Safeway and it would still be entertaining.

Statham has a particular brand of charm and is especially believable when he does action scenes. You don’t think there’s a stunt double or CGI making it happen.

That’s box office gold.

3) Movies like THE MEG help us conquer our fears

Horror movies tell us no, humans don’t win and don’t deserve to win. The monster kills everybody, punishing society for their sins, and there’s nothing you can do about it. The message of horror movies is, “Don’t commit whatever sin we’re highlighting in this story.”

Movies like THE MEG give us the opposite message: Even if there’s a seemingly unstoppable monster out there, that doesn’t mean we have to give in to fear.

We can beat that monster–or any other monster–if we’re brave and clever and work together.

Why does MISSION IMPOSSIBLE: FALLOUT work so well?

I’m no fan of Tom Cruise, so it takes a lot to (a) part with hard currency to to watch a Cruise film and (b) publicly admit how much that film rocks.

He did it with EDGE OF TOMORROW, one of the best sci-fi movies of all time. I could watch that thing every day, and the more you dislike Cruise, the better the movie actually works.

Hear me now and believe me later in the week: Cruise did the impossible again with MISSION IMPOSSIBLE: FALLOUT.

Why is this movie so good when the last Bond movie bored me to bits, despite my utter fandom for Daniel the Craig?

(1) Practical stunts beat the snot out of CGI nonsense

Yes, CGI is expensive, and it can create amazing spectacles.

Yet we’re used to it. The wow factor is gone.

When I see a hero take on a CGI monster, it doesn’t scare me at all.

Practical stunts, where real people do really dangerous things, still impress people. And this movie is packed with them.

(2) Surprises on top of surprises

Thrillers are about betrayals, secrets, revelations and surprises.

Action scenes are only a bonus, dessert after the starters and main.

MISSION IMPOSSIBLE: FALLOUT gives the audience action scenes where the action is simply a setup for a betrayal, revelation or surprise. It’s a great way to move the story forward.

(3) Ruthless editing

This movie clocks in at two hours and 28 minutes. It doesn’t feel half that long.

How did the director and editor pull that off?

They ruthlessly cut the boring parts. Putting together a list of Scenes that Are Always Boring would require an entire post, though it would include Two Characters Talking as One Character Drives and my favorite, the Hero Types on a Computer.

The shorter, easier list is Scenes that Are Always Exciting, and that world champions on that list are (a) chases and (b) fights.

So if you make a movie that’s 90 percent chases and fights, with betrayals and surprises after every chase or fight, yeah, it’s going to be fast and fun. The trick is to avoid repetition. As a big fan of cheesy ’80s action movies, including everything Jackie Chan, Arnold and Jean Claude Van Damme ever made, I testify to the fact that most action movies believe, deep in their explosive souls, that the only way to mix things up for your audience is to multiply the number of bad guys facing our hero until the climax, when the producer has to bus in hundreds of extras and run the costume shop 24/7 to stitch up enough Expendable Bad Guy coveralls so they hero can wade through them all on his way to the Big Bad Guy.

That’s not to say there aren’t cliches and silly tropes in this movie. I pray to whichever gods that are listening, please, please stop Hollywood writers and directors from ever using stolen nuclear warheads as a plot device. I beg you. And the revelation that Clark Kent with a Beard is actually a bad guy came way too early for me.

But the nuclear MacGuffin in this movie doesn’t really matter. What puts us in those theater seats are the chases, fights and stunts, which are all spectacular. Well done, Tom the Cruise–now give us a sequel to EDGE OF TOMORROW.

Four reasons why COBRA KAI completely obliterates THE KARATE KID

Unless you live in an ice cave, you’ve seen THE KARATE KID—and by that I mean the classic from the ‘80s, not the remake with Will Smith’s kid and Jackie Chan which had the same title, and sort of the same plot, except it was set in China, was about kung fu instead of karate … and was just an achy breaky big mistakey of a movie.

COBRA KAI isn’t just another cheesy remake or TV spin-off.

It’s actually better than the original movie.

Let’s say that again: COBRA KAI is better.

Here’s why:

1) A dark, gritty treat for adults

Go back and rewatch the original movie, even for five minutes. Daniel LaRusso is the good guy and Johnny Lawrence and his buddies are the bad guys. There are no shades of gray.

What makes the film work is this isn’t a traditional action movie where the hero is tough and sexy from the first minute of the movie and doesn’t really change or grow by the time the movie ends. The only thing that changes is the pile of dead bodies created by the traditional action hero in the process of saving the world.

ROCKY and THE KARATE KID are the rare exceptions where the hero is a loser in the beginning, a total underdog. The joy in both films comes from their struggle and sacrifice to climb up from that gutter.

COBRA KAI isn’t simple. It’s dark, gritty and complicated, and that’s what makes it great.

2) It’s much, much funnier

Sure, there are cute moments in the film, and some jokes that’ll make you laugh.

COBRA KAI, though, will make you snort milk through your nose.

3) Even minor characters shine

THE KARATE KID doesn’t give minor characters much to chew on. They’re part of the scenery. Pop quiz: can you name any of Johnny’s gang? I can’t. Interchangeable thugs.

 

COBRA KAI fleshes out as many characters as possible, and it does this with efficiency and grace.

4) Crossing character arcs, as rare and beautiful as a triple rainbow

In most movies or novels, the hero suffers, sacrifices and grows. The mentor, the love interest, the villain—everybody else typically stays the same. They serve as catalysts and examples (good or bad) but they don’t change.

Back in THE KARATE KID, Daniel definitely suffers, sacrifices and grows through the catalyst of Mr. Miyagi’s teaching, but Mr. Miyagi doesn’t go from nasty curmedgeon to sweetie pie. Same thing with the evil sensei who runs the Cobra Kai dojo in the movie: he’s bad in the beginning and bad in the end.

COBRA KAI tries something bold and amazing with multiple crossing character arcs. They’re juggling chainsaws here, and they pull it off.

Season One shows us the redemption of Johnny Lawrence as he moves from bad to good. You root for the man.

His protégé Miguel actually moves from good to bad, and it hurts you to see a good kid turned into a jerk. In the final episode, Miguel winning the tournament should be a moment of triumph. It’s what Johnny wanted and worked for—yet it’s ashes in his mouth. And the writers know they don’t need dialogue to do this. It’s all there in Johnny’s face and it slays you. Miguel gets what he wanted, too, and finds out he cares less about the championship and more about the girl that got away.

There’s a similar contrasting journey with Daniel LaRusso, a fallen hero turned villain, using his power and money to torment his old high school karate rival.

It’s only through teaching Robbie, Johnny’s son, that Daniel finds his balance again and returns to acting like a hero.

Robbie has the opposite journey, suffering and sacrificing to move from bad to good through his new relationship with Daniel and the LaRusso’s.

The writers and showrunners went further by giving minor characters real, meaningful arcs. The best example is Hawk finding his confidence, then taking it too far and becoming a villain, while bad girl Moon finds redemption by ditching the mean cool kids to hang out with Hawk and the dorks.

Finally, it’s a nice tough that the big bully at the start of season one, Kylar, falls from Big Man on Campus to loser after being beat down in the cafeteria by Miguel, his previous victim.

The only other show I can remember with this many deep, crossing arcs for major and minor characters alike is BREAKING BAD, a tragedy where Walter White is the hero and the villain, going from good to bad while meth cook Jesse climbs up from the gutter to redemption.

VERDICT: Put a gun to my head and I would have never expected the folks behind HOT TUB TIME MACHINE to pull off an amazing series like this. The structure of episode one is strong, supple and fascinating. Just a thing of beauty. If you haven’t seen it, give it a shot. Here is episode one, which you can watch for free.

How to raise the stakes

There are always public stakes and private stakes.

Public stakes: If the villain wins, so what? How does that affect the public at large–you, me and the good people of Cleveland?

Private stakes: If the villain wins, how does that affect individuals, typically the main characters in the story?

Bad stories are often bad because they’re out of balance, entirely focused on private stakes (soap opera) or public stakes (disaster movie with cardboard characters).