Plot Ninja – story structure made easy

My library contains Every Book on Writing Known to Man or Woman–journalism, speechwriting, fiction, rhetoric, grammar, speechy journalism, ficitonal rhetoric, whatever–and honestly, they’re mostly good for kindling during the zombie apocalypse.

I’m only half kidding. 

The secret to all writing is structure and editing, and the absolute best in the world at structure are these magical creatures called screenwriters.

This is why I hope readers of this silly blog watch the video above (yeah, you skipped it? watch the thing) and check out my sister’s new course, Plot Ninja.

Don’t do it because she’s my sister, or because she’s brilliant and funny.

Do it because writers of any sort need to steal everything they can from screenwriters.

Because all those different writing books in my library, and yours, are a lot like instruction manuals for plumbing, electrical wiring, drywall, cabinetry and painting. Yeah, that stuff is really important–but not at first.

Here’s the thing: writing anything is like building a house: sure, you can throw together a little shed made of two-by-fours and drywall, and it might hold up for bit, but try to build a house like that and it’ll fall down after the first rain.

None of it matters without a strong foundation and framing, and the only way to get that right is with strong blueprints.

Who actually knows the secrets of story blueprints?

Screenwriters.

Nobody is better. It’s not even close.

Not because they’re the most talented writers. Not because some of them get paid bazillions of dollars.

It’s because screenwriters focus, relentlessly, on the only thing you see in screenplays: the blueprints of a story.

Nobody else teaches the bones of storytelling like screenwriters.

Listen, I have a journalism degree and wrote thousands of newspaper stories. Have a background in rhetoric and have written thousands and thousands of speeches, then I write thrillers for fun. Somebody taught me the structures for journalism, speechwriting and fiction, right? Not in the way you think. A journalism degree with teach you the inverted pyramid and a lot about headlines and ethics and how to put together a newspaper or magazine. Structure and blueprints? Not really.

Same with speechwriting and fiction. You tend to get a lot more instruction about the fit and finish than the blueprints and foundation. 

I find that backward, so when I teach folks, I always start with blueprints and foundations. Tools you can use for whatever you write.

And all the best stuff I’ve learned about strong blueprints came from screenwriting and Pam.

Get the whole toolbox, not a single template

You’ll see a lot of people saying, “Here’s how to write X or Y” and yeah, it’s one way to do it. 

Screenwriters have the whole toolbox and use it.

They don’t say, “This is the only way” unless they’re hawking the hero’s journey, which is not the only story in town. There are all kinds of stories: comedies and tragedies, dramas and melodramas, tales of transformation and redemption. 

Screenwriters have picked up every tool in the box and know all the ways of putting together stories.

And you can build them in all kinds of different ways. In fact, you have to. Try to plot a comedy in the same way as a drama, or a horror story, and it’ll flop.

Those hammers and drills and blueprints are useful for anything you write, whether it’s stories in newspapers and magazines or 200,000-word epics about an evil talking cat and his buddy, the seeing eye dog who’s seen too much, and what happens when they decide to go on a crime spree.

So I’ll try to post more of Pam’s videos about screenwriting every Wednesday, because they’re funny and useful.

And I hope you get as much out of them as I have.

Note: No, I’m not writing about that evil talking cat, his seeing eye dog and their crime spree, though it does sound like fun. 

The careful genius of COBRA KAI’s season 2

The last season of GAME OF THRONES went out in a fiery train wreck packed with dragons and stupidity–but here we have the opposite, a low-budget show on Netflix about dueling karate dojos.

Roughly 28 gazillion people are watching COBRA KAI, and they’re loving it. Shockingly, the critics are all over it, too.

Because unlike the Season that Must Not Be Named that Did the Night King and Mother of Dragons Wrong Wrong Wrong, the writing and plotting of COBRA KAI is carefully and horrifically good. (Warning: spoilers spoilers spoilers.)

Building on Season 1

In the first season, it’s really the story of Johnny’s redemption. He rises from the depths and finds a purpose again, and truly tries to reform Cobra Kai to give kids like Miguel some help. Not that Johnny becomes a complete goodie-goodie. 

By comparison, Daniel struggles, and its a bit of a rich jerk. But he’s not a complete villain, either.

I kid you not, the series feels a bit like BREAKING BAD in that most major characters aren’t heroes or villains. They’re beautiful shades of gray.

Season 2 doesn’t try to continue the character arcs in the same direction, which would have been the easy narrative choice.

The showrunners and writers went bigger. They raised the stakes and added twists, reversals and revelations throughout the season that changed everything around again.

This season, Daniel is the underdog and Cobra Kai is the big, dominant dojo, the winners of the All-Valley Tournament.

Except it gets more interesting than that.

Setups, payoffs and echoes

Though the show is funny, it’s not a comedy. 

Comedies poke fun at an institution–sitcoms go after marriage and family and suburban life, MASH took on the military, THE OFFICE hit corporate bureaucracy–and in a comedy, heroes can’t succeed except by accident.

COBRA KAI is a drama, with things happening for a reason. You could argue the last season of GOT was a melodrama, with things just kinda happening and fans immediately asking each other on Twitter and Reddit why why WHY?

For every payoff, there’s a setup. And the biggest scenes feature echoes of previous scenes.

A genius ending that sets up Season 3

There’s a lot packed into the final few episodes, and what the showrunners and writers did here is fun to take apart.

The beginning of the final episode has a sweet call-back to the original movie, playing Cruel Summer on the first day of school, then you get a slowed-down, sad version of the song at the end of the episode. Beautiful. How many rock songs can rock the xylophones? NOT MANY.

There are a lot of reasons for our characters to be moping around:

A giant brawl in school happens after Miguel’s new bad-girl girlfriend, Tory, hijacks the school PA system to say she knows what Sam (Daniel’s daughter) did–kissed Miguel at a party–and is coming for her.

Everybody fights everybody, tying up a lot of relationships. Hawks gets surprisingly beaten by his old friend Demetri, Tory cheats while fighting Sam, sending her to the hospital for cuts, while Robby fights Miguel, who gets kicked over a stairwell and is in the hospital with spinal injuries.

All of that leads to the apparent end of the romance between Johnny and Carmen (Miguel’s mother) and a “no more karate” edict from Daniel’s wife as they’re in the hospital room with their daughter.

It gets worse for Johnny, who loses control of his dojo to Kreese, after (a) giving Kreese a second-chance and (b) kicking him out of the dojo.

In a great scene that echoes imagery early in the season, he chucks his cell phone and the keys to the muscle car he repainted into a black-and-yellow Cobra theme. Giving up on his old life, right? Then the camera cuts to the cell phone in the sand, showing that his old flame (and Daniel’s former girlfriend) responded to his friend request. 

Guesses on Season 3

I don’t believe the writers will truly let Johnny and Daniel give up on karate forever. But I doubt they make a return to it in the first episode or two.

Five bucks says Kreese’s new, purely evil Cobra Kai will force them to come back to teaching–and though I’m not counting on it, I could see the end of Season 3 featuring a real truce, if not a partnership, between Johnny and Daniel to team up and beat Kreese for the sake of their kids and the community. 

Then again, they’ve surprised us episode after episode.

VERDICT

If you haven’t watched Season 2 yet, binge watch that sucker. 

If you haven’t watched Season 1, watch that first.

Back from the dead!

No, I’m not a zombie, sparkling vampire or Jean Claude Van Damme-ish universal soldier.

I simply haven’t posted in forever, and have missed the readers of this silly blog, who’ve taught me a lot and are always, always witty and entertaining.

So: with a crazy busy session at work, my evil choice was (a) come home and write a blog post, (b) hang out with the wife and son, (c) do laundry, pay the bills and possibly sleep or (d) finish and edit a novel.

I chose everything but (a) and it was the right choice. And now I’m coming up for air.

To folks who are into these things I like to call “books,” here are a few things I learned finishing a new novel, which is the most fun you can legally have as a writer.

(1) Keep switching it up and taking risks

If you keep writing the same sort of story with the same sort of heroes (6-foot-4 and Hollywood handsome) and villains (posh British accent and disfigured somehow) in the same sort of scenarios (stolen MacGuffin could destroy the world!), then hey, it’ll get stale. Same thing with non-fiction, whether it’s newspaper and magazine pieces, speeches or whatever you’re into.

Mix it up. That’s how you grow and learn.

There are endless ways to structure and execute writing. You can steal from anywhere:

  • Stand-up comics are amazing at setups and payoffs, and can do them in the most ruthless shortage of words.
  • Poets make sure every line is a magical spell.
  • Narrative non-fiction is actually a secret treasure chest of great stories that totally work as fiction except they actually happened, and they use the same structural tools as narrative fiction, also known as fiction.
  • Playwrights spell their own names wrong, yet they’re the masters of dialogue.
  • Linked movies and serial shows show you how to plot mega-stories (22 movies by Marvel that all tie together!) and how great beginnings can go completely wrong (Season Eight of GAME OF THRONES). 
  • Screenwriters are the absolute best at structure, which is the evil secret to anything of length. And everything has SOME length.
  • Even if you write stark Nordic mysteries or spy thrillers, romance authors and horror writers show you how to do emotions right, and nothing matters without emotion.

(2) Writers are helpful souls–take the help, and offer help whenever you can

I only started this blog after romance authors found my silly ad to sell the Epic Black Car. 

And I learned an amazing amount from them. Am still learning. 

For a journalist-turned-speechwriter, writing thrillers for fun, romance is the last place I expected to look.

Look in those unexpected places.

Ask questions.

Answer questions from folks starting out.

The other person who taught me an insane amount is my sister, Pam, who won a Nicholl Fellowship for screenwriting. You wouldn’t think screenwriting has anything to do with speechwriting or novels. But you’d be completely wrong. Screenwriters are the absolute best. They’re building skyscrapers that hold up to hurricanes. Meanwhile, other books on writing tell you to build a two-story house out of drywall, then you wonder why the thing falls down after the first rain.

Also: there are authors, writers and editors I met here from around the world, folks who are continually witty, talented and interesting. I want to give a shout out to two in particular — Alexandria and Joshua the Sharp — for their help this year. You two rock.

Keep on meeting people, on Twitter, the Gram, the Book of Face or whatever new thing Silicon Valley invented last week. You never know who’ll turn out to be amazing and will change your life, or whose life you might change. YOU NEVER KNOW.

(3) Take things apart to see how they work

If you read this silly blog (and hey, you’re doing that now), it’s clear just about every post involves taking something apart to see why it’s either (a) horrifically good or (b) beautifully bad.

That’s the interesting and fun part of stories, books, movies, music videos and speeches. How do they work and why?

What could you do to fix a flawed piece or improve something that’s already amazing?

Complaining about something is the easiest thing in the world. You can throw a Nicholas Spark novel across the room (go ahead, that’s kosher any day that ends in Y), walk out of a lame movie or end a show on Netflix after 5 minutes and say, “That sucks.”

Except there’s behind those words. Zero intellectual weight. Anybody can kvetch about something that stinks, or gush about artistic things that are seven separate flavors of awesomesauce.

It takes no talent to do those things.

Figuring out HOW things rock or stink–that’s the fun and difficult part.

The best part.

And I hope this blog helps you do that.

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.

Character problems and what to do about them

So my genius sister, Pam, won a Nicholl Award 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. 🙂

Bonus story of Pam & Guy: As a kid, I didn’t talk except to whisper to Pam, one year older, and she’d act as my interpreter and diplomat. When hungry, I’d stand in front of the fridge until Pam showed up to open it, then I’d point at food and she’d get it. Totally relied on her. And little three-year-old me must have planned for the worst, an apocalyptic world without Pam, because I remember finding petrified carrots under my pillow, stashed away in case of emergency.

Deep story goodness for writers via The Mother of All Cheat Sheets

kiss-the-librarian-spike

If you’re attempting NaNoWriMo and are on track to finish the Great American Novel, congratulations. Carry on.

If you’re doing NaNoWriMo and there’s no way you’ll give birth to a full novel by Dec. 1 without quitting your job, getting divorced and downing pots of coffee along with stimulants sold by a sketchy long-haul truck driverthen congratulations, this post is for you.

Click with your mousity mouse to read Part1—Why NaNoWriMo is noble nuttiness–and 8 steps to make it easier (big thanks to WordPress for featuring this post on their front page)

Click here to read Part 2— Why first drafts are always flawed and how to fix them

Hear me now and believe me later in the week: given the choice of holding in my  hands (1) an absolutely finished hot mess of 100,000 words or (2) a single page blueprint of a brilliant story, I’d pick B.

Every time.

And you should, too.

Blueprints and structure are also the way you FIX a hot mess of a novel.

You sure don’t fix a train wreck with spell check and diligent proofing.
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