Writing is like sex.
By that, I mean several things. First, it’s better to do it than talk about it. Second, there are more people talking about it than people actually doing it. Last, and definitely not least, it’s okay to do it the traditional way, but sometimes you want to spice things up. I now realize I could have gone with “sex is like cooking” and lead with “sometimes, you want to spice things up” but I don’t think it would have caught your attention as well.
There are several formulas (screen)writers have at their disposal to bring a story to life: the three-act structure, Save The Cat, the 22 steps from John Truby‘s Anatomy of Story and of course, a personal favourite, the hero’s journey, as fleshed out in Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With A Thousand Faces and again in Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey. Love them or hate them, they can be useful weapons in a writer’s arsenal.
Yet we feel like we’ve seen it all, by now, right? Perhaps it’s happened to you too, taking a look at your watch during a movie and going “Inciting incident in 3…2…1… There it is!”
Sometimes formulaic writing feels that predictable watching it, yet for those of us struggling to get that story we love onto the page, it’s definitely a great help. If Oprah asked me what I know for sure right now, I could only tell her that my script is going to be a hero’s journey, but that’s about the only certainty I have.
So how do we do to write from a formula without being obvious about it? Here are a few pointers.
1. Acknowledging it
The first step to solving a problem is acknowledging that you have one. Do you feel like there’s a hero’s journey inside this story, dying to get out? Map it out. This is a three-act structure? Map it out. If you feel sort of stuck and you think that a structure could help you out, know it inside out so that it doesn’t become a hindrance and you suddenly feel like your story beats have to happen on page 10 -30-60 etc… The truth will set you free.
Being very fond of character-driven stories, I really try to flesh out characters as actual people, as complex, inconsistant and radical as real human beings are. Characters are a good way into a story. If the genesis of your idea was “a story about overcoming such or such thing”, ask yourself what character should go into this quest, and live with them in your mind for a while. If your way into the story was “a character who wants such or such thing”, don’t lose it. They have all the answers. And it may take you time to listen to them, but it also took them time to find the answers. Great characters will spark strong reactions even at the script stage. We fall in love with people, not with stories.
The three-act structure has dominated blockbuster-land since time immemorial. You may think that you’ve got the next big thing, but few things are as beautifully groundbreaking as Inception, and chances are audiences will go in thinking that they’ve seen it all. To be fair, they have. So if have the next Inception, call us. If you don’t, be as original as you can.
I was re-reading Mockingjay some weeks ago, before the last Hunger Games movie was released, because I didn’t remember who Katniss ended up with -as we all know, these books/movies are entirely about who’s going to be JLaw’s baby daddy. I was struck by the fact that the books are the same size, in the box set. I grew up with Harry Potter, so a saga whose books are the same size is something of an anomaly for me. It turns out, according the infinite wisdom of Wikipedia, that Suzanne Collins write from a formula. She wrote each books with three parts each, and an equal number of chapters in each part. Yet, the story, which mixes themes from Greek mythology, romance and dystopia, caught me so thoroughly that I didn’t even notice until now. So work hard on creating a universe. Milk it from the beginning. Make me step into your web. Believe in the idea you had and use it to the fullest, as Hitch explains here:
4. Increase the drama
Conflict is what makes a scene work. Conflict is what makes the world go round. If you manage to bring us into a world we care about, and make us stay there, you’ve got something. Take our attention away from the structure you’re using, and pull us close. There will inevitably be a point when you’ll be stuck, or hesitate. Then, go for the jugular. (Yes, advice for murderers work quite well for writers as well.) Go full throttle in that direction, kill someone off, plunge your characters deeper in their plight. When the characters make it out of there, we’ll be even more grateful.
5. Know when to let it go
You know the beats of your structure (see the first point) and they’re a good way to help you along the path of your story. But sometimes that only works for so long, and you feel like your characters are whispering or screaming at you that they want to go some other way. Follow them. I once wrote a story with a very specific ending in mind. So I worked my way back so that I could start writing at the beginning (a very good place to start, never forget that. Thank you Julie Andrews for the writing tip). Let go of the structure and unearth the story as it appears. You’ll see it’ll be easier for you as the writer, and the audience will follow you anywhere by now.
Formulaic writing is not easy, but it provides a comfortable safety net. In the end, writing is like sex, right? It’s really fun to go crazy, but protect yourself.