A gifted writer I know once gave me this advice: the best way to master plot and story structure is to study screenplays. They’re action and dialogue segmented into the building blocks of scenes, and each scene is there for a reason. Studying them had forced him to look at, and cut out, the slack and excess in his fiction work.
I finally decided to follow his advice. Up until now I’ve only written short stories. Then one of them morphed into something the size of Texas. But realizing it had the potential for a novel-length work was like standing at a very wide river looking at the other side. I could see that other side, sort of, but wasn’t sure how to get there. So I devised a screenwriting study plan focused on plot and structure.
The first step was reading beat sheets (film) and plot worksheets (fiction). Beat sheet templates can feel queasily like a paint-by-numbers approach to story telling (on page 10 do this, on page 28 do that), but reading one for a film you’re familiar with reveals the steps in that story’s propulsion. The templates can also provide scaffolding for creating your own plot.
29 beat sheets & worksheet links (bottom of page, from Writers in the Grove)
Plot worksheets for writers (KM Editorial)
The most useful exercise was creating my own beat sheet for the film Michael Clayton. I watched it with a blank template and a copy of the film script open on my computer (lots of hitting pause involved here), and wrote out the beats into the template. It was like seeing a 3D X-ray of the film’s architecture, and gave me a concrete sense of how to structure a layered story with complex characters.
The second phase involved books about screenwriting that fiction writers considered useful. This left out all the paint-by-number equivalents. I read five books but will highlight the two I found most helpful.
The first is Dan O’Bannon’s Guide To Screenplay Structure. He addresses the logic and rhythm of story structure in a way that translates easily to writing fiction. In addition, he examines theories of storytelling and structure from Aristotle’s Poetics through Robert McKee. That section alone saves you reading about six other books, which is no small gift. There are exercise sheets to prompt your own scrutiny of films (that could also be used for fiction) as well as a 6-8 page analysis for each of 12 films that include an exercise at the end. You can create a blank template based on his analyses and use that to analyze other films or fiction.
The second book is by Karl Iglesias and is made up primarily of verbatim advice, broken down by topic, from about 20 career screenwriters. Its focus is firmly on writing and story structure. A little time is given to dealing with studios and the film business. The advice is realistic and helpful, including references to books and teachers that had most inspired the screenwriters who were interviewed. The book’s title, 101 Habits of Successful Screenwriters (2d edition) is catchy but doesn’t really signal how thorough the contents are.
Favorite writing tip:
“doing the 20s”
One screenwriter in 101 Habits lists or sketches out 20 ways that a scene or plot point could be done, then picks the best. “If you make yourself write twenty ideas, not worrying about whether they’re any good or not, often the ninth or tenth one will be golden because you didn’t settle for the first thing that popped into your mind.”
The lesson for me: the first thing that pops into my head is likely to also be the first thing that pops into a lot of people’s heads. Coming up with 19 alternatives will take each of us in a different direction, along our own neural pathways, and is a much more likely way to arrive at an interesting, as opposed to predictable, story.
Most helpful structure tip:
Decide on the theme and make sure every scene is related to it.
My take: at the heart of the story you want to write and the spark that ignited it, is an essential point you want to make or explore. That’s your theme. Don’t include an event or character that doesn’t relate, reveal, or lead to this core concept.
And that brings us back to the taut economy of screenplays, which is a good reason to study them!
“To create today is to create dangerously. Any publication is an act, and that act exposes one to the passion of an age that forgives nothing.”
“The greatest renown today consists in being admired or hated without having been read.”
“The question, for all those who cannot live without art and what it signifies, is merely to find out how, among the police forces of so many ideologies…the strange liberty of creation is possible.”
These are as clear-eyed a description of our time as anything I’ve read in a while.
Although I’d add one thing. It’s the trickiness of finding unfrazzled stretches of time when we’re not redlining through our task lists, when there’s enough brain-oxygen available to imagine and produce creative work. Personally, I have to switch out of hyper-mode and move from micro-focus to wide angle―what I call long-thought mode.
And then, after all the time, revisions, weighing of words and sentences, double-checking rhythm and beats, someone may read three lines (or three words) of what you’ve written, snap to an opinion, and dismiss it, all in a matter of a few seconds.
Carefully considered and constructed or not, whatever we put out there has to survive a click-bait culture where algorithms that serve advertising and the politification of everything rule. No pressure.
But that knobby little seed at the pit of all our souls still wants to reach out and make contact. We still want to share our latest story or song, that captured handful of our own aurora borealis of color and light, spits and howls.
Sometimes the response we receive feels thoroughly unrelated to what we’ve produced. Some people need to decontruct and apply labels so they can give the work a good drop-kick and move on. Some―and god willing our work finds them―say yes, I’ve felt that too, or hey, I’ve never looked at it that way, or just, thanks, that was cool.
It’s the reason we make that scary reach beyond the borders of ourselves, just to catch a glimpse of that slow dawn of recognition, of yes, of aha. So we keep on chasing the “strange liberty of creation.”
Which leads back to those quotes at the top that so accurately describe this specific moment on the planet: Albert Camus, December 1957, in a lecture delivered at the University of Uppsala. L’Artiste et son temps.*
Plus ça change, non?
*Translated by Justin O’Brien, published in English as Create Dangerously in Resistance, Rebellion, and Death
Publiée dans les Discours de Suède sous le titre L’artiste et son temps
Fall 2017 brought long weeks of bearing witness to destruction.
It felt like a literal fall, and a steep drop.
White supremacist rallies and violence. Communities leveled by hurricanes, floods, and wildfire, ripped open by inexplicable blood shed at an outdoor concert, in a church, across a rural county. Twitter invective from a president who governs like it’s 1959 and never sees a white face when he’s looking for the cause of the country’s problems.
And that’s just in the U.S.
The intensity of nature’s power is one thing, the white elitist hatred was more than I could bear. I went to rallies for inclusion, relieved to see they dwarfed the population of white supremacists intent on turning the local tide to their maniacally limited views. Views euphemistically marketed as free speech.
Sure, you’re free to speak your mind, just be honest about what’s on it. The Charlottesville rally was named with a little less sleight of hand: Unite the Right. But don’t call it a rally for speech rights when the segment of the population that’s protesting is white and predominantly male, coinciding with the segment of the population that runs just about everything in the country.
And, of course, the presidential tweets kept launching, like spitballs through the national discourse.
By the middle of October, I’d been silenced by it all. I didn’t have the words to turn these events or anyone’s responses to them into a perspective that would clarify anything, a picture that would make the fine points and interconnections visible or tangible.
We found out local governments had allowed development in unwise―to put it mildly―places without ensuring developers complied with laws and building codes. Floodplain maps weren’t revised to reflect changes in the environment and the effects of building on that environment. Hurricanes increased in breadth and power. Western forests showed us what can happen when they are depleted, dried out, and vulnerable. People scrambled to survive storms, fires, and bullets. And now mudslides, from rains following the fires.
All this after decades of a slower building but equally destructive storm: rising living costs and sinking or stagnant income levels for most of us.
On celluloid, George Bailey won his checkmate stand-off with Mr. Potter. On the ground here in the U.S., Mr. Potter has taken the highest office of the land, and like many in the nose-bleed elevations of upper income, he is only interested in more. To give anything, as Bailey did to keep his community properly housed and thriving, was soft-headed foolishness to Potter’s wealth-addicted eyes.
If that’s not a familiar tale, we can look to All The Money In The World for a modern film version of the same addiction.
Spread across all of that is a sizzling layer of American entertainment and news (whether it’s actually news or just more entertainment) that seems focused on getting people agitated, angry, and eager to vent, or to open that pressure valve onto someone else. Like a church full of worshipers, or a plaza loaded with country music fans.
So where’s the ballast, or the balance, if you believe people and community are more important than walls and wealth, if you’ve felt silenced, as I have, by this nine-alarm hot mess delivered to us daily via our news sources of choice?
I’ve come to realize it starts with showing up, standing up, and speaking up. So that’s my assignment to myself for 2018: no more being shocked into silence, it’s time to get shocked into words.
Our sense of landscape goes deeper than familiar hikes and favorite cafés. The streets we know, personal landmarks we pass, buildings we spend our days in and the views from their windows, they all give our lives contour and context.
When that landscape is incinerated, as it has been in Santa Rosa, in Sonoma, Napa and Mendocino counties, our inner compass points burn too.
The horizon of losses from these ongoing fires feels endless and is not fully known. Families, friends, animals, and community are what matter most. Losing your home and belongings is its own depth charge of a nightmare. And it’s no small thing to lose the places where you’ve left footsteps and gathered memories.
Map of Evacuation Centers in Sonoma, Napa County and Beyond. From The Press Democrat
Tipping Point Emergency Relief Fund
Extensive listings of organizations helping fire evacuees, places for evacuees and their pets and large animals, organizations accepting donations. From SFGate
In fiction, stories are often told in the voice of a reliable narrator. It’s a voice that guides us through a story without skewing the nature of the events taking place, the characters experiencing them, or the underlying truths and meanings depicted.
Point of view, or POV, is basically where that narrator’s―and the reader’s―sight is aimed.
And POV is what jumped out at me about the “echo chamber” memo (full text) written by a junior engineer at Google that went viral early in August. It covered what he saw as Google management’s misconceptions about women’s capabilities, and what he called the Google echo chamber. To back his argument, he presented supporting evidence that appeared carefully cherry-picked.
His memo illustrates what the default setting is for a lot of us:
when we look out at the world, we think of our own first person point of view as a reliable narrator.
But here’s the catch. We forget to examine our assumptions. We forget we’ve even made assumptions. And we forget the ways in which we tend to gloss over or ignore whatever doesn’t fit our constructs.
In the realm of fiction, this is something a good beta reader will cure you of pretty quickly by pointing out gaps and inconsistencies. Most writers are familiar with these wake-up calls from the world outside our own heads.
In the day-to-day of non-writing life, we each tend to create our own POV-reinforcing echo chambers, and there aren’t necessarily any beta readers to snap us out of it.
The second thing that struck me about the echo chamber memo, and has deepened through events surrounding and since the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, is how tired I am of a particular strain of white narrative voice, especially as it’s become increasingly histrionic and exhausting.
It’s a voice that’s been with us always, but its vituperative levels have been rising here in the states since the 2016 US presidential campaign. And it was during coverage of Charlottesville that the weariness finally hit me full force. It’s a tiredness with deep roots, from decades of being raised, schooled, cajoled, ridiculed, and judged―usually unfavorably―by this particular POV.
I think of it as the voice of the Old White Guard, although it obviously has new constituents. And, full disclosure, I’m half white or anglo myself.
So let’s call this POV first person self-reflexive. It’s from a specific subset of white culture. It’s often male. It’s entirely self-referential. It doesn’t question its own accuracy and is certain those who disagree are wrong. It isn’t convinced that all white males are qualified and capable, never mind women and people of other skin colors.
It also has a need to diminish everyone else in the room that’s reached the white-knuckle stage lately. And that’s what has stood out most: in an era of global challenges that demand stepping up with creative, collaborative, and inventive responses, this is a voice that sounds unsurpassably needy and self-focused.
If there’s an upside to this continuum of events, from the echo chamber memo to the violence and invective surrounding and since the Unite the Right rally, it’s that we’ve had the chance to see how limited and how skewed this POV is—a classic example of an unreliable narrator.
They can have their say just like the rest of us, but they can’t eclipse the multiplicity of voices across the breadth of the United States, or any other country.
We need to keep moving forward to a multi-racial, ethnic, culture, religion, gender democracy.
Let’s call that point of view collective-omniscient. It may be noisy and demanding work, but if we keep our eyes, conversations, and POVs open, we’ll get there.
Any time you need to get out, get calm, and breathe, I recommend a visit with the Redwoods. They’re some of the earth’s oldest breathing citizens, who count time in decades and centuries instead of seconds.
This is a small tribute to the trees and caretakers of the Armstrong Redwoods near Guerneville, California.
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.
Say that the leaves are harvested
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
– Wendell Berry,
from Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front
published in The Country of Marriage
Trees are the earth’s endless efforts to speak to the listening heaven.
– Rabindranath Tagore, Fireflies
The greatest gift of a garden is the restoration of the five senses.
– Hanna Rion, Let’s Make a Flower Garden
Visitors were enchanted by crooked, gnarled trees I would previously have dismissed because of their low commercial value. Walking with my visitors, I learned to pay attention to more than just the quality of the trees’ trunks.
– Peter Wohlleben, from the introduction
The Hidden Life of Trees
Restoration ecology is experimental science…. In its attempts to reverse the processes of ecosystem degradation it runs exactly counter…to the whole cultural attitude of regarding the Earth as commodity rather than community.
– Stephanie Mills
…most individual trees of the same species growing in the same stand are connected to each other through their root systems. It appears that nutrient exchange and helping neighbors in times of need is the rule, and this leads to the conclusion that forests are superorganisms with interconnections much like ant colonies.
– Peter Wohlleben,
The Hidden Life of Trees
Around me the trees stir in their leaves
and call out, “Stay awhile.”
– Mary Oliver, from When I Am Among the Trees from Thirst
In every walk with Nature one receives far more than he seeks. – John Muir
The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing that stands in the way. Some see Nature all ridicule and deformity, and some scarce see Nature at all. But to the eyes of the man of imagination, Nature is Imagination itself.
– William Blake
To celebrate summer travel, some excerpts from Travels with Myself and Another by Martha Gellhorn, an American journalist and novelist who covered wars from WWII to Vietnam.
As anyone who travels much knows, things on the road―or water―don’t always go as planned, and that is often where the adventure begins. The focus of these essays are some of Gellhorn’s voyages that didn’t go so well, and include China, Africa, the Caribbean, and Suriname.
The pictures are my own, taken in Northern California.
“The airline, called China National Aviation Company (CNAC) consisted of two DC3s and three DC2s, elderly machines and no nonsense about comfort. Compared to passenger planes now, these were flying beetles.
… We climbed, as if climbing a spiral staircase, in tight jolting circles over Hong Kong until we reached fourteen thousand feet. All lights went off except the dim light in the pilot’s cabin and we crossed the Japanese lines, brightly lit far below. In half an hour, the storm hit us. I had been watching the flickering exhaust flame on a wing, but the wing vanished into cloud that looked grainy and hard as granite. Hail sounded like a threshing machine. Everything froze including the air speed indicator. Roy explained that if the speed dropped below sixty-three miles per hour the plane stalled and went into a spin, but there was no cause for anxiety; he opened his window a crack and judged air speed that way; he’d done it often.”
“The dinghy was not as long as I am. Carlton put the hatch cover in it, making a peculiar seating or lying arrangement, a convex curve for two thirds of the length then a drop to a concave curve. I spread the blankets on this surface, placed the pillow at one end, slid my legs under the seat and established myself with umbrella for sunshade. All I had to do was duck when the boom swung over.”
“With a picnic, water and heavy sandwiches, I set off to explore. St Martin was a magic island. Secret white sand coves indented the shore. I chose one far from town, walled in by thick bush that the rain had polished and framed by swaying royal palms. Under a china-blue sky, I sat naked in the shallows to watch schools of fish, recognizing only silver baby barracudas. And waded out to swim through glass-clear Nile-green water, where you could see below to the sand and more passing fish, into silky deep sapphire sea.”
“I was swooning with happiness by five o’clock when I settled on a ruptured cane chair in the lobby to listen to the going gossip. At five o’clock promptly the mosquitoes arrived. ‘Union mosquitoes,’ a soldier observed. ‘They work from 5 p.m. to 5 a.m.’ They were the biggest mosquitoes I had met anywhere and fearless, they zoomed in to cover one’s arms and legs and died feeding while others replaced those you had beaten to death. When the blazing sun went down, the air refused to cool despite nightly rainy season cloudbursts. The rain was lukewarm, encouraged the mosquitoes, turned the streets into quagmires which dried to deep dust a half hour after sunrise. Between five and six in the morning, there was a very faint freshness to breathe.”
Find the book here
Read about Gellhorn, and the journalism prize awarded in her name, here
A few days ago, wading through a tsunami of belongings at a storage unit, a thought about writing jumped out at me. There is a danger in writing what we know, and I was basically surrounded by the physical manifestation of it.
Over-writing, narratives loaded with enough detail to make the most patient reader wince. I’ve certainly read a lot of work like this and have produced computer files full of it myself. The problem with writing what we know and staying on familiar ground is this: we can end up like guides who know so much about their subject that they can’t get out of the way of the story.
When we’re writing about something we don’t know, something we’re not sure we have the CV to take on, we haven’t got that life’s worth of detail to immerse ourselves and our readers in. It’s like trekking toward a summit we’ve caught a glimpse of. We take only the bare essentials along, and don’t waste energy or oxygen on the unnecessary.
Yes, we have life experience. We have cultural, historical and personal perspectives we can layer in—sparingly. But we let the path and the scenery speak for themselves, because they are so new, so fresh, and so bare-knuckle present, we don’t want to obscure any of it.
…where every detail, thought, and idea is pinned like a specimen to an organizing structure, every minute has its task, and every day has to account for itself in a hierarchy of accomplishments.
Sometimes, you just have to drop all that, get away, and drift without a mental itinerary directing every move.
For me, zoning out in front of TV shows doesn’t help. It makes me feel pinned and immobilized like a specimen on a display board.
My definition of getting away means settling down into the depths, away from the noise, long enough to remember how to breathe.
Some days it requires a car, a camera, and a country road.
Nothing was submitted in March. The story I worked on for submission felt a little too incendiary and is getting reviewed, to make sure that it makes its point instead of just setting off fireworks. For April, two stories are nearly completed, in the sense of feeling fully edited and cleaned up, and at least one of them should be ready to send out by the end of this week.