Let’s Get Serious About Story...
I would like to start off by saying how excited I am to be invited to speak to you about something I love so much, the "Art of the Story”. However, before we embark on this endeavour, I feel that I should introduce myself a little. My name is Brian Martin, I am an animator from the greater Seattle area, but more than that I am a storyteller.
At a young age I wrote comics, short stories, jokes, really anything I could find a formula for writing. It wasn't until my middle school years that I had learned that my love of writing was more a love for telling stories, and as I grew, so did my passion. High School fuelled my creativity through writing classes, film studies, and after school activities, earning my first film credit for acting and writing. It has been nearly twenty years since my high school days, I have worked on stories for independent video games, short youtube shows, and have consulted on many scripts.
Now that you know a bit about me, I would like to talk about the unsung hero of storytelling, the fundamentals. I am always amazed at the amount of writers who refuse to learn the basics, but even more than that, the amount of writers who have no idea that these basics even exist. With that, I would like to start off by talking about the bare minimum that writers should strive to accomplish in today's competitive world.
First goal, write every day. Now this should be a given, but I do hear this question often enough. I would like to dispel some common misconceptions I have encountered on this topic. I have heard it said, "I would rather spend my time writing than spend my time learning about writing”. Why not do both?
Writing daily is extremely important. It will teach you how to be a professional and give you the tools you need to further your career. As in any creative profession, one of the main setbacks you will have to overcome is learning how to be creative while dealing with everyday life. Be it writer's block, or trying to write a joyful scene while dealing with personal tragedy.
Pulling yourself through creative droughts will be essential to obtaining and maintaining a career in the industry. I understand, it’s hard sometimes to find the time to write, personal life and whatnots. The advice I would give would be to set up a time every day to write. Do not set an arbitrary amount of time to write for, just write.
Example, at 8pm every day I will write, whether or not I write a novel or just one word, as long as I write every day at the same time I have accomplished my goal. The benefit of this is that you will alleviate a lot of the pressure you may feel if you set yourself a time limit. You will find that the quality of your writing will improve drastically as you're no longer forcing yourself to fill the entire time with nonsense or staring at a blank page.
Also, while setting yourself up a time to start writing will set a rhythm, your mind will start penciling in this time to be creative. This will not prevent you from having writer's block or those bad days in which being creative seems to be the hardest thing to accomplish. However, it will force you to overcome those roadblocks ahead of time, thus giving you the tools you will need to overcome them on the job.
If you need more help getting productive, we have a great post on Mastering Motivation.
The next item we must address are the “basics". It doesn't matter where you are in your career, you will always benefit from the basics. Personally, I think the hardest hurdle to overcome here is one’s own ego. Being honest about where you are in your process and allowing yourself to learn the “basics”.
Most people want to rush to the end of any journey, so eager to call themselves professional, and in doing so they leave behind something that could be important to their growth. I put the “basics" in quotes here because these guidelines go by many different names, although each formula may seem different from the other, I assure you they are the same at their core.
Unfortunately I can not teach you these basics here, we just wouldn't have the time to go over everything. So, what I will do is talk about some of the structures out there, hopefully this will give you a good launching off point to find out which structure works best for you.
1. Starting off I would like to talk about Syd Fields, who was heralded as one of the first writers to create a method for screenwriting. His books come with easily digestible lessons and step-by-step exercises that help you write a script one chapter at a time. The Field’s method, however, is very strict. Such as “On this page of your script X needs to have already been established” or “On this page exactly X needs to happen”.
That sorta thing can seem problematic to some writers who practice a more free flow style of writing. There is a benefit to this style of writing; the more strict the formula the more likely you are to avoid writer's block, and the more likely you are to write a tight script that doesn't wander too far off its plot.
2. The Hero's Journey, created by Joseph Campbell. Most professional writers will know of Joseph Campbell, his theory of the "Monomyth'' has become an industry standard since its conception. The con to this method is really the sheer amount of studying involved in mastering it.
From learning Jungian Archetypes, to following the steps as they flow throughout your story, it may seem daunting. As there are no real page markers, nor super strict guidelines here, the responsibility of keeping your story on track falls solely on you. While this is not entirely a complaint, it can become frustrating if you find yourself too far off the tracks.
The pro of this method is that it definitely pairs well with people who write in a more free form style (AKA - The Pantser Method). I would add this cautionary tale, the books of Joseph Campbell can be thick, confusing and all around hard to understand the underlying context. As he traveled the world studying myths of all cultures and comparing them to each other, you will undoubtedly learn a great deal about storytelling, but may also find yourself re-reading paragraphs, chapters, or even entire books more than once to ensure you understand the meaning behind the statements within.
3. Save the Cat, by Blake Snyder. This method has become extremely popular over the last decade or two in the film industry. As of right now, Saves the Cat has been published into three different script writing books, and one book on how to apply the method towards novels.
Save the Cat is more of a simplistic edition of the Syd Fields method, the books are easier to find, the steps inside of them are simpler, and there’s even a website. The website will allow you to place the page number of your script into a text box, and then calculate where your page breaks should appear. A drawback for this method is similar to the Fields method: strict and hard for those of us who are more free form in our writing.
4. Lastly I’d like to highlight The Harmon Story Circle. Dan Harmon is a TV Showrunner who is best known for Community and Rick and Morty. The Harmon Story Circle is a writing format that Harmon himself came up with, and uses in his writers rooms, in order to simplify the Joseph Campbell Hero's Journey.
H.S.C. (Harmon Story Circle) has 8 easy to follow steps, simplified into easy to remember phrases: You, Need, Go, Search, Find, Take, Return, and Change. Benefits are similar to the Hero's Journey, but there is an added con, you still need to do a bit of research into the Hero's Journey in order to truly understand what each step is supposed to accomplish.
I hope my brief introduction to these few methods will help you make a decision on which path will work for you. This is by no means a complete list of screenwriting methods, but my suggestion is to learn these methods and study as many more of them as you can. For me, I use the Hero's Journey, and finish by double checking my work in Saves the Cat. Although they won't line up entirely, as long as I can make sure my beats hit the right markers, in the right acts, then I feel a bit more confident that my story will hit the audience the way I have intended.
So, we have been writing every day, we have learned our basics, what’s next?
The answer is time… Sadly, this one will depend on you.
Now that you have a foundation, you will have to learn how to make that foundation work for you. There is no right way into the industry, knowing these basics will earn you a seat at the table, but will not guarantee you a job. The more proficient you are at adapting the formula to your style, the better your scripts will turn out, I promise you.
The better the script, the more likely it is to be picked up by a studio. So keep writing. Daily. Learn how to hide that formula inside your scripts. Once you have mastered hiding it, learn how to break the rules a bit. Maybe your hero doesn't need to search very hard to get what he wants, but because of this, he has to pay a much bigger price for his sins.
Take "Can't Buy Me Love" for example, the hero spends money he already has to get the fame he has always wanted. In doing so, the price he pays is the respect of his friends and family, and the relationship with the girl he always wanted. In the end he loses everything for the chance of fame. Luckily, this RomCom allows us to learn from his mistakes, and even sees our main character earning a second chance at love.
But what about the Amazing Spiderman 2, or even Jurassic Park? Once you know your formula, start watching movies and seeing if you can pick out where your formula, your beats, arrive in the movie. When does the hero refuse the call? When does she finally accept it? Who is the mentor character? Are there any Motifs, any Archetypes? Film is one of the easiest, and most fun, genres to study. So pick your favourite films and let the learning begin.
So finally I want to say, no one can make this journey for you. I can point out the groundwork, pave that yellow brick road, but only you can follow it. I am by no means saying this is the only way into the industry, because that would be a lie. I could urge you to follow these guidelines, and I do, but you may just want to write and try to earn your way into the industry on your own merit. I commend you for that, but I want to remind you, the things I have stated here are just the basics that writers in the industry have mastered. One way or another you are going to have to get somewhat acquainted with these basics.
A lot of people like to tell you that art does not follow guidelines, “it's just art”. I do not agree. Painters learn about colour theory, musicians learn chords and keys, and so writers must learn form and grammar.
A story teller must learn how to convey an emotion, answer a question of morality, all while telling jokes or creating dramatic tension. These formulas, these guidelines are simply there to help guide your way. I think you will be surprised to find that by following these guidelines your story will be easier to follow, and your plot will become more comprehensive.
You do not have to force yourself to use them, merely suggestions. Like any other tool in an artist's belt, you have to know when to break free from these guidelines, or when to follow them strictly in order to tell the story the best way you possibly can.