Monday, October 19, 2009

Crafty Screenwriting: Summary

Back in August I took a little dip into Alex Epstein's book 'Crafty Screenwriting'. I was looking to see if it had anything to add to the ideas about how to create stories that I'd been reading in 'Presentation Zen' and 'The Elements of Persuasion'.

It was another case of doing three blog posts and not much synthesising of the ideas. So I thought I'd start to rectify that by doing a summary of my summary of 'Crafty Screenwriting'. While there's a lot in the book that I didn't cover, I did write about hooks, pitching, and the elements of a story.

A Hook is a brief description of your story that intrigues the audience into wanting to know more.

I keep reading about reducing your story or presentation down to its core idea, to a single catchy phrase. There's a reason for this: we all have multiple demands placed on our attention every day, so how do you cut through the noise and make someone pay attention to you?

You have to make them want to know what happens next.

Hooks make people want to see how things turn out. That means they're simple, intriguing, and a fresh idea.

For as long as possible, DON'T write your story down. Instead, actually tell it to people.

That's the best way to find out if your hook or story works. Tell it out loud, over and over again, to whoever will listen. See what people respond to. And because you're not writing it down, you can see what bits of your story are memorable and stick in your head - and at the same time, you can hear when YOU get bored or confused while telling it.

Telling your story to everyone forces you to create a story that's so simple, clear and logical that you can remember it.

Here are three questions to think about while you're telling your story:
  1. Is your listener interested in your hook at all? If not, then (a) rephrase it and try again, or (b) come up with a better idea.
  2. What does it remind them of? Check these other, similar stories out.
  3. What do they tell you? They may have ideas and criticisms. Listen to them. Even if they're off-base, you'll find out what sort of things they expected to hear or see when you told them your pitch.
Writing it down 'freezes' your story, making you reluctant to make big or necessary changes to it. Writing it down also makes it easy to overlook your story's flaws.

And if the idea of telling someone your story completely freaks you out, you can:
  • tell it to yourself
  • write down the basic beats of the story on cards, mix the cards up, and try to put them back together in the right order
  • (... or my favourite) write your story down. Hide those pages. Rewrite it again from memory. Hide those pages. Repeat.
The Elements of a Story
Here's the summary of what Crafty Screenwriting says are the elements that make up a compelling story:

A MAIN character
... who has a GOAL that we (the audience) care about.
... The main character is RISKING a lot
... and they have at least one but ideally three basic OBSTACLES in their way:
  1. An External Antagonist or Obstacle: We have to care about the antagonists, even if they're an obstacle (like crossing the Antarctic)
  2. An Intimate Opponent: Someone on the main character's side who is working at cross-purposes to them.
  3. A Tragic or Comic Flaw (A Psychological Opponent):
Main characters can be unlikeable, but we do have to care about what happens to them. There are a few things that could make us care:
  • their situation is familiar to us
  • we want to walk in their shoes
  • we find them fascinating and want to know what they'll do next
  • they're caught in a dilemma and we want to know how they'll resolve it (Tony Soprano trying to negotiate between the pressures of his criminal life and his family life - which is also a 'family situation: job vs. family)

We need to care about the character's goal, whether it's internal (psychological, emotional) or external (save the world, fall in love). A person may be a jerk, but if we can admire or get behind their goal, then we can root for them as a protagonist.

NB: Characters without goals lead to stories without drama.

The main character is risking something; they have something to lose that is worth caring about.

What makes us care about that possibility of that loss? This is what I've extrapolated from Crafty Screenwriting: The hero (who's someone we care about because we identify with them or want to be with them) is now at risk of being transformed, harmed, or losing something vital to their life. They are in play; the thing that they are risking is (essentially) something that's core to their identify.

The hero is at risk of being changed, fundamentally and for the worse.

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