Eight Tips From Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting

I read Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting quite some time before I started writing my fanfic. At the time I read it, I’d dabbled in writing, but hadn’t done much more than short pieces for my paper doll blog or stories that never went anywhere. So it was all still theoretical for me, and as I started writing in earnest parts of it kept coming back to me.

Of all the books on writing and stories and craft I’ve been reading, this is my favorite — and it’s also proven to be the most complicated. At over 400 dense pages, it’s not an easy read, as indicated by how the popular Kindle highlights drop off sharply after page 42. Still, I’m glad I started with it, because it’s an incredible source of knowledge. From my notes, here are the ideas that I’ve found most valuable in it:

Stories with narrow appeal are about a particular time & place, while ones with wide appeal are about universal conflicts. Pride and Prejudice is set in Regency England, but if it was only about breaches of etiquette, the scandalous doings of the upper class, charming young women taking walks with dashing officers, and the quest to marry a man with a good fortune, it would mostly appeal to people from that time period or people with a particular interest in historical fiction. However, it’s actually about family, relationships, self-respect, society, financial troubles and other themes which turn a book set in a very specific place and time into an accessible classic.

Know your world like you’re its god; a small world is easier to handle and produces a better story than a large sprawling one. Cliche happens when you don’t truly know the world of your story and substitute worlds from other stories. J.K. Rowling made this mistake a few years back. Yes, the economics of the wizarding world are completely bonkers, Quidditch exists only to glorify one player, and the wizarding population is inconsistent — but who cares? Nobody! The parts of the book that matter feel detailed, coherent and unique, so it’s easy to suspend disbelief and enter into the world on its terms. But then it wasn’t enough to show us a segment of the wizarding world: Rowling tried to describe wizarding cultures all over the world, and the results were cliche and uninspired at best, offensive at worst. She could be the god of the Harry Potter world because she constructed it for years, drawing on life experience, research and imagination, but the other major wizarding schools she wrote about feel flat and cliche because she doesn’t know their worlds in the same way. She would have been better served to go deeper into her own world: wouldn’t we all read a series of short stories set in different stores in Diagon Alley, follow the day of a worker in the Ministry of Magic or enjoy a mystery in the kitchens of Hogwarts?

Love all your characters, including your villains. To continue with the Harry Potter series, I never got the sense Rowling loved Voldemort — pitied, yes, respected, yes, enjoyed letting him loose in all of his evil glory, yes, but not loved. He was a slimy psychopath even as a child, and only got worse with time. When I was rewriting my fic, the villain was essentially a placeholder until I spent some time thinking about what I could love about him. He’s even more terrifying now because he feels human, and therefore all the more unpredictable. My readers fall into two camps: they love to hate him, or they have a soft spot for him but still deeply wish to see him get what he deserves. There’s even someone writing an AU of my fic with him as a character! (And she has him down, too. It’s fun to read someone else writing him.)

Comic characters have blind obsessions that they don’t see. Self-awareness changes the character permanently. Going back to Harry Potter, plenty of characters have a sense of humor — Dumbledore, McGonagall, Lupin — but the characters who provide some comic relief are the obsessive ones. Arthur Weasley and his Muggle artifacts, Hagrid and his dangerous beasts, Argus Filch and his desire to string students up by their thumbs. If they ever had a moment of insight in which they realized they might be acting a little ridiculous, actually, and should probably tone it down, we’d all be so disappointed!

Exposition is like bullets characters shoot to get what they want. We’ve all read scenes where characters could have got what they wanted by shooting an exposition bullet, but held back that information purely because the author wasn’t ready for the protagonist — or the reader — to know it yet. It destroys the illusion that there’s an independent brain in there.

Your first idea is a cliche: throw out 90% of what you write, and keep the best 10%. I was still working on my paper dolls when I read Story, and this bit of advice helped me immediately. I got in the habit of drawing an outfit, then taking another stab at the same idea from a different angle. My second one was always more creative and fun. So it applies to anything, but it’s especially true for writing. David Freeman advises writers to “find the cliche and throw it away” – that is, to identify what the cliche scene, reaction, character, etc. in any given situation would be, then consciously write something else.

Show the ‘telling details’ that establish character and setting. Think about what it is you want to convey about the setting that’s related to character or plot, then express it in a handful of small, perfectly chosen details instead of a paragraph of description that your readers will tune out. Any single item in my living room reveals something about my family, so what I chose to focus on would depend on the story I was trying to tell. A story about a harried mama who’s also a writer? I could focus on the paper chain I use to motivate myself to reach my writing goals, so long it loops all through the living room and dining room, the four baskets of clean laundry I haven’t folded and put away yet, and the jury duty summons pinned to a cork board by my desk. Those three things tell you more than an exhaustive catalog of what’s cluttering up my desk.

Reflect the way society’s values are changing, uncover new insights about them and present them to the audience. This principle always reminds me of two movies that came out in 2015: Mad Max: Fury Road and the live-action Cinderella. Mad Max could have treated Furiosa as a love interest and the Wives as giggly, catty non-entities, and it still could have made a pile of money. But instead it told a story about women who had agency, value and strength, and the effect was astounding, felt fresh and created buzz for the movie. Now, look at Cinderella. In this version she’s grown to adulthood accustomed to a comfortable life, respect and power over others, yet meekly accepts increasingly cruel treatment. The climax of the movie hinges on whether her mouse friends will open the window in time for the prince to hear her singing; she doesn’t play a part in it. To me, it just came off as “When nice girls put up with abuse, they get rewarded by the universe.” The dress might have cost $12,000, but a lot of us are sick of buying that message.

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