This is, perhaps, the most important question I ask my students at the beginning of my writing course. If they’re not sure, if they scratch their heads, study their shoes, or choose that moment to text their friends, I advise them to take a break and think seriously about their motivation.
What I feel like telling them is: Are you sure you want to do this?
Those of us who contemplate a career in writing, specifically in storytelling as screenwriters or novelists, had better know.
If you’re not driven by the unstoppable desire to be a writer, if you’re not obsessed with understanding every nuance, texture and colour of a word and how it plays out in a sentence, if your pulse doesn’t race when you deliver that golden passage, you’d be better off taking up darts instead.
Writing is hard. Accomplished writing is even harder.
Earning a living as a writer is possible, thanks to the tablet revolution and platforms such as Apple and Amazon, but it demands steely dedication, talent and luck. To make it as a writer you need to put your head down, keep improving your craft on a daily basis, and never, ever, give up.
Knowledge and experience of the world are not enough, although they are required. Deep philosophical ideas are enriching, but they too, are not the secret. Ideas, at the cost of story, do not make for compelling tales, except for niche or elite readers. Nor, does artistic temperament on its own. Sensitivity towards others and observational skills are essential, but they, too, are not sufficient.
So, what, in addition to the above, does one need to become a successful writer? The answer, I think, is rather obvious:
Passion is the secret ingredient that makes even the toughest journey enjoyable. Passion turns work into play and sweat into joy. Without passion you lose focus. Without it you merely slog.
So, why decide to be a writer?
Because passion compels you to. It leaves you with no choice. You can’t imagine doing anything else. Not in a million years. If you can, you’d be better off taking up darts.
Passion is the essential ingredient in developing your writing career.
AS a teacher of creative writing, I am often privy to complaints by new writers that their books or screenplays don’t get off the ground, sinking into obscurity instead.
Is it fate or just plain bad luck, they ask?
While it is true that luck plays a role in a writer’s success, it also true that you can’t keep good story ideas down.
Not just any good idea, mind you — a vibrant, original idea we haven’t encountered before, or, at least, an idea presented in a way that feels new; an idea that takes us places we’ve never been, fills us with wonder, introduces us to characters that captivate us.
Story ideas roll call
Consider some of my favorites stories: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Being John Malkovich, Jurassic Park, The Matrix, Stranger than Fiction, City Of God, 2001: A Space Odyssey, George Orwell’s 1984.
All of these, apart from being well-written, are fascinating and original. They grab our imagination and compel us to know more.
A mysterious black monolith that appears at crucial moments of man’s evolution to spur him on? Wow!
A procedure to erase painful memories from one’s mind. I want to know more!
Jurassic creatures brought to life through DNA preserved in a dollop of Amber? Yes, please!
A secret passage that takes us right into John Malkovich’s head! Who would have thought it!
These ideas are so good, so original, they sell themselves. They make for hugely successful stories – providing all other elements of fine writing are in place, of course.
I try I not to start writing a story until I am absolutely convinced that the idea behind it is as good, as original and unique, as it can be, because once I start, I find it difficult to change it mid-stream. I used this approach in my first novel, Scarab, about a quantum computer which can change the laws of physics. The novel quickly entered the best seller list in its category on Amazon, and stayed there for over two years!
My advice to myself is simply this: Start with an idea that fascinates. Isolate its captivating core then think about ways to make it more unique, more original.
Come at it from different angles, from the point of view of different characters, different genres, even different epochs. Write at least ten versions of the basic idea, trying, each time, to up the ante, then walk away from it for a week or two, to give it time to breathe, before repeating the process.
Once I’m convinced I have a good story idea, I test it on others. I watch their eyes as I speak. If they flick away, seem distracted, I’ve lost my audience somewhere. That happens a lot. The path back to the drawing board is well-worn.
Your process may differ from mine, but one thing seems likely: the more original and unique your idea, the more fascinating your story will be.
Fascinating, original, and well-written story Ideas are the antidote to writing obscurity.
WE ARE LIVING in an time in which there is an over-abundance of information, and this includes information on screenwriting. Finding the right stuff, therefore, is one of our biggest headaches.
In an attempt to make this task a little easier I mention five important writing mentors worth mining for gold.
Although each mentor emphasises different aspects of the screenwriting craft, they all adhere to a similar structural approach that agrees with the film critic John Egan’s definition of a conventional screenplay telling ‘a story that involves a single plot that revolves around a single protagonist who is supported, opposed and offset by a cast of secondary characters.’
Of the five mentors mentioned here, perhaps only Christopher Vogler offers a somewhat different inflection at first glance—-although even he employs a template in his use of the quest as a generic structure. But more of that later.
The screenwriting mentors:
For the sake of brevity, one may view Syd Field’s work as focusing primarily on the structure of the main plot centered on a protagonist who struggles to achieve his chosen goal against mounting obstacles.
Field, who claims to be one of the first mentors to package Hollywood codes and conventions into a single paradigm, asserts in The Screenwriter’s Workshop, that ‘before you can express your story dramatically, you must know four things: 1) the ending, 2) the beginning, 3) Plot Point I, and 4) Plot Point II. These four elements are the structural foundation of your screenplay.’ He later adds a fifth element, the midpoint, which he defines as ‘a link in the chain of dramatic action.’
Additionally, the midpoint ‘expands the character’s depth and dimension’. Field sees the typical film as comprising three acts, balanced by the midpoint, which breaks up the middle act into two units roughly of equal length. Each act is about 30 pages, or 30 screen minutes, in length and focuses on the vicissitudes of the protagonist’s fortunes.
Linda Seger follows a similar line, but offers more detail about subplots. In Making a Good Script Great, she writes that ‘subplots give the protagonist an opportunity to smell the flowers, to fall in love, to enjoy a hobby, to learn a new skill.’ Emphasising that the function of subplots is to support and add density to the main plot, Seger stresses that subplots have their own beginning, middle, and end and are most effective when they intersect and connect with the plot line. Importantly, subplots carry the theme of the story. But no conventional story is possible without a central lead.
Michael Hauge lays down five essential requirements for crafting a successful protagonist or Hero, the inclusion of which he sees as the first essential element of a well-crafted conventional story. In Writing Screenplays That Sell, Hauge asserts that the Hero, as the vehicle that drives the story forward, must allow for audience identification, pursue a clear and visible goal, face seemingly insurmountable obstacles, and show some sign of courage.
Interestingly, Hauge does not place character growth, which he defines as the ‘character’s search for courage [which] results in greater self-knowledge, maturation, or actualization’, within the first five essential elements of his story-concept checklist, although he does include it at number thirteen, after high concept, originality and familiarity, subplots, genre, medium, and cost, and before theme.
Lastly, Hauge defines theme as ‘a universal statement about the human condition that goes beyond the plot. It is the screenwriter’s prescription for how one should live one’s life.’ Theme, then, is generated from the premise or argument of the story within a wider context of received moral and ethical values.
Robert McKee’s Story, in addition to concepts already explored above, includes a survey of major non-canonical forms which he labels ‘anti-plot’ and ‘miniplot’, as well as a detailed examination of genres.
McKee’s definition of the following terms is also useful: The Premise is that which shapes the dramatic context of the story by asking an open-ended question – ‘What would happen if…?’; a beat is ‘an exchange of behaviour in action/reaction’; a scene is ‘a story event, usually in continuous time and space’; an act is ‘a series of sequences that peaks in a climactic scene which causes a major reversal of values’; the inciting incident, as ‘the first major event of the telling, is the primary cause for all that follows’; and the ‘obligatory scene’ or crisis, is ‘an event the audience knows it must see before the story can end’, which most often takes the form of a final confrontation between the protagonist and antagonistic forces.
Christopher Vogler, by contrast, employs a mythological approach, inspired by the work of the American mythologist Joseph Campbell, defining the screenplay in terms of a quest. In The Writer’s Journey, Vogler describes each stage of the narrative as a journey undertaken by the Hero as he struggles to achieve his goal.
Thus the Hero starts in the Ordinary World, receives a Call to Adventure, which initially results in The Refusal. He typically meets with The Mentor, Crosses the First Threshold, is Tested by Enemies and assisted by Allies, approaches the Innermost Cave, suffers an Ordeal, is Rewarded, begins his Journey Back, is Resurrected, and finally Returns with The Elixir. In doing so, he is aided and impeded by a host of archetypal characters (or combination thereof); namely, the Mentor, the Threshold Guardian, the Herald, the Shapeshifter, the Shadow, the Ally, and the Trickster.
This approach to storytelling has much in common with Vladimir Propp’s description of the fairy tale, in terms of character function, put forward in his Morphology of the Folk Tale. Although some of Vogler’s offerings seem ostensibly different from other mentors, his definition of character and character action, in adhering to a predetermined template based on structuring narrative elements according to function, remains much the same as Field’s, Hauge’s, Seger’s, and McKee’s.
Syd Field, Michael Hauge, Linda Seger, Christopher Vogler, and Robert McKee are five important screenwriting and story mentors who have packaged much of Hollywood’s conventional wisdom into screenwriting systems. Collectively, they offer new and established writers an opportunity to deepen their knowledge of the writing craft.
Great writing, in my opinion, embodies two indispensable but distinct sets of skills.
The first arises from the writer’s own life: empathy, intuition, observation, inquisitiveness, moral compass, and the like.
Some skills within this first set are surreptitiously acquired over time, simply by living one’s life; others are innate and spring from the writer’s general and emotional intelligence.
The second is learnt more quickly. Knowledge about the craft, such as how to fashion the theme of a story, how to make characters engaging, how to weave plot and subplot together so that they compliment each other, is easier to acquire.
Much of the writerly advice offered in books, blogs, and courses emphasises this second set of skills. Mention is made of the importance of the first set, a writer’s powers of observation, or the need to be inquisitive, but the emphasis lies squarely on how to work with technique. The reason is simple.
It is far easier to teach someone how to use a turning point to spin the story around than it is to align that turning point with some astute observation about the human condition.
I often advise my students to think about both sets of requirements simultaneously; to try and integrate them into the writing process from the get-go.
The information needed to produce great writing is all around us—in streets, shops, restaurants—if only we can learn to observe, relate, and recognise its relevance in our work.
Several years ago, I was fortunate enough to be teaching at a college in Australia, which was situated a few hundred meters from the art gallery at Brisbane’s South Bank. I would often spend my lunch hour there browsing through its many treasures.
Turning life into great writing
I remember on one occasion being captivated by a painting of a young woman in a floral dress. She was leaning against a tree and seemed rather forlorn.
I noticed, out of the corner of my eye, that someone else was studying the painting intently. A glance revealed that this person, an elderly man with deeply wrinkled skin, was working his top lip with his teeth. Another glance revealed a trace of tears in his pale eyes.
I crept away so as not to intrude, but my imagination raced with narrative possibilities. Did she remind him of his own daughter that had, perhaps, passed away? Or, had the young woman been a lover who had rejected him?
I tucked the image away in my mind for use in some future story, perhaps as a minor beat, perhaps as an inciting incident or turning point.
I have, as yet, not exactly done so, although I did locate a few important scenes with a very different character at that very gallery in my second Scarab novel.
The point is that one’s readiness to absorb a spectrum of experiences, to remember the small details that breathe life into memory, and to allow for their narrative possibilities to take hold of the imagination, is a wonderful way to broaden one’s skills in life and in writing.
Great writing requires the integration of two distinct sets of skills. The one stems from living and observing life, the other from mastering the techniques that transforms life into stories.
THEY say it’s lonely at the top. But the truth is that it’s even lonelier at the bottom.
It’s also more frightening and more frugal. Unfortunately, the bottom is where many writers spend their most formative years.
Getting published or having a script made into a movie has always been hard for a writer.
Steven Spielberg brandished the script of E.T. for several years before he convinced financiers to let him make it. Writer Stephen King’s rejection slips could fill an entire wall before he became one of the world’s most popular writers.
These sorts of accounts are legion.
But then, in 2007, something changed, for novelists anyway. Amazon’s kindle came along and the sun broke through the clouds.
The idea of reading stories on tablets proved contagious. Other companies followed suit with their own brand of e-readers. New writers flooded the market. Some were really good, launching sustainable careers. Others, not so much.
Still, writers could publish their work on these platforms and get feedback from their readers in the form of reviews. Sales, some sky high, some closer to earth, followed.
Then, something changed again. Amazon began to tighten the screws. Algorithms were altered, making it harder to get noticed. Reviews became subject to all sorts of restrictions – some justified, some not. Sales plummeted.
Some writers lost steam. Others gave up on their dream of becoming writers altogether. It was too hard, too lonely, at the bottom.
“The truth is that writing screenplays and novels, and attempting to get them made and read, is as difficult as winning a medal in a long-distance marathon. It may sound like a platitude, but it takes strength, endurance, and an unflinching belief in yourself to finish in good time.”
There are many moments during a race where it seems easier to give up than to press on. These moments become even more tempting as the race drags on and you find yourself alone on the road and gasping for breath. You need something special to keep you going.
But perhaps the solution is all around you.
How a writer beats the blues
Do you fear not finishing? Simply giving up? Then use that fear to drive you on.
Concerned that you are not good enough to produce high quality work? Then read the blogs and articles on how to improve your craft and put them into practice.
But even more importantly, try to remember that magical moment that first got you writing. There is something timeless and powerful in that moment — an antidote to doubt.
Become familiar with it. Learn to conjure it up at will. Use it to inspire you when you need it most.
That moment, together with a sense of what life might be without your dream, might just help keep you in the race.
Writer’s block. It happens to all of us at some point or another.
It happened to me while writing my award-winning novel, The Land Below. One minute I’m conjuring up a storm, full of plot plans and enthusiasm for the characters in my story, the next I realise that a month has passed without my having added a single word to the text.
I had succumbed to writer’s block – that insidious creature that slouches in the shadows hoping to snatch our muse away and keep her prisoner in his dungeon.
But writer’s block, no matter how persistent, needn’t mean the end of our writing careers.
Breaking Through Writer’s Block
They say that genius is ninety-nine percent hard work and one percent inspiration, and they’re probably right.
Without the force of habit, hard things seem harder to do: Training in the gym. Getting up early for work – just skip exercising for a week, or return to work from a long holiday, and you’ll see what I mean. That engine just doesn’t want to turn over. There’s just not enough spark left in that battery.
So, what to do?
You could just give up and walk away. Have a drink. Take up table tennis.
Or, like persevering with a car that won’t start, you could put your back into it and push. Never mind that the road is flat and narrow without a hint of a downward slope to make things easier. Never mind that there isn’t anyone to help you steer. If you want that engine to start, you just have to push until you gain momentum.
So, it is with writing. You have to fight the inertia. Grit your teeth and place those fingers on the keyboard. Write something. Anything. Heck, write about how much you hate writing.
Sure, what you write might be silly, uninspiring garbage that no one wants to read. But who cares? Silence that inner critic and push on.
Five minutes today. Maybe ten tomorrow. Twenty the next. Just get back into the habit of writing, and inspiration be damned.
Set yourself small goals – increase time spent daily at the keyboard. Pay no attention to the quality of the output just yet. Just write, write, write.
Suddenly, perhaps when you least expect it, the engine will turn. It might take several days. It might take a month, or longer. But inevitably, that engine will start and you will find yourself back in the driving seat steering the car down the road.
And don’t be too surprised, if, a mile or two along, you happen to stop to pick up a hitchhiker, wearing a tee-shirt with a large M on the front, who spins you a yarn about kidnappings and dungeons, and how she escaped them both.
Beat writer’s block by writing through it, one bit at a time, one day at a time.
As a storyteller and teacher I come across two types of writers – those who work from a meticulously rendered synopsis or treatment, and those who write from the gut.
There is much to commend both approaches, depending on the personality and mood of the writer, and the medium the writer is writing in.
Screenplays require a more planned approach – the precise placement of the inciting incident, turning points, the climax and resolution. This particular framework typically plays out in a two hour film that does not allow for non-essential embellishments. After all, each additional scene ultimately costs thousands to shoot and edit. A lot of unnecessary writing in search of a purpose, even at the draft stage, is an unprofitable use of time.
A novel is somewhat different. Although this form has also felt the impact of the modern screenplay, with some novelists choosing to eliminate lengthy character rumination and plot diversions, the form does allow the freedom to dig deeper in ways that the screenplay simply can not afford.
A novelist may start with a seed idea, a genre, and a character with an aching need to fix some present or past wrong, achieve some insatiable dream, and take it from there. Some novelists believe that providing they have such markers tucked away in their minds, they can confidently unearth their stories as they go along – that they can write from the gut.
Of course, there are exceptions. Ken Follett writes draft after draft of detailed and accurate treatments of a story, prior to his commencing the writing of the novel itself. It is a method that has clearly worked for this best-selling author.
My own view is that for some of us, dwelling too long on a treatment once we have a version of it, may blunt the writing when we finally do sit down to deliver the tale. So much of the magic, especially in a novel, happens spontaneously at the level of imagery and expression – in bits of plot and image that combine in serendipitous ways to create roads and highways that advance the plot in ways that we can not predict. This, at any rate, has been my experience.
Which approach do you favour, and why? Write in and let me know.
One storyteller may meticulously preplan her stories before commencing the actual writing of her tale. Another may launch right away, using a number of markers to guide her hand.
What makes great writers great? I’ve ruminated on this topic before, but the subject is so fascinating that I find myself revisiting it each time I read or reread a truly great story.
There have been many great writers throughout history: Shakespeare, Dickens, Jane Austen, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and later, Hemingway, Golding, Faulkner, Steinbeck, and many others writing in a multitude of languages across the world.
Most of these writers differ significantly from one another in style and subject matter. So in what sense can they be said to share the same appraisal?
What makes a writer great, anyway?
And why is it that so many remain relevant today when the world they lived in, the manner and style of their writing, has changed? Just compare Shakespeare to Hemingway, for example.
Something timeless must surely be part of the lens through we recognise great writing. It must be something that not only focuses on the historical context, but locates in the work an immediate relevance to today’s society, despite the anachronisms and eccentricities of language and nationality.
It can not be style alone, although all great writers have it in abundance, because style succumbs to anachronism.
Nor can it be solely form, because form evolves with time. Linear story telling, for example, is increasingly competing with non-linear forms.
The essence of great writing therefore has to contain something that excludes change from its definition because it is already fully evolved.
The set of universal values, perhaps?
Great Writers and Universal Values
Although many academics argue against the objectivity of universal values, I believe that they do exist and have always done so. Great thinkers such as Plato and Aristotle, Augustine of Hippo, Siddhartha Gautama and Mahatma Gandhi have, in one way or another, argued that core values do not fall out of fashion or become irrelevant. Fairness, generosity, compassion, and love form some of the values which ennoble us as a species and whose absence or negation exposes the worst in us.
Throughout history great writers have been humanity’s conscience precisely because they recognise the timeless relevance of those values. They write stories that track the consequences to societies and individuals when love is supplanted by hate, generosity by greed, duty by ambition – when the values that make us human are ignored or negated: A Cathedral’s newly added spire that threatens to collapse under the weight of pride (The Spire), the families and villages that are torn apart by greed (The Pearl), the blind ambition that leads to the murder of the rightful king and the eventual death of his usurper (Macbeth).
It is this tireless affirmation of universal human values that renders great writing immortal and perpetually relevant to us all. Long may it continue to do so.
Great writers write stories that affirm universal values.
WHAT sort of writer do you want to be? That is a perennial and interesting question. But it is also a difficult one to answer because many of us write from the gut, without pausing to examine our deepest motivations.
Yet, the question is important and I pose it to my writing students each year.
The answers I get vary: The sort of writer who makes a good living writing – a commercial writer. Or, a serious, literary writer. Or, another Steven King.
I want to be the sort of writer that…
I tend to nudge students along by asking a related question: What sort of films and novels do you enjoy? Chocolat or Independence Day? The Spire or Fifty Shades of Grey? Perhaps all of those, alongside many others?
The answers point to the sorts of techniques we need to pay special attention to.
Commercial, widely popular stories tend to focus on the outer journey – the visible struggle of the hero to attain some important tangible goal – save the world, his family, his beloved from some terrifying threat. To discover a hidden treasure. To solve some impossibly difficult puzzle and be rewarded with fame and fortune.
More literary writing throws the focus on the inner journey – the balance or imbalance of the hero’s inner values and motivations pitted against an outer challenge: The discovery of a large pearl that forever changes the life a poor fishing family, and the village they live in. The willful building of a spire, against the advice of others, atop an existing cathedral, even though it lacks the appropriate foundation to support it.
Some films and novels manage to strike a balance between the two journeys – the attempt to return a destructively powerful, magical ring to the hellfire that forged it, while fighting the growing desire to posses its beguiling power.
It is this third category, the one that balances the literary with the commercial, that is, in my opinion, the most viable. It is the one I encourage my students to explore the most.
I believe that stories need to have forward thrust and momentum. They need to pounce from obstacle to obstacle, and to do so in a clear, tangible way that involves the activation of the senses. But stories also need to challenge the hero’s beliefs and values. They need to pit the hero against herself, as much as against an antagonist.
This sort of story requires paying special attention to character-building, but it also needs to generate exciting and fast-paced action. It involves aligning the hero’s character arc to the slope of her mounting obstacles so that each minor victory or defeat forces her into a spiritual, moral, and physical dilemma that promotes growth.
Thinking about stories in this way often helps gauge a developing writer’s specific interest in the craft.
There are many things that go into crafting great stories.
Some aspects are hidden from initial view. They are glimpsed only as the story progresses. They exist in the tension between character, theme, setting. They relate to pace, tone, mood, insight.
Such tensions play off against one other eventually kindling a fire that dazzles. Others, such as arresting physical and psychological descriptions through simile and metaphor, are immediately apparent.
No two stories are the same. The narrative relationships within each are too rich and varied for that.
A gifted writer knows when to dazzle us with her exotic yet precise word choice and when to use a subdued vocabulary in order to let something else shine through. A gifted writer is like a gifted conductor, moulding, pacing, coloring every note to greater purpose, now drawing our attention to one voice, now to another.
Today I want to point to what is perhaps the easiest skill to spot – the virtuoso use of language that grants us crucial insights about life (and death).
Examples in stories are as numerous as they are varied, so my choice is a personal one. I’m referring to the many arresting lines from Paul Harding’s first novel, Tinkers, which won the Pulitzer for literature in 2010. The book has not only had a lasting effect on me, but has inspired me to try my hand at a more literary style, resulting in my recently released novella, The Nostalgia of Time Travel.
There is something magical about Harding’s use of language that transcends space and time and makes it truly universal. He starts his book with the lines:
“FORGE WASHINGTON CROSBY BEGAN TO hallucinate eight days before he died. From the rented hospital bed, placed in the middle of his own living room, he saw insects running in and out of imaginary cracks in the ceiling plaster.”
A little later, Harding gives us this surreal description of Forge’s world tearing open as he prepares for death:
“The roof collapsed, sending down a fresh avalanche of wood and nails, tarpaper and shingles and insulation. There was the sky, filled with flat-topped clouds, cruising like a fleet of anvils across the blue. George had the watery, raw feeling of being outdoors when you are sick. The clouds halted, paused for an instant, and plummeted onto his head.
The very blue of the sky followed, draining from the heights into that cluttered concrete socket. Next fell the stars, tinkling about him like the ornaments of heaven shaken loose. Finally, the black vastation itself came untacked and draped over the entire heap, covering George’s confused obliteration.”
This is exceptional, packed writing. How can one not want to read more?
Although I do not presume to claim a place amongst such illustrious company, passages such as the ones quoted above inspired me to come up with my own insights about growing older and our need to reconcile our life with our past mistakes. Here’s my protagonist, The Nostalgia of Time Travel‘s, Benjamin Vlahos, pleading for a second chance to get life right:
“Sometimes, I wonder what it must be like to be a subatomic particle existing for the briefest of moments; all the joy and pain of birth and death compressed between the two staccato ticks of that relentless hand.
At other times I imagine a scaled-down version of myself, living on the surface of the watch, fighting against the perpetual ticking of that fearsome engine. I imagine gripping the watch’s hands in my bleeding fists, my arms extended, my body and head thrust forward, my legs bent and wide apart, until I stop the hands from ticking and force them back, rotating them anti-clockwise, back to that moment on the Sydney pier when I stopped to buy my last pack of cigarettes, while Miranda stood on the pavement smiling brightly back at me.”
Ultimately, Benjamin, despite his being a theoretical physicist, opts for art, not science, as a way of understanding life’s vicissitudes:
“Isn’t everything worth knowing squeezed inside the kernel of a story? All that’s ever been written, sang and spoken, pressed into a single pearl? The story is our raft when old age casts us out to sea; the logs are the memories, the ropes are the love and kindness we have shared. Can my equations ever be that?”
Use powerful but appropriate metaphors In your stories to immediately capture your reader’s attention.