Where do I find my story?

Drift. Wait. Obey.”

Rudyard Kipling

The differ­ence between life and the movies is that a script has to make sense, and life doesn’t.”

Joseph L. Mankiewicz

Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work.”

Gustave Flaubert

Amongst prim­itive tribes, there was often a shaman or witch-doctor who had a talent for telling stories and was given the important job of keeping alive the tribe’s oral history and folk-tales. It was a recog­nised talent and commanded a great deal of respect. There are still people today who have this talent; although, to be strictly accurate, we’re talking about two distinct talents, not one.

The Story-Teller is the person who can keep your atten­tion and hold you spell-bound with even the most banal anec­dote. It’s not a literary ability that these people have but some­thing completely instinctive – a gift – that gives them this power. Such an indi­vidual knows, without being prompted, how to shape and craft a story to wring the most effect from it.

The Story-Dreamer is some­thing else again. If you are the kind of person who can’t help but think up stories, who filled up exer­cise books as a child and whose continual mantra is the magic phrase: “what if?” – then you are prob­ably one of these indi­viduals; a human ‘story factory’ who comes up with three likely scen­arios over your coffee and toast every morning. These are people with a magpie mentality, who are in the habit of continu­ally making new connec­tions.

The truth is that most of us have some­thing of this sham­an­istic talent which we can choose to cultivate and develop. The trick is to pay atten­tion to both the phys­ical world around you and the inner world of your dreams and imagin­a­tion. Start to actively look for story ideas with an open and enquiring mind and you will find them every­where in embryonic form.

It’s an excel­lent habit to carry a note­book around with you to gather up these ‘seeds’ and jot them down before they slip away. You’ll soon accu­mu­late quite a list and your next problem becomes: selecting the one which has the most potential.

What makes a good story?

Write hard and clear about what hurts”

Ernest Hemingway

I make no distinc­tion between writing Lear or a play for young people. In fact, I love writing for the young. They’re not inter­ested in plays about paying the mort­gage. They’re inter­ested in the universe and the kitchen table”.

Edward Bond

There is one, and really only one, criteria by which stories are judged. It doesn’t matter how hack­neyed your plot is, how stereo­typ­ical and flat your char­ac­ters are, how unori­ginal your idea, as long as your audi­ence wants to know what happens next. As long as your audi­ence cares, you are winning.

Remember all those times you found your­self glued to some­thing that was obvi­ously of inferior quality on tv, and wondering why you were wasting time watching it? No matter how bad it was, you simply had to find out how it ended. You were hooked. The film­maker or tv producer had succeeded in their most important task.

Of course, we would still prefer to tell stories that are both compel­ling and profound, that have things to say to an audi­ence. Stories that will move them and remain in their memory. That is a worth­while ambi­tion – as long as we remember that the first objective of the story-teller is to engage.

Choosing a story

You would think that selecting a story to develop into a script would be easy. Some­times the choice is instinctive – you know in your bones the story you will choose.  But the decision is an important one because you will be investing a great deal of time and energy in your writing and you don’t want it to go to waste.

If you are at all confused or hesitant about making a choice, here are a few ques­tions you should ask yourself:

Does the story idea excite me?

An important consid­er­a­tion; not only because of the time you will invest in writing it; but also because, if it doesn’t excite you, the chances are good that it won’t excite an audi­ence either.

When we talk about a story in this context what we really mean is the impulse to tell that story. Keeping that impulse alive whilst dealing with the mech­anics of storytelling is half the problem. Like a new rela­tion­ship, what can seem alluring and full of possib­il­ities at the begin­ning can later lose its glamour –  because scriptwriting can be hard work at times.

There­fore the more excited you are by the story initially, the more of a real­istic chance you have of bringing it to fruition.

What is it about this idea that interests me person­ally?

You delve into a partic­ular corner of your­self that’s dark and uneasy, and you artic­u­late the confu­sions and unease, then you acquire other corners of unease and discontent …”

Brian Friel

Remember, there are no acci­dents. If a story does excite you, there is prob­ably some connec­tion with your personal life. Invest­igate this connec­tion because it is often the path to uncov­ering deeper meaning and other levels.

Some people think of stories as mech­an­isms or archi­tec­tural constructs. I think of them more like living, growing things. Just like plants that have been pulled out of the soil, they trail all kinds of roots and debris. Don’t ignore these untidy bits because they are often what brings your story to life.

Is this a real story?

Don’t make the mistake of confusing an abstrac­tion or situ­ation, however inter­esting, with a story.

“Men working on an oil rig”, for example, is a setting. “Wife beating” is a topic; “grief”, an emotion.

A real story takes you on a journey through time.

Is this story filmic?

An obvious ques­tion maybe, but it’s surprising the number of film-scripts written which should really have been novels or plays. There are no hard and fast rules, of course, but a story with a strong external line of action, inter­esting conflicts, and an original premise is defin­itely the one most likely to get made.

bedtime

What are you trying to say?

Every story says some­thing about the universal human condi­tion; even if, in many cases, it’s relat­ively banal or unori­ginal, i.e. ‘love conquers all’. Inten­tion­ally or unin­ten­tion­ally, your story is also making a state­ment but chances are you’ll have no idea what it is when you begin writing.

Don’t worry about it. This is how most stories arrive in our minds. It is quite common to have an idea for a story without really knowing what it is saying – or capable of saying. Let the story reveal itself to you as you work on it.

Gods at bedtime

A lot of the stories we consume on a daily basis deal with little more than the surface of things. They contain all the right ingredi­ents; action, char­ac­ters, even conflict; but if such stories divert us for a while, but we rarely remember them for long.

Then there are the other kinds of stories, those that do stay with us. These aren’t stories that neces­sarily have a ‘message’ or are trying to say some­thing portentous, but they possess an inner life. They remind us why humans began telling stories in the first place: we created myths about gods and monsters and heroes as a way of explaining what was myster­ious and magical.

These are stories that reach out into the unknown, that feel subtly connected to a bigger world outside the oper­ating theatre, or the prison, or wherever the drama is happening. A talented story-teller makes these connec­tions instinctively.

This might sound complic­ated but here, as in other places on this site, we are in search of simpli­city. The best kind of stories are both simple and true – in the sense that we recog­nise in them some­thing of our own exper­i­ence of living. And the very best do some­thing more – they return us to the time when we were chil­dren and stories still had real power over us.

© David Clough 1995

damage_610

The string of pearls

The major differ­ence between theatre and film is the import­ance of dialogue to telling your story. The habit of writing your story through dialogue is a hard one to break, espe­cially if you have written for the theatre. Robert Mckee warns of this tend­ency in his book “Story”. Dialogue is the one aspect of screen-based storytelling that a screen­writer has complete control over and there is a great tempta­tion to exploit that.

Play­wrights, of course, do use dialogue to tell stories. There are few stage direc­tions in Shakespeare’s texts apart from exits and entrances, and no acting direc­tions at all except ‘they fight’. Play­wrights, there­fore, need to radic­ally re-think their tech­nique when they write for the screen and many have admitted they find it hard to adapt.

The play­wright David Hare describes how he had virtu­ally given up on screen­writing until he met the French film director Louis Malle:

” … My life was changed by Louis Malle, who asked me to do Damage, which I really, really didn’t want to do. I said, “You know, I’m finished with the cinema, I’m just getting worse at it:’ And Louis said, “Well, you won’t have to make this one – I’ll make it. All you have to do is write it.” I said no. Later, I was on a holiday; lying on a beach in the south of France. The phone rang and it was Louis. He said, ”I’m coming down to join you.” I said no, but he came down and said, “I know you’re not going to write it, but, on the other hand, why don’t we just imagine you were going to write it? Let’s talk about how you would write it.”

He had this incred­ible method which taught me everything about writing movies. Louis would start every day at 8:30 with a cup of coffee, and I would have a crois­sant. And he would say; “Tell me the story of the film.” And I would say; “Well, there’s this conser­vative politi­cian … ” And within about two sentences he’d say. “What sort of person is he? Why is he doing that?” He’d just ask ques­tions. And so maybe by lunch­time we had got through about six scenes, and it would be really solid. Then the next day, he’d get up and say: “Tell me the story of the film.” And I’d try and pick up where I left off the day before, and he’d say. “No, no, you’ve got to go back to the beginning.”

And this went on for about l0 days. By the end of that process, I could tell the story of Damage in about 20 minutes. He said, “Well, you’ve done the hard work now-you’ve written the film. Just go and hang some dialogue on it.” It was an incred­ible way to write. And writing the dialogue only took me a few weeks, because the story was already completely laid out. It was the most severe way that I’ve ever worked on struc­ture, but it was also the best way ever of writing a film. It does drive you abso­lutely mad – you just think, “Oh, I’m going insane.” But that’s when I began to realize why my own films were so bad: I’d never subjected them to this narrative test and created such a taut string on which you could just hang the pearls”

Listening to the silence

When talking about scriptwriting, I once or twice have found myself reaching for analo­gies in the world of popular music.  Maybe because of its lack of preten­sion or maybe it’s because music is a ‘purer’ and less dupli­citous art form.

Eddie and The Cruisers was a minor hit from the eighties, a rock n’ roll fable with all the usual cliches but suffi­ciently popular to spawn a sequel. I liked it enough to remember this scene where Eddie, who is a self-tortured kind of Jim Morrison char­acter, is trying to convince a young guitarist not to “impress himself” with his playing.

Musi­cians, whether they’re  Mozart or McCartney, under­stand instinct­ively that a single great line of melody moves an audi­ence more than a symphony. It’s this distil­la­tion into the simplest and purest form that a musi­cian strives for, the great hook or riff that makes a song into a hit.  And how do you find it? You could do worse than take Eddie’s advice and “Just listen …”

For the writer ‘listening’ means playing close atten­tion to what is going on in your story and being receptive to everything it might be trying to tell you. Some­times an idea that seems complex at first contains a truth that is both elegant and simple. You just couldn’t see it before

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