6 Screenwriter Storytelling Tactics that Made Me a Better Novelist

People are often surprised when I tell them that some of the best lessons I’ve ever applied to my novel writing craft came from television writers and screenwriters. That’s because television and screenwriters’ chief aim is to tell a good story.

I assure you that if you apply each of these tactics to your novels, regardless of genre, you will see a marked improvement. Or perhaps you’ve been applying these instinctively. If so, good for you!

Here they are, in no particular order of importance, but as I list them here, they do follow a somewhat logical sequence:

 

  1. Intention and obstacle

Emmy and Oscar winner Aaron Sorkin, writer of A Few Good Men, The West Wing, and The Social Network, preaches intention and obstacle as the backbone of everything he writes. “Someone wants something, and someone or something is in the way of them getting it.”

Without intention and obstacle, your story lacks conflict, and your characters lack an opportunity for development. More detrimental, the reader doesn’t have a purpose for being there. It’s one thing for a protagonist to want her dream job that’s just come on the market. It’s something completely different when her ex-husband is on the hiring committee, and her arch nemesis is going after the same job. (And it just so happens her ex-husband is her ex-husband because he slept with her arch nemesis.)

Intention and obstacle is the stimulus for your characters to make choices and take action. It’s even better when this next tip happens…

  1. Always put your characters somewhere they don’t want to be.

Larry Gelbart, co-creator of the television series M*A*S*H and writer of movies such as Oh, God! and Barbarians at the Gate, dispensed this advice. It especially applies to comedies, but I find it works in every good story. Either take your characters out of their comfort zone, or put them where they’ll need to react rather than respond. For example, our protagonist (I’ve decided to name her Ruthie) sits in front of the hiring committee and the air conditioning has gone out, so they move the interview to a room without windows, and Ruthie is claustrophobic. Plus she’s allergic to a committee member’s perfume. And Mr. Ex is looking especially handsome, the rat-bastard.

 Notice that a little story is unfolding here? This leads me to…

 

  1. “But/Therefore”

As I had mentioned in my previous blog post, South Park creators and writers Matt Stone and Trey Parker’s advice is so crucial to storytelling that I devoted the previous blog post to it. Connecting scenes with “and” or “and then” will make your story drag and offer few consequences for your characters’ actions and behaviors. Connect them with “but” and “therefore,” and your story lights up with conflict and consequences.

Ruthie’s dream job is hiring, but her ex-husband is on the hiring committee, and her arch nemesis is also after it. Therefore, Ruthie needs to ally herself with someone else on the committee. But the arch nemesis has already beat her to it, therefore Ruthie needs to discredit the arch nemesis. But during the interview, the A/C goes on the fritz, therefore they need to move to a room with no windows. But Ruthie is claustrophobic and allergic to someone’s perfume, therefore she needs to get through the interview without having a panic attack or wheezing…

Connect the same scenes with “and,” and watch the story turn into an insomnia remedy rather than a page turner.

 

  1. “The antagonist always thinks s/he is the protagonist.”

This advice came to me courtesy of instructor Will Chandler at the Stony Brook Southampton Summer Screenwriting Conference on Eastern Long Island, and I still remember how hearing it was like an epiphany.

Think about some of your favorite antagonists: Annie Wilkes from Misery. Nathan Jessup from A Few Good Men. Heck, even Voldemort. Each one of them is a compelling antagonist because they believe themselves to be the good guy. Wronged. Misunderstood. Antagonists don’t necessarily need to be villains. But they do need to be… well, antagonizing.

How might Ruthie’s arch nemesis make her case for protagonist status? Maybe she thinks she’s worked twice as hard as Ruthie and thus deserves that job. Maybe deep down she’s twice as insecure as Ruthie, or felt threatened by Ruthie, and that’s why she went after Ruthie’s husband and now her job. Maybe, when they were kids, Ruthie somehow wronged her. Whatever it may be, we don’t just have a mean girl anymore. We have someone who is formidable and challenges us as much as she does Ruthie.

 

  1. Story Structure

During that same screenwriting conference, I learned two different story structures. One was the traditional Three-Act structure (which I’d discovered I’d been instinctively applying to my novels). The other was a character arc based on Nine Key Scenes (also taught by Will Chandler). I detail both of them The Writer’s Habit. I also know of many novelists who use Blake Synder’s beat sheet from Save the Cat.

And finally…

 

  1. Words with a k in it are funny.

Walter Matthau as Willie Clark tells his nephew Ben this in Neil Simon’s The Sunshine Boys. But I suspect it’s Mr. Simon’s assertion. And dammit if it isn’t true. Cookie. Chicken. Ketchup. (I’m not sure what my using all food words says about me, other than I’m writing this before dinner.) Think about it.

 

Activity/Discussion: Of these six storytelling tactics, which is your favorite? Why? How do/would you apply any/all of them in your novel?

 

tell a good story graphic

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What South Park Taught Me About Storytelling

If your scenes are connected by “and” and/or “and then,” your story becomes more passive and drags on. Using “but” and “therefore” leads to more plot twists, surprises, and the need for problem-solving. The result is that readers will keep turning the pages. Remember, when you raise the stakes on your characters, you’ll also raise your readers’ (or viewers’) investment in the outcome.

A couple of years ago, a video circulated around Facebook of Matt Stone and Trey Parker, co-creators and writers of the animated series South Park, in which they discussed a technique they used to constantly raise the stakes on both the plot and characters of every South Park episode. As the story progressed, rather than connect scenes with “and” and/or “and then”, they connected them with “but” and “therefore”. The latter not only raises the stakes and ratchets up the conflict (and the humor), but it also keeps a story from dragging.

This simple tactic changed my approach to novel writing. Whereas I might have done this instinctively, I now do it consciously. What’s more, when I read a problematic draft-in-progress (my own or someone else’s), the diagnosis is usually that the writer either hasn’t raised the stakes enough or has strung scenes together in an “and” or “and then” rather than the “but/therefore” manner. I’ve diagnosed the same problem in finished, published novels as well.

Here’s a description of my novel, Pasta Wars using “and then”:

Katie Cravens’s frozen food-pasta company is in trouble. Her team proposes she partner with renowned pasta chefs Gianluca and Luciana Caramelli to manufacture a new pasta product line. And then Katie flies to Italy to convince Gianluca to collaborate because he is vehemently opposed to the idea, as well as to Katie and her company. And then a stubborn Gianluca insists Katie learn how to make pasta from scratch, and then the equally stubborn Katie stays in Italy and goes head to head with Gianluca, and she is having a hard time fighting her attraction to him…

 

Here’s the same sequence using “but” and therefore”:

Katie Cravens’s frozen food-pasta company is in trouble. Therefore, her team proposes she partner with renowned pasta chefs Gianluca and Luciana Caramelli to manufacture a new pasta product line. But Gianluca is vehemently opposed to the idea, as well as to Katie and her company. Therefore, Katie travels to Italy to personally convince him. But Gianluca is stubborn and insists she learn to make pasta from scratch, therefore Katie, who is just as stubborn stays in Italy and goes head to head with Gianluca, but she is having a hard time fighting her attraction to him…

 

Which story would you rather read? Why?

If your scenes are connected by “and” and/or “and then,” your story becomes more passive and drags on. Using “but” and “therefore” leads to more plot twists, surprises, and the need for problem-solving. The result is that readers will keep turning the pages.

You can even try this if you outline your scenes by inserting “but” and/or “therefore” between each note card, bullet-point, or however you outline.

Remember, when you raise the stakes on your characters, you’ll also raise your readers’ (or viewers’) investment in the outcome. Take it from Matt Stone and Trey Parker!

 

Activity/Discussion: Either draft a series of scenes or select a series of scenes from a work in progress and apply the but/therefore approach. How does it affect your characters and/or story?

(If you liked this post, wait ’til you see the next one!)

 

raise the stakes