Attention all Screenwriters, Graphic Novelists, Novelists-Afraid-Of-Screenwriting, and Waiters, Bankers, Accountants, Teachers, Custodians, Firefighters, Cashiers and Parking Lot Attendants who Dream of Being Screenwriters:
You already know how to tell a great story. Quit worrying. Worrying is not your job. Writing is your job. Start writing. Don’t even read this article. Begin writing your story right now.
But for anyone still finishing his coffee and toast in need of some entertainment before he gets back to writing, the reason you already know how to write a great story is this: You know what the other guy would be thinking. And when I say “the other guy,” I’m referring to your attentive friend, your fellow story lover—your reader.
How do you know what your reader would be thinking? The voice in your head tells you. Some people call this voice their Lord in Heaven, some people call it the God of Creativity speaking through them. I call it your friendly Gut-Translator. This voice is your inner writing coach. Great gal to have around. Gal or guy, animal or mineral, listen to this sage advisor in your head. You were born with her and she is totally rooting for you. She is on the ball. As you write your universal tale of love or revenge, dear screenwriter, as you weave your adventure of loss, grief, murder or hope, this voice speaks to you the whole time. You just have to listen.
Ah, the listening part. The task is upon us, we humble servants of our imaginations, to listen as well as we can to this voice while we write. And darn it if distractions don’t sometimes get in the way. “This idea’s really gonna sell” gets in our way. “This character will really impress that producer” gets in our way. “Now they’ll finally see I can write” and “No one’s ever seen this idea before” get in our way. Sometimes our listening needs a polish. A dusting. Sometimes a murky curtain of second-guessing separates us from our sure-fire Voice Of Excellence. All I can tell you, dear valiant writer-at-whatever-stage-of-
As a story consultant and screenplay editor, all I do, every time, is guide you back to your gut. Your Voice. Your Gut-Translator.
Today’s Inner Writing Coach reminder of the day: REALLY HIGH STAKES
You need high stakes in your screenplay. Really high stakes.That’s how you’ll make your audience care. Your inner voice knows this. She chimes in with things like: “Come on, would Cinderella really put up with that? Make sure she’s trapped—socially, economically, something—otherwise she’d high tail it out of there for sure.” Show your audience that Cinderella has spent her last penny. Show us that Little Red Riding Hood has no other friend in the world.
When you have high stakes, your audience will be on the edge of their seats, viscerally and bodily caring about your story. Really and truly caring. And that’s the whole point of storytelling! Keep your stakes really high. Where there are high stakes, there’s tension. And you need tension from beginning to end: The exhilarating/promising ups and devastating/terrifying downs of a roller coaster ride. Then back up again. I don’t care if you’re writing the next James Bond adventure, or a no-budget, single-location domestic drama. When you think your characters’ stakes are already high, make them higher.
How do you create high stakes? You show me what’s riding on the outcome of your character’s goals. Seems obvious? I know that you fine writers know this instinctively, and yet, still, it’s our daily duty to mine our characters’ hearts fully, and show our audience the myriad ways our lead character is counting on a specific, positive/successful outcome.
Don’t only show me the planning of the heist. Show me the girl the impoverished thief wants to impress. Don’t just show me the training and the glorious boxing match. Show me the the brother who no longer speaks to our fighter. Don’t only show me an election campaign, show me the birthday party no one comes to. Show me the frayed suits. Show me the whispering colleagues. Give me Henry’s nervous pick-up lines, yes, but also show me his agonizing dates-gone-wrong. Let’s see Henry get fired from his job.
There are all kinds of ways to create extremely high stakes. Your gut will always ask you questions, then provide endless ideas. Your inner voice wants to see what your characters are emotionally attached to, what addictions they are desperately trying to shake as they pursue their new plan. Don’t only show me your character’s fight to survive illness. Also show me all she has to lose. Show me her particular joys, inside jokes, and successes before the illness creeps in. Seen the opening of Pixar’s Up, anyone?
And show me what hinges on the various outcomes of your characters’ actions. This is the way to make your audience feel great pain and profound love. Listen to the questions and suggestions of your inner writing coach. You’re about to complete a great screenplay.