We are all storytellers. We begin telling stories as small children and continue throughout our lives. Story is a constant. I’ve worked with story for 25 years now. As a former studio executive, a current writing instructor for a network and independent story/career consultant, I’m on a constant quest to understand how to best guide writers to write their stories in a way that leads to a sale in TV or film. What I’ve discovered with the writers that I’ve had the most success helping to launch their careers is that it comes down to three components – System, Illustration and Application.
My system communicates my worldview of story to student. I see story from a studio executive perspective. When I was a studio executive I analyzed story all day every day on up to 5 shows a week at every stage from concept to production draft. I saw my notes executed. I saw what worked and didn’t work to create strong story. As I prepared to write my book, Story Line: Finding Gold In Your Life Story, I developed a system to teach story. I did this by gathering years worth of Oscar, Emmy, and Golden Globe nominated scripts. I studied them closely and extracted a formula that became the foundation of my system of teaching story. My system starts here: Strong story for TV and Film starts with what I call a powerful trigger incident. A trigger incident is something that happens at the beginning of the story that pushes the central character into a dilemma. The strength of the dilemma is key. A dilemma that forces the central character to make a difficult choice creates a powerful set up for story. It helps build empathy and a strong rooting factor in the audience. The central character’s choice in the dilemma defines her external goal. This goal should be totally clear by the end of Act One. Then, every action the central character takes and every obstacle she hits should link back to the goal. If the goal isn’t clear, the story won’t work. There should be internal and external stakes for the central character. We should always know what she wants externally, and what is the worst that can happen if she doesn’t get it. The internal story should also follow this logic and be in alignment with the external goal. This is the basics of the system that I designed to teach and analyze story.
The second critical component of teaching story is illustration. I use examples from current TV shows and films to illustrate my system to writers. When a writer clearly understands the system, examples help expand their view of story and allow them to hit some “aha” moments in their own learning process. Live events allow me to illustrate the lesson in real time by showing writers clips from TV and film. In my other avenues of teaching, I advise writers what specific things to watch and what to look for in the set up of those stories.
The third component of how I teach story is application. In one-on-one consults with writers I’m able to provide direct feedback on their stories. I use my story system to analyze whether the writer’s story is working or not. There is a tremendous value in this step because my system provides us a common language that allows me to communicate clearly the specific feedback the writer needs to understand in order to take their story to the next level. I use the system and illustration to teach writers how to apply the notes. My system, illustration and application go hand in hand to improve the writer’s outcome.
As a Story/Career consultant for writers, I’ve had the strongest success with writers who have read my books, taken advantage of my instruction at live events or online and utilized one-on-one consultations. Engaging in the complete process allows writers to soak in my system, see the illustrations and have a better understanding of how to apply the system, one that has led 40 of my clients to sell pilots, to their own work.
Want to learn more? I‘m teaching a Master Class in New York on August 12-13, 2016 at Screenwriters World. I’m also teaching a Master Class and three other classes at the London Screenwriting Festival at the beginning of September.