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Writing a successful novel or screenplay doesn't happen by accident.
Writing a novel or screenplay is an art and a craft that takes time to master.
There are many different facets to the process of completing a story. Broadly speaking, they are - planning, writing, re-writing and editing.
One mistake many aspiring writers make when starting out is that they mix the tasks up and find it very hard to move forward to completion.
Here are four key elements we recommend if you want to write a story that works at a deep level.
1. The Importance of Structure
A story based on classic story structure is one where you have readers wanting to know what happens next, while taking your main character on an emotional and spiritual journey of change.
The events of a well-structured story link the external and internal journey of your main character, thus creating a meaningful experience for your reader.
Academy Award winning screenwriter, Michael Arndt, who wrote Little Miss Sunshine and Toy Story 3, refers to screenplays as machines designed to produce emotion.
According to Robert McKee, who wrote the book Story, "The function of structure is to provide progressively building pressure that forces characters into more and more difficult dilemmas where they must make more and more difficult risk-taking choices and actions, gradually revealing their true natures, even down to their unconscious self."It is structure which gives your story shape and meaning, takes your reader on an an emotional journey and keeps them turning the pages.
He goes on to say, “You might have the insights of Buddha, but if you can’t tell a story, your ideas will be as dry as dust. Craft is the sum total of all means used to draw the audience into deep involvement, to hold that involvement and ultimately reward it with a moving and meaningful experience.”
Writers are invariably delighted by the impact sound structure has on their stories. Below are comments from writers who completed out Ten Month Novel and Script First Draft Course that provide some useful insights on each point.
“The process of writing a first draft has been a revelation to me, full of many "aha" moments. While I am still sometimes too self-critical and hard on myself, I and my character have both learned to let go and trust.” Claire
2. You Need a Process
Writing a well-structured novel or screenplay doesn't just come about from having a good idea or being a good writer.
“Four boys in Fred Friggenhelmer's town last night stole a chalice from a church. Caught, they reveal they'd been reading up on Satan and wanted to evoke Satan. Fred reads about the incident in his morning paper. It intrigues him.
"Here," he tells himself excitedly, "is a story!"
Fred is wrong. The theft is an incident. With skilled handling and the development of point of view and dynamic character and complications, climax and resolution, it may quite possibly build into a story. But for now it remains an incident and nothing more. A story is a complex thing. Its material demands skill in their manipulation.”
Coming up with the idea or feeling for a story is really only the starting point.
"As Pasteur once observed," Swain said, "chance favours the trained mind. Feelings tell you what to say. Technique gives you the tools with which to say it.
Faculty lies in knowing what to do next. To know what to do next, you must master process ...an ordered step-by-step presentation of materials that presses emotional buttons in your reader, so he feels the way you want him to feel."
To write the best story you are capable of writing, you need a step-by-step process that guides your story and keeps you accountable.
You cannot judge the quality of your story until you have followed the process through to the end.
Understanding that writing a story is a process is a huge step forward for any writer as these two other writers who completed our first draft course explain.
"To allow the story to emerge with creativity, spontaneity and "juice" you have to surrender to the process. Creativity walks through the doorway of the formal story step process."
"I've had a ton of new ideas, both from myself and others. I've learnt more and more about structure and I'm not freaking out about it anymore. I've also gotten more depth with my characters, their flaws, their motivations, their hopes and dreams. They have ceased being names on a page or thoughts in my head, instead becoming real flesh and blood people in a real, moving, living world. It's been almost been like magic, which I find ironic since I'm writing fantasy."
3) The Dance Between Structure and Imagination
If you have completed our Four Week Unlocking Creativity introductory writing course which is the first step in the process, you will appreciate the power of your imagination, which we believe is the true source of creativity.
It is the source of many of your story ideas and gives your writing that quality that makes readers want to read what you have written.
However, if you just fly by the seat of your pants without a process or an understanding of story structure, your novel or screenplay will wander all over the place and have no meaningful shape or direction.
If you plan too rigidly, your story will go dry and flat. By following a step by step process, you set up a dance between the left and right sides of your brain, enabling you to access the power of your imagination while grounding your novel or screenplay in solid story structure.
Author Tina Howe said, “I think the cruelty of the form is that to write a good play the architecture has to be impeccable. The form demands rigour and a sense of structure. But then the cruel part is that for a play to live you have to surrender control and let your characters go. It’s a constant balancing act. The structure has to be right, but you have to leave room for spontaneity, mystery and silence. As territorial as we are it is important to be challenged.”
Good structure stimulates your imagination and produces magical results if you complete the journey.
“When forced to work within a strict framework," said T.S. Elliot, "the imagination is taxed to its utmost – and will produce its richest ideas. Given total freedom, the work is likely to sprawl.”
Your imagination informs the structure of your story and vice versa. This back and forth between the two produces magical results, enabling you to come up with story ideas that you never would have thought possible.
Once you learn to trust the dance between structure and imagination, you will be surprised by what emerges. As these two writers discovered while writing their stories with us.
"What at first sounded like a total contradiction actually made complete sense by the end; it made everything fall into place.”
“The joy of not knowing what will appear next in the story and seeing new characters reveal themselves makes facing that blank page worth it.” Satyam
4. One Step at a Time
The key to writing a powerful story and enjoying the process of writing is to take it one step at a time.
“Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report written on birds that he'd had three months to write, which was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books about birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him put his arm around my brother's shoulder, and said, "Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.” Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird
A Note About Our Courses
The importance of imagination and intuition in the storytelling process is why we make the Four Week Unlocking Creativity Course a prerequisite for our 10 Month Novel and Script First Draft Course. (If you book straight into the longer course, Unlocking Creativity is free.)
Unlocking Creativity enables writers to experience the power of their imagination, which we believe is the true source of creative power, an essential ingredient of the first draft course.
For more information about our courses please go to the Writers' Studio homepage