Thursday, 19 April 2012

The Writer's First Tripwire...

One of the first traps that a writer often falls into in their early career looks like this.

Most writers get confidence in their early writing from some success with some short pieces. A writer might place an article or two, a short story published - 1500 words that get roundly admired. Then he does it again and feels a terrific - and well justified - sense of achievement as he receives the accolades of people who have genuinely enjoyed his work and he maybe even trousers his first payment for writing. Feels great, right?!

And it is at this point that the writer decides to set about the novel or screenplay he's been brooding over for the last few years. They open a new document, take a deep breath... and begin with their own version of 'Once upon a time...'

And this is the mistake. The trap is sprung. The writer is in trouble, and he doesn't even know it.

Writing 100,000 words or two hours of screenplay is a totally different discipline from writing a short piece. With 1000 words, we can begin at the beginning, write through to the the end, read it through, rewrite it, reorder things, screw it up and start again - whatever. Our writing method is simply to rewrite; read it again; then re-write again until it reads cleanly and no further changes are necessary. This is manageable, because even the most fundamental of changes can be managed and accommodated across the arc of the whole story.

So we set about our first full-length work in exactly the same way. Unfortunately, this rarely - very rarely - leads to success. To get to the end of a 100,000 word first draft, and then read it through and realise there are one or two wonderful changes you'd like to incorporate is a major new piece of work. To successfully manage all the ripple effects of even the smallest of changes is very, very tricky, and to do this two, three, four times is simply not sustainable in one lifetime. The vast majority of stories that are written this way end up dying in a drawer somewhere as the writer loses all sight of what the story was about, loses all vitality and connection with the heartbeat of the story and has no mental energy left to lift themselves for yet another re-write of such an enormous beast.

There is a saying that there are no writers, only re-writers, and there is no doubt that this is true. But there are limits, and a full length work needs to be approached in a different way if it is to have the best chance of getting itself finished. In my experience, the most effective method looks like this:

1. Begin with an idea. Question that idea to develop it. Ask what if? What if? What if...?

2. Focus on the ending. Once you are armed with your ending, you have your story. And from a working point of view, once you have your ending, you know where the goal is, so all the component story events (chapters/sequences/scenes...) can be geared to that ending. 

3. Once the idea has grown into a series of 20 to 30 component events leading to a clear ending, start pitching the story to people. Tell it out loud. It might not be something you want to do, but it is the single most valuable exercise in story development. Tell your story (that is what it is FOR!!) and you will learn SO much about it - the improvements will amaze you.

4. If there are frustrations in your story, think about meaningful conflict, character growth and subtext in every event and across the story as a whole. The source of your frustration will almost certainly be in one of these areas. Learn about these key story elements in order to speed up your writing process.

5. You are now ready to write the first draft. Even this process, because it is slower, will generate new ideas, so be prepared to go back up to the previous level and rework the story at the event level.

If you follow this process - without writing a single word in earnest until you know your entire story from front to back and have broken it down into manageable chunks - subsequent changes to the drafts will be minimal and editorial rather than fundamental, and your chances of becoming the proud creator of a fine, finished product will be greatly enhanced.

This is a brief, blog version of the method. An in-depth analysis of a proven story development method can be found in The Story Book; A develoment method discussed in step-by-step detail, from the seed of the idea to the distributed film, with Bob Gale on how he and Robert Zemekis developed their story: Back to the Future


  1. Great post, and painfully true. I can confirm that attempting to make major story changes to a full-length piece is nearly the same task as writing that full-length piece in the first place. In other words: Ugh!

    I'd be interested to hear your thoughts about how it works the other way round. I've been writing short pieces after having completed ("completed"...) a novel and still run into story trouble - mainly because I do too MUCH what-iffing of the initial premise, and let things spin out of control.

    I suppose practice, as ever, is key.

  2. Hi Ruby. I think the key is point 4. Once you understand where the story power lies in terms of *meaningful* conflict, character growth, subtext and so on, you can focus on building your story to maximise that power and discard those elements which - despite their virtues - are obviously not right for the key drives of THIS story.

    Having an understanding of these elements is mastering your craft, and with that understanding comes a clarity over which elements comprise your story and which elements are just not part of it.



  3. Reading you book David and had to google you.Brilliant, best two quid i ever spent. I had read save the cat, and this was quite a revelation too but a bit paint by numbers.I've only just done the first third of your book but already it all seems so obvious and clear.

    Armed with this i think anyone could write a good story.Now that's scary, but thanks anyway.

  4. Me again David, just looked at your film experiment on this blog about the dating agency.You have a story problem with the internet. Agencies- as is physical places where your protagonist can look in someones eyes and match them don't exist anymore.Or will this be set in the seventies?

    There was a film where the hero wrote a column, dr love or something and gave dating advice. He targeted an investiagtive journalist who.... anyway after a few setbacks they ended up together.

    I think it needs too much exposition for a short.What if the guy is totally shallow, has a sort of jeremy kyle daytime tv show but dating slanted- everyone thinks he's a total shit- except one of the researchers who has a secret crush and is the only one of the crew who will go out with him for a drink.When they are out for this drink he shows her this trick he can do matching people (inciting incident) it's uncanny he profoundly changes peoples lives in the bar that night. But he.....

    Anyway, good book david