Giving something a label, ultimately, is about trying to define a thing, an activity, an individual, whether you are outside looking in or inside looking out.
On one level, this makes sense as it gives us the tools and resources of common language.
Where this is a problem for me is that it tends to establish boundaries in our minds of what something is and what something isn’t.
My cousin and friend, Ian MacDonald, just published a blog post about the labels craftsman and artist, and the semantics game that swirls around those terms in his music and photography.
In my own teaching experience, I have witnessed innumerable students striving and struggling to achieve Art; in some cases, frozen in sheer terror at what they believe is unachievable and ironically, unwilling to work on the craft of writing. Unwilling to create dreck on the way to Art, however they define either.
To minimize these boundaries and yet still be able to communicate with people, I strive to use the broadest terminology I can. This is why, when pressed, I refer to myself as a storyteller.
I tell stories with my writing. I tell stories with my photography. I tell stories in my social interactions. I tell stories when I am alone. I tell stories with my body language. I tell stories when I sleep.
Are my stories a craft? There is an element of that, particularly when I tell stories for money.
Are my stories an art? That is a personal choice of whomever experiences my story, including me.
Am I more than my stories? Most certainly. I am not my stories.
My stories are how I interact with my universe. They are a vehicle of communication.
Storyteller is just a label, a definition; but I do not let it limit me or my sense of self.
I lived a large portion of my life in search of the next label. I am now content to be.
My thanks to Ian for his blog post. Even if you’re not interested in photography, his web site is worth checking out. At the risk of labeling him, Ian is quite the philosopher.
Well, that’s Draft Seven done. Talk about your long rows to hoe.
How long did you spend crafting and recrafting, conceiving and revising? Months? Years?
But you have it about as polished as you can make it, and in all likelihood, your brain hurts and you’re sick of the story.
Congratulations. You have achieved a wondrous thing. I mean that sincerely.
Now, take that radical writing, dazzling dialogue, cogent characterization, amazing action, and tell the exact same story in a single page.
No playing with page margins and point sizes. A single page that is easy and enjoyable to read.
It’s no easy task, under the best of conditions, but you should be able to do it. And if you can’t, it likely means that you don’t have a good handle on your story.
Not just for producers
Even if you don’t have any meetings with producers or agents planned—in fact, BECAUSE you don’t yet have any meetings with producers or agents planned—you should develop a one-page synopsis of your work just to make sure you understand your story and that your story is solid.
The one-pager forces you to cut away all of the excesses that might disguise fundamental problems with your story and bring any such issues into the glaring light of day.
The one-pager forces you to understand how well you can concisely and clearly convey your thinking, and perhaps just as importantly, highlights how universal your idea is.
Not even one page
If you thought rewrites were a pain, you can only imagine how difficult these things are to write; at least for us mere mortals.
And to make matters worse, you don’t even have a full page to write your synopsis because of everything else that needs to be included.
Who are you and how does anyone get hold of you?
What is the name and nature of your project (i.e., title, genre, medium)?
Why are you the best person to tell this story (i.e., any special skills, knowledge, background)?
Logline or one/two-sentence synopsis of the story
And then a short handful of paragraphs that highlight:
Your protagonist & the world he/she inhabits
The goals and more importantly, what’s at stake
The main antagonisms/conflicts
And somehow you must do this in a manner that is interesting, engaging and entertaining, that reflects the mood and genre of the piece, and most importantly, reflects your voice and style.
As an example of a one-pager, I offer The Naughty List. I’m not saying it is a good one-pager, but it is one page and conveys my story (and me).
The dog next door has been barking non-stop for days, maybe weeks. The first couple of times, you got up to see why, but never seeing anything, you barely hear the sound any more. It is just noise.
Alternatively, you’d never know your neighbour owns a dog, the creature is so quiet. But then, it suddenly barks. Jarred by the new noise, you look out your window only to find someone climbing through one of your neighbour’s windows.
Which dog are you most likely to notice: The one that barks incessantly or the one that doesn’t but just did?
If there is one function that I wish Final Draft and Movie Magic and all the other screenwriting software would remove, it’s the ability to insert the parenthetical (beat).
At the very least, when you type it, I would love a pop-up window to appear asking: “Are you sure it’s necessary?”
Because more often than not, it is completely UNnecessary. If anything, it is typically a nuisance.
As I understand it, (beat) is used to indicate a delay between one line of dialogue and the next.
In this example from The Imitation Game, the 2014 film screenwritten by Graham Moore, it is used to break up a phone conversation where we only hear one character speak. In this case, (beat) indicates a pause while Detective Nock listens to the party on the other end of the line.
(Used without permission but for educational purposes.)
Unfortunately, (beat) is also often inserted by the screenwriter for dramatic reasons.
The writer believes that the brief pause makes the prior line stand out before moving onto the next spoken thought. A dramatic moment is revealed in the dialogue, and (beat) gives the line space to be heard.
Or at least, that’s the theory.
Too often, unfortunately, writers use (beat) in place of drama. Unable to devise a truly dramatic or powerful line, they instead insert (beat) in a vain attempt to imply drama.
It’s tantamount to someone Tweeting about how powerful, smart or cagey they are to compensate for none of those qualities being obvious in their person or demeanor.
In the writer’s defence—and this happens more with newer writers—the (beat) is exactly how they “hear” the dialogue in their head. The character takes a moment when speaking and so the writer types (beat).
This would be fine if it happened a couple of times in a screenplay, but what I’ve found is that:
Once a writer starts (beat)ing off, it’s hard to get them to stop.
The more dramatic the scene they’re trying to write, the more aggressively they (beat) off. And they don’t stop (beat)ing off until the scene or sequence achieves climax.
Although the writer may gain some satisfaction in this, few others do.
The pace of the read and therefore the pace of the story slows for the reader. The Director doesn’t want to be told how to direct, nor the performer how to act.
To a person, each simply ignores the writer’s directive to (beat). The constantly barking dog is effectively silenced.
When everything is dramatic, nothing is dramatic.
And worse, once the (beat) moves on, the reader, Director and performer are left with lines of dialogue that are not dramatic, that have no weight, that dampen the drama.
So, what’s the writer to do?
One: Write better, more powerful dialogue.
Writing is an art, but it is also a craft.
Write the best line that you can, and then rewrite it better and better, layering the drama into the words, the cadence, the subtext, the timing within the plot.
Two: Trust the process.
Know that you are not the only arbiter of your words and trust others down the line to find the drama you so carefully crafted.
Below, see another example from The Imitation Game, where Benedict Cumberbatch’s script is un(beat)en and yet he imbues his lines with drama and significance.
(Used without permission but for educational purposes.)
If people cannot find the drama without constant insertions of (beat), they won’t find it with your direction (because it’s likely not there).
By being judicious in your use of (beat), those moments you do decide to use it will become the dog that never barks but just did.
The (beat) will stand out as something special, noteworthy; and so will your story.
Discovering characters who aren’t THE HERO (thank you, Monty Python)
When you are developing a story, how do you construct your characters?
With the possible exception of the hero, it can be challenging to build characters that populate the universe you have created.
As the universe (and your concept) revolves around the hero, we often start with a very clear idea of what that character is up against and how he or she will respond. But in the myopia of storytelling, the other characters are often fuzzier.
In some cases, we do not know who these characters because we haven’t met them yet. We haven’t gotten to the part of the story in which they enter. They are nebulous possibilities.
Alternatively, until our hero has explored his or her world some and maybe faced a challenge or two, we don’t know what the hero requires in terms of an antagonist, a sidekick, a mentor, a love interest.
What if we create a character only to determine later that he, she or it is ill-suited for our hero?
Then you rewrite that character…or perhaps you don’t, and the character lives with its flaws within your story.
It would be supremely wonderful to have everything completely mapped out in your story before you uttered or typed the first word, but creativity simply doesn’t work that way.
Like life itself, stories evolve as our characters live them, and even the hero may undergo profound change from your first impressions when you formulated your concept.
To my mind, that is actually the exciting part of storytelling. I am just as surprised by what my characters do as my audience is…I just get to see them first.
So, when you are first developing your characters, take the pressure off yourself. You are not going to get it perfect, so don’t try.
Find your placeholder
Cast your mind’s eye
Cast your characters like a film or stage producer and director might cast their projects. Invite characters in to audition and then go with your gut until you know better.
When I wrote my animated screenplay Tank’s, I didn’t have a great handle on the antagonist of the story, so I stole The Lion King’s Scar (Jeremy Irons) until I did. Mentally seeing and hearing Scar whenever my antagonist appeared allowed me to keep writing without worrying about getting it right.
In a few comedy sketches I wrote, I would see and hear Mad TV’s Stephanie Weir (see YouTube clip below). In fact, I worked as though I was writing my sketch for Stephanie. Because I knew that wonderful comedian’s style, I immediately knew how my character would respond to a situation, what words she would use.
The four Kates
If I have a female role I am trying to fill, might I consider the four Kates?
Is the character a Kate Winslet; strongly independent but coming from a place of softness and wonder?
Is she a Kate Capshaw; the hapless victim, eternally floating with the current until pushed too far, who then comes out swinging?
Is she a Cate Blanchett; internal strength incarnate but with an intellectual prowess that cuts a foe down before anyone knows the fight is on?
Is she a Katherine Hepburn; fierce brawler one minute, playful kitten the next?
Choose any one of those four (sorry Katherine Heigl, but I don’t see me writing parts for you) and I never consciously have to consider that character again…the words, actions and reactions are obvious to me.
Isn’t that cheating?
First, all story and character is based on what has come before it. What makes the story unique is the writer, then who ever works on it next (editor, director), and then the audience who takes it in.
When I use Scar, Stephanie Weir or Cate Blanchett as a placeholder and guide, I am interpreting those characters/people through my personal lens.
And ultimately, I am fitting those visions into the story I am developing, demanding different things of them than others have or might. It is simply a starting point.
My antagonist Kang is not Scar, although there are overlaps as there are with pretty much all Disney villains (not implying that Disney is interested in Tank’s…but I am accepting calls).
The point here is to remove or at least temper the roadblocks that stand between you and the completion of your story.
Remain open to the possibilities with your characters and I think you’ll find they will ultimately tell you who they are.
And who knows? Maybe your character will be so wonderful that the three living Kates will vie for the role.
If you’re interested in learning more about story and storytelling, check out:
Blazing your own trail can be rewarding, but comes with risks. Photo by David Valuja via Pexels (bit.ly/davidvaluja)
If you read enough—screenplays, novels, articles, poetry—your mind can go numb to the sameness of storytelling, whether in subject, structure, narrative style or innumerable facets you no longer see.
As a storyteller, I dread the idea that my work falls into that category, and yet I know some of it does.
The urge, therefore, is to come up with ways to surprise the reader, to give their eyes, minds and souls something they have never experienced before.
We are creatives, so why should we not be creative?
How can I shake things up in my storytelling to dazzle the reader?
What if my characters all spoke in limericks? What if I wrote my action descriptions as music? What if I named my characters using the military alphabet (see M*A*S*H)?
Yeah, what if you did any of those things?
Novelty and expectation
The biggest challenge in going with your own style is that it absolutely has to work. There is no middle ground.
Out of the gate, you are going to piss off traditionalists: 1) they expect to read things in a certain way and don’t embrace change easily; and 2) they see your decision not as innovative, but rather as the act of a storyteller wrapped up in his or her ego.
Who are you to think of yourself as above the law?
(Very melodramatic, these traditionalists.)
Even with readers willing to go on a ride, however, you’re going to need to prove that your method is worth the effort, that it brings something to the storytelling experience that a more traditional approach does not or cannot.
In a recent Go Into The Story blog post, Scott Myers looks at how the writers of Wall-Eused a very unconventional, almost poetic style for their scene descriptions. Offering examples from the screenplay, Myers shows how simplifying the descriptions allowed the writers to focus on what the heart felt rather than what the eye saw. In the process, they created a very fluid and impactful read.
Descriptions more poetry than prose. (Wall-E, written by Andrew Stanton & Jim Reardon)
Up for the challenge?
So, should you rush back to your manuscript and do the same thing? Or do an equivalent that best suits your specific narrative?
The answer to those two questions is unfortunately two other questions.
Is there an appropriate equivalent? And can you pull it off?
Even if there is an alternative way to present your story, you may not yet be ready to effectively execute it.
Your writing skills may yet require some seasoning until you can effectively pull off non-traditional approaches to storytelling.
Alternatively, you may be approaching this challenge with the wrong (I hate to use that word) mindset; that you’re seeking novelty for the sake of novelty and not because it will enhance the power of your story.
That said, if you really want to try something new, if you really want to challenge yourself, then go for it.
Go for it
Nothing is permanent. Versions can be saved. You can always retell the story in a more traditional manner.
Even if it doesn’t work, you have improved your storytelling skills for the experience.
And ultimately, to counter my earlier point about others’ reactions, most of us tell stories because we have a passion for storytelling. The business of storytelling is secondary.
I welcome and encourage you to continue to explore that passion, both for your own happiness and because that is how you will create the truly remarkable.
To learn more about effective storytelling, as well as the power of story analysis and story coaching, visit:
I suck, too; quite regularly, in fact. Possibly unlike you, however, I revel in that fact.
In almost any facet of life, when we are called upon to do something, many of us have concerns that we might not be up to the task, that we suck.
Depending on the task, the individual, the timing and innumerable other factors, this fear may give only the slightest pause or it may result in complete catatonia, leaving us bereft of the will to do anything let alone the requested task.
And I think this fear of suckage—yep, just made that word up—is perhaps the greatest in creatives as it is in creativity that we face our harshest critic: ourselves.
I have myself, and seen others, stare at a blank page, completely immobilized, incapable of the first squiggle that would start the creative process.
At best, we’re trying to consider every starting concept in our heads, lest our suckage be recorded for posterity and later ridicule. But just as often, it is blank-screen paralysis, our thoughts as immobile as our body.
I’m here to tell you that they are just negative manifestations of a positive experience.
In many ways, sucking is not only normal, it is also wonderful.
When I teach screenwriting, I start every lecture with the same question:
“Who sucked this week?”
And at least until the students have adjusted to the question, mine is the first hand that goes up.
You cannot help but suck at something until you don’t, and the timeline of skill is different for every individual and every task.
But actually sucking—as opposed to the fear of sucking—means you are trying. You are making an effort to push through your personal suckage, and that is amazing and wonderful.
Even the fear of suckage is a good sign, if not a good feeling, because it is an indication of how important the assignment is to you. If it wasn’t important to you, you wouldn’t care if you sucked.
So suck. Jump in with both feet, ignoring as best you can that little voice that warns you of doom should you suck.
Take the next step, and then the one after that
For one thing, even once you have developed great skill in a field or activity, you will still have occasion to suck.
With apologies to the magnificent screenwriter Terry Rossio, for every Shrek and Pirates of the Caribbean, there is the odd Lone Ranger.
For every record-breaking season, Wayne Gretzky missed an open net on occasion.
No professional photographer keeps every shot she takes, nor painter every painting, nor songwriter every lyric or note.
You are going to suck.
The silver lining, however, is that the more you suck now, the less likely you are to suck later.
God knows I still do. And I’m very happy about that.
To learn more about effective storytelling and maybe gain insights from my years of suckage, visit:
Even the most esoteric subjects have story, with all the elements of a fictional novel or screenplay…even text books about business or biochemistry or writing.
There’s no story in text books!
Yes, there is.
Only here, plot is less about action sequences and more about the interplay of the different aspects of your subject and the causes and effects that drive your theses or perspectives forward. This can be reflected in the cadence of your descriptions, as you walk the reader through your arguments, leading them to your conclusion.
Likewise, your characters are less about personalities and more a sense of the…you guessed it…characteristics of your subjects. In the broadest sense, the conflicts and synergies between the component parts or ideas of any topic are what effectively humanize the topic, providing a familiarity to the reader or viewer.
Without story, your manuscript or presentation has no narrative drive, nothing to draw the reader or viewer forward. Instead, it reads like a specification sheet or spreadsheet; a series of minimally connected facts and figures that provide information but only to the most intrepid reader.
Story is one of the reasons why you can have hundreds (thousands?) of different versions of the same facts, and how publishers and book retailers stay in business.
So, if you’re working on a nonfiction manuscript or presentation, let’s talk and see how well you are bringing your ideas to your audience.
How close to the edge of the canvas can I apply acrylic paint?
If I’m sculpting the bust of Zeus, at what moment should I work on his nose?
Is it okay to drum the body of an acoustic guitar with my fingers rather than pluck the strings?
Painting. Sculpture. Music. Three of the myriad art forms where practitioners typically acquire some degree of training, and then step away from that training to develop their own style.
Art comes where the rules end
Questions you can fully expect to hear:
In a 90-page screenplay, on what page should the inciting incident occur?
In a poem, should I complete a thought within a line or break it up into two or more lines?
Can I describe more than one character’s point-of-view within a scene in my novel?
Every day, billions of people across the planet write. Post-It notes. Shopping lists. Emails. Love letters. And perhaps because of this ubiquity—perhaps because writing is rivaled only by speech as a form of expression—the world tends to view writing in a different category from all of the other arts, assuming people see it as an art form at all.
Everybody writes, so how special can it be
Obviously, there are better writers and worse writers, but more often than not, that reality is viewed as difference in skill, not art or craftsmanship. It is as though the world believes that if we all applied ourselves a little more, we could all write a great novel or play.
If asked, I am confident few would think that the only difference between them and Mozart, Yo-Yo Ma or the guy playing bassoon in the subway (my friend Jeff Burke) was time in.
Certainly, most acknowledge the greatness of Shakespeare, Dickens, Moliere, Hemingway (forgive my Western bias), but those are seen as rare exceptions to the norm.
Art comes where the rules end
People will buy paintings on the roadside. You will sometimes stop and listen to a musician in the park. But how many of us will stop and buy a novel or collection of poems anywhere other than the bookstore or online?
And sadly, this sense that pretty much anyone can be a writer pervades the writing community itself in insidious ways, and is particularly debilitating to new writer artists timidly trying to develop their craft.
Unlike almost any other art form, to my eye, writers get hung up in the right way to do things, as suggested by the questions above. As an example, this post was prompted by similar questions raised by a novelist blogger I follow.
It is okay to emulate aspects of others’ writings, to follow certain conventions of grammar and syntax. But at the end of the day, you have to ask yourself why you write; because it is a passion within you or to please the universe?
“Write the way you want to write,” was my advice to her questions on acceptable style (my italics). “As your colleagues suggested, this is just your style and will either be liked or not liked by your readers.”
“Never be afraid to be yourself…your readers will respect that in you,” I concluded, “and anyone who doesn’t is frankly not your reader.”
No one questions the difference between the skill of painting a house and the art of painting a landscape. Why should the same not be true for writing a Tweet and writing a poem?
Writing is an Art Form, to answer the title question, and you—the writer—are an Artist.
Learn from those who have come before and who practice now, but be brave and divine your own path.
Mother, Nehiyaw, Metis, & Itisahwâkan - career communicator. This is my collection of opinions, stories, and the occasional rise to, or fall from, challenge. In other words, it's my party, I can fun if I want to. Artwork by aaronpaquette.net