pawn

Reading for Writing – Story Trumps Structure

the pawhThe Pawn by Steven James

Having read 50+ books on writing I feel this book is the third most useful I have read, after only Scriptshadow Secrets by Carson Reeves and Story by Robert McKee. It examines even basic material in a memorable way which makes you more likely to use the ideas in your work. I highly recommend it. The following ideas are merely the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the insights the book contains.

What I learned, Part 1 – An example of Mr. James’s memorable phrasing is: “the ceiling fan principle.” Obviously any story needs to have tension, but the author posits that “things going wrong” is the prime mover of narrative. He uses as an example the common children’s assignment of “what did you do last summer?” Most children’s lists are mind-numbingly boring, because they are just that, lists. But one student in the author’s class said that “me and by cousins were having a contest jumping off my bunk bed to see who could get farthest. And there was this ceiling fan…” So if any scene you are writing feels flat, find the ceiling fan and you’ll be well on your way to improving it.

What I learned, Part 2 – Escalate the setbacks. This is another of those basic concepts you probably already know intellectually if you’ve spent much time writing, events build to a climax. But the example the author recounts has stuck with me, taken from a movie from the last few years: “a father and son are in danger from a cannibalistic gang in a dreary post-apocalyptic world.” This is great, high stakes, and tense the first time you see it, boring by the fourth time you experience it in the same movie. So in any given story scenario you can number the setbacks and put them in the order they appear in your script or book. If your first setback is a 10 out of 10 in terms of intensity within the story you are telling, you will have no where to go but down. And seeing things written as a list with scenes next to each other makes it clear if setbacks become too repetitive.

What I learned, Part 3 – “Look for the third way.” This is another one of those concepts you have probably been exposed to before. In an ideal story each scene would end in a way that was both surprising but natural. The example Mr. James uses is yet another memorable one, this time a story from the Bible. Religious leaders caught a woman committing adultery and brought her before Jesus. Now if Jesus said “let her go free” he would have been clearly flouting the law, and if he had told them to put her to death he would have been undermining his message of mercy and forgiveness. It seemed like a tough trap until Jesus said “whoever is without sin among you, let him cast the first stone.” So if you can come up with surprising twists at every junction, especially ones that show your characters being clever and resourceful you will have your audience in the palm of your hand.