Being a storyteller is a gift and a calling. It requires immense courage to put your work out in the world -- to say, as Seth Godin puts it in his new book The Practice: Shipping Creative Work, “Here, I made this.” He empowers us to think of ourselves as change-makers and reminds us that the world needs us to show up.
And he also says something else about the practice of creative work that I think is incredibly profound: “The career of every successful creative is part of a similar practice: a pattern of small bridges, each just scary enough to dissuade most people. The practice requires a commitment to a series of steps, not a miracle.”
Writing is as much a craft as it is an art. Art ties us to inspiration; craft places us under apprenticeship. There are skills to master, not just stories to tell. Perhaps it’s because I spent most of my life in school -- and now I’m a professor, which basically just means I’m the “leading learner” in the classroom -- but I’ve always approached my creative work with the question, “What is this trying to teach me?” Every single story we write is a learning opportunity. The trick is to become intentional about it.
As I planned out my creative calendar for this year, I asked myself a couple of key questions: (1) What key skills do I need to master this year to take the next step forward? and (2) What skills do I want to showcase this year? (I asked my manager these questions also, by the way. If you’re working with a mentor/coach/manager, I definitely recommend getting their input on these questions.)
If we approach our development slate with these questions in mind, we follow Seth Godin’s advice to “bring intention to [our] work, making every step along the way count.” So let’s move beyond the story and start thinking about possible learning objectives for our writing. These are a few of my favorite skills to practice.
Let’s start from the most fundamental skill of all, which has everything and nothing to do with writing: setting our intention. I suppose this is another way of talking about expectations.
Especially when we’re first starting the writing journey, we can feel immense pressure to “make it” -- to sell the thing, to get representation, to win a contest (in any order). And it feels like this all has to happen with our first project -- or, in a worst case scenario, our second.
But what happens when it doesn’t work out like this? We get discouraged, frustrated, or even angry at the decision-makers. (Incidentally, getting stuck in a resentment cycle is the single fastest way I can think of to crater a creative career. Without the humility to learn from our failures, we’ll never make progress.)
Instead of setting expectations around the reception of our work, let’s set our intention to learn as much as we can about our craft as we work toward our goals. This isn’t to say we shouldn’t ship the work. We should. But when we do, we’re doing it with intention, as Seth Godin says in The Practice: “The right work to the right people for the right reason” -- and I’d add, “at the right time.”
Let’s dig into some skills we can practice as we write.
We know from Aristotle (and every other story theorist after him) that the foundation of story is character. Makes sense, right? If there really are only seven basic story archetypes, then plot cannot be the distinguishing -- or even the most interesting -- aspect of story. To reinforce the point, I was in a meeting with some network executives last fall, and they told me, “If we care about the characters, we will go with you anywhere.” And this of course means that the converse is also true: if the characters aren’t compelling, your story will go nowhere.
I should note that working on writing character-driven stories is something we should continue to practice no matter where we are in our creative career. Falling prey to plot-driven narrative is something that can happen to all of us. In her Masterclass on TV Writing, Shonda Rhimes says that if a writer pitches an idea for an episode that isn’t grounded in character, her response is “I can’t hear you.” No matter what genre we’re working in, or how big or small the story we’re trying to tell, we have to keep ourselves grounded in character.
Here are three ways you could use your next script to practice the skill of character-driven storytelling:
Going back to Aristotle again, we know that story is the representation of people in action. This means that character and structure are inextricable. A weak adventure usually results from weak character, and a high-octane plot with flashy special effects remains a shallow experience if we’re not invested in the characters. So the first and best way to work on story structure is to create well-crafted characters.
Without a functioning structure, your story will either bore or confuse your audience. The pacing won’t work and the movement from beginning to middle to end will feel muddy. Another sign that your structure might not be working is that you have a hard time expressing the story as a logline or elevator pitch.
If you’ve gotten clarity notes on your writing or if readers don’t understand why certain scenes are in the script, these are cues that spending some time on structure would be a smart investment. Try practicing these skills when you work on your next project:
1. Causality: On the most basic and fundamental level, we should make sure the story action is unified. To quote Robert McKee, “Because of the Inciting Incident, the Climax had to happen.” Make sure your scenes are linked by a chain of causality -- there’s not just “busy work” happening to fill the pages. Really think about what each of the stages of the story represent and how they connect to the arc of the character.
2 Simplification: Sometimes a lack of clarity comes from trying to do too much in the story. Go back to your concept and figure out what your core objective for the story is, and then design the simplest structure that will get the job done. The goal here is to focus on clean and elegant story lines.
If you’ve mastered the basics of clear and causality-based plot, here are some intermediate skills to practice:
1. Pacing: Look at the organization of your scenes. Are you maximizing the roller-coaster effect so that the audience is on a thrill-ride of tension and release? Are you varying the length of your scenes so that the rhythm of the read is exciting, or are all your scenes basically the same length?
2. Complexity: Aristotle says that complex plots have nothing to do with a bunch of stuff happening all at once, but with the transformation of character. Are you complicating your plot in the best ways -- that is, intensifying the pressure and escalating conflict so that your character is forced to recognize that he or she has to change?
And what about taking structure one more level beyond this? These skills connect structure to theme.
1. Nonlinear structure: Think Arrival. The use of flashbacks (which are really flash-forwards) is absolutely connected to the theme of the story, which has to do with the way we experience time and express it in language. How can you use the tools of structure in innovative ways to reinforce the themes of your story?
2. Symbolic Progression: Working with imagery and symbol is once again connected to theme. How might you take certain situations, actions, or objects and deploy them in ways that connect your story to universal ideas or themes? Can you use mirroring or echoing -- where the characters return to similar situations, settings, or encounters -- so that each return represents a deepening of the thematic concerns of the story? Homer uses this technique brilliantly in his epic poem The Iliad, and Robert McKee highlights The Terminator’s use of the mythical labyrinth.
I sound like a broken record at this point, but the fastest way to improve dialogue is to make sure you understand your characters. This is the surest way to capture that authentic feel and to avoid the “writer agenda” problem of contriving scenes around a pet darling line of dialogue.
But if you know dialogue is an area where you could take your writing to the next level, here are some ways to practice your skills:
1. Subtext: Ah, that most elusive and coveted of dialogue skills. Everyone can tell you what this is, and it seems no one can tell you exactly how to do it. I’ve often found that the best subtext happens when something significant has been established about the characters’ setting or situation in a prior scene. So practice plant/payoff with a specific eye toward a characters’ inner state.
2. Pacing: Because scenes should turn on a point of conflict, there will be a rise, climax, and fall to their movement. Does your dialogue have a rising intensity that ends in a value shift, or is there no emotional change? Do you intersperse the dialogue with description so that you slow the reader down at the right moments?
3. Audio/Visual: One of my favorite techniques from Robert McKee’s book Dialogue is to rewrite dialogue-heavy scenes using only visuals. This curbs the impulse to have characters talk just to talk and helps you identify the core purpose of the scene.
There’s one final skill I’m going to touch on here -- but this is by no means and exhaustive list. That’s one of the most fun and exciting aspects of a craft like ours -- there’s always more to learn, and always ways to elevate our work to new levels of creative excellence.
By action sequences, I mean any extended description of action that happens without much dialogue. This could be a car chase, a battle, a natural disaster, a sex scene, or a dance party.
Have you had readers tell you that your action sequences aren’t working as well as they could, or do you feel like you tend to get lost in the weeds with your descriptions? Let’s talk about a few skills you can practice to level up this aspect of your storytelling craft.
1. Audience Emotion: Are you so focused on getting the choreography right that you’ve forgotten how this sequence is supposed to make the audience feel? If your sex scene isn’t turning anybody on or your battle sequence isn’t giving your reader an adrenaline rush, take another look at your descriptions. Use emotionally-charged words, strong verbs, capitalization and punctuation to build an experience. Don’t forget to use sentence and paragraph length/structure to create the rhythm and pacing you want for your scene.
2. Balance: Study your favorite scripts in your genre to get a sense for how they balance the use of detail with broad brush strokes that leave the rest to the imagination. Don’t feel like you have to choreograph every last movement. Where can you be strategic and intentional with your details and where can you trust the reader to follow you?
3. Character: Don’t let your characters get lost. In R.L. Stine’s Masterclass on writing horror for young audiences, he notes that it’s our closeness to the character that creates the emotional experience of a scene for the audience. How can you practice the balance between the sweeping scope and the “big picture” while keeping us grounded in the moment with connection to character?
When we approach our scripts with the intention of developing our skills as storytellers, we can make good use of projects that might never get picked up. None of this work goes to waste. We’re empowering our use of “learning drafts” and we can allow ourselves the time we need to build our skills so that when the time comes to ship our creative work, we’re ready.
Shannon (S.K.) Valenzuela is a novelist, ghostwriter, and award-winning screenwriter. Her curiosity about pretty much everything means she loves writing research-based stories: grounded sci-fi and historical fiction are her particular playgrounds of choice at the moment, though she also loves a good science fantasy adventure.
When she’s not penning her own stories, she loves her work as a story coach and creative entrepreneur at The Story Scene. She specializes in helping new and emerging screenwriters and novelists, and she’s coached dozens of writers through their first drafts and rewrites.
She’s also the host of the Subject Matter Expert podcast, which is designed to inspire and inform sci-fi writers through interviews with scientists, thought leaders, and writers working in the genre.
In real life, she’s a university professor with a Ph.D. in Medieval Literature, so you’ll also find her in the classroom exploring the poetry of Homer and Dante. She loves teaching stories almost as much as she loves writing them.
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