Right vs. Wrong (Re: Writing & Screenwriting)

"Remember: when people tell you something's wrong or doesn't work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong."

- Neil Gaiman (via Brainpickings).

Read Neil Gaiman's Full 8 Tips on Writing here.

How Do You Know You Are Ready To Tell The Story You Are Now Living?

I think many times, in telling our stories our desire exceeds our abilities, even when our talent is up to the task.  How do you know when you are truly ready?  What do you need to know? Ira Sachs has a new film in the theaters this week, KEEP THE LIGHTS ON, and addressed this issue for the WGA Blog.  He kindly offered to let us repost it here.

by Ira Sachs

It took me nearly 25 years to finally feel ready to write a film about New York. My first job in the city was the summer of 1984, when I was the assistant to Eric Bogosian at his office down on Mott Street, and I moved to the city full-time in 1988. When I started writing feature films, my mind and imagination were still rooted in Memphis, where I had grown up, and where I’d made my first two features, The Delta and Forty Shades of Blue. I lived in NYC, but it was my hometown that I knew from the inside. For me to feel ready to make a film about a place, I need both intimacy and distance. The intimacy with this city came over time, with the creation of memories; the distance came much more slowly.

In many ways, New York grabbed me too hard for me to be able to step outside and look at my life with any clarity. Yes, I was in therapy – many days a week, in fact; it was still the age of psychoanalysis – but my life was narrow and obsessive. The things I cared about, and searched out, were love and sex and making movies. The New York I discovered was a nocturnal one, of late nights in cabs, or on subway platforms; in restaurants with a lover starting a fight, before ordering the next drink; of mornings when I hoped the first coffee at the café on Smith Street would help me through the day. I recognized my own New York in the images I saw in films like Goodfellas or Chantal Akerman’s News from Home. A city driven and in motion. Lonely at times, always on the verge of sadness and ecstasy.

But in my late 30s, I had the good/bad fortune of having life as I knew it explode. I was in a relationship that had been ticking dynamite from the start, but that I tried to control and keep going for nearly a decade. The New York of those years was all contrast: daytime shiny surface, nighttime full of secrets and despair (the kind of double life that has become nearly epidemic in dramatic television these days, so, clearly, my story is not unique). But when the cards came tumbling down – symbolized perhaps most dramatically in a 34-day crack binge that left my partner in the Lenox Hill Hospital mental ward and me a trembling wreck alone in our apartment – I knew on some profound level that it was time for a change.

And so I did. It took a few years (and a few 12-step programs), but by 40, I was doing things differently. As a gay man who had come of age in the minutes after Stonewall, to live a transparent life did not come naturally to me. But like a baby who touches the burning stove one last time before knowing not to, when the New York of my 20s and 30s blew up around me – when the burden of hiding my behavior in this city became impossible to maintain – I finally was ready for real change. To put it most simply, I chose to live an honest life.

And it was only then that I felt truly ready, or able, to write a film about this city. With co-screenwriter Mauricio Zacharias, I wrote my fourth feature, and my first set in New York, Keep the Lights On. What I found, happily, is that the stories were there. The experience and the feelings were all there. I now have them all in my hand, and in my mind, and my New York feels for the first time full of movies I must share.

KEEP THE LIGHTS ON opens this weekend with some of the best reviews of the year, including 5 out of 5 stars in Time Out New York;Salon says "it may be the best American film of the year"; Entertainment Weekly gives it an "A," and says "as raw and real as the most live-wire memoir," and A.O Scott names it CRITICS PICKS in today's New York Times, calling it "exquisitely, even thrillingly authentic." So, if you can, take a date, or a friend, or a lover, and see it this crucial OPENING WEEKEND!
KEEP THE LIGHTS ON opens this weekend in NYC on at the Chelsea Clearview, the Angelika Film Center, and the Elinor Bunim Theatre at Lincoln Center.  In LA, at the new Sundance Sunset 5 and the Playhouse 7 in Pasadena.
Here's a link to Andrew O"Hehir's excellent (and well written) Salon review as well:
Trailer is here:

Movie Cliches 101: Plagiarizing Yourself

If there are only six good stories -- or is it twelve? twenty-three? forty-two? -- how many good lines are there?  Clearly Aaron Sorkin thinks there is a limited supply.  Write something good once, might as well write it again, right?  

It's been out and around for awhile but I still find "Sorkinisms -- A Supercut" kind of remarkable.  


10+ Things To Think About If You Want To Make Better Films

I watch a lot of films. I think I watch about 250 a year. I also watch a lot of films that never come out, that most audiences never get access to. I learn a great deal from the "noble failures", the films that have ambition but just miss the mark fully in execution. I honestly like these films and find pleasure in watching them, but I also know that most people like their entertainment and culture to be in a more perfectly realized state -- even if most of us don't have the resources to bring our work to that state. I think most people's taste is shaped by their training; we learn to like what we get -- unfortunately.

Yet I also think there are some things that always connect and strike a chord with the audience.  These universal pleasures are not story tricks or character traits per se, but  themes we discover in the stories that move us most,  concepts that help people relate and engage with the work we watch.  Yet, since it is summer, the movies that come to most of us are designed to separate us from our wallets; the movies of summer are supposed to be what most people want.  I go to check them out with the rest of the hordes, and I walk away with less than I entered with.  I am not just talking about the loss of money and time either, I have lost some of my spirit.  The filmmakers and the financiers, the huge team of collaborators responsible for getting the work in front of people, all seem to forget some of the good stuff.  Shouldn't we all be asking ourselves what really matters?  I think the answers still can be very entertaining.

Years ago, I had a sit-down with the filmmaker Michael Moore.  I confessed to him that I had formerly been a community organizer and felt a bit foolish sometimes having devoted my life subsequently to getting films made and seen.  I wanted to return to politics and bring about some change.  Michael stared at me a bit confused.  The room was silent for a minute before it reminded me that all my films were political:  that by giving characters respect and depth, by allowing the audience the room to make up their own mind, by demonstrating a commitment to quality and art -- verses just profit and dreck -- I was doing something very political.

I do try to think about the world, about the power of my labor and what I can add to the world.  I ask myself: "what is needed?" Sometimes these themes infect my stories and projects.  Sometimes they effect my polices and methods.  Sometimes they shape my commitments and relationships.  I think they make my films better.  I think they could make your life better too.  I think if we let them into our lives and art and business, we will build a better world together.  At least I am willing to hope that they all will.  And give my life, labor, and love to the effort to prove they might.

What am I talking about?  I am not really sure honestly, but I am happy to give a try to articulating it further.  My list's not in an order, and I am sure to miss some very important things.  I will fail.  I will get it wrong. But isn't that what a conversation is all about: a group endeavor to unearth something greater?

  1. Empathy - Making movies is a privilege.  Our path and those of others could have easily gone a different way with a little bit of influence, good or bad.  There will always be so many good movies yet to be made because all characters can be related to.  Until you can walk in another's shoes, you are not ready to begin the journey.
  2. Justice -Bryan Stevenson's Ted Talk speaks well of the connection we feel when we see and combat injustice in the world.  What could ever be a greater good?
  3. Change/Growth - It is so easy to get stuck in a rut.  It is so easy not to see the forest for the trees.  It is hard to keep a perspective on things.  We can't stand still.  I don't think we can do it alone.  We need to check to make sure we are always moving forward, and are loved ones are doing the same.
  4. Emotional Truth - People forget how to live.  We model ourselves on the world around us.  The surface of things takes precedence over the depth if don't commit to digging deeper. Simple is not what we are.  Go further. Creation requires an acceptance of responsibility for and with what is delivered.
  5. Identity - Who are we?  Who are they?  Why are we unique? Why are we the same?  What's not to celebrate?
  6. Specificity - There is a universal aspect to the culturally specific.   There is freedom in the commitment.  Freedom requires responsibility.  Limits expand horizons.  Make a commitment and embrace it.  Generalities, including this one, are all lies.
  7. Compassion - It is not easy.  It is not fair. No one has earned it.  We make mistakes.  The nature of human kind is to fail.  So get over it and let your heart lead your mind and body.  We can all relate.
  8. Generosity - It is not a zero sum game.  There is more than enough for everybody.  Getting yours does not means they can have more or get their first.  If we reach out and provide, everyone accelerates.  Nothing else feels better than giving it away.
  9. Curiosity - Does it need to be this way?  Could it be done another way?  Why them? Why then?  What lies beneath?
  10. Ambition - We all need something to aspire to and that is the role of art.  We show ourselves and everyone else what we could be.  If we refuse to settle, we lift everyone up with us.
  11. There is no end.  No list will be finished. No film truly completed.  It's an ongoing story with many authors, collaborators,  participants, and proselytizers.  We are mayflies on the windshield of history.  Evolution is the way of everything.

Charlie Kaufman On How To Not Be A Zombie Slave

Charlie Kaufman gave this speech on my birthday last year at the BAFTA lectures, but it is a gift to us all. Charlie will inspire you. He inspires me. I wish we could clone him but am also glad he is one of a kind.


Thanks to Neil Fox (@drgonzolives) for tipping me to this.

"Like Crazy" Co-writing On A Project Without A Script

By Ben York Jones

It’s hard to describe to someone what your role was as co-writer, on a movie they read in the New York Times, “Was Filmed Without a Script.” There’s no succinct answer. I couldn’t Tweet a properly inclusive explanation. Well, I tried. This was after I received a Tweet that seemed to accuse me and by association, my co-writer (the film’s very talented director, Drake Doremus) of self-aggrandizing – for awarding ourselves writing credit on a reportedly script-less film. I remember feeling dismissed. Frustrated. Worse yet, I began seriously doubting my abilities when I read the offending Tweet:

“Is it true the dialogue was all improvised on Like Crazy? That's the word on the street...”

Alright, so it wasn’t as bad as I remember. Actually, they’d heard correct. But when it’s late, and you just lost that one seminal gig, and the Times chose the sub-heading, “What Writer?” to describe a film you poured so much into… you start to question your value. I had to publish my own headline. I had to describe to this stranger, in 140 characters or less, exactly what it meant to write an improvised film. And I would make those 140 characters (or less) shine! If it took all night! I replied 5 minutes later:

“The actors worked from a very detailed "scriptment" written in prose. On set, they were asked to put things in their own words.”

Well… Not exactly dazzling as far as headlines go, and no points for a lack of alliteration, but at least it was a little more accurate.

I vividly remember seeing Christopher Guest’s film Waiting For Guffman for the first time in junior high. Noted for being improvised, there was something so organic and honest about that film. It was unlike any comedy I had seen. The characters were so complete, and at the same time completely unaware of themselves, as was the camera. Intimate, but objective – Guest trusted an expression, an inflection, or silence to do the talking. Around this time, because the guys on the VHS jacket looked so weird, I rented and watched American Movie. To this day, it is my favorite film. I didn’t think I was interested in documentaries at that time, but what struck me like no narrative film had before, was the pencil-line it danced between it’s highs and lows. It was at once the funniest film I’d ever seen, and one of the more tragic. This is real, I thought. This is visceral. This is the human condition. I knew then, documentary or not, this was the affect a film should have. Finding a parallel in Guffman was kind of a personal mini-revelation. Things clicked. This is how it translates to a narrative.

After establishing the specifics were going to be improvised, writing Like Crazy was like giving driving directions to someone by landmark (it’s by this one tree… you’ll know it when you see it) rather than street names. As it was to be a movie largely built on moments between moments, we decided what would be important to communicate was not what the characters should say, but what they should withhold. This lead to the good stuff – back-story and inner monologue found it’s way onto the page to accompany the action. We also included music cues; most didn’t end up in the film, but I think helped set the tone. And every once in a while we suggested some dialogue, but it was only ever suggested. It was always Drake’s intention to provide the cast with plenty of space to discover on set. To capture them truly listening and responding. It was for this reason he wisely made certain they fell just short of finding the scenes in rehearsal. At a very dense 50-pages, the script read more like a short story with scene headings. And like any screenplay it had required many drafts and jam sessions with our producers, right up to production in order to get it there. Actually the revisions never stop. They just sort of peter-out for one person, then change hands – now it’s up to the cast… now it’s up to the editor. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the film’s editor, Jonathan Alberts.

As it turns out, when you ask your cast to improvise, you’re also asking the crew to adjust accordingly. A focus-puller’s task, for example, becomes a lot more demanding when the actors have no marks to hit. Several of us in key roles had had some experience with this improvised process on our previous film, a lo-fi comedy called Douchebag. But it’s fair to say we approached that far more casually. Almost as an experiment, the result of which was a great deal of trial and error, and re-shoots, and pick-ups that included adding scenes to fill gaps. The stakes were higher on Like Crazy. It had to pack some serious punch and deliver across the boards, first time out. Fortunately, the synergy was right, the phenomenal cast was brave and trusting of their director, and it came together.

It’s widely acknowledged, a film is written three times: On the page, on set, and in the cutting room. This adage is never more appropriate than in reference to an improvised film. And as I’ve branched out to develop more traditional screenplays with new collaborators, I find them pleasantly surprised by my eagerness to work with fitting ideas thrown my way. Provided everyone’s going the same direction, the improvisers mantra: “Yes, and…” applies here too.

Ultimately, writing film’s that are to be improvised has taught me to see the pages of a screenplay for what they are: a work-in-progress. I don’t aim to negate the artistry and impact of well-written dialogue. I just mean to say, embracing this idea reminds me that as a screenwriter, my method of delivery is not a bound tome, but a living, breathing cast and crew.

An improvised film has many writers. And if there is trust, it’s amazing to see how they may bring your concepts to life – often in surprising and wonderful ways.

Ben York Jones was born in Englewood, New Jersey, but grew up primarily in Southern California. Both of his parents were New York stage actors, exposing him to a variety of art forms from an early age. After studying screenwriting and directing at Chapman University, Jones worked as a video artist, notably directing music videos and creating branded content. Having maintaining a passion for performance based arts, Jones has appeared in a numerous theatrical productions and is an avid fan of improvisation and sketch comedy. Douchebag marked his first leading role in a feature film, and reunited Jones with childhood friend and collaborator, Drake Doremus. In January 2010, Douchebag premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in the US Dramatic Competition. The Hollywood Reporter and New York Magazine praised Jones’ performance, and the film was released theatrically in October 2010. Having shifted his primary focus to writing, Jones has recently co-written the 2011 Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner, Like Crazy. The film hits theaters in the fall of 2011. Jones is currently underway on several projects including the screen adaptation of a soon to be released novel, and his third collaboration with Doremus and producer Jonathan Schwartz in as many years.

The End Of The Auteur Era Of Film?

People like to get credit for their work, but have they been getting the right credit for it? Are we able to recognize when something is a collaboration as opposed to a work of an individual who has hired a team to execute it? I pride myself on having produced films that could only have been the product of the unique vision of the director. That said, I have had a front row seat on how culture in general has been drifting and leaping into something more collaborative and think it just may represent the end of an era.

One of my early jobs in the film business was working as a Script Analyst for many of the NYC-based film production companies. I was always impressed by how many seemingly unique ideas were shared by many writers. There was a month way back when when I read five scripts all featuring dwarf bowling (okay, so some of the companies I read for were schlock producers, but you get the general idea). It became clear that we all harvest our information from similar sources and process it in not-so-unique manners. If all we are doing is acting as a filter, does it make sense to claim authorship still?

I was impressed with James Gunn, the director of SUPER, when he specified that "A Film By" credit would be false due to the collective efforts of all those involved. SUPER is very much "A James Gunn Movie" though, as that credit is more of a brand -- if you know James Gunn, you know what you want to expect from "A James Gunn Movie". Utilizing a brand is a much different thing than claiming authorship. Brands do help filter content for audiences. False authorship confuses things for communities everywhere.

I was similarly impressed -- moved actually -- when years ago I watched OUR SONG, Jim McKay's great film following three girls growing up in Brooklyn (and Kerry Washington's first role). In the opening credits, the "Film By" credit comes up, and then everyone who contributed to the film is credited. Nonetheless, having now recognized how unique McKay's work is (particularly here in America), it would not have been wrong to call it "A Jim McKay Film".

I frequently practice a form of blog writing that Bruce Sterling coined as a "Atemporality for the creative artist" (video here). The method goes a bit like this:

  • I have an idea or feeling about something, and spontaneously tweet it.
  • I witness what response the comment gets on Twitter and ponder it.
  • The comment is auto-posted to Facebook where those that it intrigues have more room to discuss it coherently.
  • I contribute on FB new thoughts on the subject that have been informed by the Twitterverse.
  • I consider all the conversations and write a post for my blog.
  • The blog goes up automatically onto the various social media sites and I see what response it gets.
  • I consider the comments (if any) that the post has and refine my ideas still further, possibly for a future tweet, update, or post.
  • With such a collaborative culture at work, it would be wrong to claim most ideas as my own, or even of a single author. I was heartened to see this recognition in Megan Garber's Neiman Lab response to Gabler's NYT Sunday Mag article last month "The Elusive Big Idea". It still surprises me how much our culture and media industry wants to promote egotism. I do not believe that credit grabs motivate creative thinking and such see no logical reason to hang onto false credits. In fact, it is the false credits that most reveal both the egotism and lack of creative thinking. With only one exception, can I think of any time that a credit discussion I engaged in was warranted (even if even then what was done was counter to industry-standard). But I digress...

    Garber writes:

    "Increasingly, though, the ideas that spark progress are collective, diffusive endeavors rather than the result (to the extent they ever were) of individual inspiration. Ideas increasingly resist branding. The idea of the idea is evolving. We don’t treat Google like a Big Idea — though, of course, that’s most definitely what it is; we treat it like Google. Ditto Facebook, ditto Twitter, ditto Reddit and Wikipedia. Those new infrastructures merge idea and practice, ars and tecnica, so seamlessly that it’s easy to forget how big (and how Big) the ideas that inform them actually are. Increasingly, the ultimate upshot of the Big Idea — the changed world, the bettered world — is bypassing the idea stage altogether. As we build new tools and, with them, a new environment, blueprints are byproducts rather than guideposts. We’re playing progress, increasingly, by ear. And, in the process, we’re becoming less self-conscious about change itself — and about our role in effecting it."

    I truly admire how this column and others like it have become community soap boxes to discuss the state of our industry and culture, to call attention to issues and options, and hopefully find some solutions. The plight of the independent filmmaker has progressed to the evolution of a truly free film community, and we are building it better together. The spirit of the collective endeavor is raging stronger every day and the results of this change of action and focus are shining brightly.

    As much as I was inspired to work in what I saw as the art form and medium that best defined contemporary existence, that inspiration came from those works of the great film auteurs. As difficult as it is to maintain this practice, I am inspired to keep pushing forward to help find some solutions by the commitment, labor, knowledge, and generosity displayed by the COMMUNITY on a general basis. Let's keep it up and lift it up to all that this culture and industry can truly be.

    Beautiful stories will be written by gifted individuals. Our greatest movies will be helmed by unique and committed visionaries. But neither is all that our world needs or even wants these days. In this time of superabundance and open access, it is the shared endeavor of communities that give to the culture they want, share what they love, and contribute to the efforts of many, that will carry us through to a better future. We are on our way and can not shy away from the hard work ahead of us, even if we do not receive credit for it.

    Guest Post: Chuck Wendig "25 Things You Should Know About Storytelling"

    A couple of weekends back I was checking out Chuck Wendig's blog terrible minds. I was blown away -- and I know Chuck already. He's the co-writer on Lance Weiler's "H.i.M. (Hope is Missing)" that I am producing. That said, the humor, wisdom, and outright generosity of his posts were even more than I had anticipated. Today, I am pleased to repost that post that got me so excited. I don't always agree with Chuck (or maybe I do), but I know I love what he shares. Besides, disagreements are what drive us all to find solutions. So get into it. It's so good I had to say it again.

    1. Stories Have Power Outside the air we breathe and the blood in our bodies, the one thing that connects us modern humans today with the shamans and emperors and serfs and alien astronauts of our past is a heritage -- a lineage -- of stories. Stories move the world at the same time they explain our place in it. They help us understand ourselves and those near to us. Never treat a story as a shallow, wan little thing. A good story is as powerful as the bullet fired from an assassin's gun.

    2. Effect Above Entertainment We love to be entertained. Bread and circuses! Clowns and monkeys! Decapitations and ice cream! A good story entertains but a great story knows that it has in its arsenal the ability to do so much more. The best stories make us feel something. They fuck with our emotions. They make us give a flying fuck about characters and places and concepts that don't exist and won't ever exist. The way a story stabs us with sadness, harangues us with happiness, runs us through the gauntlet of rage and jealousy and denial and underoo-shellacking lust and fear (together, lust and fear may stir a "scaredy-boner") is parallel to none. Anybody can entertain. A juggler entertains. A storyteller makes us feel something. Makes us give a shit when we have no good reason to do so. Fun is not the last stop on the story train. The storyteller is master manipulator. The storyteller is cackling puppetmaster.

    3. A Good Story Is A Good Story Regardless Of Genre Or Form Segmentation. Checking off little boxes. Putting stories in the appropriate story slots and narrative cubby-holes. Is it a sci-fi TV show? A fantasy novel? A superhero comic? A video game about duck hunting? An ARG about the unicorn sex trade? We like to think that the walls we throw up matter. But they're practically insubstantial, and once you get them in your mouth they're like cotton candy, melting away to a meaningless slurry. Good story is good story. Those who cleave to genre and form -- whether as teller or as audience -- limit the truth and joy the tale can present. Cast wide and find great stories everywhere.

    4. That's Not To Say Form Doesn't Matter Story is also not a square peg jammed in a circle hole. Every tale has an organic fit. The medium matters in that it lets you operate within known walls and described boundaries.

    5. Stories Have Shape, Even When They Don't Mean To You put your hand in a whirling clod of wet clay, you're shaping it. Even when you don't mean to. Sometimes you find a shape the way a blind man studies a face. Other times you know the shape at the outset and move your hands to mold the tale you choose to tell. Neither way is better than the other. But the story never doesn't have a shape. A story always has structure, even when you resist such taxonomy.

    6. The Story Is A Map; Plot Is The Route You Choose A story is so much more than the thing you think it is. I lay down a map, that map has a host of possibilities. Sights unseen. Unexpected turns. The plot is just the course I... well, plot upon that map. It's a sequence. Of events. Of turns. Of landmarks. The story goes beyond mere sequence. The story is about what I'll experience. About who I'll meet. The story is the world, the characters, the feel, the time, the context. Trouble lies in conflating plot with story. (Even though I've done it here already. See how easy it is to do?)

    7. On The Subject Of Originality The storyteller will find no original plots. But original stories are limitless. It's like LEGO blocks. Go buy a box of LEGO bricks and you'll discover that you have no unique pieces -- by which I mean, these are the same pieces that everybody gets. But how you arrange them is where it gets interesting. That's where it's all fingerprints and snowflakes and unicorn scat. Plot is just a building block. Story is that which you build.

    8. The Bridge Between Author And Audience The audience wants to feel connected to the story. They want to see themselves inside it. Whether as mirror image or as doppelganger (or as sinister mustachio'ed Bizarroworld villain!). The story draws a line between the storyteller and the audience -- you're letting them see into you and they're unknowingly finding you inside them. Uhh, not sexually, of course. You little dirty birdies, you.

    9. But Also, Fuck The Audience Right In Its Ear The audience isn't stupid. It just doesn't know want it wants. Oh, it thinks it knows. The desires of the audience are ever at war with the story's needs, and the story's needs are, in a curious conundrum, the audience's needs. You read that right: this means it's the audience versus the audience, with the storyteller as grim-faced officiant. In this struggle, fiction is born. The conflict of audience versus writer and audience versus itself is the most fundamental conflict of them all. The audience wants the protagonist to be happy, to be well. They want things to work out. They want conflict to resolve. The story cannot have these things and still be a good story. Good story thrives on protagonists in pain. On things failing to go the way everyone hopes. On what is born from conflict and struggle, not merely from the resolution. The audience wants a safety blanket. It's the storyteller's job to take that safety blanket and choke them with it until they experience a profound narrative orgasm. ... did I just compare storytelling to erotic asphyxiation? I did, didn't I? Eeesh. Let's just pretend I said something else and move on.

    10. No Tale Survives A Vacuum Of Conflict Conflict is the food that feeds the reader. It's a spicy hell-broth that nourishes. A story without conflict is a story without story. As the saying goes, there's no 'there' there. The storyteller has truly profound powers, though: he can create conflict in the audience by making them feel a battle of emotions, by driving them forward with mystery, by angering them. The storyteller operates best when he's a little bit of a dick.

    11. The Battle Between Tension and Release Tension is how you ramp to conflict, how you play with it, how you maneuver around it, how you tap-dance up to the cliff's edge, do a perilous pirouette, and pull back from the precipice. You're constantly tightening the screws. Escalation of tension is how a story builds. From bad to worse. From worse to it can't get any worse. From it can't get any worse to, no, no, we were wrong, it's still getting worse because now I'm being stampeded by horses that are also covered in burning napalm. But it isn't just a straight line from bad to awful. It rises to a new plateau, then falls. Having just witnessed it, birth is a great (if gooey) analog. Each contraction has its own tension and release, but the contractions also establish a steady pattern upward. Some have said narrative arcs are sexual, ejaculatory, climactic. True, in some ways. But birth has more pain. More blood. More mad euphoria. And stories always need those things.

    12. Peaks, Valleys, Slashes And Whorls It's not just tension. All parts of a story are subject to ups and downs. Rhythm and pacing are meaningful. A good story is never a straight line. The narrative is best when organically erratic. One might suggest that a story's narrative rhythm is its fingerprint: unique to it alone.

    13. In A Story, Tell Only The Story The story you tell should be the story you tell. Don't wander far afield. That's not to say you cannot digress. Digressions are their own kind of peak (or, in many cases, valley). But those digressions serve the whole. Think of stories then not as one line but rather, a skein of many lines. Lines that come together to form a pattern, a blanket, a shirt, a hilarious novelty welcome mat. Only lines that serve the end are woven into play. Digressions, yes. Deviations, no.

    14. Big Ideas Do Well In Small Spaces The audience cannot relate to big ideas. A big idea is, well, too big. Like the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man. Or Unicron, the giant Transformer-that-is-also-a-planet. (I wonder if anyone ever calls him "Unicorn," and if so, does that irritate him?) You must go macro to micro. Big ideas are shown through small stories: a single character's experience through the story is so much better than the 30,000-foot-view.

    15. Backstory Is A Frozen Lake Whose Ice Is Wafer Thin Backstory in narrative -- and, ultimately, exposition in general -- is sometimes a grim necessity, but it is best to approach it like a lake of thin ice. Quick delicate steps across to get to the other side. Linger too long or grow heavy in the telling and the ice will crack and you will plunge into the frigid depths. And then you get hypothermia. And then you will be eaten by an Ice Hag. True story.

    16. Characters Are The Vehicle That Carry Us Into (And Through) The Tale The best stories are the stories of people, and that means it's people -- characters -- that get us through the story. They are the dune buggies and Wave Runners on which the audience rides. Like Yoda on Luke's back. Above all else, a story must have interesting characters, characters who the audience can see themselves in, even if only in a small way. Failing that, what's the point?

    17. Villains Have Mothers Unless we're talking about SkyNet, villains were children once upon a time. Which means they have mothers. Imagine that: even the meanest characters have mothers, mothers who may even have loved them once. They're people, not mustache-twirling sociopaths born free from a vagina made of fiery evil. Nobody sees themselves as a villain. We're all solipsistic. We're all the heroes of our own tales. Even villains.

    18. Heroes Have Broken Toys Just as villains see themselves doing good, heroes are capable of doing or being bad. Complexity of character -- believable complexity -- is a feature, not a bug. Nothing should be so simple as unswerving heroism, nor should it be as cut-and-dry as straight-up-malefic motherfuckery. Black and white grows weary. More interesting is how dark the character's many shades of gray may become before brightening.

    19. Strip Skin Off Bones To See How It Works A story can be cut to a thin slice of steak and still be juicy as anything. To learn how to tell stories, tell small stories as well as large ones. Find a way to tell a story in as few beats as possible. Look for its constituent parts. Put them together, take them apart. See how it plays and lays. Some limbs are vestigial.

    20. Beginnings Are For Assholes... The audience begins where you tell them. They don't need to begin at the beginning. If I tell the story of a Brooklynite, I don't need to speak of his birth, or the origins of Brooklyn, or how the Big Bang barfed up asteroids and dinosaurs and a flock of incestuous gods. You start where it matters. You start where it's most interesting. You begin as late in the tale as you can. The party guest who comes late is always the most interesting one. Even still, it's worth noting...

    21. ...If You Jump Too Fast Into Waters Too Deep And The Audience Drowns Jump too swiftly into a narrative and the story grows muddled. We have to become invested first. Go all high-karate-action and we have no context for the characters who are in danger, and no context means we don't care, and if we don't care then we're already packing our bags in the first five minutes or five pages. The audience always needs something very early to get their hands around. This always comes back to the character. Give them reason to care right at the gate. Otherwise, why would they walk through it?

    22. Treat Place Like Character For setting to matter, it must come alive. It must be made to get up and dance, so shoot at its feet. It has a face. It has a personality. It has life. When setting becomes character, the audience will care.

    23. Always Ask, Why Do I Want To Tell This? Storytellers tell specific stories for a reason. You want to scare the kids around a campfire. You want to impress your friends with your exploits. You want to get in somebody's pants. You hope to make someone cry, or make them cheer, or convey to them a message. Know why you're telling it. Know what its about -- to you above all else, because then you can show everybody else what it's about. Find that invisible tether that ties you to the story. That tether matters.

    24. It's Okay To Bury The Lede Every story is about something. Man's inhumanity to man. How history repeats itself. How karate-ghosts are awesome and how you don't fuck with a karate-ghost. But you don't need to slap the audience about the head and neck with it. The truth of the story lives between the lines. This is why Jesus invented "subtext."

    25. Writing Is A Craft, But Storytelling Is An Art Writing isn't magic. Writing is math. It's placing letters and words and sentences after one another to form a grand equation. Writing is the abracadabra -- the power word made manifest -- but the story that results is the magic. That equation we piece together tells a tale and the arrangement that leads to that tale is where the true art lies, because it takes an ice scraper to pretense and throws an invisible-yet-present tow line from present to past. Writing is craft and mechanics. Storytelling is art and magic.

    --Chuck Wendig

    Chuck Wendig is equal parts novelist, screenwriter, and game designer. He currently lives in the wilds of Pennsyltucky with wife, dog, and newborn son. His "vampire in zombieland" novel, Double Dead, releases in November, 2011, and his e-book of writing advice, Confessions of a Freelance Penmonkey, is now on sale. He is represented by Stacia Decker of DMLA. You can find him dispensing dubious writing advice at his blog terribleminds.com.

    Guest Post: Chuck Wendig "Where Storytelling And Gaming Collide"

    Saturday, DIY DAYS comes to NYC, bringing with it filmmakers, game designers, techies, designers, and entrepreneurs -- but mostly it brings a tremendous community that collides where stories begin, are discovered, and get shared. Chuck Wendig speaks so well of why we needs this crash point, it's safe to bet that a full day of such immersion will be nothing short of mindblowing. Hell, why settle for inspiration. Chuck shares after the break.

    My Dad used to play softball. I still have his jersey, still have the newspaper clippings.

    But the newspaper clippings never told the whole story, and the jersey is just a trophy, just a marker of times past. The real stories came out at the bar afterward. The whole team would head out to a drinking hole called the Buttonwood. They’d bring their families. And for hours they’d drink and recreate the game in a way that went beyond the RBIs, the stolen bases, the errors.

    Every player on the team had his own piece of the story to add to the pile because each had different vantage points, different experiences. The way one batter flipped my Dad off as he pitched. The way a ball stung a glove or the wall it rolled along the foul line like a marble along a table’s edge. Was one player drunk? Another, sick? Maybe the team was a rival team, like Kelly’s bar. Maybe the win was sweeter for that, or the loss a bigger tragedy.

    The team drank, told their stories. Sometimes I listened. Other times, I went over to the video games and played Arkanoid with my sister, or played a round of pinball. Even there, we had stories to tell: “The ball got stuck in the upper corner of the table.” Or, “I just beat a total stranger’s high score.” Little stories, but they felt epic in their own way. Herculean triumphs. Sisyphean shortfalls.

    When we read a book or watch a movie, we’re gathering around the firelight and letting a storyteller tell us his or her story. It’s their world; we’re just looking in. It isn’t our story that matters, and that’s okay.

    But with games, it’s our story that matters. And every game affords us the opportunity to experience a new story. Chess is a game that has no overt narrative and yet in every match, a new narrative is born: the ebb-and-flow, the peaks-and-valleys, the two factions warring for dominance over what might be a game board, but what might also be two nations, or two sides of an issue, or two halves of the heart.

    In every game we play, we are in some sense the protagonists. Doesn’t matter if the protagonist-as-written is someone else (the Monopoly Scotty, Pac-Man, Halo’s Master Chief): what we experience isn’t their story but ultimately and intimately our own. How we move through a game world and how we conquer the challenges presented within are paths as unique as the maze on a fingerprint.

    Traditional storytelling seeks to tell the story of the author, the director, the creator.

    But storytelling in games is about empowering the player to experience and tell her own narrative.

    What a crazy, wonderful thing. The notion that we each see something different, each undergo our own mini-myths and little legends, offers powerful engagement. It puts us at the core of it. And when you see that, you start to realize that games have the power to be more than just time-killers and fun-machines. Games can show us things from unseen perspectives. Games can teach us things we never thought we’d want to learn. Games can even help reflect and affect social change. (Imagine a game that puts us in the midst of the Egypt revolution, or lets us hack our way through the Wisconsin red tape to see the truth.)

    Games don’t just shine a light on these stories; they give us the torch and let us see for ourselves.

    At DIY Days in New York – this Saturday, March 5th – I’m going to sit down and have a fireside chat with fellow game designer Greg Trefry (of Gigantic Mechanic) about the intersection of game design and storytelling. We’ll take a look at how designers can think about putting the tools in the hands of the players (like giving them a big bucket of LEGO blocks) to put together the stories and experiences they want to tell. Come by the chat.


    -- Chuck Wendig

    Chuck Wendig is a novelist, a screenwriter, and a freelance penmonkey. He is represented by Stacia Decker of the Donald Maass Literary Agency. www.terribleminds.com