2011-06-12

The Language of Story

Part 3 of “The Language of Story”

So what’s this “course” about?

As the name of the overall series and this post would suggest, it’s about the language of story.

And what does that mean, exactly?

What it means is that when we talk about the art and craft of dramatic writing, we’re actually talking about a hybrid process that consists of two entirely separate — and in many ways, creatively contradictory — arts. On the one side is the art of words. On the other side is the art of story. The point at which those two arts mesh is where dramatic writing lives — or dies.

The baser and more instinctive of those separate arts is the art of words. Words are a thing we know because we spend all our lives with words. We learn the art of words by the addiction to reading and story that first led us shambling and hunched toward the urge to write in the first place. Words are easy, though saying so might seem counter-intuitive (or just plain idiotically wrong) to anyone who’s ever struggled to get words down on the page. However, most people (myself included) who have experienced that struggle don’t automatically understand that when we have trouble getting the words down, it’s not because of a problem with the words. It’s because we’re not properly in touch with the story we want those words to tell.

The ease of words can be demonstrated by any of the countless workshops and approaches to writing that embrace the concept of free writing. Free writing is the notion that a really good way to unblock your creative flow, to get yourself charged up in advance of doing your real work, is to just write. Write anything, write everything, write the first things that come into your head without worrying about their quality or even whether they make sense.

But as important and useful as free writing is an exercise, there’s an important truth tied up in it that most people gloss over.

Words are easy as long as you don’t have to worry about what you want the words to do.

Worrying about what you want the words to do is the art of story. Making the words do what you want them to do is what happens when you understand the language of story, and that’s what this course is about.

That’s a lot of explanation that doesn’t actually say very much, however. So as I’ll do from time to time during this series, let me throw out a little bit of a writing exercise in an attempt to further explain and illuminate. (The exercises that I set out should all be relatively short, and are the best way to assess from your own writerly perspective the rules and paradigms we’ll be talking about.)

Exercise — Free Scene Writing

Here’s a quick three-part exercise. Do all three parts in order, and don’t read the instructions for the subsequent parts until you’ve done the parts before. Part 3 of the exercise requires two or more people, so try it with your writer’s group or with a friend with whom you workshop your writing. (It works great by email as well.)

(Aside: If you’re not part of a writer’s group or don’t have trusted writers with whom you workshop your writing, in person or otherwise, you should. Writing in isolation is a dangerous game, because we all have a hard time judging our own work objectively. As such, workshopping other people’s writing helps to hone and sharpen our own writing process in a way that self-analyzing never will. The workshop is the basis and foundation of the art and practice of writing, and it needs to be a part of your writer’s life.)

Part 1: Write down bare character-sketch notes for two characters. Any format you like, as creative as you can make it, 5 minutes max. Don’t use characters from an existing story of your own or from another work. Make it fresh. Sketch out who the characters are, then define a situation that brings them together.

When you’re done, take those rough notes and use them to write a short scene. Nothing daunting — a half page, a page, two pages. Start with the situation, bring in the characters, and see what happens. Write for 10 minutes maximum.

When you’re done, assess how difficult you thought the writing was. How hard was it to come up with the words that make up your scene and get them down on the page?

Part 2: Think about the last books you read and enjoyed. Think about the last films you watched and liked. Think about the characters and situations in one of those stories, then write a short scene — up to a couple of pages — featuring those characters and situations. Write for 10 minutes maximum. Don’t rewrite a scene from the story — write a scene that doesn’t already occur in the story. Use what happens in the story as a starting point, but then write a quick snippet of a situation that’s wholly your own.

(Very often, when we’re reading books or watching films, we become aware of potential scenes that don’t actually play out in the story. A conversation that two characters seem like they really want to have but never do; a confrontation or quiet moment that would have made a good bridge between two existing scenes; et al. Feel free to use one of these “missing scenes” as your starting point if it makes it easier.)

Again, how difficult was that? How hard was it to come up with those words and get them down on the page?

Part 3: Repeat the initial process from Part 1. In no more than 5 minutes, come up with two quick character profiles and a situation.

When you’re done, everyone working on the exercise passes their profile to someone else. If you’re working with only one other person, just trade. In a workshop group, pass to the right around the table. If you’re in an email group, pass things along alphabetically, with the last person in the list passing to the first.

With someone else’s character notes in hand, repeat the second half of the process from Part 1. Write for 10 minutes maximum to create a scene, using the initial character sketches and situation as your starting point.

When you’re done, assess how difficult writing that scene was. How hard was it to come up with those words and get them down on the page?


If you’re like most writers, the ability to put words down on the page comes naturally. It comes instinctively, it comes easily. Where we get screwed up is in trying to figure out which specific words to put down on the page. We get screwed up trying to balance the language of words and the language of story.

Your reaction to the preceding exercises will vary. However, if you’re like most writers, you probably found Part 1 of the exercise fairly easy. There’s nothing in the process that’s meant to be particularly challenging, assuming that like most writers you have a surplus of imagination and a good ability with words. In Part 1, you write easily because you have no reason to care about what you’re writing. It’s an exercise. It’s throwaway. You have nothing invested in these characters, so it’s easy to make them do things without worrying about whether they’re doing the right thing or not.

(Not caring about your work is actually a most effective way of making the writing come easier. Unfortunately, it also guarantees that your writing will be shit, and learning how to write shit is someone else’s workshop.)

If you’re like most writers, you probably found Part 2 of the exercise even easier than Part 1. You might assume that the ease of the second exercise comes from using prefab characters that you already know from having seen their story before. However, you’d be wrong. What makes the second exercise easier isn’t your familiarity with the characters — it’s the fact that words are easy as long as you don’t have to worry about what you want the words to do. Writing a fake scene from a real book or film, you have absolutely no worries about what you want the words to do, and so nothing gets in between you and the words.

In Part 2, you write more easily because you know that what comes after your scene is already set. These characters have already finished their story. You’ve already watched or read it. You know what happened. As such, the little snippet you write can do whatever it likes. You have complete freedom because you’re stepping into the middle of something that already has its beginning and end set up. (You might recall the mention of beginning, middle, and end from the previous post about Aristotle. We’re going to come back to this idea. A lot.)

If you’re like most writers, you probably found Part 3 of the exercise even easier than Parts 1 and 2. And though we haven’t been talking about the quality of your writing in the exercise (because that’s not what the exercise is about), most writers are also happier with their writing in Part 3. And there’s a weird kind of disconnect there that you might have trouble wrapping your head around. Because we might expect that working with characters we don’t know — characters we’ve never even seen before — would be the most difficult of these three tasks. Writing our own characters is hard enough. How much harder should it be to write other peoples’ characters?

In Part 3, you’re given carte blanche to write whatever you want within the constraints imposed on you by someone else’s starting ideas. You have the story (for the purpose of the exercise, one small fragment of the story) set out for you, inviolable and self contained. Telling you what to do. And the reality is and has always been — words are easy as long as you don’t have to worry about what you want the words to do.

The point of these exercises is to put you very temporarily into a place where you don’t need to worry about what you want the words to do. By doing so, you force a separation between the two distinct arts that twist within you as they twist within all writers — the art of words; the art of story. These exercises put you into a place where your only focus is the language of words, to prove to you that the words are easy.

The first part of the Free Scene Writing exercise was fairly artificial, with good intent. However, if you’re like most writers, you might have recognized the basic gist of this assignment as the way most writers (especially beginning writers, including this writer once upon a time) start out. A handful of ideas, a rough starting point, and off we go, throwing words down like mad and desperately hoping that the rest of the story will somehow fall into place.

Except most of the time, it doesn’t. And almost without exception, every failed novel, every half-assed screenplay that’s ever been written has started this same way. Because the biggest hurdle that most writers face is that words are easy. And the ease with which we handle words makes it impossibly frustrating when we find ourselves unable to put the words down because we don’t know what the words are meant to say. Because words are easy, we immerse ourselves so deeply in the language of words that we forget how to speak the language of story.

Most writers have had the experience of sitting down with a rough idea and simply writing it. “Chapter One” or “Fade In”, and then we just jump in. If you’re like most writers (certainly, if you’re like me), you start off well — just as you probably did in Part 1 of the exercise. The words flow, the characters come to life, the description sizzles with visual pinache — and then at some point, everything stops. Maybe page 10. Maybe page 100. But you get to a place when you simply don’t know what’s supposed to happen next, and the more you force it — the more you try to work around what you’ve already written, the more you go back to rewrite what you’ve already written, the more free-writing exercises you engage in to try to figure out why you’re suddenly blocked — the worse it gets.

Because what we don’t instinctively realize — what it took me many years and many failed writing projects to realize — is that at the point when the words stop flowing, it isn’t because of any problem with the words themselves. The language of words is fine. Words are easy.

The problem is that our ease with words can get in the way of our understanding of the language of our story.

The ultimate goal of this ongoing series of posts is to teach you the language of story, so that by learning to master that language, you will always be in a place where the words come easy. You’ll always be able to work with the ease that comes with writing a single scene, because you’ll know with absolute confidence that the words are telling the story you want to tell.

NEXT: The Tyranny of Structure