School’s In

Part 2 of “The Language of Story”

One of the great disadvantages of working a fair amount as an editor and story editor is that you spend more time shaping other people’s creativity than you do publicly flogging your own. As such, editors and story editors often have to resort to vicariously dropping the names of people they work with in the hope of making their behind-the-scenes toil seem justified. So here’s something:

The magic of being taught by Scott is that he won’t merely hand you a Hollywood formula; instead he instils within his students an innate sense of story that you can make your own and adapt to each project. By the time he is done, you will actually believe that you were born with this incredible gift for story structure. I guarantee that after a course with Scott, you will never feel the need to pick up another book on writing. What I learned from Scott was invaluable, and if you are lucky enough to have the opportunity to learn the craft of writing from him do yourself a favour and don’t pass it up! The world wants to hear your story and Scott can help make that happen.

— Terri Tatchell, Co-Writer, District 9

That got your attention? Just a little, maybe?

If you dig deep enough — if you strip away the subtle differences of tone, voice, and texture — I believe that all dramatic art obeys a surprisingly small number of fundamental laws. Understanding these foundational truths of fiction and drama can help open you up as a writer. They can help you learn to speak the language of story, by coming to terms with how story works at the most fundamental, basic level.

My rules for writing have been the foundation of my teaching in the past, and they continue to be something I harp on when I’m working as a story editor and script consultant. I learned these rules as a screenwriter. However, their versatility and neutrality mean that they aren’t strictly and specifically limited to screenwriting, even though the narrow focus of that form makes them ideally suited to it. These rules and paradigms are things that I’m going to attempt to convince you are the underlying structure of pretty much any fictive form, and so can applied to any type of writing (including novels, as I’ve done).

I still do a lot of story editing and script consulting, but I don’t teach or lead workshops much anymore. This is owing partly to being really freaking busy much of the time, and partly to living in a small, idyllic corner of the Canadian countryside that’s just a little too far from anywhere that a reasonable number of people interested in workshopping would tend to congregate. However, I always enjoyed teaching. I never saw it as a chore or a paying-the-bills disgruntled obligation while I waited for the real opportunities to roll in. As such, I miss teaching a lot, and I get a lot of former students telling me I should get off my ass and get back at it someday. So I was struck by a thought recently, which was this:

Why don’t I spend some time collating and translating the stuff I like to talk about in workshops into something I can post here — both as a means of giving something back to the larger community of writers, of which I remain a proud member; and as a means of forcing myself to think about what I do, and why.

Because the thing that really struck me during a teaching stint at Vancouver Film School in 2000–2001 was that being a teacher (or at least attempting to be a conscientious teacher) means challenging yourself on a daily basis. As writers, we all have things we do. We read other people’s books. We watch films. We embrace formal criticism and theory. We seek out advice and absorb it. We try new techniques, we look at our work with a critical eye in order to make it better. But for the most part, the specific arsenal of creative tools that we bring to bear on our own work is a gestalt thing — something that’s been honed and shaped over long years at a level beyond description. We don’t consciously think about what we do. We simply do it, because that’s the way it’s done.

Standing up in front of a class full of students, you don’t have the luxury of simply saying “That’s the way it’s done”. Or, okay, you have that luxury if you don’t mind looking like a bit of douche. But assuming that’s not your goal, trying to teach what you know requires you to actively think about what you know. You need to not only understand what works — you need to figure out why it works, and why it works so much better than everything else that you’re willing to tell people to try it for themselves.

The cool thing about what I teach is that it doesn’t replace anything else you’ve ever been taught, sought out, or picked up on your own. I have a small number of rules for writing that are deceptively simple in the discussion and extraordinarily powerful in the execution, and as such, they subsume all the other rules in all the other books. However, they do so in a way that’s not only easier to understand than many of the other books, they do so in a way that’s easier to use. A way that’s completely intuitive and ultimately powerful. A way that puts you in complete command of shaping the story you want to write.

This series of posts makes no conjectures about who you are or the kind of writing you want to do. The rules and paradigms talked about here work for any form of dramatic writing, any genre, any story. However, your ability to get something out of this series depends entirely on my assumption that you already know how to work with words. This isn’t some kind of “To be the writer, you must be the writer” Zen koan quackery. It’s just a statement of the idea that writing words is fairly easy; it’s writing story that’s hard. (This is the crux of the series as a whole, and we’ll come back to it a lot. The next post presents a bit of an overview of what this idea means.) If you’ve never attempted dramatic writing in your life, this is not the place to start. Start by writing. Start by reading. Start with authors like Natalie Goldman or Robert McKee. (The Film section of the Insane Angel website has links to some reference material, but these two books in particular are useful for writers of all stripes, not just screenwriters.) Read. Do a writing workshop. Read. Join a writer’s group. Read some more. Learn to work with words, even if the only option open to you is one of those typical and annoying college or university “Just write what you feel and sooner or later you’ll figure out what you’re doing, because that’s the only way anyone learns” creative writing workshops. And after that, when you have the words down, come back here to find out how wrong that approach is.

I believe with all my heart that the rules and paradigms that I’m going to break out in this series of posts work better than anything else. Thanks in advance for giving me a chance to prove it to you.

NEXT: The Language of Story