TELL YOUR STORYComplications Ensue
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Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Every now and then, someone hires me to read their script and give them a critique. Can't tell you how many times the solution -- after I've broken down issues with the main character, his goal or problem, his obstacles or antagonist, the stakes and / or the jeopardy -- is to tell the story out loud. Over and over. Without notes.

I've said this before, in both my books, but the scripts keep coming in where it's obvious the writer has never told the story to anyone, he's just sat down and written it out on paper. He hasn't even read his story out loud to anyone with notes. So I'll say it again. Telling your story out loud, without notes, is the single best storytelling tool anyone has. And everyone has it. Everyone knows how to tell a story. They just forget it the moment they start putting words on the page.

We tell stories all the time. Stories about friends. Stories about why we're late. We tell our friends what's going on with us. Not to mention the standard stories we tell over and over: how my wife and I met, what was wrong with my first marriage, that time Gary Busey insisted on taking me to the Club Supersexe so I could tell him what his character was all about.

Everybody understands what a fun, interesting story is. And everyone knows how to embellish a story so that it gets more interesting in the telling.

Do that when you're coming up with a screen story. Don't write stuff down. Get the story up on its feet. Tell it to friends. (Non-writer friends, or they may steal it, if it's good.) Tell it to waitresses. Tell it to your auto mechanic. Tell it to your kids.

If they're bored, then your story is boring, or you're presenting it in a boring way. Fix how you're telling it or fix it. And tell it again.

Nothing will streamline your story faster. If you can't remember how to get from one bit of plot to the next, that's because your plot doesn't flow properly. Make up something that flows better.

The problem with writing down stories is they get set in concrete. You don't question their sequence. You don't have to remember the next step. It's right there. If a step is boring, you can just blip over it. Telling a story out loud forces you to keep it simple, keep it clever, and keep it flowing logically.

This won't work with fancy art film narrative techniques, a la 21 Grams. But even in those films, there's an underlying story of what actually happened. That story still needs to be interesting. Tell that story out loud, and then bust up the narrative later once you know what it is.

Telling a story out loud is scary. But there is no more powerful storytelling tool. That's why TV writers always have to pitch out loud, over the phone or in person. It keeps the story alive. If you're scared, shouldn't you be more scared of telling a bad story? Get over it!


Never do I find more about what's wrong with my stuff than when we have a reading.

I also read my outlines aloud to catch mistakes and flip scenes. It's also a great way to switch the pov of the story if need be...

A great reminder, Alex! Thanks!

By Blogger Bill Cunningham, at 12:49 PM  

Public speaking has always been one of my greatest fears, which is odd considering I was once a live radio personality (didn't last long!). I just can't seem to organize my thoughts into a smooth and confidant delivery, whether I'm telling someone about my bad day or relaying important news to a client, I often divert from the main topic repeatedly, inserting what in the publishing world would be called 'side bars' into my story.

So, when people ask me to tell them about my series in development, whether they're a showbiz buddy or just a curious waitress, I stumble and fumble my way through a few sentences, then give up and say "Here, lemme give you the URL to the online proposal. Everything you need to know can be found there." And as I'm writing the info down on a piece of paper I grit my teeth and sigh with disgust. Why can't I do this?!

What the hell am I going to do when I'm sitting across from DB at CHUM and she says, "So, Kelly, tell me all about The Black Tower."?

I am SO screwed! :-(

By Blogger Kelly J. Compeau, at 12:07 AM  

Thanks Alex. Great advice, as usual!

By Blogger Fun Joel, at 4:15 PM  

Practice telling the story into a tape recorder like you are telling it to a member of your audience (e.g. if it's kid's movie, you're talking to a kid, if it's for young men, etc.) and then listen back. Usually if it's working, the listenng back part is great, if it's not, you will immediately scream for mercy, beg for release from your pain, and then once the slosh in your stomach has settled down, you'll narrow down the problems and get back to work.... :-)

By Blogger The Film Diva, at 2:49 AM  

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