Lately I’ve been reading a lot about what constitutes good storytelling, in playwriting and screenwriting, and what I’ve read has seemed to miss the point. I’ve also seen some really bad plays lately, and life is too freaking short for bad plays. There seems to be a lot of “make stuff happen” or vague metaphors trying to describe it, and nothing about simple, basic tools of storytelling. I don’t know if this is because somebody wants to make money leading writing seminars while simultaneously pulling the ladder up behind themselves, or if they just can’t explain it well, or if I don’t understand them (and by now I should). Anyway. Here are a couple of things which I have learned, which no one else has been able to explain to my satisfaction.
The best place to start is with your main character, what they want, and what’s in their way. A really simple formula is this, which I learned in a writing class from Doug Wright:
Blank wants blank in order to blank, but is thwarted by blank and ends up blank.
I apologize right now for the phrase, “is thwarted by.” I know it sounds archaic and pompous. However, it’s hard to come up with a phrase that means exactly that.
To try to illustrate, let’s make a simple image. People in general get really excited about sports, because sports offers the simplest possible version of this narrative.
Football player #88 wants to get the ball and run down the field to make a touchdown, but is thwarted by the other team’s player #66, who body-slams him to the ground ten yards from the goal line, and ends up injured.
To expand this somewhat, you can also say, Football player #88 wants to get the ball and run down the field to make a touchdown, in order to win the game and get the endorsement with a major soda company which will pay off the mortgage he has on the fabulous mansion he can’t afford, so that he can squash his memories of his tortured childhood growing up in a roach-infested apartment, but is thwarted by the other team’s player #66, who body-slams him to the ground ten yards from the goal line, and ends up with a broken collarbone.
But, when you’re starting, you want to keep things really simple. It’s easy to think a lot about the larger goal, because that gives us the why, and backstory is always a fun place to dawdle around in storytelling. But, when you’re getting started, especially when you’re writing a screenplay or a script, because they take place in the here and now.
So, you should take a blank piece of paper, and your favorite color magic marker, and hand-write in big letters,
_____ wants _____ (in order to _____) but is thwarted by _____ and ends up ____.
Put this on the wall over wherever it is that you write.
If you want to get academic about this exercise, Romeo wants to marry Juliet in order to experience perfect physical and emotional bliss, but is thwarted by the hatred between their respective families, and ends up dead.
Broad strokes. Keep it easy. Here’s a simpler one:
Phaedra wants to have sex with her stepson Hippolytus in order to experience perfect physical and emotional love, but is thwarted by Hippolytus’ disgust for her and ends up committing suicide.
Now, Hippolytus has his own set of issues, goals and obstacles, as do The Capulets and Monatgues, and as does Football Player #66, if your story is even close to interesting. Eventually, you will want to write out this formula for all of your characters.
Now, I know that we all love stories with huge ensemble casts of characters, and there is a lot to be said for ensemble stories. However, if you look at the story closely, you’ll see that the most successful ones center around one protagonist, and although the other characters have goals and obstacles and stories of their own, the story really follows this one character.
An example of a novel which translated reasonably well to film is Wonder Boys. It has a fantastic ensemble of characters, and their interplay is what mades the story so rich and exciting. So, one could argue that this story depends on ensemble and less on a protagonist.
To which I would say, bullshit. There are points throughout the story where Grady Tripp could have just walked out, gone home, and, as Michael Chabon said, “lie on the couch, watch reruns of the Rockford Files, roll numbers, and wait for the girl in the black kimono to take me away.” However, the journey of all the other characters would wind down and burn out as a result, if Grady didn’t stop moving forward toward his goal, which is to restore order to the chaos his life as become. Grady’s self-hatred would be consistent with him going home, smoking weed and watching tv until he died as a means to bring order to chaos, but no one else would be put in the places they need to be as a result. He needs to cause all the things which make the other characters get where they belong.
So, Grady needs to return missing things to their proper places so that he can get himself into the right family, but comes up against the chaos of a writer’s life and distractions.
Now, my favorite character in that story is Terry Crabtree. He is my spirit animal. However, he’s not the protagonist of this story. You can’t have it without him as an agent of chaos, but if Grady had handed him a finished manuscript on day one, and said, “Go tell your bosses at Bartizan I fulfilled their contract,” Terry would have said, “Awesome, thanks,” and gotten on the next plane back to New York. Your other characters have simpler goals and obstacles, and their goals and obstacles have to depend on the protagonist. Terry has to go to Wordfest because he needs a novel, at least one novel, which will save his career at Bartizan. If he falls in love along the way, that’s icing on the cake. The drinking and partying and so on is just an activity in which he engages. He doesn’t know this, but he needs Grady to bring him not only to James Leer, but also to what’s his face whose name I can’t remember who wrote the book about Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio. and all the other stuff.
This brings us to causality. This is harder than it looks.
If you go to YouTube and search for video of Rube Goldberg devices, you’ll see a lot of videos of machines in which, as a lot of screenwriters say, “cool stuff happens.” It’s true that in stories, cool stuff happens, but those cool things are caused by other things. There are two kinds of “happenings” in story, action and activity.
Although all verbs are actions, for storytelling purposes, some verbs you do are actions and some are activities. Your audience wants actions. Actions cause other actions, activities are just stuff you do. If I fill a glass with water, that’s an activity. If I fill a glass with water and throw it in someone’s face, causing them to punch me, that’s an action (the throwing, not the filling).
Here is a reductively simple example. Bear with me.
In the OKGo video for the song, “This Too Shall Pass,” at 1:14, a teapot swings into a wooden plank, causing it to move, releasing a lego car to drive across a mini-landscape, hitting a gate, which pops open, releasing a rope, which releases a blue electric guitar to spin on a carousel. The blue guitar dangles metal spoons over glasses filled with different amounts of water, causing them to play a simplified version of the song’s refrain. One of the spoons hits an object which falls causing a soccer ball to roll along a track. And the whole thing continues.
So, let’s look at the actions and activities in this segment.
Teapot swinging into the plank: Action.
Plank releasing the car: Action.
Car driving across the landscape while a band member lip-syncs in the background: Activity.
Car hitting the gate and releasing the rope: Action.
Rope releasing guitar causing it to spin: Action.
Spoons hitting glasses in a cool little tune: Activity. Spoon hitting thing which releases soccer ball: action.
This is why we love those stupid “fail” videos. Somebody wants to do something they think will be incredibly cool, they take a risk, they misunderstand the obstacle, they land on their ass. King Lear wants to divide up his kingdom between his daughters to ensure their perpetual loyalty, two of them take the kingdom and power and cast him out, he ends up naked in the rain talking to himself.
So, take another one of your favorite Magic Markers, and a piece of paper, and hand write on it in big letters:
Action is when a character does something which causes another character to do something else. Activity is just stuff you do.
Put that on the wall over wherever it is you write, too.
Let me pick this up a notch for you. One of this things I’ve noticed, from working with undergraduate playwriting and screenwriting students, is that action, activity and image get thrown in under the same umbrella as “cool stuff happens,” and the reality is that they are not all the same thing.
Let me grab another youtube video for you.
Most people would say that in Pulp Fiction, a cool thing that happens is that Vincent Vega and Mia Wallace go dancing.
Is the dancing action? No. It’s an activity.
But, this scene is important to the plot of the movie, because it has actions in it. I would argue that this scene is important because Vincent and Mia seduce each other, while also building trust.
Let me break the scene down into beats for you.
Mia is in a very public place with Vincent, they are both high, and he knows that if he gets too close to her, her husband will kill him, but if he doesn’t please her, her husband will kill him. And, she’s the bored wife of a crime lord. So, pleasing Mia is a very high priority for Vincent, but he has to be very careful how he does it.
The master of ceremonies announces the twist contest. Mia announces their intent to participate as a couple. (Action: makes the master of ceremonies put them in the contest.)
Vincent refuses. (Action: makes Mia press him harder to participate .)
Mia reminds him of her husband’s power over him. (Action; gives Vincent a very good reason to get off his ass and onto the dance floor)
Vincent and Mia get on the dance floor and Mia announces their names. (Activity: whatever, we know who these people are. It’s a cool little piece of character business that Mia takes the reins and announces their names, it shows how she’s the boss on this date, but it’s not anything that causes anyone else to do anything)
Vincent and Mia take off their shoes, the music plays, and they start dancing. There are a lot of visual cues to show a breakdown of formality in the pair, but let’s just stick to action and activity right now.
Mia starts with a traditional twist dance move(activity), but her proximity to Vincent pushes him to move away from her, allowing her to take up more of the spotlight. Her increasing flourishes on the dance moves make him bolder with his. Finally, she pushes him back across the dance floor, and he backs up, she stops, and backs up, leading him back across the dance floor, and he follows.
So, in terms of activities: the moves with their fingers over their faces in closeup, the swimming arm moves, Mia’s hands on her abdomen; they’re all seductive and look cool. but they’re activities. okay, you could argue that Mia’s hands on her abdomen make Vincent want to touch her, but we don’t see the action he wants on screen.
In terms of action: she moves toward him seductively, he backs off, letting her have more of the stage focus (consistent with, “please Mia in order to please her husband”). She does some fancy non-threatening pretty dance moves, he feels more free, does some fancy non-threatening pretty dance moves. She moves toward him, he moves back; she moves back, he moves toward her. We see them becoming more harmonious as a couple, which is creepy, because we know what kind of risks and rewards are involved with that for Vincent.
So, to sum up:
Know what your main character wants and what their obstacles are in the simplest possible terms.
Action causes another character to do something else, activity is just gravy.
Go forth and simplify your story.
I might do this kind of post again, I might not. I have to go read and write more about Walter Lowenfels and Georgia O’Keeffe, and it’s noon, and daylight’s a-burning. But, if this kind of thing is helpful for you, give this a like, leave a comment, repost, whatever floats your boat, and I’ll do another one in the future.