Hello sinners, today I thought I'd change up the Workshop a little bit. Everything in here is mostly about English lessons and questions, and I decided I would get a little more creative on all of you. Since I have been dabbing in creative writing for a while and have won a few contests (albeit high school ones) I thought I'd share what I've learned in my time while creative writing. Here, eloquent speaking, large words, and your inevitable misuse of commas doesn't matter. It's all about the creativity and what you can stir up in that imagination of yours. Your mind is capable of producing so many different scenarios, characters, conversations, metaphors, and so much more. You just have to tap into that creative potential. So, without further ado, I'm going to try my best to give you a comprehensible guide on how to construct a coherent, potent story that will leave an impact on its reader.Note: I am basing pretty much all of this off of the one screenplay I've written, so the way I construct my stories won't be exactly how you will want to construct yours. Creativity is infinitely subjective. I'll probably also be using movies as examples for the most part, as that's where my expertise sits.
The plot of your story is, in essence, the overarching synopsis of what the story is about. It's pretty basic stuff, and it should be able to be comprehensively summarized in about two or three sentences max. A plot can be too convoluted for its own good, and it can also be too simple for its own good. If you're finding that you're balancing too many characters and their subplots, then your plot is probably too difficult for the average reader/viewer to follow, and that doesn't make your plot smarter. Making your plot difficult to follow just makes your story a chore to complete, and it makes you seem like a bad writer. For example, take the plot to The Amazing Spiderman 2. There are a total of three villains in that movie, a love story, and something about Peter Parker's relatives. Those are a lot of subplots for a few writers to balance, and in a 150 minute movie, chances are they aren't going to be able to develop any of them particularly well. Meanwhile, the direction is going to bounce all over these subplots and go from one to the other in a jarring fashion, and the viewer isn't going to find any of them particularly compelling or interesting because of how little they cohere or have been developed. In contrast, a plot can be too simple when there isn't very much developed at all or when you feel like a story hasn't really started by the time you finish it. Take a movie called August, for example. The movie is about a website owner who is flourishing during the early 2000's dotcom bubble, and the gradual falling apart of his life. Sounds interesting, right? Well, the script never really takes him in any interesting places, develops his life, or really gives us a reason to care. All it does is shows how his website is successful, a lot of boring dialogue for an hour, and then his website falls apart and he has to sell it (to David Bowie. I'm not kidding). The movie is 88 minutes long, which is not nearly enough to keep a plot like that afloat. Nevertheless, the script is thin enough to let that plot fall right through, and the end result is a story that's bereft of any stakes, tension, or life.
A good plot consists of a few developed characters (maybe two or three), a problem or several problems that occur within their lives, a means to solve it in some way (or not, not all stories need to end happily) and stakes that are high enough to make the journey tense, but low enough to seem accessible to an audience. A lot of movies make the fatal mistake of making the stakes so big that it fails to seem realistic or relatable to a general audience. Take, really, any summer blockbuster for example. Almost all of them have the possibility of the world ending in some fashion in them, yes? That type of plot is simply not very urgent anymore. If the stakes are raised too high, then audiences can figure out that a writer doesn't have the punch to subvert them and end the entire world (unless, of course, you wrote Knowing) and it's obvious that the day is going to be saved. It's just far too easy to make the stakes that obvious. "Well, nobody wants the world to end, so that makes those stakes as high as possible, right?" While yes, the stakes are technically as high as they can be, that doesn't mean the narrative device is effective. It simply means the writer was too lazy to come up with personal conflicts and just decides "Hey, world is in danger, that's easy."
Your plot doesn't have to be anything complicated, really. The plots to most of the things I write can be summed up in a sentence. Remember, complex does not necessarily equal smart.
Your characters are, by far, the most important part of your story. A lot of people seem to think superficial things like suspense, jokes, or mystery are the most important thing in a piece of writing. While those things certainly are important, they should never take center stage to your characters. These guys are the ones guiding your audience through the world you've created, and if you're leaving your audience with them, you better make them interesting. You want to give your characters development. Your main characters that take up a lot of story time need that extra background, otherwise they simply fall flat. If they aren't given any real traits then how can they be an accurate vessel to tell this story through, and therefore make it really compelling at all? Your primary characters are people your audience will want to latch onto, because if you're just making them a plot device to get from one act to the next, then your entire story is just going to be profoundly boring. If you go watch Birdman you'll see richly developed characters through interesting and entertaining dialogue, and the three main characters we experience the story through are given enough background information to make the entire piece flourish. For example, Riggan Thompson is a washed-up, old movie star who became too egotistical for his own good and lost his Hollywood career. Years later, he wants to rebuild a fraction of that success and even give himself an artistic name, bettering himself. Meanwhile, he deals with his daughter, who is plenty damaged herself, and tries to give her a better life because he feels like he hasn't been there for her enough. He tries to balance all of this while directing, producing, and starring in a play for many people and critics he's trying so hard to impress, and his sanity begins to deteriorate under all of that stress. That is a lot of character development, and he's given such a rich backstory that he's humbled enough for us to relate to and empathize with. He's an actual human being, and the story around him is tragic and, at the same time, humorous. Now, in contrast, let's take Lois Lane from Man of Steel. While I do think Amy Adams is the most attractive being on the planet, unfortunately, her character in that movie can be summed up in a sentence. "Superman's bone toy." That's it. That's all she is. She has no development, no story, nothing to grasp onto, nothing. She's just a person for Superman to have a love story with, and given how she's an integral part of the story near the end, she needs to have a lot more than that. Start small and give yourself two or three characters to develop and build a story around them. Give them backgrounds, maybe ones even you can identify with. Your audience will need something to hang onto, and giving them a real person to empathize with will make the journey all the more compelling for them. It will make your story better, and it will make their reading or viewing of it better. In my screenplay, I only develop three characters, and I think there are less than ten in the story at all. It's easier to start small and then build around that. Don't set your ambitions impossibly high and then try to make something so huge that you crumble under the weight and give up. That's not how you should start out.
It's probably best you steer away from more cliched and conventional ways of developing a character, or giving yourself an easy out. For example, giving a main protagonist a wife and kids is the most overdone way of making a character easy to identify with without giving him any actual background. Don't believe me? Watch World War Z and see if Gerry Lane is given any more backstory than his wife and kids. Maybe that Pepsi commercial near the end of the movie. Maybe that.
The initial incident of a movie is the plot device that kickstarts the whole thing. The entire existence of the plot hinges on the initial incident, and if there is no real initial incident, then the plot kind of falls. An initial incident is, basically, the plot synopsis you see on Rotten Tomatoes. For example, the initial incident for Margaret is Lisa Cohen distracting a bus driver long enough for him to accidentally run over a woman and kill her, which gives license to over three hours of emotional torture and one of the most difficult movies I've ever seen, although it's a masterpiece. There is a way to make the initial incident feel forced and unnatural, however, and that's unfortunately present in Margaret. Lisa, at one point, just says she wants a cowboy hat. She doesn't ever say why, and someone even asks her why she wants a cowboy hat. Her response? "I don't know." The bus driver is wearing a cowboy hat, and that's what sets up the entire initial incident, and therefore the rest of the film. Although Margaret is exquisitely written and one of the best movies I've ever seen, this is pretty bad writing right here. There have to be proper character motivations behind the initial incident and it has to set up the characters and where their story arcs could potentially go. The initial incident has to connect with the characters in some way, and it has to be initiated by some sort of character motivation that seems natural for them. That's right, the characters need to have personalities in order to achieve a proper initial incident. The initial incident can also be arbitrary and lead to characters indulging in darker activities than they normally would. Take Sicario for example. After surviving a warehouse explosion that kills several of her partners, Kate Mancer decides to do whatever it takes to take down the people that killed her friends, even if that means being recruited into a particularly shady CIA operation to infiltrate Juarez and go against her own moral code. An initial incident is something that can easily be done well, as it's a main component of the plot. As long as it gives the characters something to do, is come upon naturally, and drives a compelling story, then you're on your way to something amazing.
Now, for my favorite part of a story, the dialogue. Now, the dialogue isn't necessarily something that needs to be clever or witty, but dialogue is definitely one of the more important parts of a compelling story. Most movies tend to fall apart because of a thin script. Sure, direction can be powerful and characters can be interesting, but unnatural, forced, or expository dialogue can really weigh an audience down and make them feel like the story unfolding in front of them is pretty bland. I know every story can't be Pulp Fiction, and I'm not saying every story has to be Pulp Fiction. Dialogue plays an imperative part of every story, though, and how a character speaks reveals a lot about them. Take The Social Network, for example, one of the best-written movies ever made. The script and dialogue reveals a lot about Zuckerburg and his personality, as well as the personalities of the characters surrounding them. How they phrase their prose is a large part of their character. If dialogue is mostly made up of cliches and boring one-liners, however, things do tend to become very uninteresting and artificial. Dialogue isn't necessarily all about drama or making the story consistently urgent and suspenseful. One of the most famous scenes from Pulp Fiction is a conversation about a burger, for Christ's sake. That has nothing to do with the story at hand, but it's so interesting because of how the characters are written and how they naturally and fluidly bounce off of one another. It's basically a showing off of how a scene about absolutely nothing can be interesting with the right dialogue implemented. Hearing two entertaining people have a conversation is really something that I like to see, and it can either further the story and the characters or take a break from them. The Big Short's script is probably the pinnacle of ADHD filmmaking, and that applies to both its camerawork and its script. The characters deviate so profoundly from their conversations so often it almost becomes quirky (a word I hate to employ) in its funniness. Dialogue is a chance to bring life to your story and really make your characters human. You can't have proper characters without dialogue. Dialogue can be poetic in its construction, like Nebraska, or just natural and fluid like Spotlight. Just let your characters have conversations. That's all. You have conversations every day. Just put yourself into the mind of the character you have constructed and decide what you think they would say in such a position. You are the controller. Make the dialogue natural, fun, and story-progressing. There does come a point where dialogue does become meandering, however, and dialogue-heavy scenes that divert from the main story should be limited and should be sporadically injected in order to provide perhaps a comical relief from the events at hand or to advance character. Leaving subtle character development through dialogue is something I find absolutely brilliant and wish I could pull off without seeming heavy-handed. Make your dialogue beautiful, folks.
The narrative of your story is like your little playtoy. Narratives are meant to be experimented with. Although it's much easier to start out with linear narrative and dive into exploratory ones later, it's actually a lot of fun to experiment with the timelines of your stories. The narrative touchstones of your story are definitely an important part, as much like character and dialogue, these things need to happen naturally. The narrative pieces of your story need to cohere together as a whole and cannot be forced for the sake of wanting to get somewhere else. Most narrative offenses take place in the third act when the writer wants to provide something shocking to the audience in order to make them feel surprised or outdone. Take The Call, for example, which is about a 911 operator who gets a panicked call from a girl who has been kidnapped. The entire movie is about this girl trying to get away and how this woman attempts to help her, and for a long time it's really quite tense. The third act, however, gets very silly. In the third act, the 911 operator personally goes to rescue this girl herself, oh my God what the hell? The ending is absolutely ridiculous and nonsensical, and it makes any of the built up tension from the first two acts completely fall apart. Although I'll get to conclusions a little later, this is how you don't structure your narrative. Narratives are delicate, and you can play and toy with them all you want, but you have to keep it somewhat grounded in humanity. A narrative can either happen in linear fashion, like most stories you've read or seen (beginning, middle, ending) or they've been experimental and toyed around with. Take something like Enemy, for example, which takes place inside the mind of someone with a crippling case of identity disorder. It's never stated that he has this disorder or that it's even a problem, but the way the narrative is presented makes it very clear that not everything is like it seems. It's not told in a typical sequential format and isn't very easy to grasp, either. It takes a few viewings to really understand just what the hell is going on and what everything means. The narrative, however, can be used to bring even more life to your characters and stories. Enemy is told from the perspective of its confused and mentally ill protagonist, and that's why it's constructed in such an unconventional and strange way. You're meant to reach the end of the film just as confused as the protagonist has been the entire story. Now, that's a little ambitious to start out with your first or second story, so I wouldn't bother with experimental storytelling for a long time. Just stick to the conventional linear stuff and make sure that everything flows naturally and cleanly. Don't make your 911 operator go and personally rescue a girl just to turn your slow-burning suspense movie into a poorly made action romp for 40 minutes, you hear me?
Comedy is difficult. Because of its endlessly subjective nature, there is no real right-or-wrong way to go about writing comedy. Except, there definitely is. While comedy is subjective, there is an unsaid way of writing it the "right" way. Sure, it's a subjective concept and different styles appeal to different people, but there is a certain audience that needs to be tapped into while writing comedy. Everyone knows there's a ridiculously large range of comedy. It streams all the way from bottom-of-the-barrel Adam Sandler movies to the comedic chops of Aaron Sorkin's The Social Network script. Comedy, at least in my eyes, is all about wit and dialogue. I've already discussed the importance of dialogue, but I really can't stress it enough. Physical comedy, normally, doesn't work. There's nothing to explore with physical comedy. Fart jokes, poop jokes, pee jokes, people getting hit in the nuts jokes... all rote, tired, and aggressively unfunny. No matter what way you spin it, a poop joke will never be funny. They are lazy gags used to get easy laughs out of a group of people with a less-than-stellar mental capacity. That might sound critical, but think about how easy it is to write a pee joke. You just write that a person pees. That's the joke. No context, no setup. Just a bodily function. How easy was that? Let's center an entire movie around it and call it Grown Ups! God, what a terrible movie. Do you see my point? It's so silly and terrible to just center a script around jokes like that. They barely even qualify as jokes! There are two ways, as I see it, to go about comedy: Clever satire and dialogue. Something like Borat is just one big satire and it actually has something to say about American culture and uses occasional physical gags to achieve this end, but the physical gags aren't written for easy laughs. It will probably entertain that audience, but that's not the point. Borat criticizes ignorant American assumptions about other cultures and preys upon it to unsuspecting people. Conversely, something like Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang uses dialogue to achieve comedy. It is really one of the funniest things I've seen in a while, and there are almost no physical gags or cheap laughs. They all come from an incredibly well-written script and believable, endlessly witty dialogue. It's merely characters interacting with one another and it's extremely funny. Same with In Bruges. In Bruges is a comedy centered around two characters, and for most of the movie, they just talk, and the comedy is so absurdist and witty that I laugh so often at it. It actually takes a great writer to reach comedy of this level, since In Bruges is one of the few movies I've seen that gave me real belly-laughs. I can't tell you how to write dialogue like this, because I don't know how. But this is what you should be shooting for. Not lazy pee jokes, not people getting hit in the crotch. Give substance to your jokes; context. Build your jokes and then execute them. Jokes are precious parts of writing, and they need as much tender love as the rest of your story. You're not going to get mass appeal by making fart jokes. Build actual humor around your story. If you cannot come up with anything except pee jokes, then perhaps writing isn't your strong suit.
I might be getting a little ambitious here, but incorporating metaphors and symbolism into writing is something I've seen a lot of people want to do, and I have to say, it's pretty difficult. Truthfully, I think this is something that should be saved for a lot later once you've mastered the more elementary parts of storytelling. Metaphors and symbolism are pretty difficult and are something I don't even think I have done very well in my storytelling. The most I've done is separate two divorcing people via a glass panel, and I learned that I accidentally plagiarized that from the last shot of A Separation. If you are really interested in trying out your hand at an artful story with a subtle message to tell through images and other narrative devices, PM me with your ideas. I'd love to have a discussion about this. I'm not an English teacher (yet) and I cannot go through all of the devices and subtleties of literature and film with you, because I do not know them. I do know that it's a subject worth discussing and discovering, and although I don't have much to share with you on a basic level here, I do think it's something you should dive into and try. It's, quite honestly, a lot of fun to try.
Implementing commentary into your writing is a bit of a difficult beast. If you reach a point where you feel comfortable telling basic stories without any real ties, then this is a pretty good first step into more layered writing. Throwing in social commentary into writing pieces is pretty varied; sometimes it's heavy-handed and obvious (The Purge, The Hunger Games) and sometimes it's very subtle and nuanced (Apocalypse Now, Children of Men). It's a very difficult tightrope to walk upon, because while you might think you're subtle with how you insert real-life commentary into your work, you might accidentally punch your reader/viewer in the face with it. An easy way to insert subtle commentary is to not make it the focus or subject of your story. In something like The Purge, the message it's trying to convey is already painfully obvious from the premise, but writer/director James DeMonaco repeatedly dropkicks you with his political views. Besides the main message regarding how the wealthy treat the poor, he tries to implement his own views on the world's glorification of violence. He creates his world with constant hostility and perpetual violence in an attempt to satirize how we, as a culture, appear to celebrate it. By doing this, however, he produces the exact opposite effect and draws in the crowd he's attempting to criticize. His message not only falls on deaf ears but he actively contributes to what he despises. DeMonaco's use of commentary is clunky and fails at what it's trying to do. Conversely, Children of Men talks about themes of gender roles and heterosexuality, albeit in a very subtle fashion. The entire movie is about the control of the only pregnant woman in the entire world, and the film tries to convey the fallacies behind trying to control a woman and her body. The four (or five?) writers try to paint one woman as a microcosm for all women and their bodies, specifically when they are pregnant. This isn't really noticed upon a first viewing because it's never directly stated or hinted at. It's prevalent throughout the entire film, sure, but it's never spoon-fed to you. It's merely implied, and its horrifying implications are even more disturbing because of how quietly the message resonates with an audience. The idea is to carefully weave what you have to say into the story, instead of creating a story to say something. If you create a story that only serves to sermonize the audience, they will feel insulted and pandered to and it will not stick with them on any level. Quietly disturb your audience, and your story will soar.
Now, for the most difficult part of basic storytelling, the conclusion. Concluding a story is a massive beast, not just because you have to find a way to efficiently and naturally end your tale, but you have to make it compelling and effective. The conclusion is the last thing that is going to be on your audience's mind when they finish your story, and you better make it pretty damn good if you're going to make it memorable. There are a few different ways to end your story. You can either nicely tie up all of your character's arcs and make for something soppy, saccharine, and loose (like most widely-released Hollywood joints), you can make a happy ending for some, a sad ending for others, you can make a devastating ending that is bad for all characters, or you can make an ambiguous ending. Most of these types of conclusions are straightforward, but the ambiguous ending is the one that seems to confuse most people. Ambiguity, as an art form, is the act of ending a story on a note where few or none of the arcs are resolved and is left to audience interpretation. A lot of movies I've seen end this way, one of which is pictured above, The Revenant. I won't spoil the ending for you, but I am one of the few that adore the last shot of this film and its ending, although a lot of people despise it because they perceive it as hokey and unrealistic, which is fine. Ending a story this way is probably the most difficult to do, because it's kind of a natural instinct for us to tie everything in a nice bow because storytelling is a form of escapism for most of us. Sour endings tend to get people up in arms and upset, and are by far the most panned form of conclusion to a story. Take Knowing or The Box for example. Both of these movies end in a way that's bad for the protagonists and these are the parts people point to when they say they are a bad movie. I don't think ending a story in this fashion is particularly wrong, however. I find it bold and daring to end a story on a sour note, because a tragedy is a comedy extended for a little longer. If a story ends on a happy note, sooner or later it becomes a tragedy off-screen, so it's quite brave to show that extension to audiences everywhere.
I'm veering a little off-course here. Basically, you reach your conclusion whenever you feel you have sufficiently rounded off your characters' arcs and made all of your arguments, points, and storytelling points complete. Whether you do at right at the end of a scene and cut to black or make it a long show like The Return of the King and drag on for a half-hour and then slowly fade to black, it's up to you. The conclusion is the most fun part of the story to write and I'd like to leave it up to you guys to figure out how you want your stories to end. There are a few terrible ways of ending your story, however, like I discussed above. There is a movie called The Forgotten about a mother who loses her son. Nobody knows her son existed and everyone thinks the woman is crazy for having a son. Turns out, it was aliens. I'm not kidding. It was aliens. Obviously, that's a lazy, terrible, and honestly offensive way to conclude your admittedly fascinating mystery tale. Don't aim to shock your audience or try to outsmart them. End your tale naturally, like you think the story would really end. The entire idea behind creative writing is to make it as human and relatable as possible. Don't try to pull the rug from under your audience and say that's the purpose of your writing, because that may make it fun for you, but it will also drastically deteriorate the quality of your story and leave audiences with a bitter taste in their mouth after consuming it.
I think that's all I have to say for now, but I will be sure to update this thread if I think of anything else. If you have a story or anything you'd like to share with me, don't be afraid to PM me. I love creative writing, and I'm aiming to be a Hollywood screenwriter when I'm older, so it's kind of a passion for me at this point. I'd love to review and critique your stories and just find out what kind of creative writer you are. Creativity is the most entertaining form of art there is, so embrace it.
Bonus points if you can name every movie used in the images.