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Procedurals! Sitcoms! and Pixar! Oh My!

By: Jess Canty

Some final thoughts for you on story structure from some resources I trust. I know that I have been talking mostly about movies – but the fact of the matter is, a good story is a good story.

For another way to look at this check out another one of my faves Michael Hague – he has a great book on pitching your screenplay, but I also like how he distills the 3-act structure into the Six-Stage Structure.

In general, know that the principles of structure of dramatic writing I have shared with you over the last few weeks apply across all mediums and genres.

Don’t believe me? Then check out Geoff Harris’ breakdown of the Breaking Bad Pilot – using the Save the Cat beats.

The page counts may be different, but all of the beats are there. And that is why this show took off like a rocket from the first episode.

Now, that being said, I don’t want to discount that there ARE tricks of the trade for each specific kind of TV writing. And it is good to know how the principles of structure apply to each.

Think you’re right for procedurals? Good! You’ll probably be guaranteed work for the rest of your life since they don’t appear to be getting tired of producing them. Get to know the unique way the beats are employed for this kind of TV writing by checking out Jennifer Dornbush’s 16 Plot Points.

Love TV Sitcom? It lost its way for a minute there, and maybe its because a lot of writers forgot the keys to a great sitcom. It is making its way back onto TV, – so get to know this form! Check out Noah Charney’s Atlantic article about the Sitcom Code.

I know all of this structure stuff can feel like I am taking the fun out of all of this. But I promise you – once you get this into your bones, it actually brings you to a NEW level of fun about this industry, storytelling and your place within that.

I said to someone recently, what writers must do is create the coloring book from scratch and then color within it. The structure is the lines on the page within which the characters and dialogue are shaded in. And then the actors, director, cinematographer, wardrobe, editors and composers continue to color it in.

And I want you to feel inspired by it. GREAT use of structure gets me excited. I nerd out when they hit every single beat. I can talk for hours about big expensive movies miss the mark (if you really want to hear me rant sometime, just ask my opinion of Christopher Nolan’s original screenplays). And I love it when a filmmaker is so good, knows structure SO well that they can seemingly abandon it – ahem Quentin Tarrantino’s Hateful 8.

So I want to leave you with something that I read every time I’m feeling stuck. Every time I am going to start something new. And every time I am facing my 10th re-write and feel like I can’t possibly find another draft in what I have written.

The following are compiled from a number of tweets from Emma Coats – a Pixar storyboard artist who compiled these thoughts after working at the studio:

  1. You admire a character for trying more than for their successes.

  2. You gotta keep in mind what’s interesting to you as an audience, not what’s fun to do as a writer. They can be v. different.

  3. Trying for theme is important, but you won’t see what the story is actually about til you’re at the end of it. Now rewrite.

  4. Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___.

  5. Simplify. Focus. Combine characters. Hop over detours. You’ll feel like you’re losing valuable stuff but it sets you free.

  6. What is your character good at, comfortable with? Throw the polar opposite at them. Challenge them. How do they deal?

  7. Come up with your ending before you figure out your middle. Seriously. Endings are hard, get yours working up front.

  8. Finish your story, let go even if it’s not perfect. In an ideal world you have both, but move on. Do better next time.

  9. When you’re stuck, make a list of what WOULDN’T happen next. Lots of times the material to get you unstuck will show up.

  10. Pull apart the stories you like. What you like in them is a part of you; you’ve got to recognize it before you can use it.

  11. Putting it on paper lets you start fixing it. If it stays in your head, a perfect idea, you’ll never share it with anyone.

  12. Discount the 1st thing that comes to mind. And the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th – get the obvious out of the way. Surprise yourself.

  13. Give your characters opinions. Passive/malleable might seem likable to you as you write, but it’s poison to the audience.

  14. Why must you tell THIS story? What’s the belief burning within you that your story feeds off of? That’s the heart of it.

  15. If you were your character, in this situation, how would you feel? Honesty lends credibility to unbelievable situations.

  16. What are the stakes? Give us reason to root for the character. What happens if they don’t succeed? Stack the odds against.

  17. No work is ever wasted. If it’s not working, let go and move on - it’ll come back around to be useful later.

  18. You have to know yourself: the difference between doing your best & fussing. Story is testing, not refining.

  19. Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.

  20. Exercise: take the building blocks of a movie you dislike. How d’you rearrange them into what you DO like?

  21. You gotta identify with your situation/characters, can’t just write ‘cool’. What would make YOU act that way?

  22. What’s the essence of your story? Most economical telling of it? If you know that, you can build out from there.

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