Category Archives: advice

3 Ways to Write Better Poetry

So you’re a poet who wants to improve your craft. Maybe you’re a writer who’s thinking about making the jump into poetry. Or maybe you’re a creative person looking for a new way to express yourself.

Whoever you are, wherever you are in your life’s journey, welcome to poetry.

Poetry is a powerful, timeless art form unlike any other. It twists and conforms language into unusual combinations to deliver meaning and expand our perspective of the world.

What is a poem?

A poem is whatever it wants to be. When someone says “poetry is ____” they destroy the essence of a poem. If that’s the case, then how do you define a “poem”?

A poem is a brush stroke on an empty canvas.

A poem is a gust of summer breeze that clutches your hair on its way to the north pole.

A poem is a mud puddle.

A poem is a falling leaf.

A poem is the first sip of a fresh beverage.

A poem is a broken pencil covered in dog sh*t on the sidewalk.

A poem is whatever you want it to be.

How to write better poetry

Now that we know what a poem is, let’s get down to brass tacks: how to write better poetry.

I could tell you to go out and experiment with poetic forms , classic rhyming poetry and modern free verse poetry, but you can learn how to do that from anywhere.

Instead, let’s take a look at three strategies that have served me well in my personal journey as a writer, both in terms of growth and getting poems published.

Want to read some of my published poems? Check it out.

1. Describe around something

This technique is one of the most helpful for a poet. The idea here is to describe something without ever directly labeling it for what it is. In labeling something, you diminish it only to the 1- or 2-dimensional image conjured by the label’s name.

For example, try describing a tree without using the words “tree,” “wood”, “forest,” or “bark”—much like what we did in the What is a poem? section above.

Try it out, see where it leads you. Surprise yourself with what you get.

In the following poem by Erin Cunningham (used with permission), the poet describes a river without using the words “river,” “stream,” or “water.” The subject matter is only labeled in the title, but not in the body itself.

American River, North Fork
by Erin Cunningham

foam tents tumble down
	the forest’s snake

ice scurries through my
	toes, my fingers

immersed with angled stones,
	silt, sand shimmers

spent sun paints your road white
	like gems, it glitters

how your calm rinses city’s stain,
	the stink of stress and toil

what wonders wait around
	your emerald elbow

what secret snakes, minnows,
	bears, hawks hide?

will golden flecks settle
	in slick palms?

will my feet sink
	into her bed

become her loam?

perhaps I’ll build a roof
	upon her beachy banks

retire from all societal care
	my mind made smooth

as her whispering rhythm

but with daylight’s eclipse
	Monday is waiting

Note how, at the very end, she gives the poem an additional layer of meaning that makes us re-examine the entire poem with a new perspective.

2. Write write write, then cut cut cut

This is another powerful technique to add to your poetic toolbelt. After you’ve written your poem, go through and cut all unnecessary words. Then go through it and cut out even more. Small words like articles and prepositions and even many adjectives should be at the top of the list.

Now cut out even more words. Chop down each line to just the bones.

And then cut it again.

Cut beyond what you’re comfortable with and see what’s left (remember, you can always add words back in).

Experiment with using punctuation, white space, formatting, and placement on the page to enhance your minimalist poem and replace eliminated words.

As with technique #1, you’ll surprise yourself.

For example, let’s take the four-line stanza:

When the lightning rod stands upright
defiant in the weather, unbreakable femur bone
against the rain, you are thunder’s shivering spear
strike deep, Thor’s arrow, find your mark!

And cut cut cut, then cut some more. Until we get the much leaner, more modern:

lightning rod
weather bone
thunder's spear
strike deep

Has a completely different feel, doesn’t it?

You don’t have to write every poem like this—you don’t have to write any poem like this—but it’s a good technique to master to help improve your poetic craft.

Less is more.

3. Imitate another poet

Life imitates art. Art imitates life. Poets imitate poets. There’s nothing wrong with this. In fact, many poets find themselves so inspired by a poem that they simply must write a poem of their own to celebrate the original.

In this technique, you will use an existing poet’s style or individual poem as a jumping-off point for your own.

Look to the poem in question as you write, following the phrase structure, line length, punctuation, topic—whatever you feel in the moment—as you go.

Here are a few helpful tips to get you started:

  • Use the same number of words or syllables per line.
  • Follow the same phrase structure, but change the text itself.
  • Start the poem by replacing words with antonyms.
  • Copy the shape, lines per stanza, or length of lines.
  • Write your poem on the same subject but with a different perspective.
  • Contradict the original with a direct rebuttal.

You may find that halfway through this exercise your poem has taken on a life of its own. That’s wonderful! Feel free to leave the original poem behind as you explore your own poem’s life.

How to become a better poet

Write. Keep writing. Continue writing every day, all the time, forever and into infinity.

Even if no one ever reads half of your work, every new poem brings you one step closer to becoming a stronger poet. Practice makes perfect, right?

In addition to writing, seek to explore new forms, styles, and subject matter. Instead of just imitating the greats, try perusing published works in several of the hundreds of online poetry journals out there. You’ll get a lot out of the amazing and daring poetry you find there on the cutting edge. Besides, there are too many under-celebrated poets out there.

In the meantime, we are always growing. Life is a process of becoming. We are always becoming better poets.

Never stop writing!

5 Simple Tricks to Improve Your Descriptions (and Become a Better Writer)

One area where many writers struggle is with writing prose descriptions. This is understandable since description is the bread and butter of storytelling. And yet writing good description can also be tenaciously challenging.

There is no tried-and-true formula for writing “good” descriptions. Think of it more like writing what’s appropriate for the tone, voice, genre, and action of the story. In The Sun Also Rises, considered one of the great works of 20th-century literature, Ernest Hemingway wrote his description simply, sparingly, and unadorned. Compare that to another classic, Moby Dick by Herman Melville, where the author goes on for page after page just to describe a painting.

That said, you don’t have to be a Hemingway or a Melville to write good description. Here are five simple tricks anyone can use to level up their writing game and become a more effective storyteller:

1. Don’t name it, describe it instead.

Seems obvious, right? It’s less obvious than it sounds. It’s also a very simple trick to write more engaging, more interesting (and more artistic) prose descriptions. The idea here is to not name the subject being described. Instead, you will say anything and everything but naming what it is (this is also an excellent—and fun!—writing exercise).

Let’s take the example of a zombie. “Zombie” is a great example because in naming the subject a “zombie,” you automatically conjure a one-dimensional abstract idea in the mind of the audience, which both cheapens its impact and forces you to work harder to overcome biases or preconceived ideas about what a zombie is, does, and should be like.

Instead, we can describe what the zombie looks like (pale skin rife with infected sores), how our senses perceive the zombie (a wave of sickeningly sweet stench assaults my nose, triggering my gag reflex), or what it does (stumbling forward like a baby deer, unsteady on its legs)—all without having to use the literal word “zombie.” (Don’t worry, audiences are smart. They’ll get it.)

Another way to think of it: How do your characters experience the situation? How about: Here is a dead, rotting human being that is somehow impossibly moving around me. And I recognize their face. Am I sure they’re even dead? Are they diseased? I can see splintered bone through a hole in its skin. I think I’m going to be sick. How do you stop this thing? Et cetera.

Compare that to describing the subject as a “Zombie”—a light term, a funhouse idea, something you see in movies. What a difference, right?

2. Avoid abstractions.

Piggybacking off #1 in the list, avoiding abstractions is another easy way to write better description. An “abstraction” is any word that is open-ended in its interpretation, and therefore lacking in concrete detail. Think of words like “perfection” or “good” or “beautiful.” Sure, you can use these words and the audience will understand what you mean in a general sense. But each person will see “perfection” or “beauty”—and even “good”—very differently. Poets avoid abstractions like they’re on fire. Maybe they’re onto something.

Like #1, you are essentially avoiding the abstract word (“zombie” is abstract, but not necessarily an abstraction) and instead describing the specific things that add up to that abstraction. If we are describing a new character as “perfect,” instead jot down a list of descriptors, characteristics, aspects, or behaviors that make you think of “perfect.” Guess what? String those together and you’ve just written a better description than simply writing “perfect.”

For example, if we are describing a sculpture, “perfect” could be replaced with statements like marble so smooth and intricately detailed that it resembled real cloth you could touch and move with the slightest breath, or swooping inward at such a meticulously symmetrical angle, or bewelled about its mouth with emeralds and rubies and other precious stones, each as clear as a mountain stream and free from defect. The list goes on.

As with #1, we described around the abstract idea without using the abstraction itself. The end result is description that’s far more vivid.

3. Be specific.

You’ve probably noticed a recurring theme there. Superb descriptions have one thing in common: specificity. The best descriptions aren’t too vague, abstract, or general. They use specific details. In this case, we mean being really specific. It’s hard to over-emphasize just how effective this tactic can be in getting an image across.

Specific is concrete. Specific is unique. Specific conveys an idea with as little wiggle room as possible for misinterpretation. In addition, highly specific descriptions tend to stick in the audience’s mind and imply a much greater level of information on top of that. In short, it packs a punch.

Let’s say we’re describing a character’s midlife crisis. There are endless ways to do that. One thing to avoid is vagueness. It’s a big feeling with a lot of factors that go into it.

Compare:

She was having a midlife crisis.

to:

She felt like her life amounted to a bug splattered sideways on the windshield of an old rusty pickup truck, which was then retired to a dilapidated barn and left to gather dust.

Obviously, one of those descriptions is way more specific. Think about how much more information that “bug splatter” description delivers compared to the plain “midlife crisis” sentence. Remember, not everyone in the audience will understand what it’s like to experience a midlife crisis, or will have had exactly the same experience as the character. Being specific helps illuminate the unfamiliar.

4. Use uncommon words (occasionally).

Building on what we learned in trick #3, one way to help your descriptions be more specific is to pepper in the occasional uncommon word. This doesn’t mean hunt down the most obscure word you can find and jam it into the text (hint: that usually doesn’t help—it’s akin to using an abstraction). Instead, try grabbing a few of the more unusual words out there to help your description stand out. You’d be surprised at just how many words readers know.

For example, let’s say we are describing a stranger that looks exactly like someone our character already knows. Instead of saying the stranger looked exactly like someone I know or they could be their doppelganger, you can be more specific by describing the stranger as a flesh-and-blood simulacrum of my childhood best friend, [insertnamehere]. Not only are we being specific, but dropping the uncommon word, “simulacrum,” into the description makes the event less mundane and much more mystical.

Uncommon words are also a great addition to a character’s dialogue to help differentiate them from the rest of the cast. If you elect to go this route, I strongly suggest not adding it to every character’s dialogue unless you’re going for a certain effect.

5. Paint the picture, but don’t belabor the point.

Here’s a trick from screenwriting that I wish every writer knew. One of the most mind-boggling parts about writing description is: What do I describe and how much?

Good question.

The answer is simpler than you think: You don’t have to describe everything. In fact, it’s better that you don’t. Description slows pacing and holds little weight compared to other narrative elements, like conflict or creating memorable trailer moments.

So how do you “paint the picture” with description?

First, let’s start by pointing out that all the tricks we’ve talked about up to this point feed into this one tactic. You will use #1-#4 to accomplish this, but especially #3. 

I mentioned screenwriting. When you’re writing a movie or TV script, you have so little space to communicate information that every phrase must carry maximum impact. Do you remember when we described a character’s midlife crisis as a bug splattered on a windshield? (If not, it’s time to revisit the description back in #3.) That’s the start of painting the picture. Using that very descriptive sentence, we create a crisp, concrete sense of emotion, mindset, and imagery.

In a screenplay, we could end it there. But if you are working in a more word-heavy medium like narrative fiction, then you can use that line as the start of painting a more complete picture. Maybe we don’t have to go into every single detail that led to the midlife crisis. However, we can support that initial description by adding supporting statements that give specifics. Again, not everything, just a few brushstrokes to get the point across, help us understand the character, their current emotional state, and the situation. And we will do so using every trick we have at our disposal.

For example’s sake, we’ll follow up our sentence, “She felt like her life amounted to a bug splattered sideways on the windshield of an old rusty pickup truck, which was then retired to a dilapidated barn and left to gather dust,” with three descriptive statements about the most salient items in the character’s mind that lead her to this feeling.

Maybe she feels the cavity in her soul, an aching in the deepest recesses of her body and spirit because of the death of her daughter (I know, dark). She feels like a songbird caught in a birdcage and the owner has gone away, never to return. And most recently, her latest art gallery opening was a disastrous flop—only five tickets sold and even the gallery owner got drunk and passed out after one-too-many back-room martinis.

Even if we wrote nothing else about the situation, the audience would at least get a strong sense of where this character is in her life, how she is feeling right now, and also pick up on a tone that mixes both tragedy and comedy. And we only had to write four short descriptions. Magic!

The Bottom Line

Good description doesn’t happen by accident (okay, maybe sometimes it does). It takes hard work to write descriptions that connect with the audience, create a clear sense of the subject, and convey the writer’s intention. Yes, there are other ways to continue improving your ability other than writing description. And also yes, description isn’t the only part that matters in storytelling. But learning to write poignant description is a surefire way to improve your overall skill as a writer.

That’s it for now. Never stop writing!

Do you have thoughts? Questions? Contemplations? Share in the comments below or message me on Twitter: @storyscience.

Why Does Success or Failure Matter? A Quick and Easy Guide to Creating Stakes in Storytelling

Let’s start at the beginning—

What Are Stakes?

Stakes are what a character stands to lose if they fail, or if they don’t do something. But more than that, stakes are the why.

What about motivation, you ask? Motivation is also a why, isn’t it? Yes! But stakes create that motivation.

If a character doesn’t have a reason to do something, then they aren’t motivated. When that character acts without being motivated to do so, we don’t understand why the character is doing what they do. It ends up feeling forced or contrived.

However, knowing what’s at stake if they don’t act gives that character a reason to move forward—because the alternative (not taking action) is worse.

In story terms, stakes are why something matters—decisions, complications, obstacles, plot points, etc.

Why Are Stakes Important?

Without stakes, you can’t have those big pivotal moments where the hero makes a choice between Option A and Option B. Stakes crystallize why a reluctant hero must rise to the challenge to take on a difficult task because what they stand to lose if they don’t take action is worse. Stakes are why the hero can’t just walk away from the people relying on him/her/them and take the easy way out.

What If My Story Doesn’t Have Stakes?

If you don’t know already, I’m a story consultant. All too often, I see screenplays, novels or tabletop game materials that are missing stakes.

This lack of stakes will tank your story’s impact in a number of ways:

  • The audience won’t understand your characters’ motivations.
  • The audience won’t invest in your characters or your story.
  • The audience will feel like the plot has not point.
  • The audience will come away feeling like the story was a waste of time.

Stakes make the decisions and actions of the characters matter. Stakes are why we invest in the protagonist and their success. As we, the audience, bond with those characters, their success or failure becomes ours.

Yikes.

Nobody wants that.

How Do I Put Stakes in My Story?

Once you know how stakes fit into the narrative formula, it’s actually quite simple. The easy place to start is in terms of “life and death” because the outcome of success (life) or failure (death) is so concrete. That’s your starting point.

Next, let’s abstract that idea to character growth (“life”) or character death (“death”). Characters must continue to grow and develop or they become stagnant, which is “character death” from a narrative perspective.

A character that ceases to grow is for all intents and purposes “dead.” If your protagonist has become stagnant, something must happen to make them grow again. Nobody wants to follow a protagonist that stays narratively dead. Instead, they want to experience a character moving forward in growth, meaning success or “life” in the narrative.

Many movies start out with the protagonist “stuck” in a status quo that does not allow them to grow, motivating a need for change but unable to move forward without the inciting incident that will change everything.

A protagonist who finds themselves in a dead-end job and marriage has died, proverbially or narratively. But then some spark suddenly introduces itself and they now have the opportunity to grow again—to choose “life.” Or, the protagonist can remain where they are by choosing “death.” (Think American Beauty.)

Some people find it helpful to think of the “life” part of stakes as the character’s “way of life.” That is, the way of life that is best for the character, usually involving growth or moving forward in some way.

Faced with the two choices, the protagonist is motivated to choose growth (“life”) on the new path. But there will be obstacles along the way that block the protagonist’s path, threatening to send the character back into stagnancy (“death”). If the character overcomes the obstacle, they succeed and move on, continuing to grow. Failure means a setback (if the stakes are lower). Later in the story, when the stakes are high enough, failure means a return to death.

So a rough formula might look something like this:

Stakes > Motivates Action/Decision > Character Proactively Acts/Decides > Faces Obstacle > Fails or Succeeds

If Succeed > Raise Stakes

If Fail > “Character Death”

Tips for Putting Stakes in Your Story

Here are a few quick tips to help you put stakes in your story:

  1. The stakes must be clear, always.
  2. The stakes must be big enough to motivate action or decision.
  3. Don’t go too long without reminding the audience what’s at stake.
  4. The strongest stakes confront characters with “death”—metaphorical, proverbial, or literal.
  5. Start small, go big. Use that contrast to create a sense of rising conflict.
  6. You can always go bigger.
  7. Can you lower the stakes? Only if other, bigger stakes present themselves.
  8. Once an obstacle is overcome, raise the stakes (repeat as needed).
  9. Use other characters to illustrate the consequence of failure (i.e., the stakes).
  10. Use antagonists to actively work against the protagonist, enforcing the stakes.
  11. Your antagonists have stakes, too. What motivates them to succeed over the protagonist?
  12. Use escalation and counter-escalation to continually raise the stakes.

Making It Matter: Examples of How Stakes Work

Let’s say we have a male character that runs a business. He is motivated to complete a big project for his biggest client. He’s operating a business, after all. But that motivation alone is not very strong. Knowing why he wants to complete the project strengthens that motivation significantly. We add that “why” with stakes.

Here’s how we might do that:

  • The project is on a tight deadline.
  • It requires his entire workforce.
  • If he fails to deliver the project at high quality and on time, he may lose that client forever.
  • If he loses his biggest client, his struggling business will fold, and everyone will lose their jobs.
  • The business owner will lose the business he built from the ground up for more than 40 years.

If the audience knows those five whys—what the stakes are for failure—the owner’s motivation suddenly becomes a helluva lot more powerful. Because we know the whys, as the audience, we invest in that character’s success and want him to succeed. He knows the stakes, too, driving him forward. The more the character wants to succeed, the more the audience will want it for him.

Raising the Stakes

Throughout your story, there should be a general rise in the stakes. At each obstacle or plot point, you can “raise the stakes.” When you raise the stakes, you are adding more to what your character will lose if they fail. It not only fuels motivation so they don’t give up when faced when bigger and harder obstacles, but keeps the story interesting and the audience invested. By the time you reach the big climax in act three, the stakes should be at the highest possible point.

The simplest way to raise the stakes is to throw in a new complication. After all, you can’t sit on the same stakes forever or the audience will get bored. Adding a complication, bump, or obstacle in the protagonist’s goal-seeking puts pressure on the character, making it harder to achieve that goal. Again, the stakes make all of that matter.

How much can you raise the stakes? All the way! But keep it appropriate to the world of your story.

For example, you can go: Loss of face > loss of status > loss of livelihood > loss of life > loss of family’s life > loss of country > loss of world > loss of universe > loss of time and existence.

However, going all the way to the “loss of time and existence” may be too  big to be appropriate for your story. A smaller, character-oriented story will run on a smaller scale than a big action sci-fi story. But, as with the narrative character “life” and “death” concept, the “loss of time an existence” can be expressed in metaphorical terms in relation to the character. For example, our business owner may feel this way about the loss of his business.

Speaking of which….

Example of Raising the Stakes

Let’s return to the example of the business owner:

Time to throw in something new—a complication to the business owner’s goal. He discovers one of his employees is stealing from him, jeopardizing the project. If it continues, the project won’t be completed on time and the business owner risks losing money, the client, his business, and more.

To overcome the obstacle, the business owner proactively confronts the employee, who responds by threatening to frame the owner for fraud—raising the stakes.

How does this raise the stakes? Now the stakes are bigger than before: The business owner stands to lose his biggest client, business, livelihood, the livelihood of his employees, and he’s in danger of losing his reputation and going to prison.

We can do this in other ways, too:

The business could burn down, or the client pulls their order without paying at the last minute, or the employees stage a walkout because of the long hours they’ve been working. Maybe all of these complications happen, adding pressure to the business owner and illustrating for the audience how close to failure the protagonist is.

In the third act, the stakes may inflate to their biggest size yet.

Maybe the business is a small biotech research laboratory. An insider from his client reveals that if the lab can’t deliver this order on time, they won’t be able to contain a dangerous pandemic. The stakes jump from loss of livelihood and reputation to global life and death.

Whew!

Without stakes, none of it would matter.

There’s an added bonus in working out the stakes for your story. Did you notice how, in doing that, we inadvertently (but deliberately) outlined an entire story and all its major turning points? And what a dramatic story it is!

If you are struggling with structuring our outlining the major beats or plot points of your story, consider looking to the stakes and seeing if that helps you get over that hump to reach the finish line.

10 Tips for Writing That TV Pilot

So you want to write your own television show. Great!

Before you commit to writing the pilot episode for your brand-new TV show, why don’t you take a look at these 10 helpful tips for writing that TV pilot that will make your writing life a little bit easier.

1. Prepare to Invest

Many people jump right into writing episode one—the pilot for a brand-new show—thinking, “Hey, this will be WAY easier than writing that new novel of mine, or taking all that time to write a feature-length screenplay.”

Reality check: It isn’t.

In fact, developing a good TV pilot can be the hardest and most involved of all three, even though the end result may only look like 40-60 pages from the outside. This is because when you write a pilot, you aren’t just writing the script for episode one; you are creating a whole new concept with complex characters, multiple story threads, with as many setups and ideas for future episodes as possible. When someone reads your pilot script, they will only be reading the tip of the iceberg, not the vast amount of backend work that went into producing those measly few pages.

2. The Concept Must KILL

Before you really dig into your show, take enough time to make the concept air-tight. What do we mean by “concept”? The concept is a fleshed-out version of the core idea for your TV show—the idea that makes your show different from every other show out there.

If your concept is clear, it should be obvious what makes your show different from others and also make someone want to watch the show itself. For example, “ER for women” was a successful concept that became Grey’s Anatomy, based on the success of an already existing show but with a new angle. Lost created appeal through the concept alone: A group of strangers become lost after crash landing on a mysterious island inhabited by strange forces, but while surviving on the island, each character finds individual purpose after having been “lost” in their personal lives back home.

That said, make the concept grab the audience’s attention. For example, don’t just write an alien invasion show. It’s been done many times and hasn’t been successful. But if you want to write an alien invasion show where humankind is the invader—now that’s an interesting twist people can get behind.

3. Legs: The Show Must Go On

For American television, “legs” are very, very important. What do we mean by legs? “Legs” refers to the potential episodes the show can produce in the long-term based on the concept. A more open-ended concept typically offers more “legs.” A closed concept with one specific, attainable goal offers less of a future (if any).

With that in mind, part of what your pilot must do is setup the long-term future of the show—the “legs.” My Name Is Earl did this by using a wide-open concept with no foreseeable limitations (his list of wrongs to “right” can be as long as the sun, for all we know). A show about thieves planning a heist is problematic in that the goal is far too easy to reach. Once they’ve reached their goal, where does the show go from there? Breaking Bad solved this by always creating a bigger goal for the protagonist to achieve once (or even before) the old has been solved.

4. Know Your Audience

This should go without saying, but it comes up far too often to leave out. If the show doesn’t have a clear or specific audience in mind, then it will not be successful. Shows like Grey’s Anatomy, Pretty Little Liars and Stranger Things nail their audience targeting. Now imagine if Pretty Little Liars was written to target 30-something males…it would have bombed. The mid-2000s remake of Battlestar Galactica tried to rope in a wider female audience by focusing on romance in later seasons, and the result turned the show into a soap opera in space—disappointing original and the new audiences alike. The moral of the story? Yup, you guessed it: Know your audience.

5. Characters Are Everything, Protagonist More So

While characters are the heart and soul of any story, in television, they are the most important element. The cast needs to do more than survive the pilot. They will be responsible for carrying the show long-term. Above and beyond that, the central protagonist needs to be the most interesting of all, fleshed out with enough potential new material to keep audiences coming back episode after episode, season after season. If your characters don’t have enough setups in the pilot, they won’t be interesting enough to carry a second episode. Remember, anything that applies to the characters counts doubly so for the protagonist.

6. Include Act Breaks

In the modern age of commercial-free Internet streaming, writers sometimes think their pilot scripts should also be act-free (act breaks are where the commercials play). Incorrect. Always include act breaks.

There are a couple reasons for this:

  1. Act breaks represent major structural highs and lows in the plot, so leaving them out flattens these points and harms the overall flow of the story.
  2. It makes the writer look like they don’t know what they are doing, even if they do.
  3. It creates ambiguity about the script’s end goal—is it a short film? Is part of the script missing? Is it actually half of a feature screenplay?

When you aren’t there to explain it to the people reading the script, any extra uncertainties can stop your pilot’s progress dead in the water.

7. Don’t Forget the B-Story

Sometimes writers leave out or drop the B-Story in their pilot because due to lack of room. Big mistake. Don’t ever do this. Your pilot needs to have a B-Story—industry pros will be looking for it and they will notice if it’s missing. Believe it or not, so will your audience. A script with just an A-Story tends to feel hollow and like it’s missing “heart.” Remember, the B-Story is a chance to humanize your characters, keep main cast members involved in the show even when they aren’t directly involved in the A-Plot, and give the audience a breather from the main storyline. The B-Story is also a chance to loosen up and have some extra fun with the show.

8. Blueprint the Show

Your pilot script not only needs to set up the world of the show, character problems and imply future storylines, it must “blueprint” the entire show by illustrating how a normal episode will run its course. This can be tricky because you are essentially trying to pack two different episodes into one. But it’s necessary to communicate the look, feel, and overall sense of what it means to be “the show.” In recent years, well-funded projects have tackled this difficult task by creating two-part pilots (two episodes viewed back-to-back), the first part taking its time to set up the show and the second part showing what a regular episode will look like. While an ideal solution, in a spec script that’s a dicey option since it requires double the effort, double the budget to make, and thus doubles the risk of failure from an investment standpoint. So, for spec script, try splitting up the pilot into first half for setup and second half for blueprinting. Alternatively, integrate them together so we don’t notice. It’s much harder and comes with its own risks, but can payoff in the form of a solid pilot script that stands on its own.

9. Create a Show Bible

You don’t absolutely need a show bible to write a successful pilot, but it helps—a lot. Think of it as a multi-use tool where you can include all your notes and ideas about future episodes, character and story arcs, character bios, hidden and upcoming tidbits, etc. Putting all of this into a formalized document that can be shared along with the pilot shows industry execs that you are serious about your pilot, you’ve spent time developing the show beyond episode one, and that you’re thinking long-term. Having a show bible in your back pocket also allows you to cram less into your pilot (it’s written down elsewhere) and enrich your characters on screen because you’ve spent time exploring them in the bible. Don’t be fooled, creating a show bible can be an overwhelming task. Start by breaking it down into smaller bite-sized pieces, like short season/episode synopses, character roles, flaws, dreams, secrets, etc.

10. Bible First, Script Last (Outline in Between)

Writers and writing teachers often view their “writing” or tangible end product in terms of written pages. Maybe that’s the wrong approach. Try developing a show bible first and getting that really solid, create an outline of the pilot, break it down into a beat sheet, and then write the actual pilot script last. That way you’ve had more time to figure out all the little details and plotlines beforehand, so you end up with stronger pages and fewer rewrites. Once words are down on the script page, it becomes hard to “kill your darlings” and make the necessary changes. But with a show bible, outline, and beat sheet in hand, your first true “draft” resulting in pages will look far closer to a finely-polished script than you may get by going through old fashioned draft iterations.

Now that you’ve had a chance to check off the last 10 boxes, are you still ready to accept the challenge of writing that TV pilot? Hey, it’s the golden age of television right now, so maybe you should.

Working on a TV pilot? Let us know. We’d love to hear about your progress!

Need help developing or rewriting your TV pilot? Contact us today for a consultation.

STORY TITLES, PART 3: Titles In Practice

After two articles discussing the theory behind what makes story titles great, let’s break down some real-life story titles and see what works and what doesn’t.

First, a quick refresher:

When you look at a story title (including the examples), ask yourself these four questions:

  1. Does the title convey the genre and tone?
  2. Does the title indicate a concept, central idea and/or theme?
  3. Does the title suggest a certain type of audience?
  4. Does the title imply the focus of the storytelling?

Sadly, not every title will hit all four of these points. However, if you can tweak your own until each answer becomes a resounding YES, then you may just have one stellar title under your belt.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at…

TITLES THAT KILL

Once in awhile you run across a story title that sticks to the wall so well, it’s almost impossible to peel it off! These titles hit all four points, teasing the audience with what the story has to offer and then paying off the tease in spades. Some of these even connect the concept and theme with a great double entendre.

Let’s start with a simple one:

MONSTER IN LAW

Although not the greatest movie ever made, the title is fantastic. The title is a play on words, as is common for comedy movies (think LEGALLY BLONDE), giving us the genre and tone right up front. What is the concept? A mother-in-law who is a proverbial monster. Duh! Audience? Directed toward adults who can relate to having in-laws. The focus is clearly on the relationship with the mother-in-law. And to top off the whole sundae with a nice fat cherry is the double entendre to give the title that extra bit of punch.

Another simple one, also a movie:

LOVE ACTUALLY

GENRE/TONE: Romance (could it be anything else?)
CONCEPT, ETC: Literally “love, actually” in its many forms and manifestations.
AUDIENCE: Females and romantics. If it was targeting males, the title might look like LOVE GUN or TO LOVE A WOMAN, etc.
FOCUS: A group of characters experiencing “love, actually.”

What about TV? Got you covered:

GREY’S ANATOMY

Another play on words, this time referencing the famous anatomy textbook GRAY’S ANATOMY.

GENRE/TONE: A serious medical show.
CONCEPT, ETC: A medical show about a med student named Dr. Grey.
AUDIENCE: Medical show fans with a female bias (e.g, ER for women).
FOCUS: Dr. Grey as the protagonist.

Another, albeit older, TV show:

FRIENDS

An older reference, but the title couldn’t be better.

GENRE/TONE: Light, relatable.
CONCEPT, ETC: The lives of a group of friends.
AUDIENCE: Age groups with tight circles of friends (think teenagers to young adult).
FOCUS: The group of friends.

How about something more poetic, in this case a book:

FLOWERS FOR ALGERNON

GENRE/TONE: Intellectual drama.
CONCEPT, ETC: Although we don’t know what “Flowers for Algernon” means before diving into the book, we come to understand the great significance this simple idea conveys. The protagonist watches a mouse named Algernon lose its brain functions and, knowing he will face the same end, the protagonist mourns for both the mouse and his own loss before his awareness wanes. His final wishes is to have flowers placed on Algernon’s grave.
AUDIENCE: A more sophisticated audience capable of appreciating the nuances of the material.
FOCUS: The protagonist, for whom Algernon is a long-term foreshadowing device.

And if you feel like cheating…

BATMAN, SPIDERMAN, SUPERMAN, etc.

Superhero stories are kind of a cheat because they practically name themselves. A superhero story is almost always named after the superhero or superhero group:

GENRE/TONE: Superhero (usually action/adventure)
CONCEPT, ETC.: A Superhero with these powers.
AUDIENCE: Audiences who like superheroes.
FOCUS: On that superhero.

Easy, right?

TITLES THAT DON’T (FAMOUS MISSES)

Before we proceed into more controversial territory, it’s vital to understand two points:

  1. A successful story doesn’t necessarily mean a good title.
  2. A successful title doesn’t necessarily mean a good story.

Even some of the most ubiquitously popular books and films from the past were given less than spectacular titles. In fact, some of them are pretty bad, especially for two of biggest and most successful story franchises of all time: LORD OF THE RINGS and STAR WARS.

Before you scream from the rooftops that I’m a lunatic, take a deep breath and read on. (For the record, these are my personal two favorite stories throughout all space and time, so I’m not as biased as you might think!)

STAR WARS (film, 1977)

This is a great example because not only is the title generic and cheesy, it doesn’t tell us much about the story other than there is combat in space. Is that the concept? Not really. Yes, the target audience is fairly generalized with an obvious bias toward sci-fi fans, but who is the focus of the story? We don’t know. Thankfully, the film was later (and rightfully) re-titled as A NEW HOPE. Still not a killer title, but better than the original.

Compare to…

HUNGER GAMES (book & film, 2008)

Suggesting intensity and action, the concept is also in the title, aimed at a slightly younger, mostly generalized audience with a focus is on what happens during each annual Hunger Games.

LORD OF THE RINGS (books & films, 1954+)

This is an interesting example because it illustrates so much. J.R.R Tolkien himself wanted to publish the trilogy in one big volume, but with accurate (if not plain) titles for each section: THE FIRST JOURNEY, THE RING SETS OUT, THE JOURNEY OF THE NINE COMPANIONS or THE RING GOES SOUTH, and THE WAR OF THE RING. But the editor intervened, splitting the book into three parts to form the trilogy we know today, and giving us these oddly vague titles: THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING, THE TWO TOWERS, and THE RETURN OF THE KING.

“Fellowship” accurately describes the group of individuals centered around smuggling the One Ring into Mordor, so that hits on concept and focus, possibly audience but not necessarily genre. Then we get to the Two Towers, which is a bit odd since the story is not actually about those two locations, nor are the two specific towers ever made clear since there are actually four towers mentioned in the book: Barad-dur, and Cirith Ungol, Isengard, and Minas Tirith. Then “Return” misses the mark by painting the wrong focus, indicating the book is about Aragorn and his rise to the kingship. Christian overtones aside, compare RETURN OF THE KING to any number of much better titles: THE WAR OF THE RING, THE LAST BATTLE, FRODO BAGGINS AND THE JOURNEY TO MT. DOOM. Each gives the final installment of the story a different flavor with a far more accurate indication of story focus, tone, and genre.

The series title, LORD OF THE RINGS, suggests the main antagonist, Sauron, is the storytelling focus for the entire saga. This is not the case. Something like THE ONE RING would be far more accurate, since the story does indeed follow the characters, factions, and plots surrounding this central device.

Compare to…

HARRY POTTER (books & films, 1997)

Perhaps better than any other famous franchise, the titles of the HARRY POTTER installments tell us right up front we are in for adventure and mystery, what the concept is, where the storytelling focus is, and that there is a general target audience with a bias toward younger ages. While they may not be the most creative titles ever invented, they do the job spectacularly well.

IN CONCLUSION…

This wraps our 3-part series on titles for now. In Part 1, we talked about what a story title is, how it works, and where it comes from. Then, in Part 2 we went over some helpful tips to nail your story title. Now that we’ve reviewed some famous titles that hit the mark and some that don’t, it’s time to say goodbye to story titles for awhile and move onto another subject.

Still need help? Look no further! Get in touch and let’s work it out together.

Stay tuned for our next article…coming soon!

STORY TITLES, PART 2: Helpful Tips to Nail That Story Title

Welcome to a part two of our series on story titles. In Part 1 we discussed what a title is, where it comes from, and what it should do. In part we move on to some helpful tips on how to select the right title for your story.

The reason finding the right title is such a big deal is because it tells us so much about the story: genre, concept, tone, theme, target audience, focus, and viewpoint.

Hey, wait a minute. Isn’t that practically everything?

Yup. That’s why your title needs to absolutely nail it. Even a slight change to any one of these components alters your story, and thus the title.

So we’ve created this quick checklist to follow when brainstorming titles for your creative work:

The “Do” List

  1. Explain it in a nutshell. Does the title explain the overall idea, concept or premise of the story in a nutshell? Look for inspiration in your theme.
  2. Identify the focus. Does it accurately convey the main focus of the story? If it’s about everything that happens in a certain place or time period, then that may be your title. If it follows an individual’s perspective, then make the title personal to that character or narrator.
  3. Know your audience. Does it reflect the right genre, target audience and age group? Always assume the audience already knows the genre and will expect that genre to be reflected in the story material. Also don’t forget to target the title toward the right age group. There’s a reason a slew of successful books have titles like THE TIME TRAVELER’S WIFE, THE ZOOKEEPER’S WIFE, etc. have become so popular — they know their target audience.
  4. Be clever. A clever title is a great way to catch someone’s interest. TV is the best at this: GREY’S ANATOMY and IMPASTOR are two great examples.
  5. Be succinct. In today’s mainstream market, the shorter the title, the better. There’s a reason you see a lot of one- and two-word titles in movies these days: BATTLESHIP, TMNT, GRAVITY, KILL BILL, WAR HORSE, MAD MAX: FURY ROAD (cheating a bit, but hey, it works), etc.
  6. Be specific. Never opt for something generic when you can make the title absolutely specific to the story contained within. What’s better: FANTASY ADVENTURE or FELLOWSHIP OF THE RINGS?
  7. Make it pop. Sure, I sound like a stereotypical Hollywood producer when I say this, but there’s a reason it’s a stereotype–because that’s one way to sell your story right from the cover. Remember: You aren’t selling your story so much as the idea of your story. Get our attention right away by grabbing us by the lapels rather than politely waving from across the street.

The “Do Not” List

  1. Don’t look at the plot. This is a common mistake, and an understandable one, but the reason it doesn’t usually work is because while the plot may be what the story is about on the surface, the theme is what the story is really about, so titles based on the plot tend to feel superficial and not exactly on target.
  2. Don’t make it unrelated. Although this seems obvious at first, this is another common mistake when storytellers title their creative works. Your title needs to tie into your story in some way, shape, or form.
  3. Don’t mislead the audience. Another common mistake for storytellers of all levels, it’s important to not mislead your audience in regard to tone, genre, or subject matter. This is one of the easiest ways to violate your audience’s expectations in a way that will make them hate the story, no matter how good or bad it is. An audience who buys movie tickets to see what sounds like a horror movie will be more than a little angry when it turns out to be a romantic comedy.
  4. Don’t be generic. This can’t be overstated. Every time a script or novel with a generic title like “Four People” or “Super Warrior” comes across my desk I instantly groan because my first instinct is to assume the storytelling itself is at about the same level as the titling, which is all too often the case. Compare: A MAN to I, CLAUDIUS.
  5. Don’t play it safe. Go bold. Get creative. Experiment with everything and anything. Do research if you have to, but never ever go for bland when you go for bold and interesting.
  6. Don’t limit yourself. Believe it or not, you don’t have to settle on just one title. Create a whole bag of them, or keep a few in your back pocket you can sling around depending on who you are pitching the story to. Eventually you will find a title that sticks.

Still having trouble?

You’re not alone.

Try this:

Think Like a Producer / Editor

Writers tend to be pretty bad at coming up with a title (sorry folks, but it’s true). Producers and book editors, on other hand, tend to be pretty great at it. Why? Because they think about how they can SELL the story, and they only need to know the concept, format and target audience to figure it out. So if you’re still feeling title-y challenged, try thinking like a producer or editor. Think about how they would pitch or sell the idea to someone who doesn’t know anything about writing, filmmaking, or storytelling. Forget the story (sacrilege, I know), stick to just the concept and target audience, and keep the title as short as possible, preferably only one or two words.

In theory, knowing the rest of the details about the story gives you the upper hand, since you are able to craft a better and more accurate title. Unfortunately, because of writers’ tendency toward bad titles and producers’/editors’ considerable skill at it, many stories end up with a catchy title that doesn’t quite nail the story down as accurately as it could. Admittedly, some of these titles do the job of selling the story amazingly well. The only gripe is that they somewhat miss the mark.

Sometimes it’s fairly obvious when a producer or editor steps in to sell a story with a snappier title:

  • BREAKING BAD: Is the concept really about someone raises hell (to “break bad”) against authority? Or is it about a good man who does bad things for the right reasons and soon finds himself stuck being a bad guy?
  • INVASION OF THE BODYSNATCHERS: Yes, this happens and the invaders do “snatch” bodies, but the original title, THE PUPPETMASTERS, suggests a more accurate portrayal of the intelligence and cunning behind the invaders’ tactics rather than the B-movie feel the title gives it.
  • JAWS: Both the movie and the book it’s based on share this title, and its working titles include THE STILLNESS IN THE WATER, LEVIATHAN RISING, THE JAWS OF DEATH, etc. (I DID say writers were bad at coming up with titles, right?), and is an externalized version of Henrik Ibsen’s classic, AN ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE.
  • LONE SURVIVOR: Granted, the book (and film adaptation) really is about being a “lone survivor” of a military expedition gone wrong, but could easily have been titled any number of other things.
  • METROPOLIS: It’s UTOPIA by another name, suggesting we get to see a many different walks of life within this little microcosm. Buuuuut we don’t. Still, it sells the idea spectacularly.

What do all of these have in common? Despite not being storytelling bullseyes, all were and are hip, catchy, and above all, immensely popular. (And these area only a few examples of many thousands.)

When it comes to titling your own story, get into the sales mindset and try to brainstorm the juiciest, catchiest, flashiest title you can come up with. Don’t worry, you don’t have to keep it, but it will get you thinking in the right direction. And who knows, maybe you’ll strike title gold!

UNTIL NEXT TIME…

We’ve covered a lot of ground in this article. Hopefully you’ve been able to gather enough grains of knowledge about titles to make you stories all the more appealing.

That’s it for now, and never stop writing!

(And yes, there’s going to be a Part 3: Story Titles in Practice.)

 

In the meantime, if you need help with your own story titles, don’t hesitate to reach out!

STORY TITLES, PART 1: Where Does the Title Come From?

In my profession I constantly run into writers who have a problem with story titles. Most writers and storytellers don’t know how to come with a solid title. They ask:

  • Where does a title come from?
  • What makes a good title?
  • How come some titles work while others do not?

For most, it’s a mystifying subject with little enlightenment from the experts.

Guess what?

It’s not a mystery. At least, it won’t be by the time you’ve finished reading this article.

So…

WHAT IS A TITLE?

A title is a koan, something to be meditated on, a rumination on theme, the essence of the story or project, a.k.a. your story in a nutshell. A title is the shortest possible pitch for your creative work. Think of it this way: your full manuscript is the complete version, shortened into a synopsis, then a pitch, a logline, and (at the most succinct level) the title. Therefore your title should sum up the idea of the story in a nutshell, implying genre, tone, central idea, theme, and focus.

Sounds simple, right?

Yeah, no. Nailing down what a title encompasses is the easy part. Finding the right title remains a daunting task, especially if it’s going to be perfectly fitted to your unique story.

So…

WHERE DOES THE TITLE COME FROM?

In general, the best titles come directly from the concept, premise, central idea, or theme. Often these ideas are the same, or at the very least, cross over considerably. This makes sense, since these elements of the story convey the most information about it. Your story’s genre and target audience are also important factors to keep in mind since they directly affect who will decide to experience the story, regardless of medium. Lastly, who the story is about and from whose viewpoint is also helpful to make the title immediate and personal.

In short, these four things determine where your title comes from:

  1. GENRE: implies not only the type of story, but the tone as well.
  2. CONCEPT: includes the premise, central idea and theme.
  3. AUDIENCE: determines who the story is targeted at and what age group is most appropriate.
  4. FOCUS: indicates who the story is about and who is telling it.

In that order. Why? The order of precedence indicates their importance in marketing your story. While the ideal title indicates all four points, not every title can do that…and that’s okay.

But enough about theory…

STORY TITLES IN PRACTICE

Now that we know about titles in theory, let’s poke around some real world examples to find out how they function in practice. There are copious examples here, I know, but they are highly informative and illustrate how much the title matters.

Titles Based on Genre or Tone

Horror, Action, Westerns and Comedies tend to base their titles around the genre and tone. Note how each of these titles make both obvious from the get-go:

HORROR:

  • DRACULA
  • THE EXORCIST
  • FINAL DESTINATION
  • NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD
  • POLTERGEIST
  • SAW
  • SHAUN OF THE DEAD
  • TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE

ACTION:

  • BLADE
  • DIE HARD
  • ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK
  • GLADIATOR
  • LETHAL WEAPON
  • SPEED
  • SUPERCOP
  • TERMINATOR

WESTERN:

  • BLAZING SADDLES
  • THE GUNFIGHTER
  • HIGH NOON
  • ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST
  • THE OUTLAW JOSEY WALES
  • THE TREASURE OF SIERRA MADRE
  • TRUE GRIT
  • WILD WILD WEST

COMEDY:

  • THE 40-YEAR-OLD VIRGIN
  • ACE VENTURA: PET DETECTIVE
  • BAD SANTA
  • DUCK SOUP
  • DUMB & DUMBER
  • GALAXY QUEST
  • MONSTER-IN-LAW
  • REVENGE OF THE NERDS
  • SCARY MOVIE
  • SHAUN OF THE DEAD
  • SPACEBALLS
  • SUPER TROOPERS
  • TEAM AMERICA: WORLD POLICE

Note how the horror titles tell us not only that it’s a horror story, but what type of horror (supernatural, slasher, etc.) so we know what kind of tone to expect. Action movies tend to use terse, information-packed action verbs in their titles. Compare the difference between THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN, a western, to THE SEVEN SAMURAI, a samurai action film (an Eastern “Western,” so to speak). Also note how many comedy titles are absurd, reveal the funny concept, or is a play on a well-known phrase or title from the genre it’s spoofing. We know right away if it’s going to be a spoof or a ridiculously silly story.

We can change the implied tone of the story by altering the length and tone of the title as well. A romance like ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND becomes a very different film with a title like MINDWIPE, JOEL & CLEMENTINE or THE ART OF FORGETTING, a sci-fi thriller, romcom, and introspective artistic drama, respectively.

Titles Based on Concept, Premise or Central Idea

These titles give us the concept, premise or central idea right up front, letting us know exactly what we’re in for:

  • CATCH 22
  • DJANGGO UNCHAINED
  • FAMILY GUY
  • FOUNDATION
  • A GAME OF THRONES
  • HALO
  • HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL
  • INCEPTION
  • INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE
  • THE NOTEBOOK
  • PRIDE & PREJUDICE
  • ROSEMARY’S BABY
  • THE SHINING
  • SNAKES ON A PLANE
  • TEAM AMERICA: WORLD POLICE

Many of these are simply the concept itself (in very short form, naturally). Sometimes they reveal the story’s inciting incident:

  • 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY
  • BLACK HAWK DOWN
  • A JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF EARTH
  • LOST IN SPACE
  • SNAKES ON A PLANE

Sometimes they hint at the ending (spoiler warning!):

  • THE BRASS VERDICT
  • CHILDHOOD’S END
  • KILL BILL, VOL.2
  • THERE WILL BE BLOOD

So now when someone asks you: “What’s ROSEMARY’S BABY about?” You can reply with a smart-aleck quip like: “Care to take a guess?”

Titles Based on Theme

Titles based on theme work best when the story is theme-heavy. Note how the theme is intimately tied into the concept, premise, or central idea in each of these:

  • ANIMAL FARM
  • DANGEROUS WOMEN
  • THE FOUNTAINHEAD
  • LOVE ACTUALLY
  • LOST IN TRANSLATION
  • OFFICE SPACE
  • THE ROAD
  • SAVING FISH FROM DROWNING
  • WATER FOR ELEPHANTS
  • WICKED

More rarely, the title may sum things up with a thematic sentiment:

  • ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND
  • FLOWERS FOR ALGERNON
  • LATHE OF HEAVEN
  • MY WAR GONE BY I MISS IT SO
  • ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST
  • THE RED BADGE OF COURAGE
  • SAVING FISH FROM DROWNING
  • THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS
  • WATER FOR ELEPHANTS

Note how long these titles are. That’s because they target a more cerebral, sophisticated audience.

Which brings to mind…

Titles Based on Target Audience

These titles tell us what type of person and age group is ideal for each kind of story:

  • MY CAT FROM HELL
  • THE ZOOKEEPER’S WIFE
  • HUNGER GAMES
  • HARRY POTTER AND THE… (take your pick)
  • RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD
  • WINGS OF DESIRE
  • MIDNIGHT IN PARIS
  • THE SECRET IN THEIR EYES
  • DIE HARD
  • DIRTY HARRY
  • FULL METAL JACKET
  • THE GODFATHER
  • THE ABSOLUTELY TRUE DIARY OF A PART-TIME INDIAN
  • THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT-TIME
  • CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST

Change the title and you change the target audience or age group. THE ZOOKEEPER’S WIFE targets women ages 25+, otherwise it may have just been called ZOOKEEPERS or A ZOO IN WARSAW. HUNGER GAMES aims at a younger target audience. Change the audience to a males aged 14-24 and you end up with something like BATTLE ROYALE, or THE GAMES for a slightly older age group, non-gender biased. Target girls aged 14-24 with THE GIRL FROM DISTRICT 12. Want to make it more gory? Try BLOODBATH. Sci-fi thriller? DISTRICT 12 or THE DISTRICT.

Can you guess the target audience and age group for PART-TIME INDIAN, WINGS OF DESIRE or CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST?

Titles Based on Focus or Viewpoint

These titles indicate who lies at the central focus of the story and from whose viewpoint we will experience that story. This is usually achieved by highlighting the protagonist, central character, a group of characters or even a fundamental location:

Titles centered around an individual (protagonist or central character):

  • AKIRA
  • ALCATRAZ VS THE EVIL LIBRARIANS
  • ANNA KARENINA
  • BARTON FINK
  • BEING JOHN MALKOVICH
  • BEOWULF
  • THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON
  • FORREST GUMP
  • HARRY POTTER
  • I, CLAUDIUS
  • JANE EYRE
  • MOBY DICK
  • MY NAME IS EARL
  • STEPPENWOLF
  • SULA
  • UGLY BETTY

This idea can be expanded to a family or group entity, usually multi-generational:

  • ALL MY SONS
  • BELLEFLEUR
  • DUCK DYNASTY
  • FOUNDATION
  • FRIENDS
  • SEVEN SAMURAI
  • THE THORN BIRDS
  • X-MEN

Titles based on a central location:

  • 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA
  • 90210
  • BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN
  • CHEERS
  • JURASSIC PARK
  • MELROSE PLACE
  • RED MARS
  • A TALE OF TWO CITIES
  • WUTHERING HEIGHTS

We can change the focus from one of these areas to another rather easily. A group story like FELLOWSHIP OF THE RINGS becomes an individual, point-of-view story with the title GANDALF, indicating he’s either protagonist, narrator, or the epicenter around which the story revolves. Title based on a location, such as CHEERS or INTO THE WOODS, implies that the action centers around that site and everything which occurs in it, with main plotlines more evenly distributed than if it was a single character’s story. Compare CHEERS to, say, FRASIER. Frasier is a character in both, but the central figure in only one. Can you guess which? Compare a shows an ensemble TV show like FULL HOUSE to REBA or ROSEANNE. Both are multi-camera sitcoms with an extended family living in the same house, yet the focus is clearly biased toward one specific character in REBA and ROSEANNE.

To be continued…

We’ve gone over a lot in this article, but believe it or not, it doesn’t end there. There is so much ground to cover concerning  story titles that we’re dedicating a follow-up article to explaining the rest. Stay tuned for Part 2: Helpful Tips to Nail That Story Title.

Until then…

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10 Characteristics of Good Dialogue

So you want to write dialogue. A lot of people think they write “good” dialogue without understanding even the basics. That’s okay. Dialogue is one of those technical aspects of storytelling everyone can learn. Let’s take a look at valuable characteristics found in truly good dialogue.

dialoguebubbles

Good dialogue…

1. Reveals character and plot in every line.

This is rule #1. Write dialogue with purpose. If each line doesn’t move the plot forward or say something about the character saying it, throw it out!

2. Doesn’t rely on itself as a crutch.

Dialogue shouldn’t be a crutch used in place of quality storytelling. Explain the minimum, draw in the audience, and trust in their brains’ ability to fill in the rest. Max Max: Fury Road and Interstellar are two recent great examples.

3. Distinguishes each character.

Every character should be recognizable and distinguishable by their dialogue alone, using cadence, vocabulary, and communication style to make it clear who is speaking without having a character name attached. When this rule is followed, the reader’s brain will fill in the character names for them, especially when reading stage and screenplays.

4. Isn’t redundant.

Don’t repeat information we’ve already heard or can see for ourselves. Don’t tell us about the action; show it to us. Cut down redundant beats and never say the same thing twice unless the tactic, subtext or context has changed.

5. Is appropriate to tone, setting, and time period.

Comedy dialogue should be funny. Thriller dialogue should be terse. Emotional dialogue should be heartfelt and passionate. When writing in a certain time period or language, be sure to do thorough research to ensure the dialogue feels authentic.

6. Doesn’t try to be real conversation.

This is a common mistake. Dialogue is not actual conversation. Dialogue is purposefully written in a way which reveals character and story, using tactics appropriate to the character to overcome obstacles and achieve a particular goal. In contrast, real-life conversation is vague and messy, filled with “well” and “um,” conflicting internal monologues and complex, muddy intentions and psychology, leading to what we hear on the surface.

7. Avoids hedges and fences.

Well, um, you know? Opening and ending sentences with these little words bogs down pacing, takes up valuable space, and decreases the strength of each line while wearing on the receiver’s nerves. Why? They’re essentially filler. While people say these things all the time in real life, characters are not real people and dialogue is not real conversation.

8. Minimizes direct exposition.

This is a big one screenwriting. If characters stand around and explain the story through direct exposition (which is telling, not showing), then the audience gets cheated out of sharing the experience of those events with the characters, which is how we build a relationship with them and grow to like, love, or hate them. Rather than revealing backstory or though processes through dialogue, try showing the characters make these decisions and take action to illustrating the story. Although there are some exceptions in TV writing and lower budget films, it’s still a standard guideline follow wherever possible.

9. Avoids tired clichés.

Avoid clichés like the plague. Rather, don’t use them at all, unless making a joke (see previous sentence). They stick out like a sore thumb (sorry), highlight lazy storytelling, and, more than anything, each instance bumps the audience out of immersion in the story’s world.

10. Doesn’t reveal major story points without evidence or setup.

Building on previous points, avoid advancing the plot through direct exposition via dialogue, especially when there has been no previous evidence or setup to clue the audience into the characters’ though processes or clue-seeking. It cheats the audience out of shared experience with the characters, delivers exposition clumsily, and leaves the audience out of the loop. Never leave the audience out of the loop. The story is for them, after all.

 

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Short Form Storytelling, Part 3: The Three Types of Compression

compression in storytelling graphic for article by Story Science written by James Gilmore

Finally we have come to part 3 of our 3-part article series on Short Form Storytelling. If you missed out on the earlier installments, be sure to read Part 1: One Story, One Idea here and Part 2: Compression, Compression, Compression.

Previously we discussed the different ways in which you can compress elements in your story to make it denser and more efficient. Now we are going to discuss the three main categories of compression and how each applies to storytelling.

Compression falls into three basic categories: (1) Structure (2) Character, and (3) Text, with Structure being the most basic of the three and Text the most involved. Within each category are five points, or ways, in which to utilize compression in that category. Before we get into the bread and butter of the discussions, here is a short sweet summary of the 15 points we will address in this article:

STRUCTURE: Events, plot points, story development.

  1. Structure aggressively by having events occur as early as possible.
  2. Aim high, go far.
  3. Get in late, get out early.
  4. Combine events to give each multiple purpose.
  5. Eliminate scenes that do not advance plot or character development, preferably until every scene contains both.

CHARACTER: Cast members, characterization, relationships and character decisions.

  1. Reduce the cast of your characters to the minimum required to tell the story.
  2. Controlling how information about the character is divulged to the audience, including when and where.
  3. Imply or illustrate characterization.
  4. Imply depth and history in relationships.
  5. Use meaningful character names.

TEXT: The action of the story, including descriptions and visuals.

  1. Remove redundant beats and information.
  2. Create higher text density by converting text into subtext.
  3. Make one element serve more than one purpose.
  4. Don’t say it, illustrate it.
  5. Cut extraneous details.

STRUCTURE COMPRESSION

Involves events, plot points, and story development. The shorter the piece the more compressed it needs to be.

How do you compress structure?

1. Structure aggressively by having events occur as early as possible.
This creates structural compression by giving you the most amount of time to develop the story instead of having the audience wait around for something to happen. The more aggressive your plotting, the more compressed your structure will be and will help you with points 2-5 (below). Inexperience storytellers often take too long to get to the plot rolling or take too long to reach the point of the story.

2. Aim high, go far.
Use an aggressive structure to develop your plot as far as possible during the course of your story, going from point A to point B with minimal chaff between the two. This allows you to get the most out of your plot by granting you the time to explore your theme and its related subthemes and variations to the fullest extent.

3. Get in late, get out early.
Enter the plot as late as possible with as much exposition and introductory story taking place “off screen” before the first actual moment of your story. Doing this creates greater subtext and grabs the audience’s attention right away instead of boring them with a mountain of setups and exposition. “Get in late, get out early” not only applies to your overall plot but your scenes as well.

4. Combine events to give each multiple purpose.
Take one event and give it multiple uses. Although one of the most basic methods of compression, young storytellers usually fail to do this. Film is a good place to observe this point in practice. For example: Johnny finds the gun under his wife’s pillow, which tells him she is hiding something from him (the gun at the very least), but also provides Johnny with a murder or self defense weapon in the future, but additionally sets up the situation to make him look like he is his wife’s murderer when he actually had nothing to do with it. Instead of giving each of these developments their own separate events with dedicated “screen time” for each, we can simply combine (compress) them into one single event with multiple uses.

5. Eliminate scenes that do not advance plot or character development, preferably until every scene contains both.
No matter how cool or interesting a scene may be, if it does not reveal character (preferably someone in the main cast) or advance the plot then it has no place in your story. Ideally, each element will do both, although this is not always possible.

CHARACTER COMPRESSION

Involves cast members, characterization, relationships and character decisions. Prose requires the least character compression while film and the stage demand the most.

How do you compress character(s)?

1. Reduce the cast of your characters to the minimum required to tell the story.
This is accomplished by moving important action and dialogue from minor characters to major ones, or by combining several characters into one or, more often than not, both (the first leading to the second). Unlike long form storytelling, in short form you do not have the time or space to handle a large cast of characters, although you do have more leeway in prose than in film or poetry. In its adaptation from book to film, The Fellowship of the Ring compresses dozens of minor characters into the main cast, making them fuller and more active in the story. Broadway Musicals are especially adept at this type of character compression, as can be seen when comparing Wicked to its original book form and Spamalot to the film on which it is based.

2. Controlling how information about the character is divulged to the audience, including when and where.
A completely uncompressed character would have everything about him/her explained right away with nothing held back. Not only is this dull but it is also an exposition-heavy block to dump on an audience at the beginning. Instead, hold back information about the character for as long as possible without depriving the audience of plot necessities. This will keep the audience interested and increase their emotional investment and the impact of revelations when they are finally made.

3. Imply or illustrate characterization.
Essentially, “show, don’t tell” (in and of itself a natural form of compression). Instead of saying Character A is an alcoholic, show him drinking. Instead of having another character comment on how much the protagonist cares for others, illustrate what the protagonist does that is caring to others. Don’t tell us the character is good at something, show us through his actions and decisions.

4. Imply depth and history in relationships.
Developing as much about a relationship as possible without having to overtly express it on the page or screen influences how your characters interact with each other. Such implications add both depth and implied history to your characters, making them seem more relatable and whole to the audience. If you haven’t made a habit out of writing character bios, now might be a good time to start because this is where they will come in handy.

5. Use meaningful character names.
Throwaway names add nothing to your story, but names which enhance the meaning of the character’s personality, background, and/or role in the story are worth more than any number of words of imagery. A name can convey a large amount of information about a character without ever having to spell it out. For example, if you were creating a mystery story, which name would convey the most information: (a) Bob Jones (b) Billy the Kid, or (c) Professor Pathfinder?

TEXT COMPRESSION

Involves the action of the story, including descriptions and visuals. Text compression squashes description, action, and visuals into a smaller space by using more efficient text than the original—e.g., less is more. This is where we get to the real meat and bones of compression.

How do you compress text?

1. Remove redundant beats and information.
Compacting information into efficient beads of story is the most basic form of compression. A beat is a subunit of a scene which represents the playing out of a single tactic by the character driving the scene. It can also be seen as a small interplay between characters about a single thing. By reducing beats that are repetitive or repeat information unnecessarily you can make your story leaner and stronger by making less say more. Master this point of compression and your story will improve tenfold.

2. Create higher text density by converting text into subtext.
Compressing text increases its density while also creating subtext. This becomes really obvious when you compare the text density of short fiction to that of a novel. Certain forms (such as poetry and film) require higher levels of text density than others (novel, tv series, etc.). Text that is compressed into subtext will make the audience read between the lines more often, giving them more to do mentally and thereby creating greater engagement. Give them too little and you are insulting their intelligence. Assume the audience is equally as intelligent as you and you will be surprised at how much they understand.

3. Make one element serve more than one purpose.
Although scenes are technically elements, this point refers specifically to elements on a smaller, more specific scale than scenes. Essentially, an element is any construct that artificially influences the story, such as events and plot points (as mentioned previously), characterizations, decisions, a chance encounter with a small character, an object or prop, something from the protagonist’s background, or even relationships (although not limited to this list by any means).

4. Don’t say it, illustrate it.
Show, don’t tell. This cannot be said enough. There is a time and a place for summary (or a montage) but for the most part don’t just tell your audience about the world of your story and its inhabitants, show them by example. Unfortunately, this issue plagues the storytelling world of professionals and amateur alike, but it is especially important for newer storytellers to learn how to show—not tell—their story.

5. Cut extraneous details.
Whereas the first point of text compression involved cutting redundant information, this point deals with cutting information that is not pertinent to the story. It may be interesting that the character writes greeting cards for a living but unless it plays into the story somehow that is required for the telling of the story then it only gets in the way and dilutes the plot and/or theme. The shorter the work the more vigilant you have to be in keeping those superfluous details out of your story.

 

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Short Form Storytelling, Part 2: Compression, Compression, Compression

storysci.com screenshot image of screenplay about storytelling compression in part 2 of 3-article series

Welcome to Part 2 of our 3-part article series on Short Form Storytelling. You can read Part 1: One Story, One Idea here.

Just because we saved the subject of compression for last does not mean it is less important than the points discussed in Part 1. As a matter of fact, it is so important in short form storytelling that we dedicated several articles to it, because compression is vital to understanding short form.

Compression.

It’s a mysterious word packed full of meaning. So what is it?

Many writers don’t know what “compression” means in terms of storytelling. Does this make them bad storytellers? No more than not knowing how many color rods are in the human eye will make someone a terrible interior designer. But knowing about compression and how to use it will make you a better storyteller.

Compression makes your story denser by compacting more information into less space. Whereas cutting material out altogether may achieve a similar purpose, by compressing you are not only trimming fat to make your story more lean and efficient but making it denser as well. Compression creates text density through subtext by implying information that is not otherwise made explicit. The audience must read between the lines to determine what is being meant by that which is not said. Therefore:

  • Text density is essentially how much information is packed into a segment of text or screen time.
  • Low density text conveys only what is written with little need for deeper thought or examination of subtext: “He moved the chair away from the table.” Genre fiction novels (mystery, western, romance, etc.) tend to have moderate to low text density.
  • High text density implies a lot of information without having to say much at all and may be used to demonstrate deeper, unspoken subtext: “For sale: Baby shoes, never worn” (attributed to Hemingway). Literary fiction probes the human condition through moderate to high text density.
  • Short form is most effective when using moderate to high text density.

To see exactly how compression works, let’s use it in reverse on the six word short story quoted above (the one attributed to Hemingway) to decompress the dense subtext packed into that one tragic sentence. Imagine that sentence as a 10-page short story with moderate compression. Now as a 200+ page novel with low compression. Over the course of story we may get a brisk summary of their wedding day, honeymoon, emotional ups and downs of pregnancy, etc., while spending the last half of the story tracking their emotional desolation over having lost a child.

Now let’s compare:

Compression: (Ultra)
High
Moderate Low
Word
Count:
6 4,000-5,000 75,000-100,000+
Pages: <1 10 200+
Minutes
(film):
3 10 120

After all of that, which version would you say was the most effective? The six-word form uses the least text but packs more emotional impact than a single sentence in any of the other forms. That is the power of compression. Saying more with less makes the audience actively fill in the blank, creating greater audience involvement, more emotional investment and thus a more powerful impact.

So now that we’ve talked about compression, let’s list the five most common ways in which you can use it to tighten your story (in order of importance):

  • Combine several elements with a single use into a single element with multiple uses (this is the very essence of compression).
  • Remove redundant beats and information.
  • When writing scenes: start the scene as late into the action as possible, end the scene as soon as possible.
  • Reduce your cast of characters to only those who advance the story or reveal character, preferably both.
  • Imply deeper characterizations and relationships through illustration, such as using meaningful names and places.

(A more in-depth examination of these points will follow in our next article: Part 3: The Three Types of Compression.)

Three things you should know about compression:

  • Younger storytellers tend to use less compression than mature storytellers.
  • Many writers (especially young ones) dive into writing short form without understanding how it differs from long form, resulting in a bloated short story with low compression like a novel. This approach can work but it seldom results in a piece that is as effective as one with higher compression.

COMPRESSION PRACTICE

It’s easy to put information onto the page or the screen, but it’s another thing entirely to compact that information into less space and have it say twice as much (or more). An excellent way to learn compression is by studying the discipline of screenwriting, where compression reigns supreme. And of course there are also writing exercises, such as the one below, designed to help you flex your compression skills.

  1. Write a one paragraph short story, description or character bio.
  2. Now write a new version of it but condensed down to a single sentence. Try to preserve as much information from the original as possible, implicit or explicit.
  3. And finally, the hard part: Condense your sentence down to seven words or less, preserving as much information as possible from the previous two versions, most of which will now be implied through subtext rather than explicitly stated through text.

Stay tuned for Part 3 of our article series on short form storytelling where we will be examining the different methods of implementing compression in much greater detail.

 

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