By Steven Pressfield | Published: September 30, 2009
I once did a rewrite on a porn flick. Before I began, the producer wanted to get together with me, to give me my marching orders and to make sure that I didn’t slow the project down by making avoidable rookie mistakes. We met for breakfast at a coffee shop in Santa Monica. In that meeting, I got two of the best lessons in writing I’ve ever received.
Why porn is so bad
“Kid, every porno movie is the same: talk, talk, screw, screw. That’s why they’re so lousy. That’s not good story-telling. Here’s what I want from you: when you get to a sex scene, don’t let the story come to a screeching halt while we watch two people diddling each other.”
Wow, I thought, that’s pretty smart.
“Make the screwing scene advance the story,” the producer said. “Wherever the story stands when the actors start banging each other, I want it to have moved to the next level by the time they finish.”
In other words, he said, if it’s a private eye and his gorgeous client, by the time they finish, their relationship has to have advanced—she confesses something, he reveals some secret, whatever. The story has “turned” and mounted to a higher level.
I confess I had gone into this breakfast expecting the worst—and even condescending in my mind to what I imagined was some pretty low-level entertainment. Now the scales fell from my eyes. My employer had become a mentor. Immediately I grasped that the don’t-stop-the-story principle could be applied to other, more mainstream genres.
Action movies. “Don’t let a car chase stop the story in its tracks. Make the action sequence advance the story.” Flashbacks and backstory. “Don’t let these turn into detours or story-killers; make them carry the story forward.”
How to keep sex from being boring
“Okay, kid, you got it? Here’s the second thing I want from you. Never write me a sex scene where nothing happens but the sex. Always have something else going on at the same time.”
Example: “The wife is getting it on in the bedroom with the horny carpenter. Now the husband comes home unannounced. He enters the front door. The husband doesn’t know the wife and the carpenter are in the bedroom. They don’t know the husband has just come in the front door. Now we’ve got something! We can cut back and forth and milk the suspense. It’s not just two people screwing, see? And when the husband discovers what his old lady’s up to, we’ve advanced the story!”
Another bulls-eye. This second principle could be applied to all kinds of situations. Wow. And I was getting paid for this too!
My porn career ends
In the end the movie never got made—and I never got paid. A couple of years later, I was out having dinner at a different restaurant when I saw the producer come in with his wife and young kids. It’d make a more colorful story if he had been a cigar-chomping Tinseltown philistine—but in fact he was a sweet guy and a regular family man. I wanted to thank him for what he had taught me. I had put it to use, over and over, on other, PG-rated projects. But I thought, seeing him with his children in tow, that maybe discretion was the better part of valor. I exited without going out of my way to catch his eye.
But thanks, Henry. I learned more about storytelling from you in twenty minutes over eggs and hash browns than I did in four years of college.