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ARCHIVES OF December, 2014

Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

Write For A Star

By Steven Pressfield | Published: December 31, 2014

Today’s post will be the last in our series featuring lessons learned from a 20-year look-back at The Legend of Bagger Vance. Today is also the final day of our Black Irish Christmas Special. I will stop blabbing about it forever!

Clark Gable, the star. We, the writers, have to make him give a damn.

Write for a star. That had been a mantra of mine for at least ten years before Bagger. It’s a screenwriter’s axiom. But I never realized how true it was till my agent took the manuscript of Bagger “out to the town.”

The rights were snatched up within days. Almost immediately Robert Redford came aboard. He wanted to direct and to play the lead, Rannulph Junah. Eventually he decided that the role needed a younger actor. Matt Damon signed on.

This was no small thing for me, or for any writer. To write a character that two such A-list dudes want to play … that’s something. It cemented, for me, the concept of “writing for a star.”

Are you working on a novel or a screenplay? Who’s the protagonist? What kind of role is it? It’s an extremely powerful and revealing exercise to ask yourself (as I’ve done with every book and script since Bagger), “Would an A-list actor or actress want to play this part?”

Think about Fight Club. Is it any wonder that Brad Pitt wanted to play the role of Tyler Durden? How about Julia Roberts for Erin Brockovich? Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter? Jodie Foster as Clarice Starling?

Why did Matthew McConaughey want to play Mud in Mud—or Ron Woodroof in Dallas Buyers Club? Why did Reese Witherspoon option Wild? Did anyone have to talk Benedict Cumberbatch into playing the lead in The Imitation Game?

These roles are star turns. They’re Oscar bait. They’re career-makers.

When you and I write for a star, we have to ask ourselves:

1. Is this role vivid? Memorable? Unforgettable?

2. Does the character drive the story? Is he or she “the straw that stirs the drink?”

3. Does he or she change? Is it a radical change? Does the character evolve in the face of adversity? How much adversity? (The more the better.)

4. Does the character want something desperately? Does he or she pursue this “to the end of the line?”

5. Does the character have internal contradictions? Is she complex? Does she act in unexpected ways?

6. Is the character a hero? Is he epic? Is he larger than life? (more…)

Posted in Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

My Overnight Success

By Steven Pressfield | Published: December 24, 2014

There’s a story about the Oscar-winning actor Walter Matthau. A younger thespian is bemoaning his own struggle in show biz. “Mr. Matthau, I’m just looking for that one big break!”

Walter Matthau

In the story Matthau laughs. “Kid,” he says. “It’s not the one big break. It’s the fifty big breaks.”

Here’s what I wrote a few weeks ago, in the first post in this series about the writing of The Legend of Bagger Vance.

I attempted to write my first novel when I was twenty-four. Bagger Vance [my first published book] came out when I was fifty-one.

Twenty-seven years is a long time to labor without success. Can you imagine how many times I was taken aside by spouse, lovers, family, and friends and given “the talk?” Can you imagine how many times I gave it to myself?

I proffer three truths from this nearly three-decade odyssey:

1. It’s hard.

What are the odds against being published/making a movie/releasing an album, etc.? Beyond that, what are the odds against making a living doing your own art or passion? In other words, of not being “one-and-done” but actually following up Work #1 with #2 through #10 and continuing, via these endeavors, to pay the rent?

I’m serious. What are the odds? Does anyone know?

2. You gotta be a little crazy.

Maybe more than a little. Maybe a lot more. In my experience, you have to be driven. You have to be around the bend. You have to either want it so badly (for whatever reasons) that you are willing to do anything to succeed, or you have to be so constituted emotionally that you simply cannot do anything else. You have no choice: succeed or die.

3. It’s worth it.

I know this sounds more than a little nuts. Who cares about one book, or ten, or ten albums or start-ups or philanthropic ventures? Aren’t they all vanity, as Ecclesiastes testifies? What difference, in the great scheme of things, does any individual achievement really make?

Yeah, yeah. I agree. But still, for me at least … it was worth it.

All that being said, let me toss in, as a reality check, a couple of real-life distinctions:

1. It wasn’t all wilderness.

Within those twenty-seven years, I earned a living for at least a dozen as a professional writer. I worked in advertising. I had a career as a screenwriter. And I spent six years writing unpublishable novels (which counts as work too.) (more…)

Posted in Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

The Authentic Swing, Part Two

By Steven Pressfield | Published: December 17, 2014

Continuing our examination of the idea that certain stories have conceptual premises. What is a conceptual premise? And how does it work in a dramatic narrative?

Edward Norton and Brad Pitt in "Fight Club."

[P.S. Don’t forget this year’s Black Irish Christmas Special, featuring the brand-new, leather-bound, signed and numbered (only 2500 available) 20th Anniversary edition of The Legend of Bagger Vance.]

One fascinating aspect of premises is that they imply order. Start with any premise (say, in The Lord of the Rings, the idea that a certain ring commands the power of the universe) and when you dig to the next level, you get this:

The universe makes sense. Life has meaning. We humans are not lost and alone in a random, indifferent cosmos.

David Mamet says over and over in his books on writing that the human heart is programmed to perceive drama, i.e. meaning, in everything. That’s why we need stories. Because stories reinforce the idea of meaning. Drama starts at A and progresses to Z. Along the way, we learn. Truths are revealed. Secrets are disclosed. We walk out of the theater reassured. Life may be hard and brutal and justice may not always be served, but there is meaning and significance underneath it all.

A “what if” premise might go like this:

What if a husband and wife were both professional assassins, but each one had hid this hit-man occupation from the other? And what if this husband and wife were each secretly assigned by their competing employers to kill the other? [Mr. and Mrs. Smith by David Bartis and Simon Kinberg, starring Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie.}

That’s a what-if, but it’s not a conceptual premise.

A conceptual premise might be something like this:

Contemporary life has become so vapid and meaningless, particularly for young urban professionals, that it’s possible for a young man to become so psychologically unhinged that he creates in his imagination a totally convincing nihilistic alter ego and then becomes so dominated and carried away by this imaginary personality that he reaches the point of near-suicide and the embrace of actual urban terrorism. [Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk (novel) and Jim Uhls (screenplay) starring Brad Pitt and Edward Norton.]

That’s a premise. You might not believe it. You might say, leaving the theater, “Oh come on, no one’s gonna lose their mind to that extent. To punch themselves in the face, over and over, and think they’re being hit by somebody else?” You might not believe it driving home, but in the theater it was pretty powerful, wasn’t it?

A powerful premise can produce a riveting emotional and intellectual experience, above and beyond that elicited by the specific dramatic narrative of the story. It does that because we walk out of the movie (or put down the book), thinking, “Wow, what if that premise were actually true? Is life really a matrix of engineered sensations, based on nothing except some powerful cabal’s need to control the world? Or even if that premise isn’t literally true, is it true as a metaphor?”

As writers, if we can identify our premise, we can harness it to work inside the story and to amplify powerfully the narrative’s impact. (more…)

Posted in Writing Wednesdays
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