By Steven Pressfield | Published: June 29, 2016
[Reminder: only two more days to order your free e-version of my new book on writing, Nobody Wants To Read Your Sh*t. Offer expires at midnight, June 30. Click here to download. Totally free. No opt-in required. Takes 38 seconds or less.]
I was talking three weeks ago about the preparatory files I use before plunging in on a first draft. The first file is one I call Foolscap. Here’s the first question I ask myself in that file:
“What’s the genre?”
The Dude doing his Philip Marlowe thing
I’m asking, “What kind of book am I writing? Is it a Western? A Love Story? What exactly is the genre of this idea I’m working on?”
I ask this first because it’s the most critical question a writer can ask. And because, once I answer it, I’m halfway home.
At this stage (before the first word of a first draft) I may have only the vaguest notion of what my story is. Maybe I’ve got one character, a few scenes, maybe less than that. I’m groping. I’m like the blind man trying to figure out if he’s working with an elephant.
So I ask first, “What’s the genre?”
Why do I ask this? Because genres have conventions. As soon as I identify the kind of story I’m telling, I automatically have a road map, a blueprint for its shape, its trajectory, and its content.
Consider The Big Lebowski by Joel and Ethan Coen.
I have no idea how the brothers evolved their story but I’ll bet anything they started with “the Dude.” They probably even had Jeff Bridges in mind. My guess is they knew the tone of the movie; they knew it would be zany, wry, deadpan. And they knew the feeling of the scenes they wanted. But I’ll bet that, at first, they weren’t sure exactly what genre, what kind of movie it was. Then …
“OMG, it’s a Private Eye Story! It’s a Detective Movie but instead of a having a hard-bitten Sam Spade/Philip Marlowe type as our hero, we’ll have a lovable, slightly-dim stoner.”
Identifying the genre was the stroke that split the diamond. At one blow, the Coen brothers could see the whole movie.
Why? Again, because genres have conventions. A Private Eye Story has obligatory scenes. Every movie or novel in this genre makes stops at these mandatory stations. The audience would be furious if it didn’t.
Next step for the brothers? Cue up Chinatown, The Maltese Falcon, Farewell My Lovely. Watch them or read them with this thought in mind: “What can we steal? What happens to Jack Nicholson, to Bogie, to Robert Mitchum? Whatever that is, we’ll make it happen to the Dude.”
See what I mean about genre?
Once we know what type of story we’re telling, we’ve got half the struggle licked.
But back to Private Eye Stories. What scenes can we count on? What scenes will be in every tale of a gumshoe-for-hire?
- He’ll be approached (usually by a rich person) to take on a case.
- Halfway through the story, he’ll be hired by another individual (usually intimately connected to the first rich person) to take on an additional case. Both assignments will involve “finding” somebody or some thing.
- The hero will become romantically involved with a beautiful woman, usually his client. This liaison will not go well for the hero.
- For sure, our detective will get beaten up. Usually more than once.
Moose’s skillet-sized fist hit me. A pool of inky blackness
opened at my feet and I tumbled into it …
- Our hero will have a sidekick or partner, possibly a Peter Lorre-type. This cohort will inevitably get our hero into trouble.
- There will be scenes of betrayal, duplicity and mistaken identity.
- There will be red herrings and multiple plot twists.
- In the end, our hero will actually solve the crime. He and no one else. He will come out on top but, alas, without the girl (and perhaps without his fee, his business, or his sanity.)
The Coen brothers knew these conventions. They understood that these were the sinew and marrow of the Detective Story genre.
So the Dude gets hired by the Rich Guy (the actual “Big Lebowski”), then hired again by his daughter Maude, played by Julianne Moore, who indeed will seduce him for her own nefarious purposes. Beat-ups? The Dude will get pummeled by goons, attacked in his bathtub by nihilists, have his White Russian drugged by Ben Gazzara, the porn gangster. His buddy John Goodman will get him into all kinds of trouble. Together they will chase down numerous red herrings, but, in the end, it will be the Dude and only the Dude who cracks the case.
She kidnapped herself, man!
My favorite scene in The Big Lebowski is, sure enough, a genre-specific convention: the moment when the hero, in bed with the Beautiful Client, reveals his own (surprisingly profound and emphatically on-theme) backstory. Remember that moment in Chinatown? Jack Nicholson as Jake Gittes is lying back on the pillow, having just made love to Faye Dunaway as Evelyn Mulwray. She asks him how he got into the private detective racket and he tells her he used to “work for the District Attorney” (meaning he was a cop) in L.A.’s Chinatown.
You can’t always tell what’s going on there. I thought
I was keeping someone from being hurt and actually I
ended up making sure they were hurt.
That scene, for sure, was front-of-mind for Joel and Ethan Coen when they put Jeff Bridges in the post-coital sack with Julianne Moore.
Tell me about yourself, Jeffrey.
Not much to tell.
(tokes on a joint)
I was one of the authors of
the Port Huron Statement. The original … not the
compromised second draft. Did you hear of the Seattle Seven?
That was me … uh … Music business briefly … roadie for
Metallica. Speed of Sound tour. Bunch of assholes …
Genre conventions are not “formula.” They’re opportunities for tremendous creativity and fun and depth, as the Coen brothers proved in this and a bunch of other movies.
Before you write a word of your first draft, figure out what genre you’re working in. Then bone up on the conventions of that genre and take it from there. (more…)
By Steven Pressfield | Published: June 22, 2016
[Forgive me for leaving this post up two weeks in a row, but response has been so overwhelming to this free offer (see below) that we’ve decided to keep it going till midnight a week and a day from now—June 30. That’s the expiration date. Don’t be late!]
As a thank-you to readers of this blog, we’re giving away the e-version of my newest book, Nobody Wants to Read Your Sh*t, just out today. No opt-in required. You don’t have to enter your e-mail address or compromise your privacy in any way.
The book is free until midnight Eastern time June 30.
What is Nobody Wants to Read Your Sh*t about?
The title comes from the first and most important lesson I ever learned as a writer, on the very first day of my very first job, as a junior copywriter for Benton & Bowles Advertising in New York. What the phrase means is that because readers are inevitably busy, impatient, easily-distracted, i.e. they don’t want to read your sh*t, it’s incumbent on you and me as writers to make our stuff so interesting, so sexy, so unusual, so compelling that a reader would have to be crazy NOT to read it.
Every other lesson in writing follows from this one tough-love truth.
Nobody Wants to Read Your Sh*t is my “lessons learned” from a career in five different writing fields—advertising, screenwriting, fiction, nonfiction, and self-help.
Some sample chapter heads:
Fiction is Truth
Nonfiction is Fiction
Sometimes You Gotta Be Somebody’s Slave
“Steve, Your Ego is Getting Out of Hand,”
Not to mention …
Text and Subtext
How to Write A Boring Memoir
A Non-Story is a Story, and
At the risk of hyping my own stuff, lemme say that Nobody Wants to Read Your Sh*t is a pretty good from-the-trenches primer for anybody who is a writer already or who has ambitions to become one.
Click here to download your free copy.
And thanks again for sticking with us here on Writing Wednesdays. (more…)
By Steven Pressfield | Published: June 8, 2016
Have you ever seen a “breakdown board” for a movie? You and I as novelists can learn a lot from it about the writing of first drafts.
Breakdown board with sliding panels
Motion pictures, as most of us know, are not shot in sequence. The first day’s filming may be the movie’s final scene, or a scene from the middle of the picture.
What dictates the order of shooting is efficiency.
If we’re shooting Zombie Apocalypse VI and we know we’ve got three scenes that take place in the abandoned warehouse down by the railroad tracks, let’s shoot them all back-to-back Monday-Tuesday-Wednesday, even though one is the opening scene, one is a scene from the movie’s middle, and the third is from the climax.
We save money because the production can set up in one location and stay there till that section of the film is in the can. No expensive moves.
Likewise if we’ve managed to convince George Clooney to take a 99% salary cut and appear in five scenes as the deranged high school principal, let’s schedule all his scenes back-to-back as well. That way he can give us three days in a block and then be free to go home.
Can we get him, just for three days?
The breakdown board is the production department’s tool to accomplish this efficiency/economy. The line producer and his or her team start by reading through the screenplay, seeking locations (INT. ABANDONED WAREHOUSE/ZOMBIE HIDEAWAY) that appear more than once. They rip the pages out of the script and stick them all in one place. Those scenes become one sliding panel, i.e. one unified block of shooting time, on the breakdown board
By the time the production team is done deconstructing the script, the sequence-of-scenes-as-story has been turned inside-out and upside-down. But it works in terms of bang for the buck. By filming out of order, we’ve just saved $1.2 million out of our $9 million budget. Maybe we can afford Clooney for an extra half-day.
But back to you and me as novelists slogging through our first drafts.
What law says we have to write in sequence?
Could we gain something by working out of order?
I’m a big believer in this, and my first reason won’t surprise you:
Resistance is the factor that (sometimes, not always) determines for me which scenes and sequences I’ll tackle first.
I want to do the hardest stuff early—meaning the scenes or sequences that will generate the most Resistance. Maybe it’s the climax that’s really, really tough. I can tell because I’m so daunted by it that I don’t even want to face it in outline form. That’s the scene, I know, that I should tackle first, or at least early in the first-draft process.
Remember, the last thing we want to do is save the really hard stuff for the end. (See this post about moving pianos.) What if we spend two years writing our Wordsworth Serial Killer story, get to the finish and find that we can’t make the Climax In the Ruined Bell Tower at Tintern Abbey work?
Write that scene first, or at least outline it, get it to a place where you know you can do it in crunch time and make it work. Force yourself to do this. How good will you feel, going forward, knowing that you’ve got those really tough scenes already in the bank?
There’s another compelling reason to work out of sequence.
Inspiration is not linear. The goddess slings her thunderbolts with no regard to logical story-progression. If I’m working on Page Four but find myself obsessing about a sequence in the middle of the narrative, I’ll drop everything and work on that. It’s great fun, I must say, to reach Act Three and discover, “OMG, I’ve got forty pages that I wrote on this last February and they all work!”
That’s the logic behind writing a first draft out of sequence. It works in the movies. It can work for you and me in books.
That said, there are equally compelling counter-reasons. I confess I often throw the out-of-order concept out the window because of these.
First is story logic. Sometimes it helps to write Scene 41 when you’ve got Scenes 39 and 40 fresh in your mind. Sometimes 39 and 40 trigger great stuff for 41 that we might not have thought of if we’d done 41 in isolation.
Then there’s momentum. Sometimes a story just wants to be told in order. It flows better that way. Its own velocity propels it forward.
Yes, I know. I’m talking out of both sides of my mouth on this issue.
Bottom line: the canny writer uses BOTH techniques. She knows how to roll in-sequence when that feels best. But she’s ready to break that habit and jump around in her story when working out-of-sequence seems to make more sense.
P.S. Don’t steal that Wordsworth Serial Killer idea. That’s mine.