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Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

Files I Work With, #4

By Steven Pressfield | Published: May 20, 2015

Writers are always obsessing about “narrative drive.” We know what it means. It’s the propulsive, page-turning momentum that we all hope to generate in our readers.

Aida Turturro as Janice on "The Sopranos"

But how do we create narrative drive?

A priest, a rabbi, and an alligator walk into a bar …

That’s narrative drive.

There’s no way you and I are not gonna stick around to hear the rest of that joke. Why? Because a question has been planted in our minds, an open-ended question that has hooked us and makes us want to know the answer. (By the way, I just invented that set-up; if an actual joke exists, I don’t know it. Sorry!)

I like to think of these narrative threads as “lines in the water.” Like a fishing boat will trail six, eight, ten different lines with eye-catching lures hoping to attract fish, we as writers will trail as many narrative lines as we think the story can handle.

The goal is identical: to “hook” the reader.

Last week I included the following section from the “Scene by Scene” file I’m working with on a book project right now. Note the word LINE throughout:


Mika reveals that sludge is toxic waste — and human bones in it. ESCALATION of LINE #6. She wants to go to the police. Mika also shows S the JIMMY BRESLIN ARTICLE in the paper, which contains more backstory re B, i.e. LINE #4.

Breslin article prompts S to speculate on who planted it, who made it happen, and why now? LINE #6 and LINE #4. The fact alone that somebody made this happen shows that the stakes of LINE #6 are continuing to escalate. Now they’ve gone public. They’re in the paper.

What I’m doing in this file, among other things, is keeping track of the story’s “lines in the water.” First, I’m very consciously and deliberately opening up those lines. An early scene will plant an open-ended question in the reader’s mind. She, I hope, will keep turning the pages till she gets an answer.

I want to have as many lines as the story will hold and to keep each of them escalating all the time.

How many lines in the water does Game of Thrones have? Seems like a hundred, doesn’t it? No wonder we can’t stop watching.

Same with The Sopranos. Or Mad Men. Or House of Cards.

The idea is to hook the viewer with a slew of open-ended narrative streams, each one of which asks a compelling question. Will Carmela run away with Furio? Will Don Draper finally confront his hidden past? Will Francis ever pay for pushing Chloe in front of the subway train?

The more compelling the “lines,” the more deeply we in the audience will be hooked.

Here’s a trick that soap opera writers have been using for decades:

Give every character a story-line with every other character. (more…)

Posted in Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

Files I Work With, #3

By Steven Pressfield | Published: May 13, 2015

We’ve been talking over the past couple of weeks about the five files I have on-screen when I’m working on any project—fiction or non-fiction—and how the use of these files dovetails with the principles Shawn puts forward in his new book, The Story Grid. The files are my idiosyncratic way of applying Shawn’s universal principles.

The principles of storytelling are universal. You and I as writers will apply them in our own demented ways.

To refresh our memory:

1. The actual working file of the story.

2. Conventions of the Genre.

3. Scene by Scene.

4. MissingMissingMissing.

5. Culls

So far we’ve talked about Conventions of the Genre and MissingMisssingMissing. Today let’s turn to Scene by Scene.

In The Story Grid, Shawn analyzes Thomas Harris’ classic thriller, The Silence of the Lambs. He breaks the novel down into sixty scenes.

That’s exactly what I do.

The project I’m working on now has 52 chapters, i.e. the equivalent of scenes. My file, Scene by Scene, lists them all, with a short paragraph or two describing what happens in each scene.

The file is 20 pages long, single-spaced.

Why do I do this? What purpose does this file serve?

First, it helps me see the story globally, to get a sense of its flow and its rhythm. The actual working file of the story (#1 above) is 200 pages long, single-spaced. Way too long to get a bird’s-eye view of.

Scene by Scene is compact enough, while still containing all critical story elements, that I can read it in a few minutes and get a real sense of the shape and contour of the story.

Here’s what I ask myself as I read the file over (and this is straight out of Shawn’s concept of the Story Grid):

1. Does the story break down into recognizable “acts?” How many? Three? Four? Five? Do the sections work together? Do they flow? Are they each the right length?

If I were designing a car this way, I would be asking questions like:

Is there an engine? Do we have four wheels? Is there a place for the driver to sit? Is there a transmission? A suspension? Is the vehicle balanced end-to-end and side-to-side? Does it have power? Does it look good? (more…)

Posted in Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

Files I Work With, Part 2

By Steven Pressfield | Published: May 6, 2015

We were talking a couple of weeks ago about my own idiosyncratic way of using the principles detailed in Shawn’s new book, THE STORY GRID. Specifically I mentioned five files that keep on my screen from Draft #2 onward.

"Note to self: Don't screw this up."

1. The actual working file.

2. Conventions of the Genre.

3. Scene by Scene.

4. MissingMissingMissing.

5. Culls.

The post from two weeks ago was about Conventions of the Genre. Let’s talk today about Missing Missing Missing.

I had a boss in advertising in New York when I was a copy cub. His name was Bob Froelich. He was in charge of a creative group of about ten people—five teams of copywriter and art director. If we were working on a group assignment (let’s say we were pitching Burger King or Seven-Up [which we seemed to be doing at least twice a year]), Bob would put us to work on our own for maybe a week. The assignment was always to come up with an overall campaign concept (e.g., “the Uncola” for Seven-Up) that could work in print and TV, then a specific pool of commercials (three or four to start), and a print component, i.e. magazine ads and outdoor billboards.

Each team would come up with three or four campaign concepts; then we’d all meet, pin our storyboards to the wall, and pitch them to the group. Bob would pick the finalists. Then we’d all go back to our cubicles and refine these. After two weeks, the group would focus down to, say, two campaigns. Meanwhile the other fifteen groups at the agency were doing the same thing, gearing up for the one big meeting in which the agency as a whole, under the senior creative director, would pick the two or three campaigns that eventually would be pitched to Burger King or Seven-Up.

After the second round, when our group was almost ready, Bob would call us together and have us pin our two finalist campaigns to the wall. Then he’d ask, “Okay. What’s missing missing missing?”

Invariably something was. Usually a pretty big something, if not two or three big somethings. Meaning we’d miscalculated in our rush to get the work done. Maybe one of the campaigns was inadvertently offensive to women. Maybe there was some glaring void in logic. Maybe one campaign was dependent on a single visual and couldn’t be “pooled out” into multiple ads or commercials.

We’d have to go back to the drawing board and fill those holes.

Okay. How does this work for writing a novel or a piece of long-form non-fiction? (more…)

Posted in Writing Wednesdays
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