By Steven Pressfield | Published: February 18, 2015
I start this post with an apology. In it I’m gonna cite something from my own work. I hate it when writers do that. “Use Tolstoy, man, or Shakespeare! We want something good.”
Colin Farrell as Alexander in Oliver Stone's movie of the same name.
But I gotta do it because in this instance I don’t have to speculate as to what the writer was thinking: I actually know.
The theme of today’s post is a continuation of the previous two: Killer Scenes and how to build them out into the global narrative that they imply. In this case, I’m going to address not a scene, but just two sentences.
The question we’ll be asking is: When we as writers have only one scene, or even just a fragment of a scene, how can we extrapolate from that the entire work? How do we build out the complete book from that single kernel? What mode of thinking do we employ?
First, let’s start with the Muse. I believe categorically that scenes and lines that pop into our heads come from some cosmic source. You may disagree. But that’s my story and I’m sticking to it. So when some electrifying scene or fragment suddenly appears in my consciousness, I take it as a penny from heaven, a clue in a mystery, a strand of DNA in a scientific experiment. Embedded in that microcosm is the Global Enchilada.
One day about ten years ago, two sentences popped into my head.
I knew immediately that these were the first two sentences of a book. And I knew I loved the book. But I knew nothing else. I didn’t know who the speaker was, or what the story would be, where it was set, nothing. Here are the two sentences:
I have always been a soldier. I have known no other life.
I let these sit for a couple of weeks. From time to time during the day I’d come back to them, always asking myself, “Who’s the speaker? Who’s saying this? What does it mean? What’s the book that these sentences are the start of?”
I couldn’t get an answer. Either nothing came or what came didn’t ring a bell. Then one day, I can’t remember exactly how, I suddenly knew with certainty: the speaker was Alexander the Great.
I didn’t know anything about Alexander the Great. I had never studied him. He was certainly not a figure I was preoccupied with. Nor did I have any conception of how a story about him would resonate with modern readers, or if they would even care. Would a book about Alexander sell? Would anybody besides me be interested? (more…)
By Shawn Coyne | Published: February 13, 2015
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If you were to somehow plot all of the Stories that have ever been told, what would it look like?
Here's a Story from about 30,000 to 32,000 years ago.
Here’s what I think:
It would look a lot like other natural phenomena such as the distribution of height in human beings, or blood type or women’s shoe sizes. The graph would look like a bell curve, in statistics what’s called a normal distribution (or Gaussian distribution).
I think that makes sense because Stories are as natural to human beings as air or water. (more…)
By Steven Pressfield | Published: February 11, 2015
Have you ever come up with a killer scene—and nothing else? You find yourself with two or three minutes of incredible action, conflict, dialogue, but you have no idea where it goes or what the rest of book or movie might be. Arrrrgggh. Whaddaya do in a case like that?
Gregory Peck and Mary Badham in Harper Lee's "To Kill A Mockingbird," screenplay by Horton Foote
I’m a believer that scenes are like holograms. Every one, no matter how brief or modest, contains the molecular blueprint of the wider project. It’s like a single cell, from which we can clone the entire Tyrannosaurus Rex. Let’s examine one.
I’m thinking of the Mad Dog scene from To Kill A Mockingbird. Do you remember it? It’s short. It’s not even technically a killer scene. But from that one strand of DNA we can extrapolate most of the movie if we do our detective work right.
Here’s the scene:
It’s noon in a hot, sleepy Alabama town. Attorney Atticus Finch, wearing his necktie and three-piece suit, has been summoned home in an emergency by his housekeeper, Cal; he arrives in a car with his friend, the sheriff, Heck Tate. Neighbors are standing on their porches, pointing in alarm at something 100 yards away in the street.
It’s a dog. A rabid dog.
Atticus’ young daughter Scout and son Jem have come out of the house, summoned by the alarm. All up and down the street, mothers and maids (all black) are catching their kids and pulling them back indoors. If that rabid dog bites you, you’re gonna die!
Heck has a rifle. Somebody’s gotta shoot that dog—and not from close up either; it’s too risky. Heck is the sheriff. Everybody’s waiting for him to draw a bead on that mad dog and put him away.
But Heck instead hands the rifle to Atticus. What? “Don’t give it to him,” says Scout of her own Dad. “He don’t know nothing about shootin’.”
“You hush up, girl. Don’t you know your Daddy’s the best shot in Maycomb County.”
Atticus is reluctant. He declares that he hasn’t picked up a firearm in years. You do it, Heck, you’re the sheriff. But Heck insists. We only got one shot. It’s gotta be Atticus that takes it.
As Scout and Jem look on skeptically, Atticus takes the rifle, fumbles a bit, squints through the sights, stops, takes off his eyeglasses, finally dropping them to the street. Come on, man! Do something! (more…)