When I tell people that I’m a screenwriter, many of them lean forward in their seats a bit. It’s not because they’re interested in my story. It’s because deep down, they have a story they secretly want to tell.
Maybe it’s a screenplay, or a TV series, or one of those Upper East Side books with a pair of crossed legs and a martini on the cover. Whatever your story may be, many of you carry one around in your hearts, like an unfulfilled dream.
One of the things I’m going to use this blog for is a way for you to start getting your story down on paper, and out into the world. I make no promises about results or riches or fame. Nor will I guarantee that the steps I recommend will “definitely work.” What I will say is that these steps worked for me, and I believe in them.
A few weeks ago I wrote about the importance of telling your story out loud. I believe in that technique as much as i believe in anything: the simple and yet oh-so-difficult process of pulling up a chair next to a friend (or better yet, a stranger) and simply telling them your story, campfire-style, and getting them to forget that they're alive for a little while. The craft of oral storytelling remains - for me - the heart of good dramatic writing.
But telling your story out loud is not the first step. Far from it. It’s a step you’ll only be ready for after spending hours and hours in the woodshed, as they say. Before you have a story to tell out loud - a story with a beginning, middle, and end - you’re going to need to take the first step.
That’s what this blog post is about - identifying and executing step one.
Good stories provide us with a feeling so magical and unquantifiable that many people think that the craft of making stories must be magical and unquantifiable as well. But it isn’t. Story-making is every bit as grounded and workmanlike an activity as making a chair. There is no one “right way” to make a story. But there are time-honored tools and techniques, widely used by professionals, that are strongly recommended for the aspiring novice.
If you’re building a house, start by digging the basement. Everything you do after that will stand on that foundation.
If you were building a human being - forgive me as I get a bit hypothetical - you might well start by creating the central nervous system. Because every other cell and tissue and system will be given its purpose and direction by that spine.
If you’re building a story, start with your central relationship.
Everything else will flow from there.
Your central relationship is the relationship between your two main characters. Does your story have two main characters? If you don’t, I recommend starting right there, by deciding on your two main characters.
In When Harry Met Sally It’s Harry and Sally. In Good Will Hunting it’s Matt Damon and Ben Affleck. In Zero Dark Thirty it’s Jessica Chastain and Osama Bin Laden.
Your story usually begins when your two main characters meet. Your story is usually over when their relationship consummates, or can logically go no further (usually a marriage, death, or a permanent separation).
The spinal cord of most good stories is the changing relationship between your two main characters.
Perpetual change is mission-critical. Their relationship cannot remain stagnant - not for a single scene, not for a single moment. Nor can a later dynamic in your story repeat an earlier dynamic. The central relationship must progress constantly, generating new and original dynamics. When it climaxes, and can logically go no further, your story is over.
When your central relationship is strong, clear, and dynamic, you can ladle all kinds of pyrotechnics on top of it - great dialogue, thrilling action sequences - creating a universe as wild and imaginative as you want it to be. These pyrotechnics are often the most memorable aspects of your story - the things that surprise and delight your audience. So too, the exterior of the house you design may bend and curl like a Gehry. Your human body may stretch and kick like Michael Phelps. Your audience may never consciously notice the basement and plumbing underpinning your Gehry-facade, never think about the nervous system animating your Phelpsian physique. That is as it should be. The same holds true in story-making. Your audience may never be consciously aware of the primacy of your central relationship. But deep down, they want it. Your central relationship is essentially the key in which you are writing your piece of music. Your audience needs that home base, that bass line. It’s what allows them to relax, and follow you on your flights of fancy. It’s what lets them know they’re in good hands. It lets them settle in, forget that they’re alive. and, then, when it’s over, and your central relationship can logically progress no further, it’s how your audience knows that it’s time to pee and text the babysitter and go home.
Getting your central relationship down on paper is step one.
It’s not an essay. It’s bullet points. A page or two at most.
When I was younger, the idea of anchoring my writing around something as pedestrian as a central relationship was anathema to me. I was much more interested in the pyrotechnics: the cleverness, the innovations. Nobody walked out of Pulp Fiction talking about the central fucking relationship, for god’s sake. We talked about the Royale with Cheese, the gimp, the mind-bending non-chronological structure. That was the stuff that smacked us so powerfully in the face. And so for those of us writing screenplays back in the mid-1990’s, that’s the stuff we emulated, and imitated. Thus were a million shitty houses built upon shoddy or absent foundations.
The truth is, Pulp Fiction is built on top of a central relationship as deep and true and primal as Harry and Sally’s. It’s not as obvious, but it’s every bit as mission-critical to the overall success of the whole.
Pulp Fiction’s central relationship is between Jules and Vincent (Samuel L. Jackson and John Travolta). The central dynamic of the film - the story that gives Pulp Fiction its center of gravity - is Jules’s struggle to decide whether or not to remain in the life of crime. The force tugging Jules in the other direction is the miracle he witnesses, when that Jerry-Seinfeld-looking dude jumps out of the bathroom and blasts them eight times in a row….but misses every time. By surviving, Jules feels he has been given a sign from god to leave his life of crime: to begin a new life, walking the earth, “…like Caine from Kung Fu.”
All of Pulp Fiction hangs on this foundation. Needless to say, about seven trillion pyrotechnic moments explode on top of and around this spine. But make no mistake - they all exist, dramaturgically speaking, for one reason alone: to advance the central relationship between Jules and Vincent.
All of Butch’s (Bruce Willis’s) story exists, on its most fundamental level, to kill Vincent (spoiler alert!) - thereby affecting, and potentially freeing, Jules. Tarantino never tells us whether Vincent’s death actually succeeds in freeing Jules to leave the life. (It could, on the other hand, spur Jules to avenge Vincent and kill Butch.) But not only does Tarantino leave this conclusion ambiguous, he buries it in the middle of the movie, famously telling his story in non-chronological order. And yet our hearts know, and feel, Jules’s ambiguous final chapter.
Ambiguity is an incredibly powerful storytelling tool. When it’s well-rendered, it’s overwhelmingly effective. But it can’t be too vague - ambiguity needs to be balanced just so - leaving us with the understanding that the storyteller has placed us perfectly in doubt. Needless to say, Tarantino does this brilliantly. The power of his ambiguity - of not knowing which direction Jules will choose - is one of the primary reasons we all staggered out into the parking lot after seeing Pulp Fiction for the first time.
But, to return to the primary point: that ambiguity exists along the spinal cord of a strong, clear central relationship. It is the ending we’ve been looking for ever since we first met Jules and Vincent in the car, and heard about the Royale with Cheese.
So back to your story.
You may not want to tackle a story as structurally ambitious as Pulp Fiction. (If you DO want to take on something wildly complex and baroque, go for it: I would never recommend that you curtail your ambition.) But if you’re not an experienced storyteller, and you’re thinking about starting with something simpler, I would commend that choice.
Start right there. Get out a proverbial piece of paper, or laptop, or whatever you want to write on/with. Don’t worry in the slightest about about “writing well.” You’re not designing the train: you’re laying the tracks.
Write down the names of your two main characters:
Think about where you want your story to begin, and where you want it to end. You don't have to worry about where they are geographically, or where they are in space and time. For this step, focus only on the beginning and ending states of their relationship:
BEGINNING They meet
ENDING They get married
Now, the hard part. Think about what happens to their relationship in the middle. This is the tough stuff, the stuff that really should take quite a bit of time, if you’re doing your job right, and telling a story that’s going to keep your audience guessing, by avoiding cliche, and digging deep into the messy truth of human relationships.
What are the key turning points in your central relationship? With Harry and Sally, we know the big one:
They have sex
That goes somewhere in the middle, right? Don’t worry about where yet. Just start listing them, in order:
BEGINNING They meet
They have sex
ENDING They get married
Now that we have them in order, we know some of the other critical beats (“beats” is screenwriter speak for key moments, events, turning points). Just start spitting them out. You can always fix them later. Your first draft should be messy and incomplete. But it’s simple. That’s the key.
BEGINNING They meet.
They drive across country.
There’s a spark.
He propositions her.
She denies him.
They part ways.
Five years later, they bump into each other in an airport.
She’s engaged now.
He is married.
Nothing really happens.
But the spark is still there.
They part ways again.
They have sex
ENDING They get married
I could go on like this (or you could - it’s actually a really great exercise), but you get the idea.
The point is: start.
Don’t imagine that you’ll be able to get down every beat in your story the first time you put pen to paper. If you’re writing something good, chances are you’re going to need to walk around with it for a few weeks, doubling back, filling stuff in, crossing stuff out.
It’s hard. Really hard. Like learning a musical instrument hard. It will take time before you’re ready to leave your woodshed, and tell your fledgling story to a friend.
It’s a little like making the reduction sauce before the sauce.
But if you do it, you’ll find the writing process enormously freeing - like you’re gliding on rails instead of pushing a dead car through the grass.
Those flights of fancy we love so much as audience members are a direct result of a writer who is in love with the process of invention. You can guarantee that the exact same thrill we felt watching the syringe scene in Pulp Fiction was a result of Tarantino feeling that exact same thrill while he was writing the scene.
What comes from the heart, goes to the heart.
Free your heart!
Dig your basement first.
Nail your central relationship.
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