Katiedid Langrock is a Hollywood scriptwriter, TV development exec., author, internationally syndicated humor columnist and guest lecturer. She recently founded Write in the Wild, a nature-based writers retreat and creative space for story classes and script consultations, which blends her years of story coaching experience with her previous job as an adventure tour guide in the Australian Outback. Join her in breaking story around the campfire. Scrawl outside the sprawl. Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, Twitter: @WriteInTheWild
If your writing aspirations are loftier than delivering dramatic interpretations of your daily diary entry to your cat, then you must come to terms with the fact that storytelling is a business. Hollywood is a business. Publishing is a business. And therefore, your words must induce confidence that they will hit high on some outsider’s meter of salability and success. As writers, we must grapple with this reality. We must come to terms with knowing that our creativity is subject to consumerism and capitalism.
And so, we do.
The savvy writers follow the trends and the trades. They read Script magazine. They study the script gurus. They can recite which story beat must be hit by which page to retain optimal reading retention. They see their own precious words as a product for purchase. It’s smart to be so business-conscious.
However, in the pursuit of the sale, too many of us forget that we are artists first. Too many of us forget why we began writing in the first place – back when we were young and truly our highlight of the day was delivering a dramatic interpretation of our diary entry to the family cat.
For those of you who find yourselves frustrated because you are ticking all the business-minded boxes in your writing – story beat by structured story beat – yet not achieving the writing success you seek, may I suggest a little literary granola?
I mean this metaphorically; however, by all means dig into a big bowl. Granola is delicious. But more importantly, it’s nourishing. And it is this nourishment that I believe we writers, in our steep climb up to the mountain summit of our hopes and dreams, desperately lack. A screenplay, a teleplay, a manuscript – all are massive undertakings. They require stamina and perseverance and determination to accomplish our goal. But success in the arts requires more than just drive.
Consider this: You wouldn’t run a marathon without stretching first. You wouldn’t hike the backcountry without first eating a considerable bowl of granola to energize yourself for the journey. You know that these endeavors demand a healthy amount of nourishment prior to starting in order to have any chance at success. However, in our own writing, too many of us are so focused on the end goal that we forget to nourish our minds and bodies for the journey. We forget to stretch. We forget the granola. And then we wonder why on earth we are unsuccessful.
Writing granola comes long before the outline and the beat sheets, prior to the character descriptions and loglines. You use your wild, imaginative brain for those things – the same brain that helps you keep your business cap on while you write. Granola, however – the nourishment for your story – comes from your heart.
When you began writing once upon a million years ago, what drew you to the craft? Most of us were seduced by our first journals as a form cursive counseling. We wrote to understand the world better. We wrote to understand ourselves better. By getting our feelings out on paper – the heartache, the confusion, the anger, the sadness, the love, the loss, the shame, the hopes, the embarrassments, the dreams – we matured. We transformed. Perhaps only incrementally, but still absolutely and significantly. The comprehension from scrawling in our composition notebooks was essential to our growth. Our feelings, our hearts, nourished the journaling journey. And it is this very process that we writers so often neglect to bring into our stories for sale. We are so focused on structure, so rigid with writing and so determined to do everything perfectly to make that paycheck that we forget the one thing that will make us a success: a story that makes you feel.
I’m talking more than just a theme. I’m talking a theme on steroids. Writers tend to bring in theme as a forethought or afterthought rather than intrinsically part of the story pulse. It’s true that theme can be boiled down to what you, the writer, are trying to say about the world. But by picking this galactic observation prior to starting our story or as something to be jerry-built in retroactively, we miss the opportunity to write something phenomenal because we miss the opportunity to learn through the story-writing process.
Luckily, there’s a really easy trick to changing this practice and making your script or manuscript a million times stronger. Rather than make the theme of your story a statement in your mind, make it a question. Rather than decide your script will prove the point that love is worth the heartache or love is not worth the heartache, ask your characters, “Is love worth the heartache?” More importantly, ask yourself. And make sure that whatever question you are asking and answering through the writing process is one that you don’t yet have the answer to, one that you yourself are conflicted about. It’s not enough to just give a character an emotional journey. You, the writer, must engage in the same voyage. Your own heart must become inextricably connected to your main character’s so that your growth is her growth and, more importantly, that her growth is your growth.
If you have picked the right question for you and your main character, the journey toward answering it will make you laugh and cry. It will surprise you and humble you. It will inspire personal growth for you and personal growth for your character. It should motivate every action taken by your character. It should drive the plot. Searching your own feelings as you strive to answer this fundamental question will nourish and fuel your story. No matter the genre or medium, this literary granola provides the same revelation and emotional weight as your diary entries always did. This literary granola gives your story the authenticity it needs to propel you toward your literary dreams.
Because here is the secret: When you write with intent to work out your own feelings, the process will inevitably be transformative and healing and empowering. And when you experience those things while writing, it shows up on the page. It always does. And thus, the readers will equally feel transformed and healed and empowered by reading your words. And that, my friends, is the last missing piece to your success. Publishers and producers will be breaking down your door, begging for more. Aching for more. Why wouldn’t they want to be part of something that made them feel so deeply? Truly, all we ever want as readers – as consumers – is to FEEL something. And when you feel while writing, your readers will feel it, too.
You’ve done your homework. You have your black belt in trends and trades, structure and format, gurus and guide-tos. Your business brain is well-trained. Now go grab a big nourishing bowl of granola, and ask yourself the hard questions. Enjoy the journey. May your success be just a heartbeat away.
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