BREAKING & ENTERING: Great Storytelling – Goldilocks and The Three Stories

A producer who’s sold to all the majors, Barri Evins created Big Ideas to give aspiring screenwriters what it takes to break into the business by sharing methods she uses with professional writers. Sign up for her newsletter and follow Barri on Twitter @BigBigIdeas.

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Once upon a time, there was a girl producer who lived in the forest. She worked very hard, but loved what she did. She was devoted to gathering stories; however, she was very choosy about what she put in her basket. She selected only the best she could find. Stories that had the potential to become delicious. Her name was, well, let’s call her “Goldie.”

Goldie’s focus was to make her way though the forest to Grandmother’s house. She had three stories in her basket that she believed would ripen into delicious movies along the way.

The first one was a male-driven comedy with a fun concept and a range of humor from broad to smart. We’ll call this project “Boy Story.”

The second piece was a dark, supernatural thriller. Let’s dub this one “Bearanormal Activity.”

The third project was a high concept, female-driven comedy. We’ll call it “Witty Woman.”

So Goldie set off on the long journey down the development path with her basket of goodies, hoping that once she reached her destination, she would have something to delight Grandmother.

Great Storytelling

This Story Was Too Soft

Goldie began working on Boy Story when it was just a wee little concept. A single sentence as a matter of fact. Great title, appealing premise, and the promise of big comic set pieces. A potentially tasty morsel. The Hangover? Not quite, but a nod in that direction.

The writer was inexperienced, but willing to work hard. Goldie was convinced that they could get the project to the point where the premise and the set pieces would be enticing enough to get Boy Story off the ground.

Boy Story’s writer had attended the Big Ideas Screenwriting Intensive, so they coaxed the concept into an outline using the Structure Template from that course. This electronic form was designed to incorporate all the essentials of screenplay structure and simplify the top gurus’ concepts into two readily understandable pages. Fill in the blanks, and the story takes shape.

However, there was a little twist to the template. (There should always be a twist!) At the top of the page is a header. Logline, genre, tone, conflict, arc and theme must be filled in before you go any further. Once completed, that’s not the last you will see of it.

No matter how many pages you write, that darn header pops up at the top of each and every one of them. You can change the header as the story evolves, but every time your outline pushes to a new page – bam – there are the essential elements of your story – staring you in the face, reminding you to stay focused.

The writer worked hard, and proved that he had a flair for coming up with clever comedic conceits. The template allowed them to easily try out structural changes, in order to relentlessly build the comedy, but there was trouble afoot…

From the outset, the writer grappled with what he wanted the story to say. Thus, the header kept changing, however the outline didn’t keep pace. While the header can and should evolve, especially in the early stages of breaking a premise, eventually the pieces must firm up and work together.

Detail was off balance as well. Some beats were jam-packed – from snippets of dialogue to camera shots that served no real purpose. In other areas, the shoe was on the other foot. Crucial detail, such as establishing the essential characteristics of the hero, was missing.

Why was this story getting softer over time instead of becoming more focused?

This writer liked to write scenes to help him figure out the story. Goldie usually supports anything that helps a writer’s process, but there are pitfalls aplenty in this method. The natural tendency is to turn the writer’s attention to the small details, rather than the big picture.

My colleague, Dr. Paige Turner, refers to this as “writing with beer goggles on.” Read what she has to say about this bleary-eyed perspective here.

Focus on the big details first so the shoe fits.Some good ideas may spring from this “free association” style of writing, but all too often, one winds up trying to force a foot into a glass slipper, rather than choosing the right sized footwear in the first place. In this case, the writer could talk at length about the buckle, yet the shoe itself was unclear to him.

And then the other shoe dropped. A twist Goldie didn’t see coming. The writer had secretly completed the script before solidifying the outline.

Going to script before locking down the fundamental elements of the story ensured that this piece would remain too soft. All the little details in the world can never make up for the lack of support from a focused premise and solid structure.

This Story Was Too Hard

This writer hired Goldie as a consultant on a script that she hoped to enter in a contest with a looming deadline. There was some intrigue to the dark concept and the writing was better than your average bear. However, the challenges included dealing with an unwieldy fantasy element and getting this draft ready before time expired. (One of those rare cases where a ticking clock was not an asset!)

They worked long and hard but, although the script was getting “more better,” it was not getting truly good. There were interesting pieces – cool action sequences, appealing moments between characters, intriguing conceits – but collectively, they didn’t add up to one, strong, coherent story.

Why was this story so hard to crack?

This story was hard to crack because it had too much and too little detail.The biggest issue was that the complex premise was never entirely clear to the writer. Goldie cautioned the writer that she, herself, felt unable to succinctly pitch the story. This was a huge red flag to Goldie, but the writer didn’t heed this as a potential death knell for the project.

The writer tossed out half a dozen versions of a logline, but that wasn’t the solution. None of them reflected a strong, core concept. If it couldn’t be pitched, then the premise not only lacked an essential ingredient to moving forward as a project, but it had an inherent flaw.

The story was difficult to pitch because the elements didn’t fit together organically. The plot and the characters; the hero and the villain – even the hero and the love interest. Ultimately, the writer admitted that she had developed the action line first and then the character line separately. They were essentially a tonal mismatch that never truly came together to form one story.

The story hinged on a multifaceted, supernatural fantasy device, but the rules had not been clearly defined and kept changing. Even an entirely imagined universe must operate according to its own logic.

Goldie urged clarity and simplification, but the result was more complexity. Like slicing off the dragon’s head, only to have two more appear. It grew bigger and bigger, until it overwhelmed everything else in the script.

The writer had some real skill at creating original action and vivid description, but surprisingly, detail turned out to be her downfall.

The more the writer rewrote, the clearer the abstract elements became in her mind. That’s when the evil spell was cast. She completely lost perspective.

When she looked into the mirror on the wall, she couldn’t see what was real at all. In the writer’s view, everything appeared big, brash and bold. She grew convinced that the slightest hint would be all too obvious to the reader.

Details became ever more subtle, before gradually disappearing altogether. Poof! Once gone from the page, it was invisible to the reader. Rather than being intrigued, the reader was baffled as to what they were seeing and how the supernatural element worked.

As the writer squeezed essential detail out of the script, she focused her energy on giving more magnitude to the surreal element.

Thus, the seemingly antithetical problem of both too much and too little detail plagued the further drafts that the writer pursued on her own.

Though technically well written, the story was so complex in concept and so packed with minimalist detail that it was as dense as quicksand. There were some truly cool action sequences, but with the huge surreal element, it took intense concentration for the reader to visualize what they were seeing.

In truth, and with the clarity of hindsight, what the piece needed was a complete tear down.  Something was rotten at the core – the flaw in the concept. While Goldie made the writer go back to outline, the process was rushed. Mindful that the writer was still trying to beat the clock, Goldie didn’t prevent her from diving straight back into the script. Though known for her honest feedback, Goldie felt that in this case she had failed both the script and the writer by not insisting on beginning again from the ground up.

The writer had devoted extensive time and considerable ability to the story, but relentless rewriting couldn’t save this project. She huffed and she puffed, but there was no blowing this house down because, despite all the detail, there was no telling exactly what the house was made of.

This Story Was Just Right

This was love at first sight for Goldie. In this case, “first sight” meant a sprawling title and four slightly meandering sentences. But the possibilities in Witty Woman were crystal clear. Goldie did the math in a minute. An appealing, high concept comic premise + a great role for an A-List actress eager exercise her comedic chops + plus a resonant, uplifting message = a truly Big Idea.

The premise had its roots in an enduringly popular subgenre, one that had given birth to successful films throughout the decades. But this was a totally new spin that felt freshy, fresh, fresh. It incorporated all the things that we love about the genre, and added an element that has perennial Hollywood appeal.

Add detailing one step at a time will take you far.Goldie was convinced these were the magic beans that could sprout into a massive beanstalk; shooting up into the sky and leading to a wealth of treasures. Inevitably, there would be giants to contend with, but that would always be the case.

Goldie and the writer began developing the story in the Big Ideas Structure Template. When the writer turned in a new draft of the outline, they would go over every major beat and all the essential details, adjusting and honing. As the header and big beats became increasingly clear, that guided their decision-making on lesser details. Thus, absolutely everything contributed toward painting the same picture.

Ultimately, there was a solid outline from pithy title to apt final image, built step-by-step from the ground up. There were some smart, entertaining details stemming directly from the theme of story. To Goldie, this meant that there was a beanstalk now, heading up into the sky. They’d taken it as far as they could from the ground. At last, it was time to write.

The first draft played out just like the outline, however it came in a little on the thin side. Goldie gave the writer some specific story notes, pointed out lines she loved and moments that worked, as well as a few opportunities to take the comedy a step further. She asked the writer some pointed questions, where clarification was needed. Essentially, Goldie encouraged the writer to “fatten up” the next draft.

Writers often obsess about keeping their page count low, while witches – I… I mean readers – don’t actually relish scripts that are too scrawny. Well-chosen detail sets the scene beyond the rudimentary slugline, develops character, makes action distinctive, and enables the reader to envision character’s reactions. It conveys emotion by providing opportunities for actors to externalize subtext. Detail gives a script some healthy meat on its bones.

The writer, who had been intent on keeping the script quite slim, felt freed up by this feedback. The next draft was richer, while still remaining suitably lean. There was even a new scene, discovered in the writing process, which added a nice touch without throwing anything out of balance. Now Goldie felt that they could finally roll their sleeves up and take the script to the next level.

Goldie got truly in-depth with the writer with the notes on this draft. With all the elements working well, she wanted to focus on making every aspect of the execution as appealing as the premise itself.

Goldie and the writer concentrated on elevating the material on every level – from selecting words that most aptly conveyed the nuances; to exiting a scene on a great button; to taking familiar elements and brainstorming new spins to create the most clever version possible. The conventions of the genre had to meet and satisfy audiences’ expectations, while being executed in an original way, unique to this story.

Both Goldie and the writer felt their collaboration was truly productive. They discussed, debated and challenged each other to make even the most minor touches effectively contribute to the story as a whole.

When there was a creative choice that Goldie didn’t fully understand, she pushed the writer for answers. When those answers enhanced the story, then they worked together to ensure that what the writer envisioned was equally clear on the page.

Goldie awaited the new draft with high hopes but at the same time, the suspense was killing her. (Tension and suspense always keep us on the edge of our seats!)

The Devil IS In The Details

Although I’ve told you three “fractured fairy tales,” there really is only one story here, with just one moral:

To master the art of storytelling, one must become a master of detail.

In great storytelling, nothing feels random because nothing is random. Every significant detail is chosen for a specific reason and serves the premise in some manner.

Detail makes your work spring off the page. Detail makes your work vivid. Detail makes your work visceral. A great storyteller draws the distinction between detail that is extraneous and detail that is essential, detail that is decorative and detail that is defining, detail that is generic and detail that is distinctive.

Creating detail that is just right is only possible when the writer has a crystal clear vision of the story that they are setting out to tell. So was this all a commercial for outlining? Quite possibly, and I’m more than happy to extol its virtues. I’ve worked with both, and I’ll take pre-writing over rewriting any day.

In Goldilocks’ story, she kept trying things on for size before getting to what was “just right.” But a solid outline will shortcut your journey through the forest of what is too hot, too cold, too big, too small, too hard and too soft and help you head straight for the best choice for your story.

The End

Wait! Did Goldie make it to Grandmother’s house? Did Grandmother like the treats in Goldie’s basket? Did anyone live happily ever after?

Riding Off Into The Sunset Hollywood Style

I refuse to let my writers end pitches with a tease that they hope will intrigue a potential reader, rather than spilling the beans and delivering the goods to create a true hunger to read the script. However, this isn’t a fairy tale, and I can’t make up an ending that hasn’t yet been written.

Here is where things stand at the moment:

Boy Story – The writer has been sent off to rework the header, focusing on the fundamentals. He’s been challenged to then create an entirely new midpoint that truly fits the header. He swears that he will never write a screenplay again, until he has completed the outline. In the future, this will save him a lot of time and creative energy.

Bearanormal Activity – The writer has decided to shelve this piece to focus on a book she is writing. She feels she has a clearer idea of how best to use detail, but realize that this script can’t be saved until the concept is clear. She’s reading and dissecting good scripts to further develop her storytelling chops.

Witty Woman – The writer is commencing the third draft. Goldie has a very good feeling about this one. Best guess is that there will be some – but not oodles – of notes. A few tweaks and some polishing of newer material for the final draft. After that, Goldie has a manager in mind to be the first outsider to lay eyes on the script. A straight shooter whose opinion she respects, and who has strong relationships to draw on to package the project.

How will these three stories wrap up? I honestly don’t know, but I do know that the forest out there can truly be a jungle. On your journey, expect lions and tigers and bears, giants and dragons and wolves, pigs and Princes and witches, and hopefully a good twist or two.

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