Tag Archives: genre fiction

Stories that Sell

An email exchange brought something into focus that I want to stress to all screenwriters and novelists hoping to pitch a film, series, or novel. A story needs to be unusual, yet obvious. The audience should anticipate some, but not all, of the conflicts and the outline of the story from the basic elements you intend to bring together.

Here is one possible equation explaining my ideal story:

naturally “different” characters + unusual challenge + good setting = a pitch that writes itself.

1) If you have characters that are, by their natures, going to be in conflict at times, that’s interesting to watch. Don’t think about “good v evil” or “pro/ant” yet. Ask yourself, if I put these people in a room, on an island, side-by-side at work, et cetera, would there be a natural conflict? Think “The Odd Couple” sure, but also think about it in more depth.

The new show “Limitless” is doing a good job with this “fish out of water” conflict. “Chuck” was based on this, as are most sitcoms.

Consider the shows and films you enjoy. How far apart are some of the characters? You should find some opposites in good scripts. They don’t sound alike, act alike, or share the same values.

I had a showrunner tell me that for every three characters, at least one has to be the “fish out of water.” Two against one is apparently interesting. Pairings can also work (think “Will and Grace” sidekicks or “Cheers” with Cliff and Norm playing off Sam… or Diane… or everyone else). In film, differences have to be obvious from the character introductions. You don’t have episodes to reveal how far apart people are.

2) Unusual challenges are as unique and shocking as possible. The challenge has to be a situation that increases the likelihood of conflict. How does the challenge bring out the differences among characters even more? How does it place two characters in opposition? Again, avoid “good v. evil” because interesting “evil” is often sure it is “good” and merely has another perspective of what is best. (Not that pure evil is boring, either, but try to imagine the perspectives involved.)

If your logline is a basic challenge, one we’ve all read and seen, it won’t rise above the static. Catch the real killer? Blah. Defeat the evil dictator? Yawn. Expose the greedy, inhuman corporate executive? Double yawn.

Wait. Don’t those films and shows with “predictable” challenges get produced? Sure, but by established writers and directors. To break into the market, you need to be submitting something that stands above the muck that’s being made.

3) Give us a setting that is interesting, in place and time. TV takes the lazy way out and imagines big cities are inherently interesting to everyone. I love “M*A*S*H” for its use of setting on TV. Setting is probably the toughest of these to develop and make stand apart from what exists. (Bonus if you pull off the setting. Few do.)

Setting can drive the action. If the setting is the Titanic, we know what some part of the story will be. Put people in a closed, confined space, and you have an obvious conflict. That’s why space stations, undersea labs, and other isolated settings work so well for stories. Don’t select a “boring” or familiar setting unless there’s no other choice.

New York is not compelling by itself. Neither is a generic small town. The setting becomes interesting when you place people and events in the setting that doesn’t suit them. Trap a spy in a small village, where she falls in love. Put the country farmer in the big city, searching for something that is lost.

Now put these together and test how compelling your concept is.

Writing Fiction about Writing: Please, Stop!

“I’m making a movie about a young filmmaker.”

“My new play is about a struggling playwright in New York City.”

“I’ve written a great book about a romance writer.”

And then we have…

“My new screenplay is about a playwright….”

STOP IT. Please. Stop writing about being a writer and assuming other people care. Only other writers will tell you that a story about a writer is interesting. Generally speaking, writers aren’t that interesting. They sit and write. They send out query letters. They beg friends and family for money to make their films, produce their plays, and self-publish their unsold manuscripts.

Write about interesting characters. Not that some writers aren’t characters, but leave that for biographers. Plenty of artists (including writers) are fascinating train wrecks. If you’re writing about one of those famous drunks, addicts, or otherwise interesting writers with a great story, then ignore my pleas. Otherwise, get away from this self-exploration.

Write what you know? No. No. And again, no!

I don’t want actual psychopaths writing murder mysteries. We don’t need police stories written only by cops. It’s called research and creativity. Do fantasy writers know real unicorns and go shopping on the back of Pegasus? No. You write good stories about interesting characters facing unusual challenges.

Okay, I get that Murder She Wrote was about a writer, but it wasn’t the navel-gazing nonsense of a play about plays or a movie about making movies. Please stop writing about writers. It just feels lazy to write about a writer. It feels like you’re trapped by being a writer, in a writer’s world. Escape.

Someone told me, “But I’m supposed to write what I’d want to read.”

When you were discovering your passion for reading, I doubt it was through stories about other writers. Please, I hope not. I hope you were reading great works of fiction. I hope you were watching epic films and beautiful comedies. If those works you loved were about writers, expand your horizons.

Avoid writing films, plays, or books about writers, unless you have something beyond spectacular to share.

Writers and Silly Media Biases: Stories are Flexible

“This story is a movie. That other story needs to be a novel.”

One of my pet peeves is the common assumption among writers that particular types of stories are best suited to a single medium. This assumption belies either a lack of skill or a lack of understanding and appreciation for various media.

Cinderella can be a picture book, a novel, a short story, an animated short, a full-length feature, a musical, a play…. The possibilities for telling any story are limited only by the writer’s knowledge of a particular form and audience expectations. It is possible to tell the story of Cinderella without words. In fact, silent films, animations, and ballets exist without dialogue and yet audiences understand the story being told.

The basic story of Cinderella is well known in our culture. A young woman is raised by her selfish stepmother alongside two equally narcissistic sisters. A grand ball is announced, during which the Prince is expected to find a suitable wife from the nobility. The magic of a fairy godmother transforms Cinderella from a household servant into a beautiful lady, complete with fine glass slippers. For the rest of the story, I encourage you to read, watch, and listen to as many variations as possible.

A short story of Cinderella might not explain how the stepmother came to mary Cinderella’s father. A full-length novel or motion picture might explore the complex back story. A ballet would rely on the music and motion to convey thoughts, emotions, and the general plot. The original fairytale features some startlingly grotesque imagery, which contemporary children’s books and animated features have removed.

My point is that a well-known fairytale such as Cinderella can be adapted to any media by a talented writer. However, not every writer is a master of all forms and genres. I certainly could not score an opera or ballet based on Cinderella. Nor could I illustrate a word free picture book of the story. My limitations as a writer are not the limitations of the story.

Most early movies were adaptations of famous plays. Yet, I frequently hear screenwriters claim that a story is a “good play, bad movie.” Instead, a screenwriter should be considering how to tell the story maximizing the strengths of cinema.

A colleague posted the following to Facebook:
If your protagonist is a THINKER you have a BOOK.
If your protagonist is a TALKER you have a PLAY.
If your protagonist is a DOER you have a MOVIE.

The problem with the preceding simple checklist is that a main character can be adapted to doing, talking, or thinking based on the medium destination for the story. Sometimes, you must add a character or other device to allow thoughts to become dialogue. Sometimes, voiceover works well in a film and can reveal thoughts. Great directors can reveal thoughts with quick cuts and suggestive images. Never limit yourself by asserting any character is only one aspect of the above list.

We are all thinkers, talkers, and doers. Choosing which to emphasize is a choice made based on the form and genre selected by or for the storyteller.

As an aside, I also dislike the emphasis on the protagonist in the above list. Main characters may or may not be “protagonists” in the traditional sense of good versus evil. Equally important, opposing characters (antagonist, opposition, impact, muse, et al) can be adapted to any form and genre. Evil thoughts can be expressed in dialogue, or suggested through action, limited only by the skill of the writer.

When someone states that a movie was not as good as the book this can reflect either a bad movie or unusual expectations. The audiences for full-length novels might not be the same as the audiences for two-hour movies. However, it seems more likely that the adaptation is to blame for audience dissatisfaction. Nobody would try to compare the short story of Cinderella to a full-length feature film. Each medium must stand apart even when telling the same story.

Lose your media biases. Stories themselves are flexible, ready to be told in any medium by a talented storyteller, someone aware of that medium’s strengths and weaknesses. If you cannot see a story in a particular medium, maybe you aren’t the right choice for writing that adaptation. That is not an insult or a criticism. As I mention above, I’m not the best choice for any number of forms and genres. Know your strengths and tell the stories you want to tell in the medium or media you prefer.

Just don’t tell another writer that his or her story must be told in a particular medium, according to your biases.

Breaking Rules

Students, seminar attendees, and visitors to our online writing guide have complained that my insistence on knowing (and adhering to) traditional story structures ignores “real art” in favor of production and publication.

“You can break the rules after you master the rules,” I respond. “And then, only break them when you can defend the choice.”

Imagine my frustration when a play was rejected because it lacked the “journey” of the main character.

When I decided to write a play without a complete Hero’s journey, it was an intentional act (pun), a choice to parody a genre. There are characters in myth and legend that do not change. They don’t mature. Mocking that notion of the invariable being seemed promising.

One of the readers providing coverage clearly didn’t get the joke. The comments on the coverage sheet indicated the story needed a clear journey and transformation. Oops. My choice must not have been obvious.

There are two lesson: 1) breaking the formula is risky; 2) if the reader doesn’t know the original, parody doesn’t work.

The other reader did like the script and scored it “highly recommended,” but you need to run the gauntlet to be produced.

Both reviewers liked the dialogue, the wit, yet only one got the joke. That isn’t good. I’m not sure following the traditional formula would have helped.

Will I break the rules again? Of course. But I also understand the risks.

Marketing a Book (or any Creative Work)

You as a Brand

If you are a writer or artist of any kind, you are a brand. I tell my students, every person is a brand: you become associated with a product or service. Your reputation for integrity and quality will proceed you. I could write a long essay on the value of being honest, hardworking, and so on.

Writers rely on building a following, usually based on consistently good works. But, even that’s not enough. You also have to get people interested enough that they will read or see your works. Marketing matters.

One of the mistakes authors and artists make is assuming that a publisher, producer, agent, or someone else will deal with marketing and promoting the work — and your career. You might tell yourself, “My success is their success.” Unfortunately, you’re likely one of many. Yes, you might be viewed as a commodity by the people you expect to market you.

Agents, publishers, publishers… they do love you while your career is hot. Become the next big thing, and everyone will be more than happy to work to promote you. This is not because everyone is greedy or selfish; it is more complex. Since these people represent dozens, hundreds, or thousands of artists, they have to invest their energy (and money) wisely.

An author recently told me that he didn’t want to be the one promoting his works. It felt like pride or conceit to be claiming people should buy his book. As an artist, you created your work for an audience, though we sometimes tell ourselves differently. You must reach out to that potential audience, somehow.

The Marketing Steps

Step 1: Ask Permission

Be honest with your agent or others involved in promoting your work. Ask if you can do some of the legwork to promote yourself and your work. Keep things positive, explaining that you understand your work is one of many and you simply want to help.

Step 2: Review Existing Plans

You should know what has been or will be done to promote your work. Compare any existing plan to the remainder of this quick and simple marketing guide. Only do those things that won’t undercut the efforts of marketing experts. Just as you should let an editor do what an editor does best, let the marketing pro do his or her job. But… you might need to help fill in some gaps.

Step 3: Web Presence!

If you don’t have an “official” website and/or Facebook page, create those. (If you need help, we are available to guide you.) If your works are available on Amazon, also create an Amazon “Author’s Page” and link that to your other Web presences.

Have your online sites complete and ready before moving to the next steps. You should include links to your website and Facebook page within your email signature, on business cards, and in any marketing materials.

Step 4: Create a Media List

Create a list of the local media. Starting local is much easier than trying to contact national media. Start with local newspapers and broadcast media. Once you identify those organizations, identify particular columnists, reporters, and show hosts with a history of covering authors and artists. Sending press releases, marketing materials, and review copies of a work to “Editor” or “Manager” is ineffective. You need specific names. You also need to know enough that you can connect your work to others the media personality has mentioned.

Step 5: Write a Template Letter

Personal letters work better than press releases. Compose a template letter that can be customized to each media personality you hope to reach. The template will be the “body” of the letter, and then you will write custom openings and closings for each recipient. Today, most people will send an email. Still, use the template approach instead of sending “off-the-cuff” letters to strangers.

Step 6: Customize the Template

Your customized letters should begin with a mention of some the media personality has done that enjoyed and that connects to the work you are promoting. For example:

Your interview with Beverly Smith, author of Knights of Nowhere, was a great introduction to a master of young adult fantasy. As a fantasy author, I appreciated your respect for the genre. My new work, Middling Squire No Longer, was recently mentioned by Smith on her website.

End the letter with a similar connection to the personality.

Step 7: Contact… and Follow-Up

After you are satisfied with your template letter and the customized versions, start sending them. Send only two or three at a time, instead of sending every letter at once. Keep a week or two interval between the mailings, until you have contacted every media outlet on your list.

Two weeks after each mailing (or emailing), send one follow-up note to each personality contacted. Do not contact anyone a third or fourth time, unless you are asked to do so.

Step 8: Local Organizations

As you contact local media outlets, also begin compiling a list of local organizations with a history of having guest speakers. As a writer or artist, libraries and museums are certain to be on this list. Search online for other organizations, too. Sadly, many people have forgotten local service organizations are still active: Lions Clubs, Rotary, Soroptimists, and others. (Maybe you should join some groups, too.)

Additional Suggestions

Never say “No” to an interview or public appearance, no matter how small the group or media outlet. Remember, you need an audience — readers, viewers, listeners, et cetera. They have plenty of choices. Be accessible and it will be rewarded over time.

Help other writers and artists with kind words — and online links. On your website, Facebook page, and elsewhere, be sure to support other writers and artists.

Participate in any “niche” organizations related to your works. If you write romance, join the Romance Writers of America. If you are a playwright, join the Dramatists Guild of America. Connecting to colleagues builds a network that will help your career. Do not merely join groups, either — be an active member.

Be patient. Marketing takes time.

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