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.

Photo by Internet Archive Book Images

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.

Enhanced by Zemanta