When my Iraq pilot ends, I want the audience to be different.
They’ll be different because they shifted. Because the characters shift. The audience identifies with the characters, forms a bond with them that pulls them up and down through the piece, changes them as the character changes.
Stories help us feel what it would be like to be in someone else’s shoes. They give us the gift of empathy, the gift of identifying from a different direction. A woman walks away identifying as a man.
You help your characters shift by making the powers that oppose them overwhelming. The more acute the opposition, the more we’ll feel the urgency of the situation, and the more vital and primal the bond we’ll form. That person struggles. I struggle. I understand how that person feels. A man walks away identifying as a woman.
In my pilot, male soldiers discover they have to work with women during active combat, and they feel dragged down, challenged, threatened, unsafe. The female soldiers feel unprepared, untrained, unwelcome, unsupported.
Most of them experience a shift. If the piece works, the audience identifies with them at the start and shifts along with them.
By the end, the characters circle near the feeling –
We are all women. And we are all men.
If the story works, my audience will feel that too.
Last year I wrote a pilot about modern day pirates that was set in Haiti. I chose Haiti because it’s one of the poorest countries on Earth — both left behind and close to home. I felt it was real life Sci Fi. The sense of place was an important part of the piece. Now Haiti has been destroyed a thousand times more — before it was a silent catastrophe in our midst, now it will be a devastatingly loud one. While I was writing, I felt frustrated because all I wanted to do was talk about it. And no one wanted to hear it.
Now I’m writing a pilot about Iraq, and everything’s that wrong over there feels overwhelming to me. Horrifying suicide rates among active duty soldiers and veterans. Sickeningly high sexual assault rates for female soldiers, by fellow soldiers — as high as 30%. Unnecessary civilian deaths. Unnecessary soldier deaths. Outrageously corrupt war profiteering. No one over there seems to know what we’re doing over there. This is all going on — and no one cares. No one wants to hear about it, no one wants to listen. No one gives a fuck. We are members of a democratic society who have orchestrated this, and by not rising up and expressing our outrage and ending this, we are responsible. A tragedy occurs in our midst, and we are responsible.
No one cares because the Iraq story is not acute. Like the Haiti story, it was just happening. It was horrific and terrible and outrageous, but there was no moment that was more horrific and terrible and outrageous than the next. There was no acute focus to the story, no lens to help us understand how to feel about it.
With Haiti, those people had always been crushingly poor and betrayed by corrupt leaders, right? How is one day different from the next? Many people have difficulty feeling empathy for people they don’t relate to — or they don’t find a way to relate to people whose plights aren’t right in front of them. Suddenly there’s a horrible earthquake — something that any of us might experience any day — it taps into our fears about our own safety — we could lose our homes just like they did, we could be wandering the streets just like them — then as we wallow in the disaster porn because it stirs up all those feelings so many of us yearn to feel every day but don’t have access to — empathy, understanding, fear, grief — feelings that get buried by everyday life’s efficiency and competency and need to look emotionally stable — disaster porn allows us to access all those feelings — and once accessed, we get it. Wait a minute, they were fucked before this horrible earthquake. They’ve been fucked for a very long time. I just wasn’t thinking about it. It took this acute story, the flurry of excitement, the urgency and concentration of focus centered on the need to find people, find shelter, find medical aid, find water, the sheer drama of it all — that’s what it took for us to care.
If there were a terrible earthquake in Iraq, would people care about the war?
The other big story this week has been the Leno/Conan/NBC war, with virtually everyone I know declaring for “Team Conan.” Both Team Leno and Team Conan are teams that do not hire any women writers. How is it possible that with all this media coverage, no one discusses that fact? If Conan O’Brien released a carefully worded statement declaring his intention to never hire women writers, there would be a public outcry. No one would join “Team Conan” then. However, by not declaring his intention but instead just doing it, no one calls him out on it, no one gives a fuck. It’s the Haiti, Iraq problem: the story is outrageous but not acute. People shrug it off as just the way it is. There’s no urgency, no face on the story — no highly qualified woman who should have gotten a job on the show and was told “we don’t hire women” walking out of the studio with a brave face. No disaster porn to allow people to access their empathy.
The lesson here is this: if you have an important story you want to spread, find a way to make it acute. Give it a face and a focus and make it urgent. Shape it into disaster porn.
I was watching this show that had a character with a damaged, gravelly voice. But they didn’t explain it at first, and I thought it was great. It was subtle, textured storytelling. Because it opened up this little mystery within the show that could have lead in many different directions — but the point is it was sticky. It was another little surface to grab our attention, to make us think and wonder and fill in our own explanations. It was a little hook that didn’t matter that much at all, but it did, because it added up to the whole. Immediately I was like “huh, this battle-hardened commander guy has a ruined voice. Is that typical? Was he gassed in Vietnam? Do years of being exposed to the toxins of war do that to your voice? Is that supposed to symbolize the character?” A tiny moment lead me down a long path.
Then later, one of the voice-guy’s soldiers: “What happened to your voice?” “Throat cancer.” “Were you a smoker?” “Nope. Just lucky I guess.”
Clunk. They solved the mystery for us, instead of leaving it for us to do. They explained too much. They acted as journalists, rather than storytellers.
Here are ten different ways they could have handled that information better (not to be used in combination):
1. Never explain the character’s voice. This is the boldest choice, and one that probably wouldn’t fly with the network. But it’s most interesting because it allows us to fill in the gaps. When no explanation is given, the possibilities we come up with are far more dramatic than reality.
2. The character drops frequent references to throat cancer in a conscious manner. When this guy says something like “those insurgents are gonna feel like they just had chemo rammed down their throats” we’ll get it.
3. The character makes reference to throat cancer in an unconscious manner. Voice-guy would be talking about the situation and say something like “they’re like parasites that invade the organism. You don’t even know they’re there. You’ve always got to be on patrol.” We catch a reaction shot on the men to see if this registers on any of them — see them glancing at his throat, and wondering what happened to him.
4. Voice-guy speaks in a manner that really strains his voice. Juxtapose with other characters wondering if you can get throat cancer from the toxic chemicals associated with war. Never explicitly link the two, because that’s dull.
5. Voice-guy’s wife seems very concerned about his health. We don’t know why, or don’t find out why until she reveals it bit by bit.
6. Voice-guy takes medicine compulsively — or someone has to remind him to.
7. Voice-guy seems hyper-aware of certain elements in the environment that non-cancer survivors wouldn’t be aware of. Like, ducking below clouds of toxic smoke.
8. Take the other tack as the one above — voice-guy seems to have a death wish. He’s a Marine and he resents any reminders of his mortality. He rushes head-on into the fray, cancer be damned. Little reminders of his illness crop up, however, like his damaged voice and other physical reminders — getting winded, being unable to stand long periods — that tell us SOMETHING IS WRONG without having to say “I have cancer.” We get it.
9. Voice-guy lectures his men about not smoking and looking after their health. He even mentions that he never smoked, but that’s not the only thing you have to worry about.
10. Voice-guy envies a guy his age/rank who is in perfect health. We see that there is no reason for him to have a damaged voice. We see him feel the loss of his perfect health. We see him lose the attention and respect of his troops as he feels unable to speak to them. We intuit that he has a disease.
These may be too oblique, depending on the piece. But there are many ways the information could have been delivered that would have held our attention and kept us guessing. Telling us outright helps us change the channel.
You don’t want to know what I think. You want to know that I never stop worrying about my career, my future. I never feel safe.
You want to know that relationships leave me feeling unsettled, like I never know when the other shoe will drop. And that I keep editing this piece about relationships. That’s how uncertain I feel about my place in the world.
You want to know that I’m afraid I spend too much time alone. But that I feel like I can’t afford to spend any less time writing, if I have any hope of getting my career off the ground.
You want to hear about how I’ve been so focused, so determined, so intense this year, that I’m afraid a hardness is setting in. And how that doesn’t feel like who I am — how I’m soft and vulnerable by nature, or I used to be. Before my entire life became devoted to finding safety, securing my future. Finding writing jobs.
Maybe you want to know that I both love sex and fear it. I don’t want to feel that way. Maybe you don’t want to know.
Maybe you want to know that I feel adrift in the world. Distant and disconnected. I feel increasingly distant from my parents — both concerned about them and unable to help them. I’ve felt distant from my sister for many years.
Maybe you don’t want to know that this blog scares me — though it’s good for my inner life, my writing life, because here I force myself to get big and bold and confrontational and honest — it makes me feel naked in public, like I’m doing emotional porn — and it makes me feel connected to people in a way I don’t trust. When I share these carefully edited, raw glimpses inside me, it’s easy for people to think they like me. But I don’t show all the stuff you wouldn’t like. That’s the next step.
Story functions to deliver vulnerability: when it operates efficiently, we feel what you feel. Problems rise when you’re afraid to let us feel what you feel. Because of pride, shame, fear of exposure, ego, or because you don’t really know what you feel. You throw wrenches in the cogs or you drain the oil or you cover the whole machinery with a tarp because you don’t really want to get vulnerable. You resist the function of story, the very reason you set the machine to running.
Would you run up to a person and say “I have something really important to tell you — listen to this –” and then turn your back, cross your arms and scowl? Maybe you would, that tells a certain kind of story. But it doesn’t tell much. And that’s what you do when you tell a story that doesn’t deliver vulnerability. You shut off the audience, deny them access to you. You may still speak, but they can’t hear you.
Most protagonists are common folks, down on their luck, in the middle of crisis — we encounter them when they’ve lost a child, lost a job, hate their job, hate their spouse, can’t find love, hate their parents, don’t have parents, don’t have a country — and then something really bad happens to them, the action of the story. They’re low to start because they’re vulnerable, so we can access them. In stories, characters’ external circumstances reflect their internal circumstances. This is true of life as well. If you want to show that a character feels distant and disconnected, have her write a blog post like this one. Well, maybe not — the act of writing is difficult to dramatize. Perhaps have her attempt to teach these things to a mentoring student who has contempt and doesn’t listen and then have her emerge to find her car has been stolen. And she doesn’t know who to call.
If you did one thing today that felt like a risk, where you felt exposed, where you left yourself open to criticism in public, you left a placeholder in your heart that keeps that spot open when you sit down to tell stories. You drive wedges in there day after day to keep your heart open. Let your story machine function as it should: remove the wrenches and tarps, replace the oil. The story that pops out will run fast, function on max capacity.
We watch for the mystery. All stories have a mystery. Sometimes we don’t notice because the mystery sucks.
Love stories — The mystery is who is going to love who in the end, and why? There should be genuine doubt about who is going to wind up together, and why, and how. If there isn’t, you’re writing porn. We should care about this mystery — this is the pleasure of love stories. See Jane Austen.
Dramas — The mystery here lies in who the characters really are versus who they say they are and who they think they are — see Mad Men — or in us making discoveries about the character’s world at the same time she does. The protagonist is in trouble — how is she going to get herself out of it?
Crime/Thrillers/Action/Sci Fi — These have mystery built in, or they should. How are we going to solve this big fucking problem? What’s really going on here? Good to have competing mysteries — say, the overarching mystery of the situation and the mysteries of characters’ identities and the mysteries of love stories. As for the overarching mystery, see my joke’s on them post — the joke is always on the main characters, and the mystery here is figuring out how to get them out from under the punchline.
Our mission as detectives is to solve the mystery — by finding out what happens next. If the story doesn’t compel us on this journey, doesn’t send us racing to the finish, we need to shave clutter and bulk up clues and foreshadow and raise the stakes so that nothing matters more than solving this big, interesting mess.
This is what fancy pants comedy writers talk about in the writers rooms of famous shows: First Thought, Second Thought, Third Thought.
First thought is what everyone thinks of. It’s the joke that 20 people post on Twitter or Facebook. It’s “any relation? Ha ha” when they hear your name is Bush. It’s the first joke that springs to mind — what a lot of people might think is funny. Problem is, comedy relies on surprise. Once you’ve spent any time laughing at jokes, first thought jokes are no longer funny. Because they’re not surprising. They pop into everyone’s heads immediately because we’ve all heard them before. The first thought joke for the picture above would be — “I said medium rare.”
Second thought is what only a few people think of. You take the first thought and build on it — make it more outrageous, more extreme, more prosaic, more defined. Or go in a new direction. If first thought was kind of hacky (meaning obvious, direct, familiar, easy), change course for second thought and take a new angle on the subject. Go literary, go personal, go dirty, go big instead of small (or vice versa), go against the grain of the subject. Second thought is what only a few people think of, because they’re creative and original enough to see things abstracted at that next level. Second thought joke for the picture above would be — “It comes with its own special sauce.”
Third thought is what only you think of. Third thought is what happens when you take second thought and build on it even further, creating a whole new animal. Or you blow past first and second thought altogether and find a completely original, fresh take on the subject that only you, with your unique set of experiences and emotional make-up, could have seen. There’s a reason why so few people make it to third thought: it’s difficult to discipline yourself to always search for the fresher take, to hold out for the joke that only you could have thought of. And you’re not going to make it on every joke. But trying for third thought every time is what will shift your comedy writing to the next level. Third thought joke for the picture above would be — “Aunt Dot’s gonna put her money where her mouth is.”
For most good comics, third thought is automatic. They immediately see and discard all the first thought jokes, they may consider a few second thought jokes, then they land on the third thought joke that’s really them. That’s how they become known for having a unique voice — because everything they say is something just they would say.
Storytelling is comedy writing that isn’t necessarily trying to be funny. Using the tricks of comedy writing — like first thought, second thought, third thought — will sharpen your stories.
Here’s the difference between fiction and non-fiction: fiction evokes emotion. Non-fiction conveys information.
As storytellers, we side with fiction.
Even if you write articles or blog posts or biographies or State Department briefings, you convey information by transporting your reader emotionally. You sacrifice telling them everything in favor of telling them enough, in the right way, so they’ll be moved. Or engaged. Or entertained.
Here’s what got me thinking about this: I put aside the pilot for a few days because I wanted to do a quick pass on this novel before sending it to some people. I cut and resisted cutting and finally realized that in fiction — if it doesn’t follow the emotional throughline, it doesn’t belong there. No matter how interesting or informative or important-seeming or beautifully written — if the writing doesn’t build to the emotional whole, it must be cut.
All stories are fiction.
The purpose of story is not to inform. It’s to transport. We don’t engage the heart and senses when we fill someone in on everything they need to know. If it’s important, they’ll get it because it comes attached to something a character cares about. Descriptions of place don’t matter, but a character might be devastated then notice her vicinity in a way that echoes what she’s feeling. That’s the only way that descriptions of place matter: how they reflect our insides.
We’re not reading travel guides. We’re reading metaphor guides, travel guides inward. This is the function of story.
Had a dream where my back was turned and someone stole my couch, coffee table and computer.
Wrote in my journal: “I couldn’t believe they were able to take such big stuff so quickly.”
This line resonated with me. I’ve been working on a pilot about Iraq that’s affecting me deeply. I felt this line spoke to my experience writing this pilot and what I imagine to be soldiers’ experiences over there.
I decided to develop a scene where my female combat soldiers are outside the wire for the first time with their Marine comrades. The Marines leave them to guard the Humvee while they rip apart a house to find an insurgent. Iraqis create a diversion on the street, distracting the females just long enough for the Iraqis to steal something big — haven’t figured out what yet. A weapon, something significant. Maybe even the translator they were guarding.
When the Marines return to find they’ve lost something their first day on the job, the females are humiliated (though they shouldn’t be considering they were never trained for missions outside the wire). The main character says some version of that line from my journal later to her girls — “I couldn’t believe they were able to take such big stuff so quickly.” In the end, this line might be too on the nose, and it’s certainly awkward as written in my journal, but for now it stands as an emotional placeholder — a way to go deep.
The scene rings early on in the script as a warning bell for what they’re going to lose on the inside.
“Make the screwing scene advance the story,” the producer said. “Wherever the story stands when the actors start banging each other, I want it to have moved to the next level by the time they finish.”
In other words, he said, if it’s a private eye and his gorgeous client, by the time they finish, their relationship has to have advanced—she confesses something, he reveals some secret, whatever. The story has “turned” and mounted to a higher level.
This was the porn producer’s first instruction to young Stephen Pressfield, who would go on to write “The War of Art ” — a must-read primer on how to overcome your blocks — as well as “The Legend of Bagger Vance” and many other fine things. The other instruction was:
“Never write me a sex scene where nothing happens but the sex. Always have something else going on at the same time.”
Example: “The wife is getting it on in the bedroom with the horny carpenter. Now the husband comes home unannounced. He enters the front door. The husband doesn’t know the wife and the carpenter are in the bedroom. They don’t know the husband has just come in the front door. Now we’ve got something! We can cut back and forth and milk the suspense. It’s not just two people screwing, see? And when the husband discovers what his old lady’s up to, we’ve advanced the story!”
“Sex scene” can mean “action scene” or “emotional outpouring” or “exposition dump.” Whatever the thrust of the scene, give it a layer of tension and suspense and depth by adding another complication, ideally one that contrasts the tone and tells us something new about a different side of the story.
Pressfield went into the meeting prepared to condescend to this man who was about to give him a job. Instead, he received insightful storytelling advice that he went on to use in every piece he ever wrote.
Seeing the story transpire firsthand makes us witnesses. We participate. Instead of hearing the characters relate how they think and feel about what happened, we witness what happened and we relate how they think and feel for them. We tell their story for them, in our minds and to each other. When a character talks, she takes the witness stand, and we nod out in the spectator seats. When we watch her act, we take the witness stand, sitting upright and paying attention to detail and thinking carefully about what we know of her thoughts and feelings so we can get the story right.
When the entire story happens in the minds of the audience — with the audience as witness — audience becomes storyteller. We care more, we’re invested more, we believe more what we see with our own eyes. Because we’re in the witness stand now. We’re the real stars of the show now — we’re telling the story.
Whenever you can, let your audience tell the story. Give us all the information we need, and let us piece it together. Then it’ll be ours. You have no greater goal.