How Porn Teaches You How To Tell A Story

screenwriting, storytelling, T.V. writing

“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.

Read more at Pressfield’s blog here.