Story Shorthand

screenwriting, storytelling, T.V. writing

Fiona Akerman

I used to write slowly. As a novelist, I would meander, let myself go, simmer, get stopped up, go around in circles, find my way again and again. I still do that, I just do it very fast now.

If you’re on a deadline, but want to write a rich story fast, here’s a shorthand:

Every character gets an arc that hits at least three beats:

  • We meet them when they’re low — or don’t know yet they’re about to take a big fall.
  • They struggle with a new challenge.
  • They change as a result.

Show each of these beats in a scene or scenes consisting of:

  • a visual image
  • an emotion
  • a question in the mind of the audience — what comes next?

Weave these scenes together like a building conversation: each scene interviews the next, asking a more insistent question that’s only partially answered by the next, which answers a question with its own question in turn. Building in speed and intensity.

Every moment in your story is a great moment — if it’s not, lose it.

If you’re on a tight deadline, you can use this shorthand to develop a pretty tight story. Once you’ve got the story down, you canĀ get profound.

Follow The Emotion, Cut The Rest

drama, screenwriting, storytelling, T.V. writing

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.