So. There is the story you intend to write and the story you end up writing.
And it’s important to make sure you don’t settle for something you didn’t intend to write.
I’ve learned two things to do to make sure I write the story I intended, and not the one that was easy to just settle for.
1) I keep a one-line summary of what I expect from the story at the top of my outline. At the top of my synopsis. And on a Post-It note (the trustiest of all reminders).
One of my more recent stories had a one-liner like this next to me: “Gilmore Girls meets Lifetime Movie meets Nerdier Indiana Jones dealing with INEPTITUDE.”
Notice that I’m not using the tried and true character plus conflict plus hidden shadow plus antagonist’s outer shadow (or whatever gobbly gook we’ve picked up from 100 writing books over the years). Sometimes, over-thinking this part of the story—the “What do I intend to write”—can get muddied by over-thinking it.
Go back to your childhood roots of watching awesomely bad TV that hooked you (TJ Hooker anyone?). To your worst moments that still stand by you and you’re trying to work through (those moments of being inept aren’t high on anyone’s list, I’m thinking).
So you need a line that hits you in the gut. And Gilmore Girls, Lifetime movies, Indiana Jones, and ineptitude? They all hit my gut, remind me of why I wanted to write this story, and keep the lighter fluid going on the fire.
2) I study how screenwriters & directors create some of the most spot-on revisions for some of my favorite movies and shows. The kind of revisions that created stories that socked me in the gut.
Unlike book writers, screenwriters (the story editors) and the directors (the story manipulators) have to weed through all that prose/exposition/tangents/side plots that never make it on the screen in order to find the root of what the story is all about.
I’m going to show you what I mean via these two fabulous stories:
Groundhog Day and Outlander.
Groundhog Day, as originally written, was supposed to come right out and say:
1) Phil had been cursed by an angry extra girlfriend to relive the same day over and over again.
2) He was stuck in this loop for 10,000 years.
Can you imagine knowing these things in the Groundhog Day that we saw? It would’ve changed the tone of the whole movie, making it about this curse and also being absolutely floored with knowing how long he was in this loop—and it sticking in our heads and perhaps ruining our enjoyment of the movie as we kept thinking “Poor, poor, POOR sap!”
WHAT THIS MEANS FOR YOUR WRITING: Do you need to share everything you know about your story, or will it ruin the feel of the story, aka, the story you meant to write? There’s an adage that you could give the same story cue to 100 students and they’d write 100 different stories. For instance, imagine it was 1980 and you told a roomful of students: “Write me a story about a boy wizard who lives with his hateful aunt and uncle and who is then summoned to a wizarding school to learn how to fight the warlock who tried to kill him.”
How many are going to write JK Rowling’s Harry Potter? Uh, none. (Unless JK Rowling is in there, and maybe not even then if she didn’t have all the experiences she’d gone through yet.)
Oh Outlander, how much do I love thee? Let me count the ways. Sigh.
Sorry. I got distracted for a moment. The pic above is one of my absolutely favorite scenes in the show.
I love watching this series because the director will discuss what he did to help move the story along—about which characters he gave extra scenes to so the viewer understands them more or the plot points he cut so that we could get back to the story the viewer wanted to see faster. (History is all well and good, but give us Jamie and Claire arguing and making up—sigh!)
WHAT THIS MEANS FOR YOUR WRITING: Every scene should keep at the forefront what this story is about. I read a series that had a first book that floored me—it was utterly fantastic. But the rest of the series? The author had no idea what had made that first book so fantastic!
To help you remember what makes your story what it needs to be, you can apply #1 help you out. Let’s take a look:
Curmudgeonly Walter Matthau-type meets corn-fed town and corn-fed girl meets weird continuous loop situation dealing with GETTING NICER.
Florence Nightingale feminist meets alpha-male Highlander feminist dealing with TRUE LOVE.
Putting down words to hit word count is not a story that’s coming from your heart and soul. It’s the story that’s coming from your brain. It’s up to you to dig deeper to create the story that resonates. Will you succeed? As Maya Angelou has stated:
“Do the best you can do until you know better, then when you know better, do better.”