Category Archives: Story

How to Put ‘the Magic’ in Your Writing

Recently, I had the pleasure of interviewing a songwriter who has been behind some of the top pop hits in the last decade. Something he said in regards to the writing process hit close to home:

“If it (the content) is just okay, but it doesn’t feel like magic, then find something else, don’t waste your time, on writing.”

Feel like magic. That’s what it’s supposed to feel like, isn’t it?

What encouraged me was the fact that even after so many years writing songs for A-list artists, he still judges his writing by the magic. As creative professionals it can be hard to keep that magic front and center in the work we do for others. But the magic – and finding it – is the key to what makes our work stand head and shoulders above the rest.

So how do you know if something has the magic?

I know one thing: you can’t create magic. You can receive it and you can refine your work until the magic comes through – but it is not something you can order and have served up in your work. You can’t layer it on top. It has to emerge organically. And it comes by listening.

Listening.

Getting quiet. Paying attention. Asking questions. Asking for guidance. And listening to what you hear, to what you feel, to what your intuition is telling you. From the Story, from the Characters, from the work, from your Spirit.

Magic evades us most when we are striving. When we disconnect from Spirit and push, pull, tug and coerce creative results.

This is one of the key risks in revision and one we need to be very careful about. Revision has the potential to delete the magic. And while you need to revise (revise, revise, revise) you also need to know your Story and Characters well enough to know which parts are magical and which parts aren’t. It’s the magical scenes and dialogue that give Story its soul.

How do you know which scenes those are?

By how they make you feel.

Chances are that if a scene you’ve written moves you emotionally, it’s carrying magic. Not everything in a script or novel is going to evoke emotion. When we’re writing a script, we see every page, every scene, every word in it’s long form.

We do not see it condensed down into film, with actors, sound and editing to carry the emotional tone through 90 minutes.

So we need to be aware of which scenes and dialogue carry the magic and protect those.

Magic flows most freely in the first draft, so mine it for gold. Magic also flows during revision when characters share scenes with you that you weren’t aware of before. In a script, the magic is in the characters. So you have to listen to them and let them express it.

And if you’re not feeling the magic?

Don’t waste your time. Don’t write something that just doesn’t speak to your own soul. If you’re on assignment, and you have to write the story given to you, then pay very close attention and listen to the character’s hearts. Let them give you the magic. Ask them for it. Give them room to find it amongst themselves.

It’s there.

 

 

 

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Writers: Are You Giving Your Work Everything it Needs to Survive?

“I like to say that I write poems for a stranger who will be born in some distant country hundreds of years from now. This is a useful notion, especially during revision. It reminds me, forcefully, that everything necessary must be on the page.

I must make a complete poem – a river-swimming poem, a mountain-climbing poem. Not ‘my’ poem, if it’s well done, but a deeply breathing, bounding, self-sufficient poem. Like a traveler in an uncertain land, it needs to carry with it all that it must have to sustain its own life—and not a lot of extra weight, either.”  Mary Oliver, A Poetry Handbook, pg 110.

For those who are not familiar with Mary Oliver, she is one of the most prolific and enduring nature poets in America. Her writing connects the human spirit to the lessons and inspiration of the natural world in an easily accessible way. She also writes in A Poetry Handbook that each of her poems goes through 50 – 60 revisions before it’s ready to stand on its own.

Wow, are you that dedicated to your creative work?

It got me thinking about what our work needs from us to survive on its own. Particularly for screenwriters who are the First Trustee of the Story and must give that initial script everything it needs to sustain its own life in an uncertain land of development and production. But Oliver’s words also inspired me to think about how committed (or not) we are to our projects. Fifty revisions on a poem. That’s a lot of time, but even more so, a lot of focus and commitment to ensuring that each word, each placement of each word, is at its strongest, most efficient location and thrumming with power. Fifty revisions explains why Oliver’s writing simply sings off the page, why you never stumble over it, why it seems to sink straight down into your soul. It connects.

I revise a lot. I can’t imagine writing without revision. I do believe that you have to trust your first instinct in a first draft and let the story pour itself out – but then you bring the craft of writing into play. You take on the executive role of making decisions that will shape and anchor your story into a well-polished piece. You move things around, question the intent behind dialogue, get your characters to explain to you what they mean emotionally and what they aren’t telling you, and you choose the most effective way to retell their story. And once you have revised it through several drafts, you get a second-set-of-eyes to have a look and bring fresh insight into it. You take what agrees with the story’s purpose and you revise, revise, revise.

I used to wonder how I would know when a story was finished. I’ve found that the Story will tell you when it’s finished. You’ll sense it. You’ll know that it’s right, it’s ready, it has everything it needs. You’ll know when you’ve come up against all that you have to give it. You’ve done your very best. But that knowledge ONLY comes from having revised, revised, revised.From having the patience and the tenacity to take the time to give the story what it needs.

What do stories need from us to sustain their own life?

As Oliver so eloquently said: “everything necessary must be on the page.”

If someone in a foreign land in a few hundred years reads your story, will they ‘get it’? Scripts don’t need to be bogged down with minute detail (unless it furthers the story), but I do believe what Oliver is referring to here is the essence of the meaning of the story. Will a reader connect to the human emotion of the story, even if they can’t understand the jargon or cultural references? They should be able to.

Another way to check if your story can stand on its own is to “turn off” all the dialogue and see if you can still follow the storyline. You should be able to “view” it and get it. When I first lived in Sarajevo, I was in a small studio apartment and would watch French dramas with Bosnian subtitles. I didn’t understand either language. There were films that I could follow quite well and others that were impossible to follow without the dialogue.

Actions speaks louder than words and should be able to carry a script’s story. That’s not to say that dialogue isn’t vital and important, but the actions should back up the dialogue well enough to let the story stand on its own.

Giving your story everything necessary means ensuring the core story is present so that if and when the dialogue and actions are changed, the core story can still be expressed and understood. Remember, there is always more than one way to tell a story and get the same message across. The core story is the message. That’s what you need to nurture. That’s what needs everything necessary.

Take some time to ponder what “everything necessary” is for your story, your work. How can you ensure your story will survive without you?

You Hold the Power…Yes, YOU

In creative work, we get used to looking toward others – agents, managers, publishers, producers – as the people who have the power and the responsibility to make us successful. And while these people play an important role in the business of creative work, they have less power than you think over your career.

(Now, if you’re an agent, manager, publisher or producer, don’t get me wrong – your work is invaluable and needed. We appreciate you – and if you aren’t being appreciated, you should be.)

What I’m talking about here is what I call the “you” factor.

Think about the best performances, most moving books, the films scenes you can’t forget, music that really swept you into emotion. What do they all have in common?

Individuals who brought the full force of their souls into their work.

People who didn’t shrink, hide, play it safe emotionally. People who felt something real and deep when they created their work.

Yes, the most powerful creative people are powerful because they understand that the weight of their soul is what makes the difference. It’s what people respond to. Business decisions don’t always get made based on this, mind you, but if you’re creating solely for the income you might receive and not because creating is simply who you are…then you should rethink if this line of work is what will bring you the most joy.

You are the key to your best work. Your soul. Who you are. That uniqueness that is you. All the emotion, struggle, pain, joy and summation of your lifetimes of experience.

You are the most important factor in your work. Technique, craft, tips, practice – these are essential, yes. And they can teach you to create high-quality work. But in the midst of it all, only your soul has the power to connect us and elevate your work to its highest level.

We need that from you. You have it to give.

So take a risk, put your soul into it. Have something to say. Say it. Show it.

Connect us to you.

 

Screenwriters: Are You Writing for the Wrong Audience?

When you write a novel, you write for your final readers – the consumer who will purchase your book. You don’t write for an agent or an editor or anyone else.

When you write a screenplay, however, you write knowing your final viewer will never see it. So who are you writing for?

While we screenwriters envision our version of our stories on the screen, our real job is storytelling. Because we are telling a story that others will pick up and retell – adding their own twists and turns, making it their own in their telling of it. And ultimately, it will land in a director’s hands who will “catch the vision,”see it through his or her creative lens and bring the story to life through the cast and crew. This can sound incredibly frightening when you think of how intimately you know your characters, their stories, what they’re after. And how hard you’ve worked at creating scenes that tell that story. And you’re right, it is a matter of trust.

But it is also a matter of perspective. If you write solely with the idea that your words on the page will be the final result, you miss the full weight of what you can contribute and do with the story for the other creative professionals it will be entrusted to.

As I’ve said before, a screenwriter is the first trustee of the story.

We have certain responsibilities that no other creative professional – not even additional writers – can fulfill.

We carry the honor of “origin” – the story first presented itself to us and no one will ever know that original story better than we will. But, stories are more than description, action and dialogue – all stuff that can and most likely will be changed.  So what is that we have that others don’t?

The meaning of the story.

Theme.

When someone else “catches the vision” of your script – it’s the theme they catch. They may or may not like the way you’ve told the story, but if they catch the theme, they’ll respond to it. If that theme resonates with them creatively, spiritually and financially, they’ll pursue it. Because at the heart of this business is storytelling. And theme drives story.

So what do our colleagues need from us?

1. A soul-driven story.

This means that your characters have human qualities, seem realistic to our emotions and move from a place of pain, need, hunger to growth, truth, and freedom. It means you write your own soul into it. You put the “humanness” into the story.

2. A story they can shape.

A well-crafted story has shape and is malleable. Actors and directors will bring life to your story that words on paper never can achieve – and they do that by being individuals and bringing their best creativity to the process. If you give them leeway in a script by giving them a solid theme-based story that they can spark ideas off of, they will. They’ll work with what you’ve presented, work with the characters, and create scenes that best present the theme.

3. Willingness to let go and let them.

If you’ve carried the theme well in your script, you’ll have faith that it will be carried into the final version of the story. Scenes, dialogue, description may change, but the story will a solid foundation to stand on and you will be able to trust others as they take responsibility for it. Remember, there’s always more than one way to get a message across. It’s the message (theme) that counts.

4. Understand their roles in the process.

As writers it’s too easy to get trapped inside our part of the process. We need to learn more about the people who will be the other trustees of the story.We need to understand their roles in the creative process and how they use the script as a working document.

Mark Travis‘s book Directing Feature Films gives a wonderful presentation of a director’s perspective of the script and the process a director may go through to capture that vision and continue the trust of the story. (He also has a very caring, respectful attitude toward writers and actors, which is refreshing and nurturing.) Exploring the craft of the other creative professionals who will be entrusted with the story is essential to understand what it is they need from you in the original script.

When you write from the perspective of theme – then you free yourself from the weight of seeing every word as “do or die” – and can tell the story in a solid way that presents the  meaning of the story through the spiritual problems, growth and fulfillment of the characters. How that happens in the story may change. But the essence of the story will remain. And that’s where writers can find the deepest fulfillment. Knowing that our job is to present a powerful, moving story that touches the human spirit and inspires others to share it with the world, too.

 

 

 

Called to Be a Liberating Blessing

Set aside your “religious” affinities for a moment and ponder the soul-truth in this:

Abraham and Sarah are called to be a blessing to the world (Genesis 12:2); Moses is called to be a liberator (Exodus 3:10). The two are not different. The ultimate blessing is the blessing of freedom, the blessing of liberation from Mitzrayim (Egypt); literally, “the narrow places” of life, the places of egotism and hubris, the places of arrogance and ignorance. It is this blessing-through-liberation that David is referencing when he says, “The Lord is my shepherd.” When you recite this psalm (Psalm 23), you realize that God is your shepherd as well; that you, no less than Abraham, Sarah, Moses, and David, are called to be a liberating blessing for the world.

A liberating blessing for the world.

What does that mean in your life? In your work? In why you do what you do?

Read Rabbi Rami Shapiro’s full article  “The Path of Love” published in Spirituality & Health magazine here.

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