Choosing Your StoryScreenwriting Lecture by Stephen J. Cannell
Choose a story you absolutely love. Don't write for money. Write because you have to get this one down on paper. Don't settle for second best.
Make this one promise to yourself: Once I have worked out my story and have started to write it, I will not stop until the project is finished. NO QUITTING halfway through because "it's not working." This is my second most important rule, which I call the MISSION IMPOSSIBLE RULE.
When I was twenty-five and writing spec scripts that weren't selling, I was also writing a lot of unfinished manuscripts. I'd get into them and they would stink and I would become discouraged and stop... YOU GET NOTHING FROM AN UNFINISHED PROJECT, AND YOU LEARN NOTHING. I made another rule for myself; I promised I'd never again start writing something that I didn't finish.
The very next idea I got was for a spec script for the television series Mission Impossible. I still remember the title I came up with: THE WORLD BANK IS BEING ROBBED. I thought, come on! The World Bank? How cool is that? Nobody's done the World Bank, perfect for Mission Impossible. I started the script without fully working out my story. I got into it, and I realized that at its core, the World Bank was just a bank. Let's face it, banks are essentially dull. I was ten pages into a caper about accountants. Ugggh. I started to throw it in the trash and do something else, when I remembered my new rule. I decided I was going to make myself finish the thing all the way to FADE OUT.
I restructured the story. I worked on the character arc, I redesigned the back-story, threw away most of the initial ten pages and kept trucking.
A week later I had a finished, but very mediocre, sixty-page, hour long script for Mission Impossible, entitled "The World Bank is Being Robbed." It was not something I wanted to submit, but at least I had finished it. I put it in my bottom desk drawer where it started turning yellow.
What did I learn? The most important lesson of my young writing career: CHOOSE YOUR STORIES CAREFULLY BECAUSE FROM NOW ON YOU WILL BE STUCK WITH THEM.
Don't write something until you've thought it out and plotted it completely, then don't stop till it's done. The day I chose to finish that horrible script, was the day I started on my road to success. Since then, I have never started anything and thrown it out mid-way. Everything I start, I finish. It's one of the reasons I'm considered so prolific. I don't waste time on false starts.
1. TEST THE PREMISE WITH SOME SMART PEOPLE YOU TRUST. SUPPORTIVE INTELLIGENT FEEDBACK CAN BE VALUABLE.
2. THE BURDEN WEIGHS UPON THE WRITER TO PROVIDE FOR THE AUDIENCE, AND NOT THE OTHER WAY AROUND. WRITERS WHO SCORN RATHER THAN RESPECT THEIR AUDIENCE WILL NEVER HIT THE LONG BALL.
I once had a young writer come to me and say, "Help me compose a story for an episode of Adam-12." (A 70s Jack Webb police show I had worked on the year before). I asked the writer why she wanted to write for Adam-12, a show I always enjoyed writing. Her answered surprised me. "I want to write it because it looks easy." Wrong answer! I told her to pick something she really cared about and then come see me.
3. YOU MUST BE WORTHY OF YOUR AUDIENCE. WRITE SOMETHING THAT MERITS THEIR TIME AND ATTENTION. DON'T BE BORING. AIM HIGH; STRETCH YOURSELF.
With my new novel Riding the Snake I was stretching. When I started researching, I knew very little about the culture and customs of China. Triads, Tongs and their machinations were new territory for me. I also chose to write an interracial love story between my two protagonists, an African-American female, ghetto-born homicide detective, and a white, Beverly Hills millionaire's son. Two people born fifteen miles from each other, but culturally and ideologically worlds apart. I felt okay with Wheeler, my male protagonist because I was raised in an upper middle class country club environment. And of course I know how a homicide investigation works and how cops talk. But could I write from inside Tanisha's head believably? Could I catch her internal thoughts, fears and rhythms, etc? These were writing challenges that I embraced with full knowledge that I might fail. Of course, I didn't tackle the character of Tanisha cold. I had help. I did my research, which included a lot of discussions with a female, African-American friend of mine. She helped me with the details and helped me get into the proper mindset to write the character. Remember: Stretch. Aim high. Usually it works out.
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