Advice from novelist/TV writer Brian Egeston
Stories Need Skeletons and Heart ...
In my early days as a novelist, my writing process went like this: 1. Turn Computer on. 2. Write book. 3. Finish book. 4. Pray it’s good. I was naïve enough to think I had the entire story in my head. I did, but it had no structure. In its finest state, a story-- whether it’s a feature script, stage play, novel, short film or haiku—will present itself to an audience as a beautiful body of work. Bodies cannot move without a skeleton.
Every story must have some type of structure. Whether you’re following an eight-sequence formula for your feature, Blake Snyder’s save the cat, a classic three-act structure or simple plotting along with a basic begin, middle and end, don’t write a single word of your story until you have its bones built. Spending time on the skeleton of your story allows you to create twists, turns, foreshadow big events toward the climax and catch unforeseen problems.
Here’s an example: I sit down to write a story about a man who buys a dog for his kid. Simple, right? Rather than outline my story, I peck away at the keyboard with some narrative about searching craigslist for free puppies and wind up at a strange man’s house filled with cigarettes and Chihuahuas. The dogs chase him out and he doesn’t buy the dog. The end. Hilarious—and unfulfilling.
Questions loom. The questions loom for the audience, when did the character decide to find a dog online. Why is he searching for a free dog? Was there a moment when he decided against buying the dog? What started his search? What happens when he rings the doorbell at the strange man’s house? What if he bought a cat instead of a dog? What happens when he gets home and his son doesn’t see the dog? How is the story resolved that relates to the man’s initial quest for a canine.
These questions are all over the place, but when we spend more time answering questions that comprise a story skeleton or outline or beat sheet, questions and holes become plot points and solutions.
Another significant part of a good story is the heart of matter. This is not to say you need a melodramatic, sappy, ‘King of the World’ Titanic scene. Rather good stories are based on a real emotional moment. Action blockbusters, broad comedic movies, silly sketches and even tight one-line jokes are based on a true emotional gem.
What's it really about? "Men In Black III" wasn’t about fighting aliens. It was about a man traveling through time to learn why his father wasn’t a part of his life. When that moment is revealed, it makes the journey of special effects, jokes and action all the more rewarding for the audience. In an episode of The Office, Michael Scott releases his short film, 'Threat Level Midnight'. The episode isn’t about a silly homemade movie, it’s about revealing a character’s passion and desire to accomplish a goal. Ultimately it gives the audience added insight into who he is and makes us love him even more.
Comedian Henry Youngman’s joke, Take my wife—please is perhaps one of the most concise and insightful jokes ever written and it speaks volumes about a man who is frustrated in his marriage. This joke is tight, it’s hilarious and it’s sad. In four words the writer tells a story that explores each side of the drama masks. Both Greek muses, Thalia and Melpomene have been satisfied.
Youngman, was actually very fond of his wife, Sadie. She traveled with him on the road and when she fell ill, he built an ICU room in their home because she was terrified of hospitals. Makes the story even better.
As humans, our bodies go through a lot—as do stories. But without a good skeleton and heart, neither of the two can survive.
Eight Major Plot Points:
Save the Cat Beat Sheet: Bridesmaids
Brian Egeston is Vice President of Development for Bobbcat Films in Atlanta, Ga. After publishing six novels and three anthologies, he began a career in TV writing as a staff writer for Tyler Perry’s "House of Payne". The following season he was promoted to Head Writer for the show and served as a creative consultant for Tyler Perry’s "For Better Or Worse". He was also Head Writer for The Rickey Smiley TV show and Head Writer for "Uptown Comedy Live". Egeston’s most recent project is the release of his dramatic mini-pilot titled "Birth Right," which is available at www.birthright-series.com.