Telling a story good is hard. Telling a good story is even harder.
You don’t grow up in the backwoods of West Virginia without being taught how to tell a story. I remember my Uncle Masel regaling me at length about teaching junior high school class. “And them kids in the back of the room would jest start talkin… and they’d get up and ornery… and I wouldn’t say a word, I’d jest open my little black book and next to thar names I’d jest wrat a little letters, I’d wrat D.M.” And here he’d pause imperceptibly.
“Dahreaah of the mouth,” he’d say. And the pause was always perfectly timed..
I read a lot of new material. Now and then I judge the Orange County Playwright Association’s competitions. I read a lot of new material for friends; I audition now and then for new plays and new movies; I listen to a lot of stories.
Most writers have script format down cold. Most of them have nailed concepts of pace and tone, and many of them know how to create beautiful and compelling universes. Many of them get produced and get their scripts made into films and plays.
What they don’t know how to do, almost to a one, is tell a story. Telling a story is not something you can pick up at a tony conference, and it’s not something you can learn how to do by reading a book or two. Almost anyone can tell whether a story or a song is good, but the ability to create compelling stories or songs is a gift bestowed upon the the very patient and the very industrious.
I hate my own work. I retool it dozens, maybe hundreds, of times before it ever gets to a state where an audience might see it. Every moment of a Byrd story has been milled over and retold and rethought and retooled until it resonates within the character of the entire piece.
One writer I know has written maybe a dozen full length plays in the time it’s taken me to write one. In his case, he can’t get any of his shit produced.
That’s a problem, thankfully, I have never experienced yet.
Quality, quality, quality. It all comes down to craft. Are you willing to roundfile a thousand mediocre stories to find one perfect diamond? Are you willing to retell and retell and retell a story, even before the first bit of dialogue ever hits the page?
Most writers are dreadfully, dreadfully lazy.
I have read far too many scripts of late where the payoff is the Reveal — the bit of story element that all the characters spend dancing and talking around —
He was really a robot all along!
He was really an alien all along!
He was really her father all along!
Failure to tell a story at a reasonable tempo does not constitute suspense.
What constitutes a great story really hasn’t changed very much over the years. The best books I’ve read on the topic to date are Lajos Egri’s “The Art of Dramatic Writing” and Robert McKee’s “Story”. Both books spend a considerable amount of time dissecting functional stories to figure out why they work.
I can think of no better use of one’s time as a writer than studying, and copying, the best of the best.
I believe strongly in emulating other successful storytellers and their processes. The best professional storytelling today comes out of Pixar, which has a strongly collaborative writing process. Every script out of Pixar has a dozen or so story artists working on the project.
It must be such a luxury having a dozen minds working together on a coherent set of story threads, trying to make sure that no pieces are left dangling, no bits of character are left over, that nothing is wasted, that every element resonates properly.
Story, dammit, story!