August 23, 2016

How to write a story for a book, movie, or game

When I wrote a book about Elon Musk I learned that there are rules you are recommended to use to make the book you are writing better. These rules are no laws, but you are recommended to use the rules or your readers will give you bad reviews. In hindsight these rules are often obvious, but it's still difficult to learn them on your own if you haven't been told about them.

The first rule is that you should keep it simple. Most aspiring writers tend to write way too complicated, even though the rule says you should make the text as easy as possible. You should remove all unneeded words and text (Stephen King always removes 20 percent of the text after finishing the first draft), and use words like "but" often. To see if this really is true, I made some research on my own, by writing computer software to count the world in top selling books: Top words in top selling books. It turned out that the top selling books included a lot of: the, and, of, to, that.

Another good rule is that you should write about something no-one has heard before. If you are writing a story about a trip you've made to a beach, it's common to write about uninteresting things like how warm the water was and that the sand was soft. The problem is that those stories are boring to read. To make it more exciting for the reader you should tell stories no-one has heard before. So if you've made a trip to a beach, then tell a story from that beach no-one has heard before. Maybe someone was eaten by a shark? When I wrote the book on Elon Musk book I managed to find a story about Winston Churchill, who years before Elon Musk lived in the area was travelling around the country. Reviewers who read the book said that they really liked that connection because the story of Winston Churchill in South Africa is unknown to most people.

A good example of someone who wrote about something no-one has heard of before is Hunter S. Thompson. He wrote an article about the Kentucky Derby called The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved. While he didn't write anything about the Kentucky Derby (except two lines), he wrote everything about what was happening around it, including the special characters who visited the event and his journey to the event:
And unlike most of the others in the press box, we didn't give a hoot in hell what was happening on the track. We had come there to watch the real beasts perform. Thousands of raving, stumbling drunks, getting angrier and angrier as they lose more an more money.     
"Fuck England," I said. "This is Middle America. These people regard what you're doing to them as brutal, bilious insult. Look what happened last night. I thought my brother was going to tear your head off."
Thompson said himself that the article was a complete failure because he hadn't written anything about the Kentucky Derby, but the readers loved it.

Movies, books, and games are not that far from each other, so I thought it could be a good idea to learn how to write a movie. The book about Elon Musk was a biography, so I couldn't make up what's happening in the book. But if you are writing fiction, then you have to be more creative. After some scientific research with the help of Google, I found the book Save the cat! by Blake Snyder. He's promising that the book is the "The Last Book on Screenwriting You'll Ever Need." Here are some key points from that book:
  • Recommends the books: 
  • The audience has to like the main hero. Liking the person we go on a journey with is the single most important element in drawing us into the story. "Save the cat" is the scene where we meet the hero and the hero does something - like saving a cat - that defines who the hero is and make us, the audience, like him/her so we want the hero to win in the end. But what if the hero is a bad guy? Then you should make the hero's enemy even more horrible. Anyway, this is the save the cat moment in Pulp Fiction:
Scene One of Pulp Fiction, basically, is where we meet John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson. These are the "heroes." They are also drug-addicted hit-men (with really bad haircuts). Quentin Tarantino does a very smart thing when we meet these two potentially unlikable guys - he makes them funny. And naive. Their discussion about the names of McDonald's hamburgers in France is hilarious. And sort of childlike. We like these guys from the jump - even though they're about to go kill someone - we are "with" them.
  • You have to be able to describe the movie with one line. The customers should understand what the movie is about by looking at the title and the poster and by reading one line only. Otherwise, the customers have to trust other sources, such as rumors or what the star of the movie said in the newspaper, so they might end up seeing another movie. This is why we are seeing so many re-makes of movies, such as Batman 3 and Shrek 4, because the customers understand what the movie is by looking at the title or the poster. What you should do is to summarize what your movie is in one line. And you should spend a lot of time with this single line because it's the key to at least making someone considering watching your movie. For example, the one-line from the movie Die Hard is: "A cop comes to LA to visit his estranged wife and her office building is taken over by terrorists." This line should include irony, like the irony that a cop on holiday ends up in a building filled with terrorists.
  • "Give me the same thing... only different." Most movies are the same, but they are still different. This is actually connected to the travel story I wrote about in the beginning. Most travel stories are the same, but you should add something new. All monster movies are the same, but you need to add a new fresh monster. The author argues there are more categories (monster movies is just one example) and you have to make sure your movie is following the theme of the category but with a fresh twist. And don't worry about stealing what's working as long as you understand why what you are stealing is working in that movie.
  • The main character should have a primal goal. The main character should have a goal we identify with as humans because we are still cave-men/women. So the goal should be a primal goal, such as love, and not just buy a new car. But if the goal is to buy a new car to find love, then that's a primal goal. Primal goals include survival, hunger, sex, protection of loved ones, and fear of death. The primal goal in Die Hard is "the desire to save one's family."
  • Adapt to the target audience. Don't assume that just because you prefer something, everyone else will, too.
  • Follow the author's 15 sections of a movie script. Some of these sections intersect with each other and includes: 
    • The opening image, which will set the mood of the movie. Example includes the motorcycle ride in the movie Lawrence of Arabia, and when the fighter jets launch from the aircraft carrier lit by the morning sun in Top Gun.
    • The set up, which includes the opening image. During the first 10 minutes you really have to capture the audience or they might leave the theater and give it bad reviews. Lawrence has crashed his motorcycle, had his funeral, but now he's traveling on a Camel in the Middle East. Maverick and Goose is being sent to the Top Gun school after some wild flying. 
    • The B-story, which is a side-story, and in most screenplays this is a love story. The purpose is to give the audience a breather. When Maverick in Top Gun falls in love with the instructor the audience will have a break from the flying.   
    • The fun and games section, is a point in the movie that should be less serious, like in Die Hard when Bruce Willis is first outwitting the terrorists, or when Batman in Batman Begins is almost killing himself while wearing the first version of his suit.  
    • In the all is lost section, someone probably dies, like Obi Wan in the "first" Star Wars movie or Goose in Top Gun. A rule-of-thumb is that anything that involves death is good in this section. If you don't have anyone to kill, then make something up, like a dead flower - just show some death.   
  • Even professionals have trouble coming up with new ideas. "...we were taking a time-out from a story we were trying to break, bowed by despair and self-loathing over not knowing how." But as with everything else, the more you practice the easier it will get. "Dude, suckin' at something is the first step to being sorta good at something." 
  • You should use cards on which you write the different scenes in your story. About 40 scenes is enough and you stack multiple cards if multiple things are happening in that scene. But the stacked cards count as 1 card of the 40. This might seem as a waste of time, but the "story is seeping into your subconscious a whole other way." Now it will be much easier to identify holes in the story and, above all, remove unnecessary scenes, just like Stephen King is removing unnecessary text. A scene is here defined as a conflict with an opening, middle, and end, as well as an emotional change. When I wrote that book about Elon Musk I should have used this strategy before writing it, because I remember that I had to shuffle the text around in the word editor once too often. 
  • Keep it simple. It shouldn't have to take 40 minutes to explain the movie plot to the audience. Too many different supernatural themes in the same movie is a bad idea, so don't have both aliens and dinosaurs in the same movie. Less is more!  
  • Every single character in the movie (except the bad guys) must change in the course of your story. Otherwise the story is not worth telling, because the story has to be important to the characters in it and stories are about change. For example, Maverick in Top Gun is flying recklessly because everyone thinks his father wasn't a good pilot. But as the story unfolds he learns that his father was a good pilot and he doesn't have to fly recklessly anymore. It's the good guys that should change, because to succeed in life you have to accept change and see it as something positive, while the bad guys reject change and end up dead. The audience will be inspired and thus like the movie even more.
  • Each character needs its own personality. If you are unsure if your dialogue is unrealistic, try to cover up the names of those who speak, read the dialogue, and see if you tell who is saying what. You should be able to tell the difference between different characters without seeing their name.    

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