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Want to write great narrative? Study screenwriting.

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“That’s all fine,’’ the L.A. film executive said briskly, “but who’s the antagonist?’’

Cut to: Me, author of a soon-to-be published biography of the 1940s/’50s wrestler and pop culture figure who called himself Gorgeous George. I’m on the phone with the woman in charge of selling HarperCollins books to the movies. Time: 2008 or so.

Back story: I’d called her up, excited about my book’s cinematic prospects. George found his flamboyant fame by bleaching his hair blond and putting it up in women’s hairdos; dressing in elaborate, effeminate gowns; adopting arrogant airs — and then wrestling like a maniac in the ring. So it’s inherently a visual story, I told my L.A. contact, and a very kinetic one — a moving picture. Plus, the outrageous George is a great role for some male actor who wants to go completely over the top onscreen, as G.G. did in real life.

Cut back to: Her, not convinced.

Her first doubt had to do with that antagonist, or lack of one. Who was the bad guy — the Doctor No or the Sauron — the hero has to vanquish in this story? “The antagonist could be a person, or even Nature, like in The Perfect Storm,’’ she explained. “But there’s got to be a powerful negative force that acts to keep the hero from achieving his goals.’’

Me: “Well, George drank himself to death at age 48, so I think he was his own worst enemy.’’

Her, instantly shooting back: “Not in the movie he isn’t.’’

***

That was my first exposure to movie-think, the Hollywood conventional wisdom on how and why stories work on screen. Since she was only interested in big-budget, big-studio movies, her take was extremely conventional.

I didn’t buy it; I’d seen movies with antiheroes, and flawed or self-destructive protagonists. Often, those were the movies I admired. So I thought no more of it until I hit a narrative wall, trying to structure the longest story I’d ever told and bring George, my most complex character, to life. Rick Marin, a friend of mine who writes for TV and film, as well as print, told me the same thing the L.A. woman eventually had told me: “Read some screenplay books. Those people are all about story and structure — and they definitely know how to ‘show’ rather than ‘tell.”’

So I read screenwriting guru Robert McKee’s opus, Story; Blake Snyder’s ultra-accessible Save the Cat!; and Syd Field’s Screenplay, among others, and they helped tremendously. As I suspected, screenplay writing — the way these books explain it — is extremely formulaic. A script must be 110 to 115 pages long or it goes in the wastebasket. If the inciting incident (more on that later) doesn’t happen by Page 15, every producer in Hollywood will stop reading. And yes, most mainstream movies are crass and commercial. Mind you, this is what working screenwriters tell me; it’s not my snobbery talking.

Yet, screenwriting is still a uniquely creative art as well as a fiendishly difficult craft. And as anyone who’s ever been moved by a movie knows, screenwriters work in a very powerful storytelling medium. That puts those of us who aren’t writing screenplays at an advantage: Unlike script scribes, we don’t have to adhere to mainstream movie formulae. Instead, we can borrow the elements that best serve our stories, and dump the rest. (Makers of smaller, independent movies are also freer to avoid these cliché’s, or to turn them on their heads.) To use a big-screen term, we can adapt screenwriting techniques to other forms of narrative, including nonfiction.

gorgeous george book cover capouyaIn what was perhaps a sign that these cinematic lessons took hold, I sold the movie rights to Gorgeous George (for many times what I got paid for the book). Since then, I’ve worked a bit with the man charged with turning Gorgeous George into a feature (as yet unproduced), and I’ve talked to other successful screenwriters as well. Here are some techniques we can appropriately appropriate to help us craft stories, render characters and structure narratives.


Story: The logline

You may be familiar with the “elevator pitch,” a 30-second distillation of a proposed movie, delivered to someone in Hollywood power. Screenwriter and author Blake Snyder stresses a version he calls the logline. This, he writes, is  “a one- or two-sentence grabber that tells us everything.” Ideally, the logline reveals who the protagonist is; the challenge he faces; the antagonist; and the stakes on this quest (the higher the better). So, for one very successful mainstream movie, a logline could read: “A young man and woman from different social classes fall in love aboard an ill-fated voyage at sea.” (Note: a logline is not a tagline, which is a marketing slogan, such as this one from Alien: “In deep space, no one can hear you scream.”)

For narrative journalists, your elevator is the newsroom. Keeping your pitches as pithy as possible will get better responses from assigning editors. Pitching aside, the logline can help focus the reporting and writing for both shortform and longform narratives. Creating — and, crucially, hewing to — a logline can help you better understand what you really have to offer in a given story, and to stay focused on that essential idea throughout the work.

Ben Montgomery, the terrific reporter/writer for the Tampa Bay Times, uses loglines for his long narratives. “Early in the reporting,” he told me, “I think: ‘If I had to pitch this story in two sentences, what would I say? What is the central idea, or driving question, that would pull readers through the story?’ It helps bring my stories into sharper focus. Then, when it comes to writing, I take that logline and try to wrap every fact around it, like stripes on a barber pole.”

For his 2011 story on an infamous Florida lynching, for example, the logline was:

“A lynch mob brutally killed a man in 1934 and got away with it. Why, to this day, is a small Florida town still protecting the killers?”

I love his analogy, “like stripes on a barber pole.” That’s what creating a logline allows you to do: stay on or close to the one true path, the line that runs through your story in its best, strongest form. That also means that if some great scene or quirky character just won’t wrap around the pole, it’s got to go.


Character: Saving the Cat

In the very first scene of Sea of Love (written by Richard Price) Al Pacino, a crusty 20-year detective with the NYPD, lets a man with outstanding warrants go rather than arrest him. The man is with his young son, and is trying to do the fatherly thing.

Neither father nor son ever appears in the movie again. They’re gratuitous. But according to screenwriter Snyder, they’ve served a vital task: In movie-land, the audience must like and root for the hero or heroes and want them to succeed. Having Pacino’s character, who has a dark or troubled side, do something endearing right away is what Snyder calls “saving the cat.” If you must, he explains, you can have your hero climb a tree and save a neighbor’s cat very early in the picture to build that bond with the audience.

Not very subtle. And in nonfiction narrative our protagonists often aren’t and don’t have to be entirely sympathetic. It got me thinking, though, of how I could reveal Gorgeous George’s essential nature very early in my book — not to make the reader fall in love with him but to show them he was a complex, intriguing guy worth spending 300 pages with.

My solution was an opening scene — based on reporting — in which GG, in a dressing room before a match, looks in the mirror. He’s got his Liberace-style robe on and his hair marcelled and he’s joking with the man standing behind him, a boyhood friend he hired to play George’s “valet” or manservant in the ring.

The mirror device is no doubt overused, but George’s widow told me that he never let any reflective surface pass without admiring himself in it. What I hoped to transmit was GGs’ vanity, the comic extremes he went to in his ring act, and his personal loyalty. So I didn’t save the cat in the traditional way; hopefully I showed the cat. You can do the same thing in shorter, journalistic profiles: Quickly, vividly expose the main character’s most compelling attributes — be they positive or negative — as early as possible.

 

The Antagonist: Screenwriter John McLaughlin (Black Swan) told me that a big studio he works with has two questions they want answered right away:

1. Why should we make this movie now?

2. Who’s the antagonist, and why is he different than anyone we’ve ever seen?

“The good guy is the good guy,” he says, “but what makes movie different is how the hero, and the audience, react to the bad guy. Spiderman, for instance, doesn’t really change much from movie to movie but Doc Oc is quite different from the other villains.

“In smaller movies,” he continued, “the hero could be their own worst enemy and that would be fine. You’re just looking at a $10 million movie, not a $100 million movie.” (The Wrestler, starring Mickey Rourke, comes to mind.)

Despite these strictures — and what that L.A. film exec told me — I still believed that George Wagner undid himself, and that’s what I wrote. But I did think more, and wrote more, about the forces arrayed against him and his wildly improbable success. I explained that there was nothing in the culture at the time to support the idea that a villain could become a star, much less that a quasi-effeminate arrogant coward, as George portrayed himself, could gain the prominence of the Lone Ranger, Superman, John Wayne, and all the other macho, good guys. That raised the stakes, and made his leap seem that much more daring.

I also remembered a significant human enemy: a promoter who sent his own wrestlers out to perform GG’s ring act, even billing them as Gorgeous George. Thinking antagonistically, I realized this Jack Pfeffer character tried to ruin my hero and posed a real threat, so I made more of that in the book than I had earlier intended. GG wasn’t brought down by this villain, but he could have been, and that added tension and drama.

In the GG screenplay I consulted on, George is more sympathetic than he was in life. But, I’m happy to report, he is still his own worst enemy.


Structure: The Inciting Incident

This is McKee’s term, I think, though I’ve seen others use it as well. It’s a crucial event that occurs very early on in the story, in Act 1 (more on the three-act structure below), that turns the world of the main character upside down.

In The Wizard of Oz the tornado literally transports Dorothy to another world. In Jaws, the inciting incident is the first take-down of an ocean swimmer at Roy Scheider’s happy beach. How the protagonist deals with this challenge is the essential story. We see this in literature as well: “One day Gregor Samsa awoke to find he had been changed into a large cockroach.’’

In my biography, the inciting incident happens in Chapter 3 of 29. George Wagner is a young, cocky teenager, having great success as an amateur wrestler. He and his buddies go to a traveling carnival outside Houston, where George takes up the carnies’ challenge to wrestle their house man for a $5 prize — and gets his clock cleaned. The older man cheats egregiously, so George’s loss is completely unfair. Still, he loves it, especially the reactions the wrestlers provoked from the crowd. The kid isn’t angry; instead he wants in on the fixed game, the entertainment that is professional wrestling.

I found that inciting incident because I looked for it. Unlike screenwriters, we nonfiction narrativists can’t make stuff up. That’s a sacred principle, and I wish all essayists and memoir writers would get on board. I could not have a tornado, or a mammoth shark, appear and rock George’s world. But once I started looking, I realized that my hero’s story contained one of those events, and tried to give it all the emphasis and vivid depiction it deserved. The best (and most “cinematic”) newspaper and magazine narratives often have inciting incidents as well; they make great ledes. In this as in many other ways, true stories naturally — factually — contain many of the attributes screenwriters prize; once you know what you’re looking for, you’ll find them.

 

Structure: Three Acts

Journalist turned screenwriter Nora Ephron (Silkwood, Sleepless in Seattle, You’ve Got Mail) wrote that “structure is the key to narrative. If you make the right decision about structure, many other things become absolutely clear. On some level, the rest is easy.’’

Almost all screenplays have a three-act structure: beginning, middle and end. In Act 1, we are introduced to the characters, learn what the story is essentially about, and the narrative gets into gear, via the inciting incident. This is a relatively short act.

Act 2 shows the trials and tribulations, if it’s a drama; or the fun and games, if it’s a comedy. If it’s a dramedy, there’s probably both. McKee calls these: “progressive complications.’’ This second act is at least twice as long as the first act, since most of the story takes place here. It’s also twice as long as the third act. (Blake Snyder says you can actually divide the story into four acts, for this reason, and because there’s often a turn in the middle of Act 2, from positive events to negative, or vice-versa.) Toward the end of Act 2 there’s a crisis, a heightening of the story that must be resolved in the climax.

In Act 3 the protagonist actively deals with the crisis in a way, positive or negative — and in a Hollywood movie it’s usually positive —that creates the climax. After that, there may be some aftermath or denouement, but the story is essentially done. The End, as older French movies have it, Fin.

This is a classic construct; Aristotle formalized the three-act structure. In many realms “classic” can easily become cliché, but Jon Franklin, author of Writing for Story, posits that cliché happens at the writing level — trite words, stock characters, predictable events — not at the larger structural level. I believe he’s right, and I know the three-act structure saved my narrative bacon. Once I had that template in place and working, I focused on another thing screenwriters embed within that three-act structure:

Act breaks.

Chekhov said that a story is defined by its point of change, and that’s what act breaks are. (The more surprising these changes are, the better.) Breaks, or turns, are pivotal events at the end of Act 1 and Act 2 that spin the story in new directions, and propel it — and thus the viewer — into the next parts of the narrative.

John McLaughlin, who wrote The Black Swan and Hitchcock, among other films, explained: “It’s the same thing as if you’re seeing a play and the curtain comes down after the first act. You want your audience to stay, so you give them a little piece that says: ‘Something new is gonna come up,’ and they’ll wait. It’s also very prevalent in TV [right before the] commercials. You have to leave this big hook.”

John Posey, who wrote the screenplay of Gorgeous George, says the act breaks can be subtle but they have to be there. “Only the writer really knows those. If you make sure the viewers notice them, then you’re trying too hard.’’

In Gorgeous George, both act breaks hinge on lines of dialogue. The first ones drives the story from a very negative place to a positive one, and the second break does the reverse.

At the end of Act 1, George, at that point a good-guy wrestler with short, dark hair and the traditional black trunks and socks, breaks his leg. He can’t work — but he wasn’t drawing or earning very well, anyway. He and his wife, Betty, cast about for a different wrestling act, a path to survival. They decide to transform him from upright hero to outrageous villain. “You’re too clean a wrestler, Betty tells him: “Let’s make it dirty.”

In Act 2, the unlikely Gorgeous act proves a phenomenal success. Toward the end, George legally changes his name from George Wagner to Gorgeous George and he’s living his oversized part in and out of the ring. Already worried about his grandiosity, and drinking, Betty overhears him telling their two kids: “Don’t call me Daddy anymore; call me Gorgeous.’’ That’s the turn into Act 3, in which George loses all he’s gained, and dies alone.

The lives of your story subjects often take these dramatic turns, so look for them in the reporting stage. You can ask flat out: “What was the moment when everything changed for you?” Odds are, they’ll know.


Endings

Aristotle said a play’s ending must be both “inevitable and unexpected.’’ Similarly, screenwriter William Goldman declared that the key to all story endings is to give the audience what it wants, but not in the way it expects.

Not surprisingly, then, I noticed that many successful scripts had that duality at the end, a final plot twist. Go back to The Wizard of Oz. Dorothy and her adorable but deficient friends make a deal with the Wizard: If they bring him the Wicked Witch’s broomstick, he will give them all what they want and need. So, after Dorothy melts all that witch’s beautiful wickedness with a pail of water, the saga should be over and Dorothy, like Odysseus, should be on her way home, right?

No! As it turns out, the wizard is a colossal fraud; he can’t deliver on any of his promises. Then, good witch Glinda shows up to show Dorothy the way home, the Wiz comes up with some blarney that works for Scarecrow, Lion and Tin Man, and the story and its characters end up in the desired places but via unpredictable routes.

So the question becomes: Can you surprise the reader on the way to satisfying them — or satisfy them by surprising them — toward the end of your tale? If you save something new — but not completely out of left field — for the end of your story or book, it can create a burst of energy in what could otherwise be “falling action,” or diminished narrative drive. In Gorgeous George’s story, once his decline and fall get under way, there’s no doubt where this story will end. Yet, in truth there was a remarkable twist (to me, at least) to his third and final act. Two years before he died, when he was well into his drinking, womanizing and compulsive gambling, George met a young boxer named Cassius Clay in Las Vegas. He took a liking to the kid, and generously offered the 19-year-old his own stage persona. Soon thereafter, Clay, who’d change his name to Muhammad Ali, began bellowing, “I am the prettiest,” and “I am the greatest!” as he built his own Gorgeous legacy.

Luckily for me, this happened very near the story’s end, and that’s where I deployed it, to break the relentless downward slope of George’s arc and to show that this man who had become very unappealing in many ways still had some redeeming qualities (for one, he was not a racist). His handing of the torch to this famously outrageous and well-known character also works as a last-minute reveal that gives the last few chapters renewed charge or energy boost. The reader can’t help but be surprised; who could see that coming?

This is the great gift the real the world gives nonfiction writers: Life plays out in amazing and unpredictable ways, and people do such beautiful and brutal things. Narrative journalists are privileged in that, unlike the heroes in the mainstream movie template, our protagonists don’t have to be likable, and our endings can be ambiguous or downright tragic. The guy doesn’t have to get the girl. (To be fair, many screenwriters and directors also defy at least some of the conventional wisdom.)

Screenwriters’ didn’t invent all these story principles and techniques, of course; more often, they’ve merely codified them. As I noted above, the three-act structure goes back at least as far as Aristotle. The hero, on a quest, who faces obstacles and antagonists is a staple of myth as well as the world’s great religious stories. But the way screenwriters understand, exploit and tweak these elements can help us tell compelling true stories that, at least at first, don’t appear on-screen. There’s real craft, and real craft lessons, in the stories that unfold in the dark.

 

MORE SCREEN TIPS FOR NON-SCREENWRITERS

Other “cinematic” techniques I have found narratively useful:

John Capouya

John Capouya

* Scenes, the fundamental units of story, serve two functions: They must reveal character and/or advance the plot. Blake Snyder adds that each scene must also contain a change in emotional charge, from positive to negative or vice versa. Robert McKee urges alternating those two kinds of scenes. And, they agree, there must be conflict in each scene, as there must be in the overall story.

* The screenplay template requires that the hero must be an actor, not just acted upon. He or she may be powerless at first, but then the hero reacts, and that forms the story. Beware the passive hero — that oxymoron tells you it’s a bad idea.

* The hero or heroine must change over the course of the story. It’s that growth that usually allows them to triumph. “This doesn’t have to happen in books,” says screenwriter John McLaughlin. “Look at Don Quixote: It’s 800 pages or so, and he goes off on this journey and things happen, one after another but he doesn’t change and it’s fantastic.” In creating both fiction and nonfiction narratives, though, create or look for protagonists who evolve in meaningful ways.

* Some screenwriters gather actors to do table reads of their scripts. Hearing dialogue out loud clarifies whether it’s working. Failing that, read your dialogue aloud to yourself or to a few writer friends.

John Capouya is a former editor at Newsweek, SmartMoney, Newsday and the New York Times. He teaches journalism in the University of Tampa’s undergraduate program and creative writing in UT’s MFA program. His current book project is a narrative history of soul music. 

 




2 comments

  1. posted March 19, 2014 at 7:35 am | permalink

    We sat at lunch in the UT MFA in Creative Writing program last January. Enjoyed your
    article. I always imagine my fiction as film,
    constructing scenes and voicing dialogue.

    I think that if writers aren’t imagining their novels as films,they shouldn’t expect producers to see it.

  2. posted March 20, 2014 at 1:12 pm | permalink

    I see all my novel ideas as movies, which works because I love watching movies, and I’ve been studying movies as I watch them over and over for what works and why. This is probably why people say my writing reads like they’re watching a movie.

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