Don’t know how much use this’ll be, but I thought I’d start putting down (up?) my thoughts on the writing process.
Everyone has their own process. Mine changes all the time. This won’t be a “how to” but rather an amble through the various things I do to get from blank page to polished script. Yes there are “rules” I follow. Rules get me over hurdles. Once I’m over the hurdle, I’m free to break them. But they’re also like the teacher that stands over you and says, “You’re doing it wrong”. Annoying, but the sooner you realise they’re right, the easier your life becomes.
As David Ogilvy famously said: “Give me the freedom of a tight brief”
So here we go, in no particular order, this is how I work…
No, not a trite answer, despite how it sounds. The trick is to always have ideas. Always let the ideas flow. They’re like butterflies and you have to catch them. And then you have to squeeze them into little boxes to make them look pretty to other people so they’ll go “Hey that’s pretty neat” and not recoil in horror at the half-crumpled dead insect you have in your hand.
Okay, maybe I took that analogy too far.
Let me explain.
An idea for a show or a movie usually comes in two forms – an image or a “what if…” It comes out the blue, WHAM, and suddenly you feel like you have A GREAT IDEA FOR A MOVIE/TV SERIES. You SEE it in your head, or you imagine a situation – and your brain quickly extrapolates it out – you think “I want to see that movie!”.
That’s your butterfly. Catch it.
Because that is EXACTLY how you want people to feel when they read about your show in the paper or online. You want them to feel the way you did AT THAT MOMENT. Because at that moment it IS a great idea for a movie.
Basically in writing you start with a brilliant, perfect idea then stretch it into 30, 60 or 110 minutes without fucking it up.
But a great movie or TV show needs to do lots more than just be one great scene or image. A great script has to do lots, lots more. But, you need to catch your butterfly and WRITE it down.
Yes. Have a notepad with you. Or something like Evernote. Or iOS Notes. Capture what you thought.
Now you need to fit in the presentation case, or if the dead butterfly with the pin in it analogy is upsetting you, you need to create a lepidopterarium, or butterfly house, and yes I did have to look that up.
I’ll talk more about that in the next post… but in the meantime, here are the key takeaways.
Your story’s theme is an answer to the question “what is the story really about?”; what’s the universal truth wrapped into the story? When you finish a book, or a film, you’re often left thinking about the questions it raised – is it okay to kill? Are we caring for our children or are we smothering them? What’s more important, family or justice?
Your theme runs through the whole piece. Themes are important because they tackle subjects we feel strongly about, things we care deeply about. A good theme, well handled, is vital for emotionally engaging the audience.
Themes often aren’t clear cut. They stray into grey areas. They’re things we disagree on – and therefore fascinate us.
The Seven Thematic Topics
It’s been said that all human desires can be summed us the attempt to attain one of seven things:
I find this a pretty neat idea and I keep coming back to it – there aren’t many stories that don’t tackle at least one of these themes…
Linked closely to the theme is the moral of the story. Often a simple phrase or saying, the moral of the story is more specific than the theme because it gives an answer to the thematic question.
If your story is a Justice story there are themes of crime and criminality being explored. The moral of the story might be statement such as “crime doesn’t pay”. It’s the moral if that’s the answer you leave the audience with. But first you have to ask the question – Does crime pay?
To keep an audience engaged you use your thematic moments to constantly ask that question, and constantly answer that question in lots of different ways: yes it does pay, no it doesn’t. Only in this way will the audience GET TO THE CLIMAX OF THE STORY DESPERATE TO KNOW WHAT THE ANSWER IS… and hopefully get a SATISFACTORY answer – usually the one the majority consider fair (And don’t be mistaken, audiences judge a story on how fair the outcome is… don’t expect everyone to love your story if you shrug your shoulders and say life isn’t fair ;))
Throughout this journey you present audiences with a thematic VALUE. Each scene plays with “does crime pay / does it not”. When a scene answers that question, the audience perceives there is a change in VALUE.
The thematic value states are:
The two main value states are Positive and Negative.
These might be as simple as Justice or Injustice, or a more subtle form such as Appropriate Justice or Inappropriate Justice (or Just Revenge vs Unnecessary Revenge).
By varying the moral value of each scene (crime pays/ doesn’t pay) and the value (justice, injustice) you are keeping the audience guessing on how your story will deliver on the theme – which moral argument will win. It will also leave them thinking about what it means to win.
With any luck they’ll have made their decision about what they believe in the context of your story and already identified with one side – they are invested. They are ENGAGED. Your theme is all about creating audience satisfaction.
The two other value states Neutral and Nadir represent two specific moments in your story. Neutral normally occurs near the beginning and is used to denote the absence of a resolution to a theme – it’s not that justice or necessarily and injustice has been done – but there is a lack of justice, that demands to be tackled. A great place to start a story.
Finally there is the NADIR. This is an absolute low point in the tale, usually a state worse than simply injustice, a betrayal of something deeper such as exposure of corruption in the system and usually the point that tips the audience in favour of one or the other moral arguments.
This is a moment so low, so unspeakable, so unforgivable that the audience’s mind is made up – that character deserves to die or that other character deserves to win. Deserving, and the fairness of the situation is usually what is called into sharp relief here.
This usually occurs before the final act, and galvanises audience support (or condemnation) of principal characters – Even though the chance of victory may seem very slim at this point. Now we hope the hero will overcome their flaws and win.
There is much written about the “Seven Basic Plots” and while there isn’t a direct map between those “basic plots” and the seven themes, it is true that certain themes are at the heart of certain plot-types of sub-genres. A heist movie or whodunnit is usually about justice at its core. A romantic comedy is usually about love. A rags-to-riches tale implies the value and approach to money is important. These genre descriptions can be great ways of promising a theme without stating it explicitly.
Themes and multi-episodes.
When creating a series is can be very useful to define a core theme for the whole series. (Survival is at the heart of medical drama – or a zombie series!) But it can also provide inspiration for stories when episodes explore the other themes. A six-part British sitcom such as Blackadder is a great way to deal with how a character gets into different situations and explores different themes in each episode. For longer running series, different character journeys can be exploring different themes. The nurse looking for love, the doctor obsessed with power…
In any case, having an understanding of your general theme, the value points to hit, and the moral argument you’re making can be fundamental to getting a story that has emotional resonance with an audience.
If you’d like to have a pocket guide to carry around with you, then please check out the App
As brilliant screenwriter and guru William Goldman once said – “No-one in Hollywood knows anything”.
People think they do otherwise they wouldn’t spend millions of dollars/pounds/bitcoins making what they’re convinced is a hit movie or TV show. They just wouldn’t. Every penny invested in making a movie or TV show is done so because someone thinks it’s going to make them lots of money.
You’ll have realised that “making lots of money” isn’t the same as “being a great TV show”. And there’s the problem. Unless you have an idea that someone thinks is going to make money, it isn’t going to get made. This is true of publishing, theatre or any other form of writing.
So if no-one knows anything, how do you give your brilliant idea the best chance of getting made?
Well, here is the curious dichotomy of the creative world. And it all comes down to the following:
Originality vs Forecast
I’ll unpack that statement.
One one side, audiences (and producers and commissioners) love originality. Who doesn’t? A new character we haven’t seen a million times before, a new setting, a glimpse into a world that we have no idea about, a new moral lesson about the world we live in now, a fresh perspective. We yearn for new experiences. The novel (as in new) is exciting! If you are going to write – YOU have to write. You have to write AS YOU. You have to write ABOUT THINGS YOU CARE ABOUT, about places YOU KNOW ABOUT. Your job is to come up with brilliant new ideas and stories from your imagination. NEVER FORGET THAT. This is yours.
On the other side, if someone is going to lay several million pounds on the table to make a TV Show or a movie then they better have some idea it’s going to work.
How can they possibly know that?
Well, this is where formula and forecasting come in. And here are the main rules:
Things that were well received before, stand a good chance of being well received again. (hence Sequels and Franchises)
Movies and TV Shows that follow certain formulas and tick certain boxes tend to result in higher audience satisfaction and therefore viewing figures/sales (more on this in later posts)
Movies and TV shows that can be summed up in a single line that makes the listener or reader SEE that movie/show (and like it) are more likely to get eyeballs in front of it. (just as you felt when you had your idea).
And the rest is marketing. Stars are marketing. Big posters are marketing. Don’t worry about that now.
So suddenly your best chance of success is to be both amazingly ORIGINAL and DEEPLY PREDICTABLE. Or, if you prefer, RELIABLE…
It starts with the idea. The idea needs to tick a few boxes to even get of the starting block. Here is what it needs to do:
Post itself in a GENRE
Have a great TITLE
Give a sense of CONFLICT
Have a sense of IRONY
Hint at the AUDIENCE
In one line.
For this one, I’m going to turn to the experts…. You can read about it here.
Part 1 is an explanation of how the Enneagram works. Part 2 will explain how to use it in your writing.
Quite simply, the Enneagram is a neat little way of categorising your characters by their psychology.
According to Enneagram theory, everybody falls into one of nine character types and each character type exhibits certain behaviours, based on what drives them. For some it’s the need to put things in order, for others it’s the need to be in control, or be original, or be helpful.
As a writer, I use the Enneagram a lot.
Here are the character types, along with a brief description:
The Reformer or Perfectionist – who likes to see things in order.
The Helper or Giver – who likes to assist others and receive love.
The Achiever or Performer – who likes to win.
The Individualist or Romantic – who dreams and likes to be original.
The Investigator or Observer – who likes to know everything going on.
The Loyalist or Skeptic – who needs to trust and be trusted.
The Enthusiast or Epicure – who loves to indulge in everything life has to offer.
The Challenger or Protector – who craves security and control.
The Peacemaker or Mediator – who brings harmony to situations.
It’s easy to see how having a relatively short list of potential character types immediately creates a range of characters who all have different goals and desires – which opens the door to a wide variety of conflicts, much more subtle than simply good guys versus bad.
More of this in part 2…
Additionally the Enneagram describes some key traits of each type:
HOLY IDEA – what the character truly believes in. Where their moral compass firmly points.
EGO FIXATION – when they’re at their most selfish, they’re here.
BASIC DESIRE – what they really want on a psychological level
BASIC FEAR – what this type of person hates and takes great pains to avoid.
TEMPTATION – what is the characters compulsive behaviour. What they revert to under pressure.
VIRTUE – what redeeming behaviour this character has learnt. What they’re capable of at their best.
VICE – what they’re up to at their worst. What foul habits they have.
Again it can really help to build a character from being mostly driven by one particular aspect of their personality. It comes to define them and drive.
The traits a character displays are all related and form a consistency that makes it easy to build up an image of a particular type that is easily accessible.
Perhaps you’d like to try to work out which type you, or some of your (favourite) characters are!
To summarise the various traits of the types I’ve grabbed this little table. All of this, and descriptions are available in the App.
Loss of Control
Peace of Mind
If you’d like to have a pocket guide to carry around with you, then please check out the App
And, in case I haven’t laboured the point enough already… more on how to use the Enneagram in part 2! (which is coming soon)
Thanks for reading. I always love to hear your comments! – James
So.. how to make the Enneagram work for your writing?
The Enneagram, to my mind, serves two main functions.
It helps avoid some common problems by creating a consistent set of diverse characters.
It helps fuel the imagination about character-specific plot points.
What more could you need from such a simple tool! Let’s look at these in turn.
The first and most obvious way, is to make sure that you’ve got the bases covered – that all your characters are different types.
Designing the Cast
When designing your cast – make sure you have Reformers, Achievers, Helpers, Individualists… Having a diversity of Enneagram types creates a diversity of characters – who all see the world in different ways, want different things and react differently.
Write Distinct Characters
One of the biggest traps writers fall into is to write all the characters the same. By having different types the chance of this happening is greatly reduced.
Don’t Write Yourself
Another problem is writing every character as yourself. And that means characters sound like you, and act like you. They do what you’d do (because, you know, you’re a hero too).
By getting a handle on a particular Enneagram type you can make sure you don’t make this mistake – (be the hero of your own story, not the one you’re writing!)
Fuelling the Imagination
But more importantly, the traits of the Enneagram can really help bring rounded characters to life. How? Let’s have a look.
Acting to Type
Start by giving a particular character a type, then get to know that type
Look at the various traits and drivers that a Reformer has – they’re perfectionists and they like everything to be in order. This means different things are going to bother them (messiness for example) and they’re going to have a distinct reaction to being under pressure (they get angry). With seven different traits for each character there’s plenty of scope for creating well-rounded variations of Reformers.
It can help to build extreme characters (i.e comedy or small characters) around one particular trait – a Reformer who gets REALLY ANGRY about things (Basil Fawlty, anyone???)
Having a range of different characters also creates that all important conflict.
An Individualist (who is dreamy, touchy and obsessed with their output) and an Achiever (who is driven, competitive and sometimes deceptive) are going to create a unique dynamic. There’s a sitcom right there…
You could put them on an oil rig, in space, or in a chip shop. Or in a chip shop on an oil rig in space – but the core conflict is going to be there. And it’s those human conflicts we crave – when two people want different things – and go about getting it in different ways…
We’ve talked about differences here. But there’s also something unifying in recognising your character as a certain type. Examining the traits of a Challenger, for example, it becomes clear that they’re driven by a need for security… They challenge as a way of protecting themselves. They want to know the truth. They risk pushing others away… And this adds a completeness to the character… As an audience member we GET this character. Immediately a back-story begins to emerge… what hurt them? Why do they want to be protected?
Audiences are not particularly forgiving of inconsistent characters either. Would your Challenging protector trust someone they had only just met because it helps your plot? Not for a second. They might appear to trust them but would certainly take steps to hedge their bets, or find more about their new friend. This is rewarding to the audience. of course they’d do that… they say. How do they know? They recognise the type…
Character-specific plot points
As you can see from the above, simply by assigning characters an Enneagram type puts a spin on their interactions with everything – in a justifiable and satisfying way… How each character reacts to the same situation is a very telling route into the character – think about how each of the characters in The Usual Suspects reacts to being interviewed by the police. We know instantly that these are very different individuals.
Themes for Enneagram Types
I will touch on various story themes in another post – but for the time being it’s worth understanding that there are certain themes that suit certain Enneagram characters better.
For example a moral crusade tale suits a Reformer at its helm, a detective tale might suit a driven investigator type – and a lone hero action movie would almost certainly want a Challenger taking the action to the bad guys.
The Enneagram Journey
Relating specifically to storytelling I have also created something called the Enneagram Journey. This particularly applies to the hero, but can apply to any character.
The idea behind the journey is that a character must grow and change throughout the story. And each of the traits that a character displays can be indicative of a certain stage of that journey.
Journey of a Hero
Act One Ego Fixation and Holy Idea
When we first meet a character they are often self-obsessed and unreformed. Here their dominant trait is their Ego Fixation – that dark little part of themselves. For an example, an investigator type, who is Stingy and ungenerous when we first meet them.
But they also hold, or are aware of, a noble concept – their Holy Idea – for the Investigator this is Omniscience – they long to know everything – to uncover the truth. In our detective story this might be to uncover the murderer – and more importantly HOW it happened. Their Holy idea is a chance at redemption.
Act Two Basic Fear and Basic Desire
Pushed into the second act, into new circumstances they have to face their Fears and Desires. They are tested Our detective has a strong desire to appear competent and capable, and face situations where they feel useless – back and forth proving themselves, failing and trying again…
Normally they reach a crisis point towards the end of the second act where they face their Temptation – that behaviour they resort to when they’re under intense pressure. For the Investigator this can be Overthinking – paralysis through analysis – being stopped in their tracks – unable to see the way forward. To proceed, they must overcome that temptation…
Act Three Vice and Virtue
Finally in the showdown finale there are two possible endings – They face their all-consuming and damning Vice to achieve their redeeming Virtue.
For the Investigator, this is a choice between being overcome by greed – being corrupted as the killer revealed tries to bargain them out of it, or having an opportunity to profit immensely by keeping the truth hidden. Or maintaining that cool analysis and delivering the truth while those around around them lose their heads. Either can be the result keeping the audience guessing to the end. A positive ending or a negative ending – just make sure you’ve given the audience enough reasons for them to reach that end (if they fall victim of their vice, we like to see it coming, if they’re rewarded for their great virtue it’s because they’ve earned it)
So I hope you’ve got a sense of how the Enneagram can help keep track of your characters and inspire your imagination.
As always take as much or as little as you like from this – it is not prescriptive merely intended to help fuel your imagination as a writer.
To get a handy pocket guide for the iPhone to keep with you, study and store your own character types head over to the App Store!
Thanks for reading and as always all comments welcome!