Updated: May 27, 2021
Hello Writers, today I'm talking about writing a story that keeps the reader or audience invested, and evokes something to talk about after.
This is important.
Many stories are just "meh" and they should have worked but didn't.
I never want to cut any writers, cast, crew, directors, authors, publishers, or anyone who is working in a creative field down so please know that everything I write about I am only doing so to give you examples of things that didn't work--and let's be honest, everyone who worked on these projects knows that they didn't go the way it was planned--box office & sales is usually a big indicator-not always because some great stories are never huge successes but you know what I mean.
Stories that should have worked but didn't.
ALEX & EMMA - rom-com film from 2003. About a writer who needs to finish a novel in 30 days or he'll be murdered by loan sharks. The reason it didn't work was both in the plot and the characters.
THE LOVE PUNCH - rom-com film from 2013. A divorced couple schemes to get back money that was stolen from them. The reason it didn't work was really in the plotting and how everything just worked out for them, as well as many unbelievable things that happened.
JOEY - comedy television show spin-off of FRIENDS. Joey Tribbiani moves to Los Angeles from New York to pursue his acting career. Why it didn't work? So many reasons, but the big one is that there was too much of the "wouldn't it be funny if" and not enough character development and or reasons for anything.
PAN AM - drama television show. This show relied too heavily on nostalgia and not enough on character & plot. It could have been great but fell super flat.
Stories that WORKED and why
WHEN HARRY MET SALLY - rom-com film 1998. Two friends who are complete opposites can't see what is right in front of them and continue to make mistakes with romantic relationships. Complete opposites who don't even like each other at the beginning-but every single thing they say is there for a reason. The plot and story arcs progress in a natural manner and everything that happens moves the story forward. Everything, even the famous scene where she pretends to have an orgasm in the diner, that shows who she is, and also that Harry is often wrong about his assumptions about women.
When they get together it messes up their friendship which shows us that they really love each other even if they won't admit it. It's real and nothing that happens is based on "wouldn't it be funny if".
IT'S COMPLICATED - rom-com film 2009 by Nancy Meyers. A divorced couple launch into an affair after their son's graduation. I don't know why this doesn't have a higher score on IMDB because it's completely brilliant. Here is a story about a couple who already know each other and have been divorced for some time, he is remarried to a younger woman and yet they have an affair. Why it works is because of character. Everything that is done is true to who they are as people. She wants her life back, or so she thinks, and he is having a later than a mid-life crisis with his new young wife wanting to have a baby. He wants to feel normal and she wants to feel desired so they fall back into bed, and comedy happens naturally. The plot also unfolds in a natural progression and there are some very funny scenes that move the story forward.
FRASIER - comedy television show-spin-off of CHEERS. 1993 Frasier moves back to Seattle to start his life over and ends up living with his father. This show works on every level and for a spin-off, it's quite brilliant. We already knew Frasier but we didn't know Marty (his father) or Niles (his brother). They could have failed so hard with this one by just having the same Frasier we met at the bar in Boston. High & mighty snob commenting on how everyone is below him, but that would have been boring so the writers introduced us into Frasier's world with a father who is everything that Frasier thinks he is above. Marty is uncouth, blue-collar, beer-drinking, rather watch a game at McGinty's Pub & eat burgers that cost under $10 whereas Frasier & Niles wouldn't be caught dead doing anything blue-collar or setting foot in a pub. The comedy writes itself. Every episode is riddled with juxtaposition in the characters. They never do anything just to be funny. Everything they do in every scene is to reach their own goals but their character is what makes it so funny. The show is also rounded out with Frasier's job as a radio psychologist where Niles has his own practice. The secondary characters of Roz and Daphne bring even more layers into Frasier's world. We also never meet Nile's wife but his actions and dialogue make it clear who she is and it's naturally funny.
DOWNTON ABBEY - drama television series 2010. A chronicle of the lives of the British aristocratic Crawley family and their servants in the early twentieth century.
Oh Downton why are you so perfect? Character and plot/story arcs that work. From the very first scenes where you have the father of this rich family reading a paper and talking about people they knew on the Titanic and how this would affect their family in a way that would change everything to seeing the servants actions and reactions to the news and getting the day going, we are enticed to watch more. The first thing they got right was opening with a historical event that has a worldwide fascination, even now, 109 years after the sinking. Then they showed us who the characters were through dialogue and actions. There was never anything that told us who they were, they showed us. Through the years things that happened in real life like WW1 showed up and played a huge role on the show and that also came with the unexpected loss of favorite characters and like all great series ended every episode making us crave the next one. What will happen next?? I need to know. They rounded the show with characters who we loved to hate but also cared about like Thomas the footman turned valet turned second Butler turned Butler. The showed us human kindness and how we are all alike even when separated by class.
To craft a story that works you need two things.
Well, you need many but these are the two that you MUST have.
1) Great CHARACTERS-which means, your characters must have their own personality as well as wants and goals in every scene. Everything they do must happen for a reason. If you look at shows like FRIENDS or EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND you see that in every scene the characters' intentions are for what they want the outcome to be. When you have a juxtaposition of characters' wants and needs comedy happens. There is no reason to write a bunch of jokes for the purpose of being funny. For dramas, it's basically the same principle. Take CHICAGO PD and GREY'S ANATOMY. Both are strong ensemble shows with characters who are very distinct and the way they act, speak, and do everything comes from WHO they are and nothing else. AND your character must be the author of their own destiny.
Harry got help from his friends in all of the books/movies but it was because of what he did that it happened. (HAPPY POTTER) You can't have things just work out or have someone else solve the problem or save your characters. In comedy as well, they are the master of their own disaster-always and then they realize some change they need to make, take responsibility and it works out. THE PROPOSAL Margaret realizes that she is doing the wrong thing so she takes action and leaves Andrew at the altar and faces the consequences.
2) Great PLOT/STORY ARCS-this means that your story must move along at a pace that keeps us interested and you must follow the format for what you are writing.
Your story doesn't have to be filled with action. Take DOWNTON ABBEY-it's a bit slow sometimes but still we can't look away. Look at SEINFELD or FRIENDS most of which take place in apartments but we were excited every week to see what happened in their lives. The plotting worked always. When you are writing anything you have to think in terms of beginning, middle, and end. There has to be an end goal and then you must give the story ups and downs. Stories that work in a straight line or everything works out too conveniently fall flat and we stop reading or watching.
I know you can do it!
I recommend the following books to help you.
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