Those aren’t the very first words spoken in Tennessee Williams’ play, Streetcar Named Desire, but they do function as the “opening line.” Few, if any, writers have been able to capture the theme of a story so succinctly and completely as soon as the curtain opens, or the camera FADES IN, depending on whether we reference the play or the film.
I no longer fund motion pictures. Today, my primary job is to find funding for an orphanage that I helped to build in a small Mexican town, just across the border from Arizona. In fact, it was my move from the world of finance to a life as a lay missioner that led me back to finding a great story and writing my first piece of historic fiction. I’ll get to that in a minute, but first let me share some of what I discovered while reading screenplays. If you ever want to write fiction, here are some basics that can help you develop your story.
Writing screenplays is quite different than writing a novel. In a screenplay, the writer has to let the photography, the graphics, and the actors tell the story. The novelist has to craft a description of every place, person, object and emotion in his narrative. Both in novels and in screenplays, however, it is critical to capture (or at least hint at) the theme of the story at the very beginning. You need to introduce your theme, your inciting incident and your major characters as soon as you can.
I wrote a book that is about people in New Orleans seeking immortality, life after death. It begins in a cemetery at 7 p.m. That’s the hour when Bourbon Street is closed to vehicular traffic for the multitude of tourists who celebrate the City of Saints with cheap plastic beads and frozen drinks in go-cups. I open my story with a simple line, “New Orleans was coming alive.” In a graveyard setting, that line captures the theme with just five words.
Before the saints come marching in, I should note that it is the end, not the beginning, of a story that should be the first thing every writer considers. You can’t get there if you don’t know where you are going! A good writer knows exactly where he or she wants to go, and has a pretty good idea of what it will look like on arrival, before considering how to begin or what to stuff in between. More often than not when selecting scripts, I would give a story the “5 and 10 treatment,” reading the first five pages and the last ten, before deciding if it was worth any more of my time.
This brings me to the final chapter in my own life story. Things changed in Hollywood and I moved on to career managing investment portfolios for many of the same people I met while reviewing scripts. Years passed, but eventually the day came when I could finally spend my time and good fortune on something I had wanted to do for years…help kids. Today, I work with some of the most tragic cases in the chaos America calls its southern border. My orphanage gets children who have watched their parents die of dehydration in the desert. Others are abandoned by single mothers who simply can’t feed them. Still others are the victims of unspeakable physical and sexual abuse.
One day, the police brought us a group of grade school aged little girls. Their mother had tried to sell them into prostitution. I loved my work but the stress of meeting so many broken children was taking its toll. That was the day I knew that I couldn’t continue to look at sick, burned, raped, and beaten children seven days a week. I needed to spend at least one day doing and thinking about something that had nothing to do with the orphans. I took a short vacation, went to New Orleans, and decided that when I got home I would spend every Monday writing fiction. In short, writing became a way to protect my own mental health. It now allows me to return to my mission on Tuesday refreshed and renewed. It also gives me the opportunity to put into practice some of what I had learned years ago about telling a good story.
It’s no secret that many (perhaps most) of the successful films through the years tend to follow Joseph Campbell’s “myth structure.” If you aren’t familiar with the Hero’s Journey, Google the topic and learn it before you write another word of fiction. It has worked for writers for centuries, long before Campbell ever described it. The 17 steps in this structure will help you design a story that will keep your reader’s attention. One caveat here, the Hero’s Journey doesn’t work well unless you plan to have a happy ending, but maestros like Spielberg have found ways to adapt it even to sad or tragic endings.
I believe so-called “pantsers,” those who claim to write without any outline, either fail in their efforts to write, or succeed because years of honing their craft has made myth structure a part of their subconscious writing technique. Sometimes, too much structure, too rigid an outline, can stifle creativity and suffocate the natural flow of your story, but if you want to write powerful fiction, understanding Myth Structure is one of the important arrows you’ll need in your quiver. The steps in the Hero’s Journey can appear quite obvious, as they do in Star Wars or the Wizard of OZ. More often they are subtle and lurking just out of sight beneath the surface, but if you hear people raving about a book, a film or a stage play, each step is probably there. All the steps are fairly easy to spot in my book, L’immortalité, where I use New Orleans’ Pirates Alley as my own “yellow brick road.”
Another thing that I learned by reading scripts was the importance of Syd Field’s paradigm. Understanding plot points and where to place them is essential to telling a great story. This isn’t just true for screenplays, you NEED to understand this for novels and short stories, as well. A carefully structured narrative will keep readers engaged. If you are new to writing fiction, I strongly urge you to read Syd Field’s The Foundations of Screenwriting, even if you never plan to write a screenplay. If you are a novice, you may want to begin your outline with a transparency. Simply place your inciting incident, plot points (or twists as some call them), midpoint, and resolution on a clear plastic sheet over the steps from the Hero’s Journey. If nothing else, this short exercise will help you to see where you need to go in order to move your story forward.
Moving forward, always moving forward, is the third lesson I learned from motion pictures. Too many books get put aside because the author fails to make sure that each scene moves the story forward and that the end of each scene provides a motive to turn to the next page. Unless a scene pushes the story forward, CUT IT OUT. Unless a scene ends with a prompt, such as a foreboding image, a revelation, an important decision, a surprise, an unanswered question or the announcement of a critical event, think about re-writing it.
Fiction is about tension. Hitchcock once said that the dull parts in fiction are the parts without trouble. You (and your readers) don’t want dull parts, so cut them out. Don’t fail to check for the repetitive use of words (computers now make this task quite simple). Don’t let anybody tell you to “dumb it down.” Tennessee Williams knew that some in his audience would be unfamiliar with NOLA’s street names and transit system, but he didn’t let that keep him from writing a great opening line. Everybody…absolutely everybody…needs an editor, but don’t ever let an editor tell you that your vocabulary is too rich for your readers. It can be too sappy, too crude, too dated, too graphic, or too repetitive, but never too “difficult,” even if you write YA books.
The more you write, the better you’ll get. I still spend every Monday writing and continue to find ways to improve on my craft. I still work six days a week keeping an orphanage in operation. Fiction is a streetcar I’m glad I decided to ride and, hopefully, my work with homeless, abandoned and abused kids will, in the end, be my trolley pass to the Elysian Fields.
If you enjoy T.R.’s writing, check out http://www.l-immortalite-madame-lalaurie-and-the-voodoo-queen.com/