How Building an Orphanage Refreshed the Writing Lessons I Learned from Hollywood. By T. R. Heinan, author of L’immortalité: Madame Lalaurie and the Voodoo Queen

T.R. Heinen (Small)“They told me to take a street-car named Desire, and transfer to one called Cemeteries, and ride six blocks and get off at—Elysian Fields!”

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.

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16 thoughts on “How Building an Orphanage Refreshed the Writing Lessons I Learned from Hollywood. By T. R. Heinan, author of L’immortalité: Madame Lalaurie and the Voodoo Queen

  1. Clayton Bye

    It was nice to be reminded of the basics. Sometimes we get so involved in our craft that we forget there are all these great tools that can help us write so much better than we do. Much appreciated.

  2. Cynthia B Ainsworthe

    Fantastic article, TR. I found it to be extremely interesting. I had no idea you are a screenwriter, as well. I’m discovering screenwriting is an entirely different beast, and is not easy. Much success to you on your wonderful goal with orphaned children.

    1. T.R. Heinan

      Not a screenwriter, not yet anyway. I spent years reading other people’s treatments and screenplays to help studios decide what to make and then arranged financing for the distribution. Most of what I looked at had already made it past two gatekeepers, so my team was the final “green light”. My partners and I had several Academy Award winners in our portfolio.

  3. Trish Jackson

    What a great article, I loved it. Thank you so much for helping to remind us about the basics of crafting a good story, and also thank you for making us realize how fortunate we are. You are an amazing person and you are doing amazing work.

  4. Anne Sweazy-Kulju

    Truly excellent article! I have told many people that I read Syd’s Foundations of Screenwriting before I got started authoring novels. But I didn’t stop there; no one draws characters like Linda Seger, and Blake Snyder’s “Save the Cat,” is a recipe for excellence in fiction, not just screenplays (it may be the reason BODIE received a movie option offer right out of the gate; the producer called my writing “visual.” The deal fell through, but still…)

    I also agree that unstructured writing almost never works out. Your characters have to have an idea of where they’re going or readers can get lost right along with them. I had an author once tell me structured writing was boring, and that he never knows how he is going to end his book until he is more than half-way finished. If he needs to change characters and scenes (he does!) once he finally knows his ending, he “salts” them in. It prompted me to write the article, “Too Much Salt Isn’t Good For the Writer.”

    Before reading your post here, T.R., I had no idea there were other authors of fiction who have relied, in my case heavily, on the golden rules of the screenplay when crafting their stories. Maybe there are additional things I have in common with other authors, too (in other words, maybe I’m not mental… have you ever cried your eyes out over a character that met its end, and it’s YOUR character? No? Hmmm, maybe I am crazy.) Anyway, I agree with it all. Excellent advice, stellar post, interesting read. Thank you so much!

  5. James L. Secor

    Of course I’ve not spoken to everybody, but…other than Poe, Goldberg and me, you’re the first other writer to “say” a writer must/should begin at the end. I had good results teaching this and then what you call plot points: 3 of my students turned to writing, one in two languages. Your work with these abandoned kids is probably doing more good than any int’l aid: changing things begins down here, where you are, with what you can do. I had a therapist tell me once that my bent for justice was useless: I actually only worked disability–and paid for it. And wrote social satire of an absurdist nature. I stopped seeing her. [Whew! I wrote this with one finger & a cat in my arms! So, if there are any mistakes, the cat did it.]

  6. Monica Brinkman

    What a wonderful article! You touched on so much and I agree with Ken – perhaps there is yet another film in there somewhere. Thank you for writing such an excellent piece and sharing it with us.

  7. Micki Peluso

    “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.”

    What a fantastic ending for a life well lived. You have captured the ‘American Dream,’ accomplishing what you set out to do and doing it with expertise, then moving on to something else that your psyche seemed to know you needed. I admire you on so many levels– the greatest being what you are doing six days a week for children with no hope for a normal life–until you came along.

  8. Martha Love

    Your explanation of good screen playing writing was most helpful to me because I have been reading screen plays for a friend and wondering how to evaluate if they are doing what they are suppose to be doing. Thank you! You have given us some very important guidelines and I love your observation of the Hero’s Journey myth underlying most successful novels.

    And a word about your work with orphan children: “Saintly!”

  9. Marta Merajver-Kurlat

    Besides the importance of its human and professional content, this article stands out for the clarity with which it addresses crucial writing issues that no author, no matter how seasoned, should overlook. Thank you for the reminder! At this point, let me make a confession: a couple of my novels begin at the end, so the challenge to get the reader keep turning the pages is a major one.
    Loved this piece!

  10. Linda Hales

    So much has already been commented on here that I’ll restrict comments to my first impression of your article. Writing is superb, literary knowledge impeccable and your heart pure gold. I conclude that you are one talented dude T.R. Keep on doing what it is you do because only a very few can match your skill.

  11. Delinda

    As an advocate for people with disabilities, I know how stressful dealing daily with the human condition can be. Congratulations on finding a creative release for the stress. I’d love to visit your orphanage.

  12. Sharla

    TR, what a fantastic article! Now only is it awesome to read additional writing from you (superb by the way) but absolutely wonderful to learn the behind the scenes of your writing. As you know, I write poetry so have not delved into the fiction world of writing a novel. I did want to comment, however, before retiring from the school system, I wrote curriculum which followed the premise of Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People Habit 2: Begin with the End in Mind. Is there really any other way?

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