Theater of the Mind
Lately I’ve really enjoyed working with writers via phone.
Usually a script question can be answered easily in an email, but sometimes it’s better to talk.
A few of these conversations are with well-known screenwriters, which proves even the pros need perspective.
They are about to go into a meeting, and just want to double-check with me about a pitch point or a story hiccup. I fielded these emergency calls long before Save the Cat! came out, but even more so since.
And I love it.
Because no matter who is calling, or what story they’re working on, every conversation is different. And I’m the one who always learns something new.
Tell me your story I will say. A breath. Okay. And with a little nudging from me about what I really need to hear — and what I don’t — the cavern of my imagination lights up with their story. A flare set off in a diamond mine. And in quick order, the flaws appear, too. A long list of things can be the cause:
— Characters that aren’t arcing… or aren’t there!
— Third acts that fail to pay off what was promised up front.. and maybe it’s what’s up front that’s off?
— Midpoints that blur… because the writer has not decided whether it’s a “false victory” or a “false defeat.”
And often it’s like therapy. Because that fatal story flaw, the section that “needs some work” is staring the writer in the face, and he hasn’t come to grips with what the real “work” is.
I feel like a radio psychologist, because inevitably the problem is a blind spot the writer has, or some nagging reality he’s known about from the start, and is trying to pave over with dazzle. But it all comes out in our talk. And often it doesn’t take long before we have a much firmer grasp of the poster, the hero, the death of the hero’s old ideas, and the final test he must pass. Or not.
It’s amazing how vivid a picture can be painted with a few words — if those words are well-chosen. And if the right questions are asked, and you have the flexibility to think a new way, these stories can be re-booted many times, in many ways to get it right.
But have no doubt this is the process. Before we commit to a real theater, or a real movie set, we first have to put our story up in the Theater of the Mind. Whether you tell me or your writer’s group, or the stranger in line at Starbucks, the more you do, the better you get at it– so the umpteenth time you tell it is the right way.
And when it is finally committed to a bigger stage, with people you’ve never met responding to your story, it will still be the story they will be able to tell each other, to urge everyone they tell to see the most amazing thing they’ve ever seen. What is that? How does it go? A breath. Okay.
It goes something like this…
On my current book, I created a spreadsheet based on your index cards (but including some other things I need to keep track of as well) and included a column titled Beat Sheet. If I can’t find the 15 beats in my story, I know something’s wrong and need to edit again. It’s working great and I could not do it without you and Save the Cat. Thanks, Blake!
- Elizabeth Fais
I’ve started doing what you say to do in your book: pitch my story to anyone who’s standing still. The person I’m pitching to doesn’t even have to give me a verbal response. I can tell if I have a good idea and have hit the right story beats from the expressions on their face. If I’ve hit on a really good story, the people I pitch to will start pitching ideas for the plot back to me. It’s amazing!
“I feel like a radio psychologist, because inevitably the problem is a blind spot the writer has, or some nagging reality he’s known about from the start, and is trying to pave over with dazzle. But it all comes out in our talk. And often it doesn’t take long before we have a much firmer grasp of the poster, the hero, the death of the hero’s old ideas, and the final test he must pass. Or not.”
OMG!! It’s like Frasier for screenwriters!! You should do this Blake? Where? When?
- Rob M
How come you don’t have a podcast Blake? You could offer monthly or weekly advice based on your travels and communications with other writers.
Just a thought.
You’re really kind to help people out like that, and as Luzid said above, the fact that you approach every conversation as a chance to learn says a lot about what has made you successful.
You really should consider a podcast. It could be your Frasier for writers, taking the calls and what not.
- Jennifer H.
“But have no doubt this is the process….”
No doubts here! I’ve been putting this to the test since reading STC and it really works! I’ve told my story perhaps a dozen times now. I’ve been able to see which elements consistently make people’s eyes light up (yay! story idea gold!) and which ones make their eyes glaze over (hmmm…should consider tossing or revising that element…) Also, MY eyes lit up as they saw things I hadn’t considered. I know my finished product will be hugely better because of this process of “telling” it first.
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I really admire your attitude of looking forward to learning, even with all your success. That’s what it’s all about, man!