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This week on Writing Excuses, our hosts were still at the Writing Superstars conference in Salt Lake City. The regular hosts were joined by two guest hosts: Mary Robinette Kowal (who had been featured in the previous podcast on alternate history) and Dave Wolverton. This week, they were talking about selling the film rights to something you’ve written.
The hosts talked about using a Hollywood formula for your writing. Formula writing is often looked down on — even by me — but the host said something I thought was quite apt. He said, “formulas are not inherently bad for the same reason that recipes aren’t inherently bad.” As long as you’re using them correctly and following them well, the end product should be of good quality. Now, of course, you can’t simply copy a movie that’s already out there and successful. You still have to be original.
First, they detailed the three-act structure. This structure means, essentially, that you can break your story down into beginning, middle, and end. In the beginning, you should introduce the characters/setting/conflict — that’s act one. For the middle of the movie, things get worse — that’s the second act. Finally, in the end, things get resolved for the third act. I think this is a good structure to follow when writing. You can certainly keep tabs on everything you’re writing and make sure it fits well into the structure.
In addition to explaining the structure, the guest hosts discussed why the 3-act structure is helpful, what movie considerations fit into a 3-act structure. This structure is helpful for transitioning a story into a movie because the story can’t be sprawling and utterly complex. Authors have to be lean and trim the fat of their story. Movies depend on time so it’s important to figure out how to introduce things in a certain amount of time. To turn your story into a movie, you must know what your story is about at its core so you can explain it quickly (as in a movie pitch) to hook your readers or other interested parties into your story.
Another formula they detailed was one that revolved around problems in your story and the characters embroiled in those problems. First, you introduce the protagonist and the problem and then keep adding problems. Next you have to solve the problems, of course. The guest hosts suggested having everything happen closely together in time. Insert the resolution of conflicts, the solving of problems, and the defeat of the villain all close in time in the story (all in one chapter, perhaps).
All the notes made sure to note: the “shoot-out” is a failure. A story or movie that ends in a quick and simple shoot-out feels hollow because (usually) the characters weren’t motivated enough to make it seem natural. They cautioned against catering to the formula or genre, because then the audience can see the filmmaker’s hand. To combat against this quick and hasty ending, think about emotional movement in your story. One of the regular hosts gave a superb example — the joke “why did the chicken cross the road?” has a very silly and simple ending — “to get to the other side.” In your stories, you want the chicken to have an actual reason to get to the other side, so to speak.
Finally, the guest hosts offered up suggestions on what to do if you’re marketing an already-written piece for movie considerations. Hosts said you shouldn’t take anyone who just says “I’m a producer” — research them. Also, authors shouldn’t sign anything or make agreements without talking to their agent or doing actual research. Most importantly — don’t do anything for free
As the podcast came to a close, the hosts offered a fun writing exercise: try coming up with a tagline for something you’ve written! I hope you enjoyed learning about converting written pieces into film, I certainly did. You can check out Writing Excuses at their website or on iTunes.
— Jet Fuel Editor, Mary Egan