Jun 4, 2010

Rule Of Thumb: Story Needs vs Author Wants

Jun 4, 2010
The more I write, the more I believe ideas are alive.

I used to think, in my young naive way, that I was somehow in control of my ideas. That it was I who was Lord and Master of my little worlds; that on a whim I could bring both happiness and destruction to my characters, should I wish it.

But the world was quick to show me my foolishness, as it always is - and I was forced to "cast my own small golden sceptre down." Ideas are alive; they each have personality and know exactly how they want to be told.

When I come up with the first seeds of a story, be it book or film, it usually starts its life deceptively versatile. Like a newborn, it is full of potential and options; and it is completely dependant on your guidance.

Then as you raise it from its infant state, annoyingly it starts to develop its own personality; like a teenager, it will eventually become discontent with its blind obedience to you. It starts rejecting scenes and details you try to add. Suddenly it doesn't want to work in the family business - it has its own plans.

It will start to suggest plots and characters, themes and directions all on its own - and unlike a teenager, it's always right. I'm learning the hard way that a lot of good writing is simply being able to listen to these 'suggestions.'

By way of example, a few years ago we were planning out a series concept, and for the longest time we had decided to kill off a main character's brother. The story needed a dramatic catalyst, and the brother's death was both dramatic and catalyzing, and it was the one we wanted. However the story had it's own thoughts about this, and the the death refused to sit right.

For months we argued and struggled trying to fit in his death, to no avail. It wasn't until we yielded, and listened that we made headway. The story demanded that someone else entirely should be killed, someone we thought couldn't possibly die - but sure enough once we'd done that, everything just clicked and the whole story fell into place.

This lead us to finally realise what I believe to be one of the most important writing rules:
Give the story what it needs, not what you want.
I've found this usually means a lot of heartbreak.
Sometimes it means removing 'Tom Bombadils' from adaptations.
Sometimes it means murdering my darlings.
Sometimes it means giving the audience what they want.
And sometimes, it means not telling the story I first wanted to tell.

Practically speaking, I find this means really exploring the natural limits of ideas. Anything outside of those limits needs to be cut, and anything inside should perhaps be explored. You can't include science-fiction concepts in most realistic dramas, and you usually can't have pop-culture jokes in fantasy setting - no matter how much you want it. A show set in the White House usually needs politics, and kid shows need to be bright and visual - no matter how much you don't want it.

There are many different forms of these limits. I remember watching Man of the Year (2006) which had such a great premise, but it got bogged down in a very science fictiony B-plot about electronic voting 'what ifs'. This is something I would describe as 'out of limits' for a comedy based on real life.

And Sky High (2005) also had a brilliantly simple concept: The son of famous superheroes is sent to superhero school... but he doesn't have any super powers. The movie naturally explores this by having the people with weaker powers being treated unfairly. If that's your foundation, then your theme has to be 'it's not about your powers, it's how you use them' or 'it's not what's outside, but what's inside that counts' or even 'people without are just as valuable as people with' or any of the endless variations. The movie ruins this by giving everyone super powers by the end of it, even the bus driver - the main character gets two! Now the message is 'you're only worth something if you have powers'.

And there are large blanket limitations as well. For example, we've found that you can't have aliens in an idea not completely about aliens. Just look at all the negative feedback Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008), Knowing (2009), The Forgotten (2004) and even Tintin and Flight 714 (1968) got when the last ten minutes suddenly sprung 'aliens' as the mysteries solution.. Aliens really have to be heavily hinted at before the Inciting Incident - and it's the same with time travel.

Audiences seem surprisingly sensitive to these conditions being broken - even if they often can't articulate them.


  1. " ... and poets shall have flames upon their head,
    and harps whereon their faultless fingers fall:
    there each shall choose for ever from the All."

  2. A.I did that too. Aliens appear at the end and it was dissapointing and too unbelievable.
    'Give the story what it needs' I like that. Sometimes we can be very self indulgent in our writing and hold on to an idea that is precious to you but doesnt work in the story.

    I'm finding as I slowly write out 'Gabbi', I had only two core ideas to start out with, as I flesh it out all these other situations are happening. They are great, it's all fitting in with each other and the story is taking me for an unexpected ride.

  3. Being self indulgent, that's exactly it! It can be a major problem, especially if you're a very creative and visual person.

    Gabbi is the one who likes Dachshunds right? I hope to hear more about her.


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