When in the midst of a story I need to refocus on the basic principles of narrative structure, I often (perhaps not often enough) go back to what playwright-screenwriter-director David Mamet, in his book on Hollywood, Bambi vs. Godzilla, calls “The Long Lost Secret of the Incas.” The secret consists in three magic questions. “Anyone who wants to know how to write drama must learn to apply these questions to all difficulties,” says Mamet. “It is not only unnecessary but also impossible to know the answers before setting out on the individual project in question, as there are no stock answers.”
Drama, argues Mamet, is a succession of scenes, and a successful scene must “stringently apply and stringently answer the following questions…”
Are you ready?
Here it is. The Long Lost Secret of the Incas.
- Who wants what from whom?
- What happens if they don’t get it?
- Why now?”
That’s it. As a writer, your yetzer ha’ra (evil inclination) will do everything in its vast power to dissaude you from asking these questions of your work. You will tell yourself the questions are irrelevant as the scene is “interesting,” “meaningful,” “revelatory of character,” “deeply felt,” and so on; all of these are synonyms for “it stinks in ice.”
Mamet’s three magic questions are the concentrated version of the famous leaked memo to the writers of his television show, The Unit, available here.
First principles, however, are not the only kind of principles. If Mamet’s three magic questions are the first principles of good storytelling, then Emma Coats’s 22 storytelling principles making their way around the Internet this week articulate some of the most relevant secondary principles. Coats is a storyboard artist at Pixar, a company that knows a thing or two about good storytelling. The following are the maxims she’s gleaned from her years working at the prestigious animation studio:
1: You admire a character for trying more than for their successes.
2: You gotta keep in mind what’s interesting to you as an audience, not what’s fun to do as a writer. They can be v. different.
3: Trying for theme is important, but you won’t see what the story is actually about til you’re at the end of it. Now rewrite.
4: Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___.
5: Simplify. Focus. Combine characters. Hop over detours. You’ll feel like you’re losing valuable stuff but it sets you free.
6: What is your character good at, comfortable with? Throw the polar opposite at them. Challenge them. How do they deal?
7: Come up with your ending before you figure out your middle. Seriously. Endings are hard, get yours working up front.
8: Finish your story, let go even if it’s not perfect. In an ideal world you have both, but move on. Do better next time.
9: When you’re stuck, make a list of what WOULDN’T happen next. Lots of times the material to get you unstuck will show up.
10: Pull apart the stories you like. What you like in them is a part of you; you’ve got to recognize it before you can use it.
11: Putting it on paper lets you start fixing it. If it stays in your head, a perfect idea, you’ll never share it with anyone.
12: Discount the 1st thing that comes to mind. And the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th–get the obvious out of the way. Surprise yourself.
13: Give your characters opinions. Passive/malleable might seem likable to you as you write, but it’s poison to the audience.
14: Why must you tell THIS story? What’s the belief burning within you that your story feeds off of? That’s the heart of it.
15: If you were your character, in this situation, how would you feel? Honesty lends credibility to unbelievable situations.
16: What are the stakes? Give us reason to root for the character. What happens if they don’t succeed? Stack the odds against.
17: No work is ever wasted. If it’s not working, let go and move on–it’ll come back around to be useful later.
18: You have to know yourself: the difference between doing your best & fussing. Story is testing, not refining.
19: Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.
20: Exercise: take the building blocks of a movie you dislike. How d’you rearrange them into what you DO like?
21: You gotta identify with your situation/characters, can’t just write ‘cool.’ What would make YOU act that way?
22: What’s the essence of your story? Most economical telling of it? If you know that, you can build out from there.
Mamet’s 3 + Coats’s 22. That’s 25 basic storytelling principles that, if followed–as Mamet tells the writers of The Unit–will buy you a house in Bel Air and allow you to hire someone to live there for you.