Monday, November 24, 2014

Wordcraft -- Eight steps to dynamic storytelling

How many writing workshops have I attended? Can I even count them? So try to imagine my surprise when lawyer/screenwriter Mike Farris came up some suggestions I’d never, I promise never, heard before.

The title of his discussion at this month’s presentation at the Writers’ Guild of Texas was “Eight Steps to Dynamic Storytelling.” (As he told the packed room with deadpan delivery, “When I first taught this, it was six steps. Now it’s at eight. Maybe it will finally be a twelve step program.”)

The complete set of eight steps were: universal theme, dynamic characters, hooking the reader, structure, cinematic writing, sparkling dialogue, seamless handling of exposition, and a “slam-bang ending.” Of these, cinematic writing and a big bang of an ending jumped out at me.

I suspect I’d heard something like Farris’s admonition to write cinematically as part of what other writing instructors include in discussions of writing with tension or hooking the reader or even character development. But maybe because he’s a screenwriter, the wording “write cinematically” made the topic pop.

“The worst thing a critic can say about a movie is, it’s forgettable,” Farris said. “You want people to read your book and walk away telling people, you’ve got to read this because there’s this great scene where¾

What’s an example of a great scene? Farris opted for the christening scene in The Godfather, with Michael Corleone vowing to renounce Satan and all his works, intercut with scene of brutal killing.

Such scenes advance the plot, or reveal something about the characters, or filter in exposition. But they’re also just plain memorable on their own. It’s not that every scene in a story has to be cinematic, Farris said. But there should be cinematic scenes in every story.

And then there was that idea of the slam-bang ending.

If it weren’t for protecting the guilty, I’d make a list of authors whose books I’ll never read again because of a stumbling ending. You know the ones¾ the hook was great, the writing kept you reading, but the ending made you want to throw the book against the wall and demand your money back, not to mention your time. A great beginning sells the book, a great ending sells the next book.

Not that means every story has to have a happy ending. One of Farris’s favorites is the ending of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. The freeze frame of the outlaws last shootout isn't a happy ending by any means, but it's one appropriate to their story.

I’ve learned to love the programs at the Writers’ Guild of Texas for its programs, its support of local authors, and not incidentally, for meeting at a location convenient for me (Richardson Public Library). For more about the Guild and its programs, see

Unfortunately, Farris in his capacity as literary agent,, only accepts manuscript queries through referral or personal acquaintance. But since he also
spoke recently to the Dallas Screenwriters Association, I’m interested in hearing how his suggestions on the rest of the eight steps play out. That’ll be at the monthly last Tuesday (November 25) scene readings at HalfPrice Books, 5803 E. Northwest Highway, in Dallas. Although only members can have work read, the readings themselves are free and open to the public. Writers submit work by 6 p.m., casting is done by 6:45, and the fun begins. For more information, see

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