It’s finally here, my new book! A year of work and a lifetime of conversation with my co-writer, Columbia University film professor David McKenna, has yielded MEMO FROM THE STORY DEPARTMENT: Secrets of Structure and Character. It’s just out from Michael Wiese Productions, ISBN-10: 1932907971 and ISBN-13: 978-1932907971.
A couple of years ago, I found myself thinking about a book I had long wanted to write, a collaboration with my colleague, New York-based story consultant, performance coach and Columbia professor David McKenna. David and I have been comparing notes about the untracked territory of story construction since we first met in San Antonio, in the early 1970s, and it was high time we put our heads together to write a book on what we’ve discovered.
We talked and argued for months about the nature and purpose of the book, and finally agreed it should be something like a tool kit, a set of techniques and ways of thinking about stories, and life, derived from our experiences in working for various movie studio story departments on East and West Coasts. We both have found many essential tools that helped us understand how stories work. I wrote about one such set of tools, Joseph Campbell’s mythic outline, in my first book, THE WRITER’S JOURNEY. People expect me to speak exclusively in the language of the Hero’s Journey model, but in practice I use many different tools and terms when working with stories, and so does David. We wanted to share with a larger audience some of these alternate frameworks, templates, systems, and ways of thinking that we have found so useful.
I’m really pleased with how the book turned out. You never really know, even when you’ve seen galley proofs, what you’ve created until you hold the first actual, really truly published copy in your hands. This one feels good! It’s a compact guidebook, packed with useful techniques and exercises, and breezily written in the voice of two old friends batting ideas around.
Among the tools in the kit you’ll find handy items like David’s “Want List”, an array of common human drives that motivate characters; my chapter on “What’s the Big Deal?” where I look at scenes as business transactions; and David’s “Five-Year Plan” for managing your career. In the spirit of “The Writer’s Journey”, I unearthed some ancient story treasure, in chapters on what I learned from Russian fairy tales and from a little-known follower of Aristotle, a man named Theophrastus who wrote the first study of character types, over 2500 years ago, and influenced many later plays including “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum”.
David’s major contribution is a big chunk of the book dedicated to exploring what he calls the Six Environmental Facts, a method for analyzing characters and scenes in the light of time, place, economic conditions, social surroundings, religious beliefs and political environment. It’s a great way to immerse yourself in the world of your characters, and by looking at them from these different facets you may find your ideas “crystallizing”, leading to unexpected connections and insights.
I round off the book with some thoughts on the quality of showmanship and a list of key questions to ask yourself about your script or novel. I think you’ll find something useful in this volume that will enhance your understanding of story and encourage you to make your own contribution to the body of knowledge.
I also want to invite those of you in the Los Angeles area to an exciting new story conference later this month (August 27, 2011). It’s called THE FUTURE OF STORY and you can find out more about it at http://www.mwp.com/thefutureofstory/
This gathering of experts to discuss where storytelling is headed is the brainchild of Michael Wiese, publisher of my books and head of Michael Wiese Productions, (MWP), the most successful line of self-instruction books for media pros. For several years Michael has been staging some very cool gatherings in Los Angeles for the growing circle of self-empowering MWP authors, an opportunity for us to share the techniques we’ve all learned for surviving in tough times and nurturing our creativity. These mini-workshops have gone so well, and have generated so much encouragement and empowerment, that Michael and his VP, Ken Lee, decided to take it public. The essence of the MWP “brand” is a generous spirit of sharing the information that we have learned the hard way, to make things a little easier for storytellers of the future. Many of the MWP authors had the same reason for writing their books: they looked around for a book in their area of expertise, and there wasn’t one — yet.
Myself, noted screenwriter and producer Pen Densham (author of RIDING THE ALLIGATOR), and skilled story consultant and author Pilar Alessandra (THE COFFEE BREAK SCREENWRITER) will chair panels with MWP authors who are all experts in their crafts, exploring the fascinating question of what lies in the future of story? Don’t miss this chance to see passionate, articulate storytellers look into the crystal ball and express their hopes and dreams for the future. I’ll conduct a panel on the future of Developing the Story, Pen’s group of authors will look at the future of Writing and Rewriting the Story, and Pilar will chair the panel on what lies ahead for Pitching the Story.
There will be a break for dinner and networking on the site, in an interesting movie studio complex in the heart of vibrant downtown L.A., catered by a selection of L.A’s famously delicious food trucks. The day will be topped off with a special screening of Michael Wiese’s new film “Talking with Spirits” about the mysterious spirit world of Bali, in a unique dome-shaped theatre within the complex. It should be an exciting and mind-opening event!