To start off my PRICE tour I did the Southern California Writers’ Conference in San Diego last week. The conference is run by a WGA friend of mine, the irrepressible writer/director, Michael Steven Gregory, and his perfect straight man, Wes Albers, a writer/cop and the best of both professions. I love this conference because it feels like home, of course, but especially because of the unique dynamic between the instructors and attendees. The conference is made up primarily of workshops rather than panels and so attending authors end up doing a lot of teaching and also one-on-one sessions, and the whole atmosphere of the conference is so casual and friendly that I think students can get a lot of in-depth attention just by asking for it.
In prepping for my workshops and doing the actual teaching I realized that I have no idea how to teach people HOW to write. That is, if someone can’t put together a descriptive sentence, or a dramatic paragraph, I am not the person who is going to be able to help them with that. I can tell you how to make an existing sentence more effective and I can tell you what paragraphs you need to expand on to bring out the full potential of the situation, but I can’t tell you how to start from scratch. Honestly I think that skill starts extremely early – like, with third grade journaling. Storytellers are writing down stories from practically the time they can write (but that’s my theory – would love to hear what people have to say about late starters.).
I also have to admit that I hate with a singular passion the kinds of writing exercises in which an instructor gives you a situation, or a set of characters and you have to put together a story from those elements. I’m perfectly capable of coming up with my own elements, thanks very much.
But I am finding I am useful in explaining to people how to tell a story.
The classes I taught were “Creating Unbearable Suspense” and two sessions of “Screenwriting Tips and Tricks for Novelists (and Screenwriters)”. I’ve picked up a lot of structure tricks over the years and I’ve managed to distill them into a form that was translating amazingly well to the three classes of students I had last week. And one thing I found that worked really well was that I asked the students to give me examples of books and movies in their particular genres, so we were dealing with a set of examples that I knew would resonate with the classes. It’s a fun way to teach because you end up expanding your own repertoire and learning something (imagine that!)
Another huge perk of teaching is that in going over al these classic examples of great storytelling you remember why you wanted to write in the first place, which I admit I sometimes forget. Someone paid me the supreme compliment – he’d been ready to move on from his first novel and just send it around as is because he thought he’d taken it as far as he could go – and then after my class he said he was excited about diving in to the rewrite and taking it to a deeper level. That was especially nice for me to hear because I need to do exactly the same thing with my own book and all the back and forth with the classes jazzed me about doing it.
I like using examples of both films and books because the entire class is more likely to have seen the same movies and actually remember them than books. And the examples I find myself using over and over again are SILENCE OF THE LAMBS (which should surprise to no one), JAWS, STAR WARS, THE WIZARD OF OZ, HAMLET, THE SHINING and PET SEMATERY. I love these stories because they are pretty much perfect examples of construction, and some other techniques that I love to teach. OZ and STAR WARS are particularly good for demonstrating how the hero’s journey plot works; JAWS is a great example to kick start a discussion of high concept premises and obligatory scenes, SILENCE OF THE LAMBS is a stunning example of using fairy tale archetypes and motifs to make your story resonate (RED DRAGON is great for this as well); THE SHINING and PET SEMATERY are wonderful for demonstrating the power of fate, inevitability and the hero’s ghost; HAMLET and OZ and SILENCE and STAR WARS are fantastic for subplots and supporting characters.
I picked up some great new examples from my classes, too – BLACK FRIDAY for a knockout premise (terrorists plan an attack on the Superbowl – genius), and WITNESS for a brilliant exploration of theme, especially in the climax.
So since I’m in the mode, what I’m wondering today is – for those of us who teach, what do you think you teach well, and not so well? For example, I know RGB teaches a great seminar on character, which I’m not sure I would know how to do – would love to see him break it down for us on Murderati sometime.
And when you teach, or even just when you go off on a rant about great books and films – which are the examples that come up over and over for you, and why?
I’m really interested in hearing what stories are touchstones for our Rati readers and writers.