INSIDE THE ART, CRAFT AND BUSINESS OF WRITING for Film, TV, Books, Stage, Print or Digital Media (with Particular Attention to Comedy)
Any good story gives the reader a ride.
Usually, the sooner the reader knows what kind of ride they’re taking, the more they can relax and enjoy it. I’m not saying there shouldn’t be surprises along the way – there definitely should – but different kinds of rides require different story structures and conventions, and attract different audiences.
1. A physical journey is a trip to a specific physical destination, often along a prescribed route. Examples: Midnight Run, The African Queen, Deliverance, The River Wild, The White Nile, Journey to the Center of the Earth, The Trip to Bountiful, Into the Wild.
2. A quest to find, kill, stop, save or escape from someone or something. A quest can involve specific geography, including a journey, but doesn’t have a fixed physical destination that’s known in advance. Usually you’re trying to find the thing (and bring it back) or get out of trouble. Almost any horror story is a quest: the quest to not get killed. Examples: The Defiant Ones, Indiana Jones, Chinatown, The Lord of the Rings, Casablanca, Avatar, Dracula, The Terminator, Seven Samurai/Magnificent Seven, Ten Little Indians, Ocean’s Eleven, The Dirty Dozen.
3. The big event – Multiple storylines converge at a specific event. Examples: Titanic, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Earthquake, The Big Chill, Four Weddings and a Funeral, Gettysburg, Father of the Bride, Tora Tora Tora.
4. How we got here starts here and now and backs up to tell the story of how this came to be. This ride includes most history books about a single country or region, many memoirs and most personal, confessional, one-person shows. Examples: What is the What, Letting Go of God, The Making of Americans. Also could be a mystery like Memento. This kind of ride can also combine with any of the first three if your story starts with a flash-forward excerpt from the climax. Then the ride is to find out how or why that initial situation came to be – and is then resolved in Act III.
5. A thematic exploration is an essayistic journey (or variety show) around a concept or comedy conceit. It’s well suited to non-fiction and is often used for business books, social studies, multi-character or sketch shows and How-To books. Examples: The Tipping Point, The World is Flat, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, The Search for Intelligent Life in the Universe, Saturday Night Live.
This material is adapted from “How To Be A Writer Who Writes” and my forthcoming reference book, “Miller’s Compendium of Timeless Tools for the Modern Writer“