Whenever I need inspiration, or my process stalls, I turn to Robert McKee’s Story. Today I opened it at random and got this:
“At last he [the writer] has a story. Now he goes to friends, but not asking for a day out of their lives – which is what we ask when we want a conscientious person to read a screenplay. Instead he pours a cup of coffee and asks for ten minutes. Then he pitches his story.”
The exercise of writing out the story inevitably leads us to write out what happens. But this is not story. The story is the distillation of what happens, the spine under the actions and events that gives them meaning. Telling a story is to select moments out of the infinite scope of ‘what happened’ (for in fiction anything is possible) into an emotionally moving sequence. When you tell someone your story out loud you’ll see if it works in their face and their body language. Then you’ll know if you have story that’ll hook your audience or just a list of things happening. I have never found a more useful exercise than to tell a reacting person my story. At the NAF the Inspiring a Generation folk got in front of a crowd of twenty or so Grahamstown kids. We were all a little nervous. The others read bits of their scripts, scenes or poems; I read nothing. I sat close, made eye contact and told them the story of a boy and his Oupa and the hunt for the Kraken. I got more out of that than the others because I could see what engaged the kids and what lost their attention. When the play is eventually produced it’ll have puppets, projections and performers, but all that is made compelling by the story they’re telling.