Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Story Epiphany saves my sanity

Way back I used to do the index card thing when I started working on a project. I wrote up a loose summary of my story, then very neatly printed color coded index cards with scene summaries on them - sometimes as many as 25 - and posted them on my bulletin board.

Then I had to write a treatment for a producer that as far as I can tell never actually read  it, but in the process I realized how useful a full treatment can be when you're doing prep work, so I started writing up treatments for all my projects. I printed them out then set them up next to me as I wrote the script.

I used this method when I wrote Nice Girls Don't Kill: draft 1. And the group generally bashed it. I needed a major overhaul of everything, so most of my first draft became pretty useless as I started over. The group discussed how often we end up having to start over like that - it happens all the time to all of us.

I had to do it two more times on that script before I finally got a draft I love.

So this time I swore I would not do that again. This time I would minimize the macro notes. I wrote up a treatment and carefully went through each of my major characters creating a lengthy backstory. I did stream of consciousness for my protagonist to get a better idea of who she is.

Then I started writing and after the opening scene which I liked, it slowly began to occur to me that this wasn't working. Something felt off, forced.

Page 20. I left it alone for a couple of days. I couldn't figure it out.

Then I passed my treatment around to a few people. They hated it. At first I was frustrated. They pointed out things that weren't working, but I wasn't getting that epiphany.

THE STORY EPIPHANY: That magical moment when you get that one note that turns on the light bulb and suddenly a seemingly unsolvable story problem becomes the most amazing idea you ever had.

So I wasn't getting my story epiphany and I was whiny about it.  I was all "WAAAAAH. I feel bad."

And then one friend of mine said "The stakes of why the guy's after her need to be higher." Then another friend said "The backstory sucks." And then another friend said "Why don't you have her keeping something from this guy? Maybe she buried some cash that belonged to him."

And then there it was: STORY EPIPHANY. She didn't bury cash, but she did bury something else. And as soon as I knew that, I knew she was a totally different person. And as soon as I knew that, I knew her love interest was a different person, and his mom was a different person, and the antagonist is a different person. All that's left is the setting and the premise, so I'm really glad I only wrote 20 pages.

So now I'm doing a page one rewrite on my treatment, which is much more fun than doing a page one rewrite on a completed script.


  1. Ooooh, epiphany. I've only had a few, and wow, the shiver up the spine, the dawning realization, as things kerchunk back into place, some with new orientation, that the story is simpler and stronger, so sweet.

    Damn fine argument for treatments. Thanks for setting an epiphanous example.

  2. First things first, Emily. How did I find your blog. Click Pattern:
    [1] Googled "WGA Signatories" + "brand new";
    [2] Clicked on "Amanda Aspiring Writer, June 30, 2008. (2008? Wonder what happened to her?)
    [3] Found your comment

    "3X5 cards", "printing neatly"...it all sounds very familiar.

    I think that those of us who try to write fiction, sometimes forget how naturally, and easily a story can unfold. Antidote: reading autobiographies. No one can say that an autobiography "doesn't work" or "seems forced."

    P.S. You seem to be a cat person.


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