It takes a village to raise a child. It takes a small city to make a movie. Directors, actors, producers, cameramen, extras, set designers, costume designers…when you go see Avengers Endgame in a couple of weeks and you’re sitting through the credits waiting for that post-credit scene, try to keep track of how many people are listed.
You know, if you’re not too busy weeping like a baby.
By contrast, writing a book is one of the loneliest ways to tell a story possible. It is possible, though the miracle of self-publishing, to go from a blank word document to ‘available across the world’ without ever interacting with another human being. I don’t recommend doing it, but it’s possible.
Yesterday, when I was browsing the Godzilla fandom wiki (don’t judge me, Kaiju are my crack) I stumbled across The One Hundred Million Dollar Mistake by Terry Rossio. Mr. Rossio is a screenwriter with an impressive list of credits, including the original version of Aladdin, Shrek, and all the Pirates movies. He was one of the screenwriters of the 1998 Roland Emmerich version of Godzilla, a movie that you had probably forgot existed until this very moment.
The article is an interesting read. I suggest you check it out, especially because the rest of this blog post will make a lot more sense once you have. For the short version, in it Mr. Rossio lists the five battles that a screenwriter should be willing to have with the studio, producers, or director of a movie they have written. It gives an interesting insight into how skilled writers can be involved in some terribly crappy movies, although at times it feels a bit too much like ‘if everyone had listened to me, none of these movies would have flopped’ which seems like it might be just a little bit reductive.
I gave it a read and then put it aside, getting to work on a blog post about one of my birthday gifts that I still intend to write eventually, but the idea behind “The One Hundred Million Dollar Mistake” stuck in the back of my mind like popcorn between my teeth. I kept turning back to it, reading it over. Even when I eventually went to bed, I woke up thinking about it.
See, the advice in the article is written for screenwriters by a screenwriter, and screenwriting is a fundamentally different craft that writing short stories or novels or pretty much anything else. Furthermore, the advice is geared towards where you should lay down the law and what you should fight for with other people involved in producing a movie.
It wasn’t until I sat down to finish the originally planned blog post for today that I realized why it was sticking with me so strongly – even though the advice is geared towards an entirely different situation than writing a novel, the five battles Mr. Rossio outlines are also the five elements that might be most important to get right in a novel as well.
So, without further ado, here are the five battles Mr. Rossio outlines, and how they apply to writing a novel.
1) Get the Basic Approach Right
“You’d think this would be obvious, but sometimes you have to remind them [producers, directors, etc.] of stuff like, oh, their horror film needs to be scary, or their romantic comedy ought to be romantic.” It’s kind of terrifying to hear that big studio producers who make decisions involving millions of dollars need to be reminded of that simple fact, but let me ask you something – how often have you read a novel and it felt like the author had missed the mark?
I know I have. For me, this is the sum of what I felt went wrong with the book Mortal Engines. The novel had these immense cities that traveled across the landscape eating each other in a twisted version of natural selection…and focused instead on ancient artifacts and romance. Since we know the author originally wrote these books for adults and then had to edit them down to be YA for Scholastic, I really think the author lost the Basic Approach in his edits.
The basic approach is, put simply, making sure that you get the core elements of your story right. I think Mr. Rossio puts it best when he describes it for Godzilla:
You’re scared, you’re excited, Godzilla kicks ass, you cheer, and bring on the sequel.
Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich, I’d argue, screwed it up. Godzilla became a mom who wanted to go lay eggs in New York City. And when military guys fired guns at him, Godzilla would… I can’t believe it even as I type it… Godzilla would actually squeal, turn, run and hide.
Squeal… run away… and hide.
In a Godzilla movie.
Basic approach: wrong.
When writing, there’s no one else you can blame for getting the basic approach wrong. Focus on what your novel’s core element is, the most basic element of your story…and make sure you get that right.
2) Recognize and Address the Need for a Theme or Organizing Idea
In “The One Hundred Million Dollar Mistake,” this is about fighting to keep the theme or organizing idea within your story. In writing a novel, this is about making sure you have a theme or organizing idea.
If you’re not familiar with the concept, here’s a handy example from a movie most people are familiar with, courtesy of Mr. Rossio.
On SHREK, we were insistent that the story had to be about an ogre who was happy the way he was — if the world rejected him, then he would reject the world. It was about putting up emotional barriers as an inappropriate reaction to rejection.
Surrounding Shrek, all the main characters were dealing with similar inappropriate reactions to issues of self-worth, exploring all faces of the theme, and giving the film a sense of unity.
Having an organizing idea is critical in fiction, because it gives the story a sense of cohesion. No matter how many disparate elements a story has, if they all serve towards a unifying theme, you’re going to have something that feels like it was purpose-built to work together – which is convenient because that’s what you’re doing.
The mistake I see most often here comes from genre fiction. A distressingly large number of genre writers seem to be under the impression that their genre – be it fantasy, science fiction, horror, or whatever – is an appropriate substitute for an organizing idea. The easiest way to tell if you are falling into this trap? Ask yourself what your book is about.
If your answer is a list of genre tropes, you probably need to rethink.
That’s not to say you must have a deeper meaning to your novel. You can write something that is meant to be just a fun story without a message buried in the narrative. However, it has to have an organizing idea, something that connects everything together. For example, while The Lord of the Rings explores a wide variety of themes, I’d argue the connective tissue isn’t found in the story’s deeper meanings – and I do that in part because Tolkien famously said he “disliked allegory in all its forms,” which indicates pretty strongly that he wasn’t intentionally putting a unifying message in The Lord of the Rings.
Instead, the organizing idea that makes The Lord of the Rings a genre-defining classic is found in the languages that Tolkien constructed and the mythology that was created to explain those languages – in essence, his organizing idea is the history of Middle Earth. Everything that happens in the series is a culmination of the history of this world that he’s built – it gives the books an organizing idea without forcing a deeper message.
3) Use Situations to Unfold the Narrative
I’m just going to let Mr. Rossio explain this one for me, because I can’t put it any more perfectly than he did:
Here’s a genuine writing tip: every scene you write should be a character in a situation. From page one on, you’re only allowed to write scenes where the situations are clear, even as you go about revealing the main issue of your story.
Have you ever read a story or watched a movie where the plot ground to a halt for no discernable reason? I know I have. Hell, I’ve written scenes like that. There’s one particular point, in the first draft of Weird Theology, where two of the main characters went to a bar. They got drunk, they danced, and then they left the bar. That it. Nothing of consequence happened in that scene.
When I gave the book my editor, we went back and forth on the bar scene. It was one of the few times I didn’t just agree with her suggestions without protest. I loved that bar scene. I happened to really enjoy it, and the people who had read the first draft had enjoyed it, but she kept pointing out that the scene served little to no narrative purpose. And she was right. Hell, it barely qualified as character building, because everything I accomplished with those characters, I had done better somewhere else in the book.
We finally agreed that, instead of just cutting the scene, it should be rewritten to introduce something new to the narrative. In the rewritten version, the main characters interact with a quintet of gods from other pantheons, and in the process learned why those gods – and indeed, most gods – weren’t getting involved with the events of the book.
Going back now and looking at the original draft, I’m shocked that I defended that scene so hard in that form. Nothing happened at that point. Nothing. It was just a fun diversion that ground the plot to a halt at the worst possible time to grind the plot to a halt.
The situation did not unfold the narrative. It broke the narrative. The new version? Does unfold the narrative, while still having the fun I wanted to insert to break the tension at that point and developing the relationship between these two characters.
4) Get the Ending Right
Whooo boy, this is a big one, and it’s one that a lot of really, talented authors don’t manage. It’d be hyperbole to say the ending is the most important part of the book, because if you have a bad beginning most readers won’t bother finding out how things end, but I think it would be fair to place the ending right at number two in terms of importance.
See, you’re asking your reader to sit with you for a few hours so you can tell them a story. The ending is what you are building up to. The payoff for everything. The moment where the reader is going to find out if they just wasted those hours or if they were time well spent. It’s the last impression your book makes on a person and is therefore subsequently the first thing they think about in the aftermath.
Two of my top ten favorite authors are Stephen King and Brandon Sanderson. I love a huge percentage of what they’ve written and am pretty much always game to re-read any of my personal favorites of theirs. And yet…they both often fail to stick the landing. It’s a testament to their talent as authors that people still enjoy their books even with those baffling bad endings.
For example, I’m going to talk about Brandon Sanderson’s first book, Elantris. It’s a solid book I happily recommend. That being said, I’m about to spoil the hell out of the book’s end. Not the biggest reveal at the end of the book, just the part where I felt Sanderson didn’t get the ending right.
So, in Elantris, we are faced throughout with the mystery of what happened to the titular city of Elantris. It’s a gripping mystery that informs everything else about the story – hey, there’s another organizing idea that isn’t a deeper message – and the reader is expecting that at the end of the book we are going to find out what happened to this magical city and its vanished magic.
The resolution of that, if any, is not something I’m going to spoil here. I will say that at the end of the book, that resolution was overshadowed by something completely different. With a minimum amount of set-up, this book – which has so far been a contemplative and low-action unraveling of a mystery – suddenly introduces an army of demon monks to give the story a wholly unnecessary action climax.
No, I’m not kidding. Demon monks, almost out of nowhere. They were such a negative presence on the story that even though I do like and recommend this book, I always warn it kind of falls apart in the third act. It’s so intrusive, that I had to pause while writing this to try and remember what the resolution to the story I cared about for most of the book had been.
A bad ending can spoil an otherwise good book. Make sure that you nail it, because if you do people will finish your story and leave with a good impression. They won’t feel cheated, or like they wasted their time. Hell, they’ll even forgive a somewhat weak middle because it was worth it in the end.
5) Protect the Characters at All Costs
This is the big one, the most important one.
Now, that doesn’t mean you should protect the characters from harm or suffering. God knows I don’t subscribe to that philosophy, although I do have problems with the “death, death everywhere” school of thought popularized by people chasing after A Song of Ice and Fire’s success while fundamentally missing why it works for that story but isn’t needed for every story…but that’s another blog post.
No, what this means is that you should protect the integrity of the character’s characterization. In Mr. Rossio’s words:
What they want to do is mess with the characters to try to solve story problems. You can’t let them.
For an author, the ‘they’ is instead your own desire to resolve issues in your story. Let’s say you hit a point in your story where you’re not sure how to continue. You have a character that has, throughout the story, been established to be a coward. If you have them suddenly demonstrate bravery, you’d be able to move the plot along. It’s an easy fix, it gets things moving, so you think to yourself “eh, just this one time won’t hurt.”
Except it will. It will kill your story faster than if you lit it on fire. Why?
Because you’ve broken a promise to your readers at that point. The promise that they are reading a story where characters take actions that make sense. The story stops becoming the organic results of people making decisions and instead becomes just a bunch of stuff that happens. It becomes dull, lifeless, and boring.
For a great example of how this works in Hollywood, I strongly suggest you read the entire #5 point in Mr. Russio’s article. It’s long and detailed and I can’t really quote any one part of it to illustrate why violating characters to further story ruined Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas, but I really, really wish we’d gotten the movie he portrays in the original draft.
So yeah. Those are the five battles every screenwriter must be prepared to fight, broken down to explain why they’re also five excellent maxims for every author to follow.
Can you think of other stories that violated these rules and were worse for it? Let me know in the comments below! And if you want to see how I did following these rules, be sure to pick up Weird Theology on Amazon.