Serve the drama first

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The right set of facts are those that serve the drama of the story. We read and watch documentaries to educate ourselves. If we’re lucky, they entertain us. This surfaced during a chat about the physicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson — the Carl Sagan of the new generation’s Cosmos — and how much he dislikes the movie Gravity.

But any dramatic feature that fails to entertain, because it gets busy teaching us physics — that’s a misguided effort. Listening to him on Fresh Air (especially at the 30:00 mark calculating his response time to Jon Stewart’s Daily Show questions), will give you an insight into how and why Tyson became the man he is today.

It’s hard to imagine the original Carl Sagan, who wrote the orginal Cosmos series, being so persnickety about such details as presented in a drama. Along with his wife, he wrote the novel Contact, which was adapted into a stellar movie. I doubt Tyson will be authoring novels, but everybody can learn something new. Even if it’s just storytelling basics.

Haiku Deck love most

I assembled my first Haiku slide deck today, using this subject as a starting point. (Click on the image above to see the deck, a summary of what makes writing effective.) Yes, it’s what I’ve preached since I started the Workshop: attend to Meaning, Sense, and Clarity. As artists, we make meaning. We’re driven to this mission, cannot stand a life without meaning-making.

And as readers we care the most about drama. Miss a point of technology or history and it might spoil that moment of a story. Stumble while creating the drama — because you’re too busy attending to the laws of physics — and you might as well be producing a documentary, or writing a nonfiction book.

The same rules apply to writing stories about time travel. Rian Johnson wrote Looper, one of the best time-travel movies I’ve ever seen. When I heard Johnson talk at the Austin Film Festival about writing time travel, he agreed with fellow screenwriter Robert Orci, co-writer of the Star Trek reboot. Nobody knows how the physics of time travel work. But as humans, we recognize and connect through drama.

Respect the science, sure. But revere the storytelling.

Horrible is Wonderful!

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Take the suits and the corporate executives’ notes out of the creative process, turn to the Internet and some very talented friends and relatives. Spin out the idea of a musical comedy of a “low-rent supervillain wannabe” and you get Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog.

I kid you not. It’s wonderful, funny, sad and arch all at once. It’s 42 minutes long and was made for a budget “in the low six figures” according to creator and co-writer Joss Whedon. The fellow who gave us Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly and Serenity TV shows, all which he made kicking and screaming at the TV execs about how much they cost and what the stories should say. (Fox screwed up Firefly so badly in broadcast order they didn’t even air the pilot as the first episode.)

Enough of that. Give a creator a chance to cook up a story, without concerns about what you can’t do. A death ray that doesn’t work very well. A superhero who’s not a nice guy. A villain with a crush on a girl he sees at the laundromat. All devised by Whedon, his two brothers and brother Jed’s fiancee Maurissa Tancharoen.

But I give too much away. Watch the show at or from the Web site. See what can be done when story is king, and then the demand melts down the Web servers that deliver it to the eager viewers.

In a recent Time magazine article about the juggernaut of movies based on graphic novels, the beautiful creative space of writer Mark Millar — creator of nihilist graphic novel (and summertime movie) Wanted — explains it best.

His next comic is about a 100-year U.S. war in the Middle East, with superpowered soldiers and flying Islamic fundamentalists. It’s the kind of idea that would get squashed at a studio meeting, where the poor performance of all the Iraq-war movies would be trotted out. But then, Millar doesn’t need anyone’s green light. He just needs an artist and a pen.

Now that’s what I call a wonderful world to create as a storyteller.

Headed west for vivid words

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This weekend I’m heading 400 miles west of the Workshop, to do some work of my own on my writing. The Writer’s League of Texas is hosting its first Summer Writing Academy, where about two dozen of us will learn about writing novels, screenplays, or in my case, Making Fiction Come Alive.

My instructor is Jodi Thomas, a USA Today bestselling author of romances who’s also the writer in residence at West Texas A&M University. I figured that with teaching experience in her background and more than a dozen books in print, Jodi would be a good choice to learn the language of vivid love. I bought a copy of her novel The Texan’s Wager. It starts strong, with our heroine stranded in the middle of nowhere, kicked out of a wagon train with no weapons in 19th Century Texas.

Trouble right away, the cardinal rule of how to kick off a compelling story. I’m looking forward to being a little more kicked out in the week to come, too, kind of a retreat away from the life that supports me and my family.

Alpine, of course, will be beautiful, in the summertime cool of the Davis Mountains. I’m especially keen to drive to Ft. Davis soon, to visit Dayton’s birthplace and the spot he fell in love with his wife. There’s nothing like being an eyewitness to detail to make the writing come alive.

Pick a path that’s more personal

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In The Writer’s Path, by Todd Walton and Mindy Toomay, writers get a few exercises (among many in the book) that use the letter form. Letters are more intimate, a way to get at style and voice that might be escaping you in third person writing, or the constraints of writing a novel, or a story, instead of simply telling a tale.

The book says that “the difference between stories written for publication and [those] written as a letter to a friend… may have no technical difference whatsoever. But the difference in our sense of love and trust for the people who might see or hear our words is enormous.”

So in one exercise we practiced tonight in the Writer’s Workshop, we wrote a letter to a friend about an interesting person in our lives, or in our stories. The writing came out with extra voice, compressed detail that did not seem forced, vivid images, and no affectation. On a revision, you might be able to use this writing inside a story or novel itself. At the least, it gives you a grip on voice for a narrator, as well as character details that are most important.