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Book Notes: “The Secrets of Story” by Matt Bird


The Secrets of Story: Innovative Tools for Perfecting Your Fiction and Captivating Readers by Matt Bird (2016) is a book that will change your perspective on story. There are many published books on fiction writing and story structure. This is one of my absolute favorites when it comes to analyzing what makes a great story work.

“The Secrets of Story” focuses on what Bird calls the “seven skills of writing”: concept, character, structure, scene work, dialogue, tone, theme. Bird laments that these skills are not generally taught at collegiate writing programs but can be learned by the determined individual. Becoming a good writer and crafting an intriguing story requires practice and attention to each of the skills. The meatiest chapters of the book are devoted to each skill along with keen observations from the author and illustrative examples from both film and books.

Irony is of particular interest to Bird. He spends an inordinate amount of time on the topic and, thankfully, provides some of the clearest explanations about irony that I’ve ever read (he defines it as “any meaningful gap between expectation and reality.” Bird contends that irony is the source of all meaning in story. To this end, he advocates that writers interweave irony into all seven areas listed above (concept, character, etc.). Bird makes great efforts to show the reader how this can be accomplished through many examples. By book’s end, you’ll become addicted to watching for ironic titles, ironic concepts, ironic characters, ironic situations and ironic outcomes in the media you consume.

I’ve read Bird’s book a half-dozen times and it never fails to teach me something new each successive time. Despite being written for aspiring writers, it’s also worthwhile a book for avid readers. Having Bird’s framework in my toolbox is a tremendous boon when I read. I find myself recognizing ideas from the “Secret of Story” all the time (which in turn significantly boosts my enjoyment). I hope Bird gifts us with more work of this caliber in the future.

Pros: So many specific examples and practical tips. This is as much a reference as an explication of what makes good stories work. The best explanations on the topic of irony that I’ve read.

Cons: Bird could have easily split this book into two volumes. If there’s any complaint to be had it’s that he packs too much information into one book.

Verdict: 9/10

Notes & Highlights

Part 1: Writing for Strangers

Chapter One: George Clooney and Me

  • The message of most school programs is wrong-headed: “Never compromise” or, put another way, “never fix your story.”
  • Instant success is not the norm. Million-dollar stories do not appear fully formed. Most writers need to “learn to write.”

Chapter Two: The Thirteen Essential Laws of Writing for Strangers

  • Law 1: You must write for an audience, not just for yourself.
  • Law 2: Audiences purchase your work because of your concept, but they embrace it because of your characters.
  • Law 3: Audiences will always choose one character to be their hero.
    – “Every hero must be active and resourceful.”
    – Audience will only invest in a hero if they are sufficiently compelling early in the story.
  • Law 4: Audiences don’t really care about stories; they care about characters.
    – “While it’s insanely hard to get an audience to truly care about your hero, the upside is that it’s all you have to do.”
  • Law 5: The best way to introduce every element of your story is from your hero’s point of view.
    – “If you want to make things easier on your audience, let the hero be their guide.”
    – Introduce your world from one point of view. Once the reader is situated, show that the hero’s perspective is limited (and incomplete) and that their world is more complex than the hero or the reader had originally perceived.
  • Law 6: It’s very hard to get audiences to care about any hero because they’re afraid of being hurt.
    – You are asking the audience to become emotionally involved and invested in your hero.
  • Law 7: Your audience need not always sympathize with your hero, but they must empathize with your hero.
  • Law 8: Most important, your audience must identify with your hero.
    – “Heroic actions, like saving cats, generate sympathy for your hero, but you really want to do is generate identification. The two are not identical.”
    – “The more heroically your hero acts, the harder it can be to identify with that hero, because most of us aren’t very heroic.”
    – Look for moments of shared humanity. C.S. Lewis quote: “Friendship is born at the moment when one person says to another, ‘What! You too? I thought I was the only one!’”
  • Law 9: The best way to create identification is for a character to be misunderstood.
    – Everyone feels misunderstood.
    – “Audiences love to get to know heroes intimately. We love to see actions no one else is watching and then feel sudden umbrage when others make false assumptions about them. We love to see heroes’ true motivation established in one scene and then see others unfairly ascribe false motives to them in the next scene.”
  • Law 10: Your story is not about your heroes life; it’s about your heroes problem.
    – “Most successful stories are structured around one and only one problem.”
    – “The problem should have multiple levels, with internal and external aspects, and a sprawling series of consequences and mini-conflicts that spiral out of it, but it should still basically be one problem.”
  • Law 11: Story structure is just a list of the steps and missteps most people go through when solving a large problem in real life.
  • Law 12: Audiences don’t want you to defy expectations; they want you to create them.
    – “People don’t actually want to say, “I had no idea that was going to happen!” In fact, they’re often delighted to say, “I knew that was going to happen!” People love to get to know characters, and they feel clever when they can predict those characters’ reactions.”
    – You create expectations by writing scenes in which the hero acts consistently and fails to consistently change. The character hasn’t yet figured out the “right solution.” The payoff comes when the character finally defies expectations.
  • Law 13: Irony is the source of all meaning.
    – “Irony is any meaningful gap between expectation and reality.”
    – “In truly ironic situations, characters are trying to preserve a false expectation or prevent an unwanted outcome, and then reality upset their expectations or efforts.”
    – Types of irony: ironic concept (sometimes expressed via an ironic title), ironic characterization (ironic backstory, ironic contrast between exterior and interior and an ironic strength/flaw), ironic structure, ironic presumptions, ironic dialogue (including sarcasm), ironic tone (author recommends avoiding this type of irony), ironic themes (a ironic dilemmas of good vs. good or bad vs. bad), and ironic outcomes.

Part 2: The Ultimate Story Checklist

  • Great writing requires a long list of skills. One writer might be good at certain facets and weak in other areas.
  • The seven writing skills:
    1. Concept
    2. Character
    3. Structure
    4. Scene Work
    5. Dialogue
    6. Tone
    7. Theme

Chapter Three: Concocting an Intriguing Concept

  • “Concept” is the core idea behind your story.
  • Concept is the hook for piquing interest from readers: “Concept is far less important than character…but your audience is attracted to your story based on concept alone.”
  • “Writing a clean, lean, simple story is one of the hardest things in the world to do.”
  • Critical question to ask yourself: “Do I know how to make people identify with this character as the story begins?”
  • Do the following when identifying a concept:
    1. Choose a setting you know well, through direct experience or tons of research.
    2. Create characters you can make an audience identify with as the story begins.
    3. Write about problems that powerfully resonate with your own, directly or metaphorically.
    4. Write dialogue in voices you know well.
  • The 3-parts of concept:
    1. The Elevator Pitch: A one sentence version of your story idea.
    2. Story Fundamentals: A 10-minute summary.
    3. The Hook: Why would someone want to see it?
  • Layout for a one-sentence summary (aka “logline”):
An [adjective indicating longstanding social problem] [profession or social role] must [goal, sometimes including the ticking clock and stakes].
  • Examples of one sentence summaries:
    – Casablanca: “An amoral American nightclub owner must decide between joining the fight against the Nazis or pursuing his true love.
    – Beloved: “A guilt-wracked ex-slave must confront the vengeful ghost of the daughter she killed.”
    – Harry Potter: “A mistreated boy gets a chance to go to wizard school, where he must defeat the evil wizard who killed his parents.”
  • Concepts with ironic contradictions are particularly compelling:
    – Casablanca: “The least patriotic American has to save the Allied cause.”
    – Beloved: “A mother kills her daughter to ensure her freedom.”
    – Harry Potter: “A miserable and unfortunate kid discovers that he’s secretly rich, famous, and heroic.”
  • Examples of ironic titles: Blast of Silence, Dark Days, Killer’s Kiss, The Little Fugitive, My Favorite Wife, Safety Last, Unfaithfully Yours.
  • “You should always try to have a plot that only fills half your pages, and then let your complex scenes expand to fill the rest with unexpectedly volatile emotional complications.”
  • “Do not follow your hero around like a puppy, waiting for something to begin. Begin the moment the problem begins—no sooner and no later.”
  • To move from scene to scene ask: “What is the next step in the progression of this problem?” NOT “What does the hero do next?”
  • “Let your story start at the moment the problem becomes acute, and then end at the moment the problem is solved (or succumbed to, or peaceably accepted).”
  • To tell a unique story: “Take two familiar characters and give them a never-seen-before relationship.” ”Force them to rely on each other in a unique way.”
  • At least one human should be opposed to what the hero is doing (you must have EXTERNAL conflict).
  • “Heroes must have secrets or qualities that cause them to have unique reactions to challenges, some internal ionic charge that sets the compass of the story spinning.”
  • “Obstacles are fine, but conflicts are better. An obstacle is anything that makes a task difficult to do. A conflict is anything that makes a hero not want to do it.”
  • “There needs to be a deeper reason why your heroes are the only ones who can solve this problem.”
  • The situation should permanently transform the hero and vice versa.
  • “People recommend a story…based on the urges the story satisfied.”
    – “It was hilarious!” (Comedies, dramedies)
    – “It kicked ass!” Aka power fantasy (superheroes, spies, sports)
    – “It was so sweet!” Aka romantic fantasy (romances, coming-of-age)
  • A great concept is JUST a starting point (you still need great characters and strong execution).

Chapter Four: Creating Compelling Characters

  • “If you generate great characters and throw them into volatile situations, then they will generate great stories and take you along for the ride.”
  • “A hero is merely the character the audience most identifies with in any story.”
  • “The hero must be active and resourceful.”
  • “Audiences don’t want to admire your heroes; they want to identify with them.”
  • “Every hero needs to be both a winner and a loser. The audience wants to cheer and fear for every hero throughout every story.”
  • “Even in stories where heroes seem totally unprepared for the problem, they usually discover they have useful skills…”
  • Two factors define superheroes: Power and professionalism.
    1. Superman: Maximum power and professionalism (not a fan favorite though!)
    2. Batman: Low on power but high on professionalism (a “cheer and fear” fan favorite).
    3. Spiderman: High on power but low on professionalism (another “cheer and fear” fan favorite).
  • The hero should start out with a wrong philosophy or view of the world. They should state this philosophy up-front but if it’s wrong, it allows them the opportunity to discover, through the course of the book, the right and better way of seeing things. (Example: Bogart in Casablanca “I stick my neck out for no one.”)
  • Don’t take the hero from A-to-Z. Take the hero from Y-to-Z. “Why waste time dragging her all the way from happiness to the crisis point? Feel free to start with your characters on the edge of a crisis, and trust that your audience is willing to jump right in…”
  • Get your readers to do the following for your characters: Believe, Care, and Invest.
  • Believe: Give the hero an early moment of humanity. Examples:
    1. Something funny: Snarky point of view, cracking wise, perceptive, self-deprecating.
    2. Out-of-character moment: Establish expectations (establish a pattern through a repeated behavior twice and then upset the pattern the third time).
    3. Moment of compassion: Best if it’s also out-of-character. Examples: Aladdin stealing bread and then reluctantly giving it to starving kids.
    4. Oddball moment: An idiosyncratic behavior that interrupted the momentum of the story.
    5. Comically vain: For instance, Han Solo being hurt by the fact that Luke and Obi-Wan have never heard of his ship.
  • “Differentiate your characters based on their behavior, language, and attitudes. You want characters who will all react differently to the same situation.”
  • “The only good reason to reveal a backstory is if it’s an ironic backstory.”
  • “Compelling characters are never exactly who they seem to be. The public identity is what your character seems to be to the world, and it must contrast with his private identity.”
  • Imbue your characters with inherent contradictions (especially using the external and internal characteristics). Examples: Spiderman is a wisecracking vigilante and a nervous nerd. Frankenstein is an innocent monster.
  • Character creation tactic: “combine the personality of a friend with the persona of an actor.”
  • “Find a governing rule that determines a character’s language even in extremes situations…your characters need to have their own metaphor family.” This can include swear words and sayings. Metaphor families can be based on job, cultural background and psychology.
  • Default personality traits: “a few hard-and-fast rules that always govern how a character talks, even as his emotional state varies and his general attitude shifts.”
  • “In high jeopardy stories, the size of the motivation must match the size of the problem. The bigger the problem, the bigger the motivation required.”
  • “Don’t increase the quantity of motivation; improve the quality of motivation.”
  • Reveal the character’s motives early on. Keeping it mysterious into the final act rarely works.
  • The hero should pursue a false or shortsighted goal (along with their wrongheaded philosophy). For example: the wrong solution to the right solution, a micro-goal rather than a macro-goal, or via a reversal of values.
  • The hero should have one open (visible) fear and one hidden fear (revealed halfway through the story).
  • The hero should have a flaw:
    1. Flaws add conflict: hero is his own worst enemy.
    2. Flaws add motivation: a reason to change.
    3. Flaws generate sympathy.
    4. Flaws promote identification.
  • Ensure that a flaw is the flip-side to a strength. This is ironic and will force the character to overcome the flaw for fear of losing the strength. Example: Rourke’s character in “The Wrestler” is irresponsible. But the flip-side to this makes him fun to be around and the life of the party.
  • Elemental flaws (based on Carson Reaves work):
Flaw: Puts work in front of family and friends
– Possible flip-side strengths: Hypercompetent, loyal to clients.
Flaw: Won’t let others in
– Possible flip-side strengths: Tough, honest, self-deprecating.Flaw: Doesn’t believe in one’s self
– Possible flip-side strengths: Humble, open-hearted, careful.
Flaw: Doesn’t stand up for one’s self
– Possible flip-side strengths: Nice, sweet, giving, loyal.
Flaw: Too selfish
– Possible flip-side strengths: Zealous, hypercompetent, sarcastically witty.
Flaw: Won’t grow up
– Possible flip-side strengths: Fun loving, innocent.
Flaw: Uptight, risk averse, anal
– Possible flip-side strengths: Careful, hypercompetent.
Flaw: Reckless
– Possible flip-side strengths: Brilliant, independent thinker, aggressive, effective risk taker.
Flaw: Lost faith
– Possible flip-side strengths: Self aware, rational, sarcastically witty.
Flaw: Pessimistic/cynical
– Possible flip-side strengths: Funny, bitingly honest.
Flaw: Can’t move on
– Possible flip-side strengths: Loyal, sentimental.
  • Provide the hero with general rules for living. These don’t need to be openly stated for the audience, but the author should be aware of them. Example: John Wayne in the Shootist could be summed up as “I won’t be wronged, I won’t be insulted, and I won’t be laid a hand on.”
  • Consider that your hero will be surrounded by others who act and think differently. The hero should “go against the grain.”
  • “You can’t become a hero by doing what anyone would do. You have to do that think that you do.”

Chapter Five: Shaping a Resonant Structure

  • The story structure described by the author applies to stories about solving a large problem.
  • Inciting incidents are rarely a single event but consist of three events:
    1. A longstanding social problem.
    2. An intimidating opportunity.
    3. An unforeseen conflict that arises from pursuit of opportunity.
  • The “Mission Impossible Rule”: Halfway through your story, your heroes should be making things up on the fly and improvising.
  • “Your audience will subconsciously expect you to hit the beats of the most common structure, but they don’t want to see you do it.”
  • Four part structure:
  1. First Quarter: “The challenge” consists of (1) a long standing personal problem, (2) an intimidating opportunity and (3) an unexpected conflict.
    – Heroes flaw should be exposed to the world in an act of humiliation. “The humiliation must be somewhat deserved but disproportionate.”
    – The hero should shows signs of hesitation until the stakes are raised. Hesitation indicates the opportunity is imposing, high risk, high reward.
  2. Second Quarter: “The ‘easy way’ in which the hero tackles the challenge without any self-examination, sure of an early success, until everything wrecks in a big crash.”
    – “It’s much easier to commit to a big undertaking if you don’t know what you’re getting into.”
    – Make the hero unaware of the scope of the problem (limit their perspective, put them in over their head).
    – At this stage, hero treats solution as an external obstacle rather than an internal dilemma.
  3. Third Quarter: The ‘hard way’ in which the hero engages in self-examination until another setback places the hero in crisis.
    – Hero discovers who is a real friend and who has been sabotaging their efforts.
    – Mentors and friends are often killed in this section. Lies are exposed at the worst possible moment.
  4. Fourth Quarter: The climax in which the hero emerges from the crisis with a corrected philosophy and pursues a corrected goal.

Chapter Six: Staging Strategic Scene Work

  • “At any given point in your story, the audience will be far more interested in the conflict within the current scene than in the overall conflict.”
  • Each scene must be a “microcosm of your total work: filled with personality, conflict, mini-triumphs, mini-defeats and, yes, irony.”
  • Indirect conflict is more interesting than direct conflict.
  • Keys to a strong scene:
    1. There must be conflict between the scene partners.
    2. One of the characters should end up doing something they didn’t intend to do when the scene started.
    3. One of the characters should use indirect tricks and traps.
  • The five levels of scene work (from weak to strong):
1. The Listen-and-Accept Scene
2. The Listen-and-Dispute Scene
3. The Extract-Information-or-Action-Directly Scene
4. The Extract-Information-or-Action-Through-Tricks-and-Traps Scene
5. The Both-Try-to-Trick-and-Trap-Each-Other-and-One-Or-Both-Succeed Scene
  • Avoid overexploiting or clarifying your plot. Readers don’t want to hear characters directly convey plot intricacies.
  • Include non-plot elements in scenes to boost realism, provide variety and create friction.
  • Examples of plot friction:
    - What the character in the room is doing when the other character walks in.
    - The physical challenges of the room’s layout.
    - Additional character in the room who aren’t part of the main confrontation.
    - The decorum of the room, where a confrontation may be unwelcome.
    - Unresolved emotions carried over from your hero’s previous scene.
    - Unresolved emotions carried over from the last scene these two characters had together.
    - One or more characters who refuse to do what you want them to do.
    - An encounter that turns out to be far more emotional than you thought it would because of the unexpectedly volatile reactions within each character.
  • The basic scene structure:
    1. Setup (can happen prior to the chapter)
    2. Conflict
    3. Outcome
  • Subtext and suppressed conflict techniques:
– Talking about the present instead of the past.
– Talking about the past instead of the present.
– Talking about an object instead of an emotion.
– Complaining about something trivial instead of something major.
– Complaining about something you have no control over to avoid complaining about something you have control over.
– Talking about an obstacle instead of a conflict.
– Attributing one’s desires to a third party.
– Criticizing a third party instead of the person you’re talking to.
– Talking about a work dispute instead of a home dispute (or vice versa).
– Feigning an opposite emotion.
– Talking in broad generalities to avoid talking in specifics.
– Talking about self, but really talking about someone else (and vice versa).
– Making a huge life change to avoid a relatively minor confrontation.

Chapter Seven: Drafting Electric Dialogue

  • “Dialogue is how we reveal what we want, both intentionally and unintentionally, and it’s our best tool for achieving our goals, if we can find a way to out-talk our opponents.”
  • Hitchcock: “Drama is life with the dull bits cut out.”
  • Sarcastic dialogue is intentionally ironic but there are other types of unintentional ironic dialogue: like ironic contrast between word and deed.
  • Polarized personalities can create volatile interactions.
  • Three-way Head-Heart-Gut polarization:
    1. Head characters are smart, analytical and unemotional (“I think”). Stick-in-the-muds. Examples: Spock, Egon, Professor Calculus.
    2. Heart characters are emotional, merciful, caring, sensitive (“I feel”). Examples: Dr. McCoy, Woody on Cheers, Tintin.
    3. Gut characters are impulsive, hungry, self-interested, honest, horny (“I want”). Examples: Captain Kirk, Captain Haddock.
  • Four-way Head-Heart-Gut-Spirit polarization: Example Star Wars. Leia is head. Luke is heart. Han is gut. Obi-Wan is spirit.
  • Two-way polarization:
    - Honeymooners: Optimism vs. pessimism
    - X-Files: Skepticism vs. belief
  • As an author you have the “big picture” perspective but must remember that individual characters will have limited perspectives.
  • Characters should consciously or unconsciously prioritize their own wants over those of other characters.
  • “People, as a rule, don’t listen to each other.” Furthermore we often only hear what we want to hear.
  • Colorful jargon and tradecraft can add pop to dialogue (you don’t always need to define terms specifically either).
  • Characters (excluding professors) should speak without dependent clauses, conditionals and parallel constructions. Remember: the character is speaking and thinking on the fly.

Chapter Eight: Maintaining a Meticulous Tone

  • Author defines tone as mood AND setting and resetting audience expectations.”
  • Ways to tap into the familiar (but forge original stories nevertheless):
    1. Borrow properties form the public domain (examples: Oz, Alice in Wonderland).
    2. Borrow from the public imagination (examples: Men in Black, JFK).
    3. Put old stories in new settings (examples: Theseus myth becomes Hunger Games).
  • Another way to tap into the familiar is through genre conventions.
    - “Genre allows an author to say: Don’t worry, you may not have seen this before, but you’ve seen something like it, and I’m going to play by those same rules.”
    - Audiences like to know the rules of the world so that they can guess what will happen next (they might be right and they might be wrong sometimes).
    - “If you’ve created a world where anything can happen, you’ve messed up. You should create a world in which one of five things might happen…”
  • Two approaches to tone:
    1. Genre: Use conventions established by other stories in that category.
    2. Framing: Does the story set, reset, upset and exceed its expectations?
  • Choose your genre and determine if there are subgenera that can be used or even mixed.
  • List of genres and some of their subgenres:
Comedy: romantic comedy, comedy of manners, farce, spoof, satire, dramedy, coming-of-age
Drama: melodrama, soap opera, character study, slice of life, biopic, docudrama, ensemble, romance, coming-of-age
Thriller: noir, procedural, contained, detective, police, spy, revenge, manhunt
Horror: grindhouse, slasher, sexualized monster, gruesome monster, transformation, psychological, black comedy, zombie
Action: superhero, historical adventure, superspy, supercop, martial arts
Science Fiction: dystopian, space opera, space exploration, robot, one step beyond, alien invasion, time travel
Fantasy: fairy tale, magical realism, sword and sorcery, medieval, crossover into fantasy world
Western: spaghetti, elegiac, modern day, cattle drive, lawless town, frontier, revenge
War: biopic, black comedy, men on a mission, heist, docudrama, front lines, coming-of-age
  • “If you defy too many expectations, you’ll lose the audience entirely.”
  • What is the mood of your story? Each carries limitations and expectations. Examples: light, dark, satirical, zany, postmodern, over-the-top, gentle, harsh, chaotic, intense, meditative, lurid, fairly tale, bittersweet, pulpy.
  • Create satisfying closure to your story through a dramatic question posed early on that helps mark an objective that will end the story. Example from “Never Cry Wolf” is when a mountain man declares “He’ll never make it through the winter.” (And that becomes the goal).
  • Framing devices:
    1. Scene in which a character is telling the story to another person.
    2. Begin with a cryptic flash-toward and then cut back to the story in “the present.”
    3. A past-tense voice-over.
  • A parallel character as a possible for the hero. Examples: Frodo and Gollum.
  • A few more methods of foreshadowing:
    - When a scene cuts away right before a big reveal.
    - Interrupted dialogue.
    - Whenever we hear only one side of the conversation.
    - Unexplained cryptic scenes.
    - Dangling questions.
    - Unpaid debts.
    - Threats or vows of revenge.

Chapter Nine: Interweaving an Irreconcilable Theme

  • “A theme is not the same thing as a moral.”
  • A theme arises when irreconcilable values come into conflict. Explore a dilemma rather than deliver a moral.
  • “If a theme can be stated in terms of ‘this is good and that is bad’ then it cannot be ironic or interesting.
  • Make your story a contest between two goods or two evils. “Some goods must be rejected in favor of others; some evils must be accepted to reject others.”
  • Audience should “feel” the theme but not hear it directly. “They’ll only feel it if they’ve been allowed to draw their own conclusions.”
  • As an author you should influence rather than dictate your reader’s conclusions.
  • “The meaning of your story is created by the dilemma that drives every scene, not merely by its conclusion.”
  • Considerations for theme: Ask yourself is it…
    1. Difficult: Is there a fundamental moral dilemma?
    2. Grounded: Are the stakes realistic for the reader?
    3. Subtle: Is the theme integrated naturally into the story?
    4. Untidy: Is the dilemma irresolvable?
  • Examples of dilemmas:
    – Group vs. individual
    – Fun vs. responsibility
    – Compromise vs. integrity
    – Death vs. dishonor
    – Betraying loved one vs. betraying society
    – Chaos vs. control
    – Acceptance vs. ambition
    – Justice vs. peace
    – Delusional optimism vs. clear-eyed cynicism
    – Social responsibility vs. individual innovation
  • “Morally serious heroes should seek to redeem the villain, not kill him.”
  • “Heroes make painful choices and must live with the grave consequences of the risks they take.”
  • Introduce objects into the story that have strong associations with that character. Example: Iron Man’s heart device as an object representing larger values.
  • Examples of ironic outcomes:
Casablanca: Rick gets Ilsa back only so he can send her way.
Beloved: Sethe still thinks her daughter’s vengeful ghost was ‘my best thing.’
Silence of the Lambs: One killer is stopped, but the worse killer gets away.
Groundhog Day: Phil finally figures out how to get out of the town he hates by deciding he wants to stay there forever.
Iron Man: Tony’s own business partner turns out to be the villain.
Raiders of the Lost Ark: Instead of ending up in a museum, the Ark is placed in a vast warehouse and forgotten.

Part 3: Getting from Good to “Good Lord, this is Amazing!”

Chapter Ten: Don’t Revise, Rewrite!

  • “Rewriting is 90% of the writing process.”
  • For maximum honesty and candor, aim to get outside feedback and notes from readers who are NOT friends or family.
  • “Your first rewrite should be focused on fundamentally transforming the characters personalities—and this will then force you to change everything else.”
  • Robert Zemekis on feedback: “If one person says something, that’s their opinion. If two people say the same thing, then there are probably millions of people that’ll agree.”
  • “If you’re doing it right, your ‘second draft’ will often be a page-one rewrite.”
  • “The goal of a rewrite should always be to simplify the story, not complicate it. The ultimate goal should be to have a simple story about complex characters and not vice versa…your characters should become deeper and richer, while the story becomes more streamlined and elegant.”

Chapter Eleven: When It’s Finally Time to Fine-Tune

  • Once you’ve rewritten to your satisfaction, you can start tweaking:
    - Re-humanize your characters.
    - Set up more of your payoffs.
    - Have your computer read your work back to you.

Chapter Twelve: Now Cut Another 10 Percent

  • Replace scenes that gradually introduce the hero with one great scene.
  • Instead of dumping loads of information or facts, use one striking details that vividly illustrates your point. Example: “He was the best stickball player on his block, capable of knocking a Spaldeen two sewers from home.” (Working class determination and exuberance, kid from the the streets).
  • “Combine beats, scenes and sequences so they hit simultaneously.”
  • “Don’t plod from moment to moment; leap forward as necessary, even within a small space.”
  • Eliminate “fallout” scenes: “Keep your characters arguing about what’s going to happen instead of what happened previously.”
  • “Apology scenes are death. They reverse the momentum.”
  • “Trim down every paragraph until it takes up one less line…make it fly.”
  • Remove most of the commas from your dialogue and prose.
  • Create a new copy of your draft, a “too-short version.” This will give you unfettered freedom to cut mercilessly. Go back and re-read this version and determine if this is the way forward.

Chapter Thirteen: The Final Rule

  • To write well, you must find a way to enjoy (or at least appreciate) your own story as you’re writing it, with a tingling sense of freedom and excitement about where it might go. You mustn’t grimly proceed down a straight and narrow path, hemmed in by rules on every side.
  • The rules just help you understand some of the ways great stories work and what audiences might be comfortable with. Beyond that you’re free to break the rules as needed.

Note: You can find more from this author at his blog, Cockeyed Caravan, and his podcast, The Secrets of Story Podcast.

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