Originally Published on 20.04.2020
Have you ever wondered what the secret formula to a good book or script is? In general, there are structural conventions that we adhere to. Broadly speaking, that is the beginning, the middle and the end. Something I have been thinking about a lot recently is writing advice I’ve been given, the good and the bad. This anecdote won’t apply to everyone, but in case you need to hear it, I’m writing it down.
I remember the moment I was brave enough to start calling myself a writer. It was one hell of a moment. It felt like I’d made a decision – one that I was finally going to stick with. It was liberating, and something felt right for the first time in my life. However, when I started using the self-appointed title casually in my day to day conversations, fellow and more experienced writers laughed – think a oh sweet summer child, you aren’t a writer yet kind of laugh. I was frequently asked what makes you think you can call yourself a writer? It was a good question, and one I struggled to answer. All I could say is that it was gut instinct and that I just knew. Suddenly, after giving myself this title, lots of other writers around me started to give me advice. You need to read this book before you can call yourself a writer. Have you read Save the Cat? I’m going to be brutally honest, you don’t seem experienced enough; you should read some John York. I’m happy to say that I’d, thankfully, read a lot of the recommendations whilst studying my degree.
I’ve been a little bit misleading because this blog isn’t really about whether or not I was ready to have the title ‘writer’. I knew I was ready and I didn’t really care what anyone else thought. This is about something else entirely. This is about the slew of ‘How to be a Writer’ books that were thrown at me from people who didn’t believe I was ready. There was a short period where I felt really insecure because I was taught all of this at university and the books were outlining strict formulas and conventions that I didn’t want to adhere to.
Learning the secret of being a ‘good writer’ was a pivotal lesson for me. Here it is: there is no secret formula or recipe for a good screenplay or a good book. You can use conventions and follow rules if you want; the How-To books will give you lots of examples of successful prose and scripts that followed the rules. So now you’re asking Why wouldn’t you follow the rules? Simple. Because what the books don’t tell you about is the hundreds of thousands of books and scripts that followed the rules and went nowhere.
I think everyone should go and read the books on how to write. Get a good understanding of the ‘dos’ and ‘don’ts’, but then experiment with those practices and modes of storytelling. At the end of the day, work that is safe doesn’t go down in history. Only the work that is brave and unconventional is remembered and that is the work that ends up being referenced as a success story. That is how conventions are created.
“Only the work that is brave and unconventional is remembered and that is the work that ends up being referenced as a success story. That is how conventions are created.”
Be brave when you are deep in the writing process. Think about why you are writing and why it is important. Constantly get feedback as you go and discuss your work with other writers but for god’s sake, don’t just go and do what everyone else is doing. Every single one of us has something unique and different to say. If all of us read the same books and followed the same rules, every book would be exactly the same, and who wants to live in that world? Not me.
There is no right or wrong way to write or to tell stories. There is no right or wrong process. Experiment, try weird things and be unconventional in your approach. Nothing bad can come of that.
There is no better way to finish this blog than to quote one of my favourite films, Little Miss Sunshine. ‘Do what you love, and fuck the rest.’