writing doom

7 Little Words …

There’s a single sentence that I find myself asking Bang2writers all the time … and it’s probably not what you think it is. It’s not:

“What the hell is this??”

“How did you think this is a good idea??”

– or even, “Are you on crack??”

This is cuz, contrary to popular to belief – not to mention the smack talk on this blog – B2W is always very respectful of writers, guiding them to various realisations about their work (both good and bad) WITHOUT the need for smashing them over the head with that metaphorical hammer –honest guv!!

… So, WHAT is this sentence of DOOM?

It’s very simple, when you think about it.  It happens so often, you’ll kick yourself. Here it is:

‘Cuz then there would be NO STORY’. 

Eeeek!!! 7 little words of terror. More, next.

HOW does the sentence of DOOM happen?

But how do we arrive at the sentence of doom?? No writer goes into writing a story thinking they have shaky foundations, after all. So, I elicit it from the writer themselves via this question:

“Why does (protagonist) do/not do [this action]?”

If the script has major issues then, the writer may have to answer:

“… Cuz then there will be NO STORY.”

KA-BLAM!

Yes, at times like this, writers may feel, well like THIS:

Everyone together – SUPERSADFACE (plus googly eyes).

WHY does the sentence of doom happen?

The sentence of doom frequently hits writers between the eyes for two reasons. These are usually:

  • Plot. This first one is very straightforward. In terms of your plot, your characters have to *do stuff* that feels authentic, otherwise their actions feel contrived. Most screenwriters get this, so I don’t usually end up talking about the sentence of doom with this in mind.
  • Concept. If your character is doing (or not doing) something *simply* because ‘then there would be no story’  then you have a suspension of disbelief problem. I call this ‘follow through’ – if your concept has a suspension of disbelief issue at grass roots level, it has a domino effect on the ‘follow through’; the plot collapses, because we can’t believe what the characters are supposed to be doing in the first place.

Like this …

I read a lot of stories about inheritances. Usually, a horrible protagonist is taught a lesson by a dying relative who says something along the lines of, ‘If you do these five tacts of kindness / solve these five  riddles / visit these five people etc etc etc’, you can have Twenty-Fifty Kazillion pounds when I’m gone.’

Horrible protagonist goes, ‘Ooooh! I want money, sure I’ll do that and on the way I’ll learn what’s important about life, but hey-ho never mind about that, KERCHING!’

The problem with the above then is – besides being as cheesy and stale as mouldy brie that’s fallen behind the toaster for fifteen weeks – is that it immediately begs ALL THESE QUESTIONS:

  • Why doesn’t dying relative just tell horrible protagonist? (‘Cuz then there would be no story)
  • If horrible protagonist is so horrible, why would he bother doing something FOR dying relative, even for money, why doesn’t he walk away? (‘Cuz then there would be no story)
  • If horrible protagonist is only doing this for money (not for love) why would we invest in his/her narrative journey? (‘Cuz then there would be no story)

Striking isn’t it how all those different questions could have the SAME ANSWER!

This is why those writers have a problem with their CONCEPT. It doesn’t ‘follow through’, it feels contrived at foundation level. Eeek!

… How To Fix Your Story:

The best concepts – in novels and screenplays – are compelling because they force characters to confront a problem or issue of some kind.

It doesn’t matter whether you’re writing a genre piece or a drama about the minutiae of life. The characters must have no choice but to engage with that issue or problem. The characters cannot simply walk away and/or give up — whether that means literally, metaphorically or both.

Check out the language use of the bold words above. They’re extremely active words that GRIP the characters, thus grip the potential audience.

If you’re answering, ‘Cuz then there would be no story’ when considering your characters’ actions, this is a major RED FLAG that you don’t have what you need. So revisit and redraft. Make your concept work at foundation level … OR ELSE!

More on B2W about Concept:

The 1 Reason Stories Crash And Burn

4 Reasons Your Concept Counts About All Else

7 Steps To Road-Testing Your Concept

7 Useful Things You Can Do Between Drafts

Top 10 Writing Misconceptions

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14 Responses to The 1 Sentence That Will Kill Your Story DEAD

  1. Helen says:

    Why does reading your posts give me a headache? Not trying to be mean, but I have read this post twice and I still don’t know what you are trying to say. I’d much rather you spit it out. Plainly, concisely. Sort of how you would prefer we screenwriters present our scripts. Thank you.

    • Lucy V Hay says:

      Blimey, you’re not going to get a blog that is as PLAIN or concise as this one. If you don’t know what this – or indeed any other post on here – is ‘trying’ to say, I would wager you have bigger writing problems than you realise.

      • Helen says:

        Constructive, thank you.

        P.S. I’m a finalist in the first of several competitions I have entered so far this year. Not eligible for the Nicholl because I won a fellowship several years ago. Will keep plugging along.

        • Lucy V says:

          You’re v welcome, Helen. If you wanted ‘constructive’ help, why not try different phrasing next time, like actually ASKING for clarification? Just a thought. Good luck with your contests.

          • Helen says:

            Thank you, Lucy. Yes, I should have worded my original comment differently. Apologies.

          • Lucy V Hay says:

            No problem Helen. I have revised the headlines in the article so hopefully it will be clearer now 🙂

  2. Glyn says:

    I rarely comment, Lucy, but I read most of your blogs, and for this one I checked in to say what a great point you’ve made. I’m pretty sure I understood it.

    The “without it there’d be no story” blemish can be seen across TV and film, but that’s no excuse. And the fault is rooted in that old issue of characters not being clear, and having at best vague motivation.

    Now I’m sidetracked by Helen and her headache. And tactless as she was, she has a point. I don’t mean the breathless style (I hope you don’t talk at breakfast like you blog!); but, for example, putting the Why section ahead of the What, isn’t too helpful.

    More to the point, though, I think there’s more to be said on the Sentence of Doom, so maybe you could revisit and explore? Keep up the good work!

    • Lucy V Hay says:

      Oh yes Glynn, I’ll definitely be coming back to the SENTENCE OF DOOM. After all, sometimes ‘cuz there would be no story’ is permissible. So how can we tell?!

      As for the subheadings — It goes WHAT it is; HOW it happens; WHY it happens — do you mean it should be the *other* way around? Cuz now you’re definitely on crack 😉

  3. Betty Spinks says:

    Yeah, no, this post doesn’t make its point coherently. I’m not upset. Just hope it helps you in future posts. For now, I’m going to stop following your blog.

    • Lucy V Hay says:

      Bye then!

      • Debbie Richardson says:

        Lucy I have followed your blog with interest and I’ve read the comments on here with interest and I do agree with what they’re saying although I still found your post useful as I do with most of your posts however what I find annoying is your responses they show a lack of humility I thought you were more mature than that please don’t respond to criticism of my lack of punctuation actually using speech to text as I have a fractured shoulder and adding punctuation is very laborious good luck with your posts and your blog I will still be following you despite my disappointment in your responses which seemed a bit immature

        • Lucy V Hay says:

          Had they asked for clarification Debbie, they would have received it in spades. Instead they chose to go on the offensive. As you will also note the one who apologised got what she wanted – revised subheadings. I wonder why you feel I should ‘show humility’ – I’ve already given my expertise, for free, multiple times on this blog. Far from expecting hero-worship, I do expect a certain level of civility when someone disagrees with me (which is also fine). But when that level of civility doesn’t happen, I merely match like for like. This has always been the case on B2W, it is nothing new. Perhaps it is worth asking yourself why you should feel disappointed by that suddenly? We often put others on a pedestal, especially online, and then feel let down when that person does not behave the way we think they ‘should’. But that’s actually our issue, not theirs. (Note my inclusive language there: we may all do it –
          – including me! – but that doesn’t mean we get to tell others off direct).

  4. Gus says:

    Hi Lucy
    I really enjoy your blog, specially because sometimes you just go straight to the point which keep your topics fresh even if that could bring arguments , which is not a bad thing if those discussions helps to grasp the topic wider.
    I may be wrong but personally I think that “the sentence of doom” more than coming from plot or concept, it really comes from the unprepared writer who lacks enough reflection on his/her own writing.

    Everyone has their own preferences and the “inheritance challenge” does not seem to be one of your darlings. This adventure/comedy sub-genre was quite popular in the last century (there are almost 10 film adaptions of “Brewster`s millions”) but nowadays has come out of fashion due to maybe being too predictable.

    But maybe is a little bit unfair to place the guilt of “the sentence of doom” in an outfashioned genre rather than in an unprepared rookie writer.
    If the unprepared writer is fond of the “sentence”, it will be used no matter which question is asked.
    A prepared writer perhaps would answer questions in a different way:
    1. Why doesn’t dying relative just tell horrible protagonist? -Normally because the relative is dead and hardly ever knew the protagonist.
    2. If horrible protagonist is so horrible, why would he bother doing something FOR dying relative, even for money, why doesn’t he walk away? -He/She is not doing anything FOR anyone than her/himself.. either FOR the money or FOR the challenge.
    3. If horrible protagonist is only doing this for money (not for love) why would we invest in his/her narrative journey? Being this a sub-genre, the answer would be simple: FUN (if it´s a comedy) or THRILL and EXCITEMENT (if it`s an adventure)

    Just wanted to share my thoughts on the topic
    Feel free to add or correct me if I missed anything…

    • Lucy V Hay says:

      Hi Gus, thanks for commenting and you raise a great point – when is this a lack of prep, or just a terrible idea? Like anything, it depends. Certainly, a lack of prep by the rookie writer will mean even a good idea will fall flat on its face. Other times, said idea *could* work, but it’s just not strong enough. BREWSTER’S MILLIONS worked and that’s great, but that was 35 odd years ago and time moves on. What worked then, no longer works now. This is because it’s been done so many times since, it now FEELS like movie logic, rather than authentic storytelling. As a result we need something ‘stronger’ here to make it work … or the sentence of doom raises its ugly head. 🙂

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