This week I want to talk to you about your query letter. If you already have an agent then you may not need this, but you can always also brush up on how to pitch your work for when you are meeting with studio executives, and or new editors/publishing houses, and for when you are on the agent hunt again. I have had 4 agents for writing in the last 20 years and whenever I have had to start looking again knowing how to put together a query letter has really helped me.
First of all, if you haven’t grabbed this already, please grab this free guide to perfecting your query letter. It will make you sign up but don’t worry, it won’t put you on the list twice but just give you the FREE resource I have created. Also, you can forward this email to your writer friends who could use it. DOWNLOAD CRUSHING YOUR QUERY HERE
Now that you have the workbook let me go over the basics of what your query letter needs to be successful.
1. It needs to evoke emotions of some kind. The agent wants to know that you can connect with readers. How do you do this? Through emotions. You do this with your HOOK. You hook the agent and your readers in by making an emotional connection. How do readers connect if you have a book about a wizard? Well if he is an orphan and lives under the stairs, well, there it is, you immediately feel for him. If it’s about a clueless teenager living in Beverly Hills obsessed with fashion and things that don’t matter but in a funny way, it makes you feel something? Joy? Hate? Silliness? This is how you get the reader in the store to buy and it’s how you land your agent. Many times your query letter is what ends up on the back of the book. (No pressure)
2. It needs to tell us WHO the story is about and WHAT happens to them. For example, Harry Potter (and I know people are sick of Harry Potter, but everyone’s read it so it works). Harry is a 10-year-old boy living under the stairs of his abusive aunt and uncle until he finds out he is a wizard. That tells us WHO-Harry, and WHAT-he finds out that he is a wizard. Let’s take TWILIGHT. Bella is a 17-year-old who moves to a small town in the PNW to live with her father and is miserable until she falls in love with Edward, a vampire. We know WHO and WHAT. Bella falls in love with a vampire so we know already there are going to be complications, possibly death, and forbidden love. The detail of her moving to the PNW to live with her father tells us that her parents are divorced which informs character. For Harry, the fact that he lives under a staircase and is living with his abusive aunt and uncle tells us that his parents are gone or dead, he isn’t treated well and he what he needs more than anything-a family.
3. It needs to tell the agent the genre and word count with two comp titles. This is to show the agent that you know where your book fits in and you know your audience. It’s important and should be at the top of the query with the personalized note as to why you have contacted this agent. Agents know that you are submitting to multiple agencies but they also like to feel like you chose them and aren’t just sending to anyone. The comp titles should be in the last 5 years and should be in the same genre and age group. For example, if you say that you wrote a book that is STRANGER THINGS meets GENERATION MISFITS the agent knows immediately what that is. A middle-grade book with some supernatural, possibly slightly scary elements about friendship and pop music—sound interesting? Yes, it’s fine to use film and or television if it fits. You can use older titles. I got many requests for a YA novel that I pitched as ALL THE BRIGHT PLACES meets THE SIXTH SENSE and yes the movie referenced came out in the 90s–so there are exceptions, but that film is one that everyone knows and reading that agents knew immediately that there was a ghost element and that someone didn’t know or possibly didn’t know they were dead.
I read queries every single week that are still missing these basic elements and I’m sharing this with you so you can skip past the thousand revisions and get it right so you can find that perfect agent match and get signed so you can get that book or movie out into the world. It’s not super easy to get an agent but you can do it! I know you can. You just have to have the right tools, and spend the time getting to the core of what your story is about and why people should care about it.
HOMEWORK~Write down what is unique about your book. Make a list of all the emotions you want to evoke. Use just one word to describe your story. Build on that slowly until you have a full sentence that tells us WHO and WHAT the story is about. You can do it!!
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This may be a few years late, but I want to talk about a show that has it all!
*pulled from IMDB-Silicon Valley (2014–2019) … Follows the struggle of Richard Hendricks, a Silicon Valley engineer trying to build his own company called Pied Piper
Let’s break down seasons-1-3 (it starts getting a bit more serious at the midway point)
It has 👇
✅ Great characters
✅ Comedy that comes from character (not joke, joke, joke)
✅ Diverse cast
✅ Heart-meaning, we CARE Let’s break it down.
Richard Hendricks-our protagonist/Lovable Loser who is kind, smart, a bit nerdy, pretty much always chooses the wrong thing but we care and root for him. He’s real and authentic.Erlich Bachman-Materialistic One/womanizer – he’s brash, arrogant, causes a lot of trouble and we love to hate him, but mostly love him because he is helping our main protagonist and his group of creators—for his 10% thoughBertram Gilfoyle-Bastard always a jerk to everyone including Richard but especially Dinesh. We have all worked with guys/gals like this. They are smart and arrogant but we need them. Dinesh Chugtai – Logical Smart One – basically is the only one who is always thinking straight and is solid. He doesn’t freak out or anything, he is just steady. Nelson “Big Head” Bighetti-another Lovable Loser-seriously this guy does nothing, isn’t good at anything like the others but keeps getting moved up. His only real qualification is being Richard’s best friend. Donald “Jared” Dunn- another Logical Smart One. Honestly, I could take or leave this guy but in understanding this business, I know these types are always there. Monica-the love interest? Maybe, maybe not. She, like, Erlich, causes a lot of problems, but we like her because we believe she means well. Then you have the non-main characters but the ones who support the mains. Peter Gregory – billionaire whose company was funding Pied Piper until he died suddenly in a freak accident while on safari (while in real life the actor passed away from cancer in 2013) Played by Christopher Evan Welch based on the co-founder of PayPalGalvin Belson-clearly based on the two founders of Google. He is just a rich businessman and our antagonist for Richard and his gang. He’s all business.Jian-Yang -one of the housemates living in Erlich’s free incubator home for startups.Russ Hanneman also a billionaire but a serious douchebag and it was hard to watch Richard get involved with him.
that comes from character and the situations they are in but it’s not a sitcom. This show has dark comedy and it’s almost hard to watch. Unlike shows like FRIENDS or SEINFELD, you come back to Silicon Valley or go to the next episode because we NEED to know what happens. It’s not laugh-out-loud funny, well…maybe sometimes it is, especially if you know any people who are like this, but it’s meant to be a smarter comedy that all the humor comes from character. It’s really well done. I suggest that you watch it and study it. There are NO JOKES. Also, get Steve Kaplan’s book on writing comedy. THE HIDDEN TOOLS OF COMEDY Some of the things that happen seem absurd but they all come from character. One of the most pivotal moments for Richard was when he created something unique and he did it based on a stupid argument Dinesh and Bertram were having literally about jerking off people in the audience. They got so specific about it and spent hours making charts on a board to figure the math out and it gave Richard an idea. It seemed random but it wasn’t “wouldn’t it be funny if” (two nerds argued about jerking others off–which would have been low-brow humor) but it was used to illustrate their characters and move the story forward in a big way.
You seriously can’t have a show that takes place in Silicon Valley without doing this so well done to the creators for getting this spot on. They didn’t just toss in some other races besides white to be inclusive, which is happening a lot lately, they did it because it informed the story. It was also authentic and realistic.
We care about the characters and if they succeed. I was thinking about the show on the way to work meetings, going to the dentist, when I was at work-most comedies don’t have that kind of power, but my heart was in it for Richard and his company. If you can’t stop thinking about a show and the characters like they are real people, then they are doing their job extremely well. Sometimes it was hard to watch as Richard keep choosing the wrong thing but this is also so real to startups in the area and over the years. It’s so well written and plotted out that we are sucked right into it. These are the reasons I am writing about this show that aired 7 years ago because it’s really great and if you are writing characters for anything it’s worth studying. SILICON VALLEY is currently on HBO Max
If you were in your twenties when Jerry Maguire came out, or even in your late teens, you saw Jerry Maguire and started going around saying the catchphrases of “you had me at hello” and maybe even said to your person you were with then, “you complete me” basically the entire world was caught up in Jerry & Dorothy’s love story about a financially drowning & down and out sports agent & an accountant who get together after he writes a mission statement (which you can read here)It’s a great movie and still one of my all-time, 10 films on an island films that I would bring with me but have no way to watch as on an island there would be no electricity but it is that good. I’m exploring a different angle here-the BROMANCE between Jerry & football player Rod Tidwell because it’s equally as strong and often overlooked when this film is discussed.
“Show me the money!”
Everyone knows the catchphrase of “show me the money” of course you do; even Disney made Winnie the Pooh plushies and merch that said show me the honey. That scene is legendary. Jerry is desperate, and Rod is showing us who he is, which is a great introduction to character by the way, by making Jerry beg and prove that he wants and deserves to be Rod’s sports agent. This is the start of a beautiful relationship–oops, wrong movie, but you get the idea. Let’s start there. Jerry and Rod obviously already know each other but when we meet them and see them interact it’s our first time so their meet-cute is funny, well thought out, emotional, and shows us who Rod is as a character. We learn that his contract is almost up. We learn that he grew up in Arizona, wants to stay in Arizona, his wife is pregnant with their second child, and he’s a good guy as shown by him taking care of his brother who we see when Rod is complaining about the flood in TP’s room. It’s so well done that you probably didn’t even realize that you got all that information which makes Rod likable despite the way he is acting. As well, and this is probably the most important part of that scene, we learn that he is a man of his word, trustworthy, and loyal much like Dorothy. Then you have Jerry & Rod in the beginning stages of their new relationship. Jerry thinks that he can’t financially survive without another athlete-Cushman, so he is going back and forth between them, but he makes a mistake and trusts Cush’s father and doesn’t get a signed contract. The scene where Jerry and Rod walk the floor at the Marriot the night before the draft you see that Jerry hasn’t really changed yet and isn’t focused on Rod. Rod feels it too but Jerry is only thinking about his bigger client. Jerry also drops a truth bomb on Rod about his behavior and the rather large chip that sits on his shoulder. It’s hard to watch because it’s so good. We leave the scene with Rod alone complaining about how he didn’t get any love from Chevy, Nike, Rebook, and it’s a bit sad and once again immediately stirs up empathy for Rod while we are rooting for Jerry and his number one draft pick.
The next time Jerry and Rod are together Jerry is complaining and drinking heavily in the airport while they wait for their flight. He wants to give up and we see Rod tell him the truth about his behavior. This continues on the plane where Rod literally says that he gave Jerry his word and he is going to stay with him despite feeling like his second choice. The head of the Cardinals stands Jerry up and tells him that he isn’t going to give him the contract he is asking for. We see that Jerry is becoming desperate and not for the right reasons either. Sure he cares about Rod but mostly he is still focused on himself, he needs the money, and he could also lose Dorothy if there isn’t a contract offered that is really good. In the famous “help me help you” scene, Jerry begs Rod to change his attitude and basically suck up to the coach of the Cardinals and we see once again that Rod, while difficult, has integrity, which makes us continue to like him.
As the story grows and Jerry can’t manage a decent deal for his only client, we see that Rod trusts Jerry, and they become friends who can tell each other anything with their friends’ hats on. Jerry asks Rod for advice as they walk off the set of a regional commercial in Arizona. The scene is full of emotion and also a couple of funny lines about shoplifting the pooty and such, but it really shows us where Jerry is with Dorothy and Rod. He’s asking Rod for help and he knows, deep down Rod is right. Then we see Rod singing at Jerry’s wedding. They are in the full throws of a bromance. They are close and in this together until Jerry starts going with Rod to every game and they argue about Jerry’s marriage and Rod says some hurtful things to Jerry so Jerry in return unloads on Rod about why he’s not making the Quan. This is their lowest moment and the couple (of friends) essentially break up. This is their lowest moment.
Finally, at a big Monday night football game, Jerry shows up as he literally has nothing left. Dorothy has broken up with him and he is really alone, so he goes to support Rod despite their relationship also not working. Rod gets hurt and Jerry is genuinely concerned for his friend. We see it in his face as well we see him actually become unselfish for the first time in the entire story. He puts his client first and it’s quite touching. Rod ends up being fine and Rob being Rod dances in the endzone and acts the fool while Marcy and everyone is happy. Jerry realizes that he only wants to talk to Dorothy because Rod got the winning touchdown he also knows that their little company now has a lot of money coming in. As well we see that snake Bob Sugar and Troy Aikman not having a special relationship which shows us that Jerry’s mission statement really was right the whole time. The last scene of Rod and Jerry’s bromance is Rod on the talk show where athletes are always crying and he refuses to cry until he learns that Jerry got him an 11 million dollar deal for 3 years. He cries and then he thanks everyone in his family and finally calls out Jerry. Jerry is moved as the two are teared up. Rod calls Jerry his ambassador of Quan.
The reason that they worked so well together as a storytelling mechanism is that they helped each other grow. Rod learns to stop focusing on the wrong thing, money, and learns to love the game again and Jerry learns to stop focusing on money and learns to open up to others including his friend Rod and his wife, Dorothy. At the beginning of the film, Jerry seems popular and loved by all. The famous line by Eric Stoltz’s character “everybody loves you; pisses me off” is setting it up because as soon as Jerry is down he has not even one phone call. He has managed to keep everyone away from him. He can’t show real emotions and let people in. He says to Dorothy “what if I’m not built that way?” as he realizes that he’s about to lose her. He can’t even see it himself. I believe and have for some time that it’s his real friendship with Rod that changes him. If it weren’t for Rod I don’t think he would have come around and realized how much he loves Dorothy. I honestly don’t cry at the “you had me at hello” line. I do, however, cry when Rod calls him his ambassador of Quan because it’s there that we really know Jerry has grown and changed for the better. You can read more about Jerry Maguire on IMDB HERE Jerry Maguire was written and directed by Cameron Crowe Jerry Maguire-Tom Cruise Rod Tidwell-Cuba Gooding Jr. where he won the best supporting actor Oscar for his performance I hope you enjoyed this week’s blog. Happy writing! xo Stephanie
Hello Writers, today I’m talking about writing a story that keeps the reader or audience invested, and evokes something to talk about after.
This is important. Many stories are just “meh” and they should have worked but didn’t. I never want to cut any writers, cast, crew, directors, authors, publishers, or anyone who is working in a creative field down so please know that everything I write about I am only doing so to give you examples of things that didn’t work–and let’s be honest, everyone who worked on these projects knows that they didn’t go the way it was planned–box office & sales is usually a big indicator-not always because some great stories are never huge successes but you know what I mean. Stories that should have worked but didn’t. ALEX & EMMA – rom-com film from 2003. About a writer who needs to finish a novel in 30 days or he’ll be murdered by loan sharks. The reason it didn’t work was both in the plot and the characters. THE LOVE PUNCH – rom-com film from 2013. A divorced couple schemes to get back money that was stolen from them. The reason it didn’t work was really in the plotting and how everything just worked out for them, as well as many unbelievable things that happened. JOEY – comedy television show spin-off of FRIENDS. Joey Tribbiani moves to Los Angeles from New York to pursue his acting career. Why it didn’t work? So many reasons, but the big one is that there was too much of the “wouldn’t it be funny if” and not enough character development and or reasons for anything. PAN AM – drama television show. This show relied too heavily on nostalgia and not enough on character & plot. It could have been great but fell super flat.
Stories that WORKED and why
WHEN HARRY MET SALLY – rom-com film 1998. Two friends who are complete opposites can’t see what is right in front of them and continue to make mistakes with romantic relationships. Complete opposites who don’t even like each other at the beginning-but every single thing they say is there for a reason. The plot and story arcs progress in a natural manner and everything that happens moves the story forward. Everything, even the famous scene where she pretends to have an orgasm in the diner, that shows who she is, and also that Harry is often wrong about his assumptions about women. When they get together it messes up their friendship which shows us that they really love each other even if they won’t admit it. It’s real and nothing that happens is based on “wouldn’t it be funny if”. IT’S COMPLICATED – rom-com film 2009 by Nancy Meyers. A divorced couple launch into an affair after their son’s graduation. I don’t know why this doesn’t have a higher score on IMDB because it’s completely brilliant. Here is a story about a couple who already know each other and have been divorced for some time, he is remarried to a younger woman and yet they have an affair. Why it works is because of character. Everything that is done is true to who they are as people. She wants her life back, or so she thinks, and he is having a later than a mid-life crisis with his new young wife wanting to have a baby. He wants to feel normal and she wants to feel desired so they fall back into bed, and comedy happens naturally. The plot also unfolds in a natural progression and there are some very funny scenes that move the story forward. FRASIER – comedy television show-spin-off of CHEERS. 1993 Frasier moves back to Seattle to start his life over and ends up living with his father. This show works on every level and for a spin-off, it’s quite brilliant. We already knew Frasier but we didn’t know Marty (his father) or Niles (his brother). They could have failed so hard with this one by just having the same Frasier we met at the bar in Boston. High & mighty snob commenting on how everyone is below him, but that would have been boring so the writers introduced us into Frasier’s world with a father who is everything that Frasier thinks he is above. Marty is uncouth, blue-collar, beer drinking, rather watch a game at McGinty’s Pub & eat burgers that cost under $10 whereas Frasier & Niles wouldn’t be caught dead doing anything blue-collar or setting foot in a pub. The comedy writes itself. Every episode is riddled with juxtaposition in the characters. They never do anything just to be funny. Everything they do in every scene is to reach their own goals but their character is what makes it so funny. The show is also rounded out with Frasier’s job as a radio psychologist where Niles has his own practice. The secondary characters of Roz and Daphne bring even more layers into Frasier’s world. We also never meet Nile’s wife but his actions and dialogue make it clear who she is and it’s naturally funny. DOWNTON ABBEY – drama television series 2010. A chronicle of the lives of the British aristocratic Crawley family and their servants in the early twentieth century.Oh Downton why are you so perfect? Character and plot/story arcs that work. From the very first scenes where you have the father of this rich family reading a paper and talking about people they knew on the Titanic and how this would affect their family in a way that would change everything to seeing the servants actions and reactions to the news and getting the day going, we are enticed to watch more. The first thing they got right was opening with a historical event that has a worldwide fascination, even now, 109 years after the sinking. Then they showed us who the characters were through dialogue and actions. There was never anything that told us who they were, they showed us. Through the years things that happened in real life like WW1 showed up and played a huge role on the show and that also came with the unexpected loss of favorite characters and like all great series ended every episode making us crave the next one. What will happen next?? I need to know. They rounded the show with characters who we loved to hate but also cared about like Thomas the footman turned valet turned second Butler turned Butler. The showed us human kindness and how we are all alike even when separated by class.
To craft a story that works you need two things.
Well, you need many but these are the two that you MUST have.
1) Great CHARACTERS-which means, your characters must have their own personality as well as wants and goals in every scene. Everything they do must happen for a reason. If you look at shows like FRIENDS or EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND you see that in every scene the characters’ intentions are for what they want the outcome to be. When you have a juxtaposition of characters’ wants and needs comedy happens. There is no reason to write a bunch of jokes for the purpose of being funny. For dramas, it’s basically the same principle. Take CHICAGO PD and GREY’S ANATOMY. Both are strong ensemble shows with characters who are very distinct and the way they act, speak, and do everything comes from WHO they are and nothing else. AND your character must be the author of their own destiny. Harry got help from his friends in all of the books/movies but it was because of what he did that it happened. (HAPPY POTTER) You can’t have things just work out or have someone else solve the problem or save your characters. In comedy as well, they are the master of their own disaster-always and then they realize some change they need to make, take responsibility and it works out. THE PROPOSAL Margaret realizes that she is doing the wrong thing so she takes action and leaves Andrew at the altar and faces the consequences. 2) Great PLOT/STORY ARCS-this means that your story must move along at a pace that keeps us interested and you must follow the format for what you are writing.Your story doesn’t have to be filled with action. Take DOWNTON ABBEY-it’s a bit slow sometimes but still we can’t look away. Look at SEINFELD or FRIENDS most of which takes place in apartments but we were excited every week to see what happened in their lives. The plotting worked always. When you are writing anything you have to think in terms of beginning, middle, and end. There has to be an end goal and then you must give the story ups and downs. Stories that work in a straight line or everything works out too conveniently fall flat and we stop reading or watching. I know you can do it!
This week I’m talking about characters in comedy, specifically romantic comedies. What I am seeing in a lot of work that is coming in is the stereotypes of the snarky leading lady-who honestly, no one, not even our leading man, would like because she’s too awful, and the womanizer leading man-who again, why would anyone give him a chance? And then the other characters are throwaways.
Please don’t do this with your secondary characters, they can be just as important if not more important than your leads!!
The TV show FRIENDS, which came out in 1994 was originally called, Monica & Friends, meaning Monica was the leading lady soon it really became all about Ross and Rachel but in the beginning, it was Monica’s story.
When the show opens we see Monica and her friends handing out in a coffee shop, establishing who they all are and soon a bride-to-be walks in crying (inciting incident)-Rachel. We see through he actions and dialogue that she is a spoiled rich girl from Long Island who went to high school with Monica. Monica’s world changes when Rachel moves in with her–(new world). The show was Monica’s story and soon became an equal ensemble cast due to the strong character types.
Another great comedy is Modern Family. You could say it’s about Claire’s family? Or Jay’s? Probably Jay’s since he is the patriarch of the family, but all the archetypes are there and it works.
Novels are different-or are they?
Take Crazy Rich Asians–
The story opens with Rachel and Nick at their favorite coffee shop and he is asking her to go to meet his family where a wedding is to take place. Little does she know who she is with.
Then we go to meet Eleanore -the mom
the story also has, the best friend, (for both of them), the side-kick, and a very strong B story running throughout.
One more example. In Hallmark’s Christmas movie Let It Snowyou have a main character/leading lady, a love interest, friends, and parents, and a boss (bad guy-who isn’t so bad, it’s Hallmark after all and he’s also her father-of course in comedy we keep them all connected). This is a simple plot where the main character hates snow and is trying to impress her father (issues with feeling accepted) so she tries to get a village’s snow valley lodge shut down but she meets her love interest and realizes that she has had it wrong all along. It’s simple but works. I know a few of you are writing light romantic comedies–and they are fine but the ones that work have these characters in there.
You don’t need to have ALL of them but you should have a good combo-the archetypes are who the characters are, and you can have them in any role in your story.
1. Lovable Loser
2. Logical Smart One
5. The Dumb One
6. In Their Own Universe
8. Materialistic One
I’ll use FRIENDS (available on HBO Max for streaming and also runs on cable every day)
1. Lovable Loser (Pheobe)
2. Logical Smart One (Ross)
3. Neurotic (Monica)
5. The Dumb One (Joey)
6. In Their Own Universe (Chandler)
8. Materialistic One (Rachel)
You could argue that some of them cross over.
Okay, I’ll do Legally Blonde to-they aren’t all in there.
1. Lovable Loser (Serena & Margarette)
2. Logical Smart One (Elle)
4. Bitch/Bastard (Vivian)
6. In Their Own Universe (Paulette)
7. Womanizer/Manizer (Prof. Callahan)
Now look at it in terms of WHO must be in a romantic comedy-they can be any of the archetypes from above but these people need to be in your story.
Leading Lady -Elle
Love interest- Emmett
Ex-lover/boyfriend/soon to be ex-Warner
Villain/bitch-Vivian (all the smart students) and Prof Callahan
In Steve Kaplan’s book, The Hidden Tools of Comedy he goes over the archetypes in COMMEDIA basically how it all started-which is great and I HIGHLY RECOMMEND this book.
Back to the beginning of this newsletter-using stereotypes-if you do, make sure that you do it in a unique way. Why would you want your leading lady to be snarky and bitchy? What is the point?
In The Proposal-Margaret is bitchy but not snarky-and we find out why she is like that when she opens up to Andrew-there is always a reason for that behavior, or there needs to be.
In The Devil Wears Prada-Andrea is the leading lady and is sweet, innocent, and a little naive (at least in the film version, in the book she is a little more jaded-or becomes jaded quickly) and Emily is the bitchy one.
Make sure if you go there, you have a reason and you must make them likable in some way, or readers or viewers won’t care.
This week, I’m breaking down a popular romantic comedy from twenty years ago that nails it when it comes to story structure! LEGALLY BLONDE
How Legally Blonde Does it Perfectly!
When this film came out I lived with a roommate, whom I’m still friends with so I mean her no disrespect here but she was like, “ugh, so stupid, who would go see that?” and I replied, “I saw it and it’s really good” and then I explained why. She still wasn’t interested in it but that was part of her “I’m too cool to watch and like anything commercial” vibe but she did listen.
It’s not just that I liked, well LOVED, Legally Blonde, it’s that they got it right from the opening act to the end, it’s spot on and why I am using it today to show you how to create the perfect story structure–if you are writing romantic comedies this is especially a great example but even if you aren’t, the principles work for you!
In romantic comedies, there are traditionally 7 story beats or arcs.
Setup / promise of the story
Midpoint / Raising the stakes
Swivel: second turning point
Dark moment / crisis
Joyful defeat / resolution
Let’s go over Legally Blonde now.
I also want to note that one of the main reasons that Legally Blonde works is that in the very beginning the writers show us that Elle is actually smart. There is a scene at a snooty store in Beverly Hills where two sales ladies decide that Elle is a ditz with a credit card but she puts them in their place with her knowledge of design, the designer, the fabric, the tailoring, and they shut up.
That was brilliant and made the entire rest of the story believable. If they had kept her as some stupid blonde, her getting into Harvard never would have been believable.
Here are the seven beats in traditional romantic comedies!
1. Setup/Promise of the story– We meet Elle and find out that she is graduating from undergrad and is expecting a proposal from her boyfriend, Warren. We learn that she wants to marry him. That is her goal.
2. Inciting incident-he breaks up with her so she decides to go to law school to get him back/get back together
3. New world-turning point-she attends Harvard
4. Midpoint/mirror moment/recommitment-Warren tells her that she’s not smart enough, so she changes her focus realizing that she’ll never be good enough
5. Swivel-next turning point-she is chosen to help with a real trial where she knows the defendant and holds her ground on the alibi
6. Dark Moment/Crisis-her professor hits on her and she gives up believing that no one will ever take her seriously because she is pretty and that’s all they see.
7. Resolution-she goes back into court with the help of a guy she meets (this is the 2nd storyline BTW) and wins the case for her defendant
In your writing, you want to make sure to have these plot arcs or beats. It’s important to use the story structure formats that we all know because they work. If you have been faced with rejection of any kind-even from critique partners, or are getting feedback that your story is flat, rewriting out the beats will help you get it into shape! I promise
Legally Blonde is on Netflix now, so your homework is to go watch it and look for these moments.
Legally Blonde written by Karen McCullah & Kirsten Smith (screenplay) and Amanda Brown (novel) 2001
Happy Thursday. This week I’m talking about when you get that dreaded feedback that goes something like “I couldn’t connect with the characters” or “she/he wasn’t believable” or “I just didn’t care.” And, there’s more too but you get the point.
Your story is fine, but the reader, or agent, or editor, just couldn’t connect.
What do you need to do to fix it?
If the feedback is that they couldn’t connect or care about the characters, then you need to do more work there.
Revisions like this can seem impossibleand your gut may be saying to just keep sending it out to others until someone likes it. I’ve seen writers do this and after two years the agent who took a chance couldn’t sell the work and then drops them and they are right back where they started.
I want to save you time and heartache.
There could be many reasons that this is the feedback you are getting.
1. Your characters are living on the surface
2. Your dialogue isn’t strong
3. Your characters wants/needs and goals aren’t present
4. Your plotting and story arcs are nonexistent (yes some character problems go back to storytelling basics)
There are a lot of reasons but let’s start with these because they are the most common.
YOUR CHARACTER LIVES ON THE SURFACE
This means that you haven’t gone deep enough, and hey, I know that it sucks hearing that and it’s like vaguebooking but it’s a real thing. When you aren’t going deep enough it is because you yourself don’t understand the psychology of your characters.
What? I need that? But, I’m just writing light romance, like a Hallmark movie, she just wants to find a guy.
Nope, that’s not good enough. You need more. Even in lighter stories, you need a real need, want, and or goals for your protagonist that drive her the entire book. The way she handles these things are because of WHO she is and that goes back to her misbelief about herself and that informs her flaws.
The best holiday Hallmark movies have this. Trust me.
EXERCISE-go watch any holiday Hallmark movie that you love and break it all down and you will see that it’s there. Obviously, you can’t know for 100% her misbelief but based on her actions you can make a great guess.
READ-Wired for Story & Story Genius by Lisa Cron–once you do you will understand what I mean. Every single one of us has some misbelief that was created early in life and while we don’t go around and announce it to the world, “I’ll never be good enough!” our actions SHOW who we are. Maybe we push people away, or maybe we have a need to always get straight As and be perfect?–this is just an example.
Here’s an example of a great character from television from the 2000s. Logan Echolls from Veronica Mars. When we meet him, he’s kind of a dick right? Well, not really.
We learn through his actions and dialogue and storytelling throughout the first season (your novel) that his parents are famous actors and never give him any attention and when they do it’s bad. His misbelief (or this is how I see it) is that he will never be good enough and no one will ever really like or love him because if his parents don’t, why would anyone else? So, his character flaw is that he acts like a jerk, all the time. This is his defense to keep himself safe and not get rejected because he knows that will come. Everything he does is based on that misbelief. The writers of that show dug deep! And, you can too!
WHEN YOUR DIALOGUE IS THE PROBLEM
Ah, dialogue-my favorite tool to show who a character really is. I love it because it’s so powerful but so many writers get it wrong. They focus on being clever, especially in women’s fiction and any movie with a female lead. The trope, trend, overused thing that still happens is that the main female is headstrong and sarcastic. Now, we all can’t be that way can we? No, we can’t. If you have written this in your first draft or second, or third and you are getting feedback that the agent, reader, whomever, can’t connect to her, this is why.
You have cleverly filled the pages with clever quips and comebacks, usually aimed at her love interest and in weaker writing he takes it!
Steve Kaplan of Kaplan Comedy talks about this in his comedy workshop and he used an example from a movie with Kate Hudson and Luke Wilson. Kate Hudson’s character insults him over and over and he doesn’t react at all but he keeps flirting and smiling. It’s so true. No guy, no woman, no person would be okay with being insulting all the time, and yet this is used constantly. Look at The Ugly Truth as another example. Katherine Heigel’s character is always insulting Gerad Butler’s character for no reason that makes any sense, it’s really that the writers decided she would be this type of woman for no reason, and he takes it and keeps flirting with her. This is NOT what would happen.
Back to dialogue. So, you will stop that clever rude girl and witty dialogue now. Phew, now that’s over remember that every single word that comes out of your character’s mouth MUST be said for a reason. Dialogue SHOWS us WHO your character is. Think about the way you react to a situation and what you might say and how your sister or mother does to the same? You all speak differently right?
In Gilmore Girls, Paris Geller is a BRILLIANT example of this. Everything she says SHOWS US who she is, and all of that goes back to her misbelief about herself. I suggest you watch a few episodes, especially in the early seasons when we are getting to know her.
Use your dialogue to show us who your characters are and you can’t go wrong.
YOUR CHARACTER’S MOTIVES ARE MISSING
You have some characters and a story but why they are in that story is muddled. They don’t have any stakes and so it’s boring, and not relatable at all. Now, everything doesn’t have to be life or death, it can just be internal too-like Bridget Jone’s Diary. Bridget wanted to improve herself and her dating life so pretty much all of her actions were based on this. At first, she makes a list of all the things she will change in the new year, then she decides she wants to date the bad-boy in the office, Daniel Clever, but since that is something superficial and he is a jerk, she still isn’t happy, so she gets a new job, and is still looking for happiness—the entire movie. Her motives are that she wants to be in love and she wants connection but she has the misbelief that it’s her weight because she doesn’t believe she deserves what others have and that’s why it works. Her motives are clear.
Obviously in Harry Potter his goals are always to fight Voldermort–but are they really? Isn’t Harry a boy who desperately needs a family? Read the first book again and you’ll see that Harry has external and internal wants and needs that are clear.
The stakes MUST be there. In all the really good Hallmark Holiday movies the main character always has a want that we learn immediately. Usually, it has something to do with a promotion at her job, but it’s always clear. Then something happens that derails that and has her questioning everything in her life, but all her actions are based on reaching that original goal.
Look at Legally Blonde-Elle Woods wants to get married and at the beginning we learn that she believes she is going to be proposed to by her boyfriend, who instead breaks up with her so he can go to Harvard and be with a serious girl (his words, not mine). Well, Elle decides to follow him to Harvard and show him that she can be the kind of girl he wants. Her entire story is about getting this guy back, until she gets to Harvard and realizes that no matter what she does she’s never going to be good enough for him, so she learns that she can do things for herself instead of for the approval of others. It’s a “chick-flick” as they used to be called but it’s powerful like Bridget Jones is.
YOUR PLOTTING & BASIC STORYTELLING ARCS AREN’T WORKING
You want to be different and decide NOT to follow traditional story structure, or you simply don’t know or understand it, and therefore your story is flatlining. This isn’t because you aren’t a good writer or anything but you for some reason forgot about it, or didn’t think about it. Maybe you were focusing on wouldn’t it be cool or funny if scenes and not thinking about the big picture.
That’s okay, for first drafts.
You need to follow story structure. You don’t have to have your inciting incident on page 19 in your script or on the second chapter of your book but it does need to be at the beginning because it is the reason for this story. Your story starts with your character’s life being altered in some way. This needs to happen.
Then you need to continue with traditional plotting and arcs, which I will cover in another blog but basically your story NEEDS these elements.
Opening-WHO the story is about and WHAT they want or need
Inciting Incident-WHAT happens to set the story into motion
New World-WHEN the story actually starts moving because of the inciting incident
Middle-a CLEAR middle with a recommitment or mirror moment scene where your character decides to take some action
Climax-everything comes to a head
All Is Lost Moment-when the character wants to give up or feels like they have lost whatever it is
Resolve-your character finds a way to come to a solution to her problem or how to live with her new life.
These things must be there.
Every scene in your story must move the story forward in these directions. There is no reason to have scenes there just because they are fun to write but don’t serve the story. Look at the strongest movies, books, or TV shows and they all do this!
When you are super famous you can break the rules, but when you are new, or not a household name, don’t do it. Even when you are famous it can backfire. Story structure works for a reason.
Ever have that friend who starts telling you a story and they just go on and on and there seems to be no point or they add in details that have nothing to do with what they are telling you? Don’t let that be your book or movie or TV show.
Okay, my Dears! That is this week’s Story Concierge blog and I hope that you found it helpful.
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Forget About Being a Great Writer and Focus on Story First
Have you ever picked up a book that has been on the bestseller list for months and months and the author is all over the publishing news because all the movie deals coming in and how rich they are—and then the writing is bad, like really bad, and you think—WTF???Yup–been there, done that. Have you ever gone to the movies and so many things are wrong and yet the film is bringing in millions and millions and you cringe at the story mistakes? Yup–been there, done that.
This has been my philosophy for as long as I can remember.
There is nothing wrong with being great with words or wordsmithing. I admit, it’s not my thing, but if you allow it to get in the way of the story, that is where you will have problems.
The reason is that people come to you for the story not the words.
STORY IS ALWAYS FIRST.
The words should come LAST.
The sequence of writing a novel should go something like this.
NEW FULL DRAFT– I do this from memory with a blank page.
REVISIONS on story, character, at the chapter level.
Then workshop it.
Then critique group.
Then if you are really sure this is the best version of your story you get to line edit. (usually about the 8th or 9th revision)
Sounds like a lot of work right?
Yup, it is.
Writing novels is hard.
Think of it this way, if you were to make a wedding cake, you finish with the tiny details you start with the eggs, flour, sugar, etc.
It’s the same with your story.
Now, for the screen and TV writers out there, this is the same for you.
if you waste your time writing clever dialogue, scenes, and jokes but the story isn’t working, your movie or your episode will most likely suck.
Why? Because story always needs to be first. Great sentences and super clever jokes won’t and can’t carry a story.
I STRONGLY recommend the below two books by Lisa Cron-they are game-changers.
WIRED FOR STORY & STORY GENIUS
They will help you get to the root of your story and the exercises she has are invaluable
EXERCISE Make a list of your top ten favorite books or movies (or both) and then write down what you love about it. I bet ya, it’s the story. It may be all the clever jokes or the witty dialogue but at the end of it, it’s probably the story. Example–THE 40-YEAR-OLD VIRGIN–very funny, lots of hilarity–but why do we love this movie? The STORY is solid. The character has a want and a need that isn’t happening for him until he is forced to change. Another example is the GILMORE GIRLS--talk about your witty dialogue but is that why you tuned in? Nope, it was the story of a mother and a daughter in a small town. The witty dialogue was just the flower on the icing on the cake. One more. TWILIGHT. Is the writing brilliant? Is she a wordsmith? No, but the story of two teens in love and one of them having a dark secret that is dangerous is one we know and instantly want to know more. Also, 50 SHADES OF GREY.
Now, are you ready to make your STORY stand out?
I know that you are. It’s hard because it’s been drilled into our heads that we have to be these perfect writers to be successful but honestly, that’s part of it but more importantly is the STORY.
Don’t forget that.
Then pretty words.
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