When working with consulting clients, mentees and even pro writers, I will go to any lengths to convey a point about story. Sometimes analogies make it easier for us to grasp abstract concepts. I’ve amassed an array of analogies comparing ideas to objects to clarify story notes – from wagon wheels to Christmas trees. I wrote a column using “designing your dream house” as a metaphor for outlining your story. More than a few of my comparisons revolve around food. I’ve compared theme to the peanut butter in a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup and discussed the logline as “one perfect bite” that tantalizes us and makes us hungry to read your story. I’ve offered up pointers to make your logline tasty!
Perhaps I’m writing while hungry?
In a recent consultation, I was digging deep to help explain a story overburdened by its many, disparate elements that were not working together. And the analogy I came up with was… pizza. This might seem like a stretch, but I ran with it.
“It’s as if there are too many ingredients on your pizza,” I explained. “Perhaps you’re trying to razzle-dazzle the reader, but the many added toppings distract us and detract from the focus of your premise. We can barely pick up a slice of this overly decorated pizza.”
As writers do the work of rewriting, the story becomes ever more familiar to them. Sometimes they begin to doubt its inherent interest. The premise they set out to tell seems bland. The tendency is to feel the urge to add more to keep the reader, and the audience, entertained, but the result is that the original, delicious story is lost. This is the lesson of "Keep It Simple Storytelling."
A movie is a simple story complexly told.
The good news is that this made sense to my client. Finding an effective way to get my point across about the need for a major rewrite – honest, but not soul crushing – is my goal.
Keep the faith. Stay confident. Trust that a compelling concept, with a few elements that are distinctive to your story, work in harmony to support the primary idea, and underscore the important elements, will make your flavors resonate with readers and audiences.
And that leads us to an entire column on pizza. The more I thought about it, I realized there was enough for a two-parter. After all, isn’t eating the leftovers one of the best things about having pizza?
When it comes to pizza, you might think of toppings first, but the most important decision you will make is actually… the crust. It will affect your entire pizza experience.
Are you thin crust, cauliflower, gluten-free, or deep dish? Here’s where I confess my current addiction to a frozen brand that’s offering croissant crust. Who knew there was such a thing? My pizza craving lead me to stumble upon what is now an obsession. Light, flakey, fluffy layers that support the delicious toppings and do not make me want to discard those bland, heavy edges so I have room to eat more pizza. Now that is a perfect crust.
Whatever your crust preference, your choice will shape everything that follows. Because there is crust in every bite. And it will be responsible for holding up everything you add from there: the sauce, the cheese, the toppings.
In story, crust is the foundation – the very first story decisions you make:
What is my story about?
Who is the hero? What is essential about them? What do they want? What do they need?
What is their goal? What stands in their way of achieving that goal?
What flaw must they need to overcome to succeed?
How do they change?
What is the message of the story?
How does it end?
The answers to these questions help you construct the foundation of your story. Start here to support a solid story.
Constructing the Crust
Creating a strong foundation before you begin outlining makes it possible for you to build the structure of a screenplay, teleplay, or novel on top – without it all falling down during construction, or collapsing just when you think you’re done.
While Story Gurus advocate outlining – I believe that what comes before the outline may be even more important. The time and effort put into laying a foundation is crucial, and it will pay off throughout your writing process.
Outlining tends to focus on plot. But story is more than pure plot.
Before figuring out “What happens next?” you need to know why it happens.
I recommend my students and mentees use The Big Ideas Structure Template. It was designed with two primary goals:
First, to convince you that what all the Structure Gurus, from Aristotle, to Syd Field, to Blake Snyder, are fundamentally saying the same thing. Dramatic structure shapes the story to get and keep the audience’s interest from start to finish. Choose whatever terminology works for you.
The second is to force writers to begin with what I call “The Header,” that creates a foundation for the outline. It prods you to think about the important elements that make up your story: the fundamentals of title, the genre, logline, hero, character arc, and theme. It is designed to help you figure out these interconnected Essential Elements of Story.
This is the pizza crust of story. Key ingredients are assembled and combined to create dough. Then it is kneaded, allowed to rest and rise, and kneaded again, before being shaped into that perfect crust.
That recipe is an excellent model for developing a new idea.
- Gather the ingredients.
- Bring them together in just the right way.
- Massage the idea to refine it.
- Step back and rest.
- Come back and work on it some more.
- And then form it into your foundation.
When the foundation is clear to you, and each of the parts are working together effectively, you will be in a much stronger position to move forward successfully with your outline.
The added feature to my Header is that no matter how many pages your outline expands to, The Header always pops up at the top. Like keeping the cookbook in front of you, it’s there to remind you of the essential ingredients and keep you focused on the recipe you created for your story. As you contemplate adding another story element, check and see if it fits with the foundation – the first essential choices that you made. Your original goals for your story. It becomes The Decider. Does this addition work with the key elements?
Without a good crust, we have no pizza. Without a solid foundation, there cannot be a strong story.
How to Toss A Pizza
In the very early days of my effort to break into the film industry, I worked briefly at a company that was developing projects with writers and also repping some actors. That’s not my field, but in retrospect, it may have built my resume writing skills that I’ve passed on to interns getting started.
One actress asked if under the Special Skills section, which for actors offers significant latitude, she should include that she knew how to toss a pizza crust, having worked at a pizzeria.
My answer? “Go for it.” For two reasons.
First, the one in a million chance that a production might need to cast someone to throw dough up in the air, twirl it around, catch it with their fists, and land a perfect pizza crust. They might prefer an actor who can twirl, than a pizza pro who can’t take direction. But mostly, I thought it would be heck of a conversation starter, and that never hurts when someone is trying to get to know you.
Either way, it takes mad skills to toss, spin, and land the perfectly shaped and still moist and delicious pizza dough. It requires training and it takes practice.
Don’t try this at home unless you’re prepared to mop the ceiling and the floor.
It takes an equal amount of “mad skills” to shape and lay the foundation of a successful story. Skills that screenwriters should study and practice, because no one actually becomes an overnight success story.
I was interviewed for The IntelleXual a podcast hosted by the amazing Whitney Wegman-Wood and David S. Dawson. Their focus is life stories because: “There are no overnight success stories.” Mine went back to 3rd grade! (Only because I didn’t mention that I was almost born in a movie theatre.) The skills you build and practice over the course of your lifetime add up. They shape your views. They make you the unique artist that you are. Listen to the whole story about all the stories that lead to me breaking into the industry and becoming a teacher here.
Practice, Practice, Practice
I’m going to leave you with one of my “Writers’ Workouts” designed to help you practice the skills and build the muscle memory to create a foundation for your story that will support the toppings to come. You can find a Header example and an exercise here.