Barri Evins dishes up Seven Writing Tools key to cooking up a delicious story: dehydrator, blender, food processor, knife, popcorn popper, and taste tester.
A producer who’s sold to all the majors, Barri Evins created Big Ideas to give aspiring screenwriters what it takes to break into the business by sharing methods she uses with professional writers. Sign up for Barri’s newsletter and follow her on Twitter @BigBigIdeas.
Last year I had the opportunity to work with a consulting client on a cookbook proposal for publishers. This was a fun change of pace for me, because although the content was different, but the goals were essentially the same I have with my logline, pitch and query clients. It’s all about marketing your material and showcasing what makes it special. Now I’m on the home cook’s mailing list, and she sends out sleek weekly newsletters with gorgeous photos and recipes.
One of her recent newsletters included an article entitled, “6 Kitchen Tools That I Can't Live Without.” This caught my eye. I’m not much into cooking these days, but I do enjoy it when I have the time. According to talented home cook Nealy Fischer:
The kitchen should be an enjoyable place where you can let your creative juices flow. That’s why I’ve put together this list of kitchen tools that help me prepare sophisticated dishes with ease. They can transform your time in the kitchen too. Some of these tools and gadgets are more extravagant than others, but they’re all equally as useful. Happy cooking!
It made me think: Could I create a version of that article for writers?
Certainly, I want the same things for you. For your creative juices to flow; for you to have tools to help you assemble complex projects with ease, and to make the most of your time spent writing.
Here are Seven Writing Tools You Can’t Live Without:
Writing Tools #1: The Dehydrator
Nealy recommends a dehydrator for making healthy homemade snacks. In case you don’t know what one does, it dries out fruit, vegetables, meat – even flowers – if you’d rather be crafting than cooking.
Take juicy, tart grapes and shrink them down to chewy, sweet little raisins.
As with a kitchen dehydrator, my Writing Tools version would enable you to take your material and condense it down so that only the richest, essential parts remain.
Extract the extraneous detail, such as description of characters’ backstories, thoughts, and feelings that cannot be conveyed visually on the screen.
Show us who they are through their behavior. Show us how they feel through their reactions. Show us what they are thinking through subtext.
Dehydrators are great Writing Tools! Rich writing is lean, yet powerful.
Writing Tools #2: The Blender
We have a tool here that I’m sure everyone is familiar with, the good old blender. Whether it’s the traditional one your mom used to make milkshakes, or the fancy, high-powered Vitamix for heavy-duty juicing applications.
The goal is to get your ingredients to come together and create something that adds up to more than the sum of its parts. Of course you want that for your screenplay.
The trick is to carefully choose your ingredients before you put them together, rather than trying to un-blend them after you’ve combined them into a story. A painfully messy task.
If you’re blending two genres, explore how they will enhance each other before you toss them into the mix.
When developing your main character, select supporting characters that reflect the hero's inner conflict and offer different points of view on the theme.
If you’re looking at theme, remember, as in the immortal words of Highlander, “There can only be one.”
The key to blending together the elements of a delicious story is not the old adage, “Write What You Love.” Instead, discover how to “Love What You Write.” Choose the ingredients you love from the start before powering up the Writing Tools blender.
Remember: If it doesn’t taste good to you, the audience probably won’t like it either.
Writing Tools #3: The Food Processor
Ah, the food processor! It chops up large ingredients into more usable pieces for cooking in record time. No more time consuming chopping by hand.
What Writing Tools could this possibly represent other than the outline?
A screenplay is a large endeavor. Chopping it up into manageable pieces – acts, sequences, scenes and even beats, in an outline – prevents the sensation that you’ve bitten off more than you can chew. It also enables you to see the structure of your story and adjust it before your dish is fully baked.
Again, I’ve worked a plea to outline into my column. Given my decades of experience working with writers; from A-listers to first timers, student to clients, I’m not likely to stop chanting this mantra. I’ve even developed my own Big Ideas Outline Template to show you how powerful it can be to focus on the major ingredients with every step you take.
Whether you choose to follow Syd, Blake, or Aristotle, these geniuses have left a recipe for you to follow in building a story. Be well versed in their work first. Then you can experiment with creating a meal that suits your personal taste and style of working. Whether you choose one of their formats, or use file-cards, post-its or whiteboards, find a way to outline that works for you. To successfully serve up a tasty and satisfying story, you need a plan.
You can’t wing it when you’re cooking Thanksgiving dinner for two-dozen friends and family members.
Writing Tools #4: The Chef’s Knife
Knowing when and what to cut is one of the most invaluable Writing Tools. But you have to be ready, willing, and able.
A fabulous chef’s knife is sharp for precision cutting. Tightening a script is a precise task. There are also specialty knives designed for different foods – from bread to poultry – the tool is made to fit the task. Think of tightening the same way.
When tightening, focus on focus. That means treating us to only the essential details that convey your characters, settings, and plot.
When introducing a character, cut exact ages unless it is specific to the story. The exception is when introducing a child as the difference between age five and age fifteen is a thousand. We need to know this, while it is seldom significant if a character is 35 versus 36. Focus on a few rich adjectives that convey who they are and you can more effectively make your character memorable than offering a head-to-toe portrait.
In description, trim away any obscure details you gleaned from research if your audience might not get the reference. Bring each significant setting to life with a few choice adjectives the first time we see it – the slug alone is not enough to convey flavor. When writing an action sequence, maintain focus on the central conflict to ensure that the progression is readily followable no matter how fast and furious the pace. The reader should be able to see what’s happening as clearly as you can.
In dialogue, keep the exchanges lean, as that is almost always more potent. Don’t repeat information. Aim for a sense of authenticity. You don't hear that many soul revealing monologues in real life.
When looking to cut pages, how to decide what stays and what goes? Judge by the keyhole through which all story decisions must pass – theme. Does this beat, scene, or character support the central premise of your story? If so, move forward, “Pass go and collect $200.” If not, bye-bye.
While it’s great to have a sharp knife and the skills to use it, don’t use these Writing Tools to cut to the bone. Often writers wind up underwriting, trimming their words to the bare minimum in the hopes of a creating a “fast read.” In reality, the fast read, or “page turner” is the script that constantly makes us eager to find out what happens next. Keep us hungry to learn more.
Writing Tools #5: The WhirleyPop
This one threw me at first, but I quickly discovered that it was a hot air popcorn popper. Easy analogy, as what goes better with movies than popcorn?
But you need to build the popcorn into your story!
My chef friend offers up recipes for different types of popcorn, from sweet to spicy to savory. As a writer, you should be certain that you’re serving up a generous helping of what your audience is craving. That craving comes directly from the expectations that you have created in your choice of genre.
Don’t promise us a comedy and fail to deliver laughs.
Serving up a caper? Make certain the recipe includes staggeringly clever escapades.
Cooking up an action comedy means including both – in the right proportions – so that the two genres balance each other out. Use the comedic touches strategically – like adding just enough seasoning to enhance the taste, but not overwhelm the dish. Place the humor like a garnish – in the exact right spot, juxtaposed with action to strategically break the tension, switch up the pace, and give us what we crave in this genre.
Remember, there is no substitute for spicing it up from the very beginning of your cooking process so the end result is tasty through and through. We want the flavor! This Writing Tool helps you deliver what audiences crave about the genre.
Writing Tools #6: Storage Containers and Ziploc Bags
Storage containers and Ziploc bags are great for preparing food in advance, storing or freezing it so that it’s on hand when you want it, and for easily stockpiling leftovers. Honestly, I’m as crazy about how invaluable containers and Ziploc bags are in real life as they are in writing. I love storing stuff in a tidy and organized way so I can access it when I need it.
What should you have waiting in your Writing Tools pantry or freezer, ready to grab and go?
Stock up on ideas.
I know. I’m constantly preaching about the power of the Idea File, but over the course of my career, it has been a rich and rewarding source of inspiration that is always on hand. As this column should prove, ideas come to me from all places. As soon as I get one I jot it down and store it in my Idea File, so that when I need a good idea, I never have to fear that the cupboard is bare.
Use these Writing Tools to keep your Idea File full, and you’ll never go hungry as a writer.
Writing Tools #7: The Taste Tester
I suppose a Taste Tester could be valuable to a cook, but this tool is one of my own suggestions. A second set of eyes is incredibly useful to a writer.
Great chefs are renown for their sophisticated palates. But taste the same dish again, and us cooks might find our taste buds are dulled.
It’s hard to have true perspective on your work. You created it – you should be head over heels with your story. But that’s exactly why you need an outside perspective.
Communication is challenging, especially when you know your story inside out.
In a mystery, for instance, an outside perspective can help you discover if you’ve been heavy-handed with your red herring, or if you’re so aware of the clues that you’ve buried, obscured or trimmed them down to the point that, in the end, the final reveal doesn’t make sense to us. You need the perfect balance for a first time reader to get the most enjoyment out of your story.
While we all try to be vigilant about typos, our brains literally trick us into fixing them. A second set of eyes can help your work look more polished.
I never turn this column into my editor, the equally brilliant and lovely Jeanne Veillette Bowerman, until it has passed though the harsh scrutiny of my dear friend, nicknamed “The Aussie Elf.” He’s a grammar Nazi, a punctuation guru, and gives me an international perspective for my readers who might not get every American cultural reference. Plus, as a screenwriter, he’s quick to let me know if my column is hitting the mark on being entertaining, informative, and offering up something fresh. I can’t tell you how much smarter he makes me look. In fact, by learning from his edits, I’ve almost mastered the use of the semi-colon! Almost…
In case you’re curious, “Aussie Elf” comes from his being Australian, and in a time zone that is 18 hours ahead of me. So while I sleep, the elves weave their magic. I wake up in the morning to a better article because of a second set of eyes and a brutally honest outside opinion.
Don’t overlook the tremendous benefit of getting professional feedback. Reads from other writers are a good start to getting your draft ready for contests or pro readers. Feedback from other writers can be useful, but it can also be less than truly helpful. It may be unfocussed, might involve too much of your fellow writer’s thoughts on how they would tell your story, or can fall short on conveying what works and what doesn’t – an essential part of constructive feedback.
Look for a productive two-way street, where you give and receive well-conceived notes from a trusted source. When I work on script consultations, I approach them like a producer. That means not merely notes, but dynamic, constructive dialogue focused on helping the writer create the best possible version of their story through in-depth conversation about their goals for the story, as well as the project, and how to achieve them. It’s interactive, focused and practical. I caution writers to "expect honesty."
It’s invaluable to receive feedback from consultants with industry experience who are skilled in giving constructive notes. It’s a specific skill that not even all industry pros possess. The Taste Tester is one of the Writing Tools well worth the price.
Build Your Stockpile of Writing Tools
Naturally, I wouldn’t want you to starting cooking up a story without having the fundamental Writing Tools on hand for getting the job done.
For screen and TV writers, that means a good, industry-accepted script formatting program so your work looks professional when you plate it up. You’ll also need to find your own way of outlining so that you’re not cooking without a recipe. And a good back up system is a must – you don’t want your creative endeavors to disappear before your very eyes.
When it comes to mastering how to write a screenplay, the foundation must include your trip to culinary school. do all you can to get educated and never stop learning!
Study and understanding the medium, whether it is working to master the craft and kitchen basics, or tasting the dishes of the master chefs. Hopefully, you’ll do both before heading into the kitchen to prepare a full meal for a hungry audience.
Happy writing! Here’s to cooking up a delicious story!
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