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.
Ahhh, being in “The Flow”… That sweet spot writers of all mediums love to experience, yearn to get into, or even crave. You might call it “the zone,” “creative juice,” or “the voice of the Muse,” but to me the sensation is best described as The Flow.
You know what you want to say, and it flows effortlessly. Twenty-six letters form words to become sentences that express what you intend.
The sensation is so euphoric, I believe it may be releasing dopamine in the brain – those feel good chemicals that are so powerful, some people turn to drugs to replicate the experience. Perhaps, as the words continue to pour forth, still more dopamine is released, making for a very happy, vicious circle.
But it’s not as simple as applying your ass to the chair (although you must), or clenching your teeth, with hands poised on the keyboard. It is elusive. You can’t will it to happen – although it won’t ever happen unless you try. You’ve got to at least confront the keyboard, eke out a few words to prime the pump, then hope the magic happens.
Somewhat surprisingly, this technique can actually work. It’s well worth trying, but it’s no sure thing. When it comes to getting into the flow, there is no sure thing. But this is a high that those who try to paint thoughts, ideas, and feelings with words will continually seek, because the rewards are so rich for the writer and, potentially, the reader.
But on a good day, the writing flows like..........and on the bad ones like quick drying cement.
Richard E. Grant actor, (Withnail and I) screenwriter, novelist, excerpted from his correspondence with Steve Martin, The Guardian
Many of us have tricks to help get the flow going. A specific routine. A time of day. A special setting. A high-priced coffee drink.
Deciding to quit writing for the day usually sparks a burst of ideas that I must immediately jot down for later. This often kicks off the next day’s work, like leaving myself a trail of breadcrumbs back to the flow. A nice, hot shower and the moments before falling asleep are fertile times for me too. The brain is relaxed rather than being in the vise-like grip of your sheer determination, tensed so hard that blood nearly drips from your ears. My Yoda-like wisdom on the flow is: “Try. Or try not. But try not to try too hard.”
Normally, I have a few cozy, offbeat coffee shops that I turn to in search of the flow however, at the moment, I’m writing this propped up in bed, happily experiencing the flow. I always find that I tend to accomplish a lot on a plane. Being away from distractions, from the fridge, the phone, Facebook, and even the Earth itself, helps get me there.
On a recent flight, I chose to write by hand. And the flow was there. I filled up all the paper I had, and my two pens ran out of ink. Okay, to be fair, I packed in a terrible hurry and forgot to bring a new notepad – and the pens, well, that’s coincidence. I finished on the back of a page with a mechanical pencil that barely had any lead left.
But it was done.
For an entire week, I was not able to go back and look at what I had written in that one, continuous stream. When I went to transcribe it, I found that every time I considered veering from the original text, my initial thoughts were stronger, more elegant, and more impactful. The final version was edited with the help of one of my trusty, critical friends, but it was just tweaks and tightening rather than rewriting. That’s the power of the flow.
This piece was written for a unique and specific purpose. It was a eulogy.
I hope my readers know by now that I believe in being brave, honest, and open in my column, in my work, and in my life. So I am going to share with you that this was a eulogy for my mother. I am not seeking condolences, although I truly appreciate the thought. If you feel moved to reach out, I’ll offer you an opportunity to do something meaningful at the end of the column.
This may be too much self-disclosure, but I felt that if I obscured the truth, I might not fully convey the genuine power of story and the essential elements of strong storytelling that translates even into this uncommon medium. I believe effective teaching is not just telling people about a subject, but also illuminating the topic with examples to illustrate the point. I happen to like examples from real life far better than theoretical situations. So I’m opening up on a very private subject in hopes that you can utilize these examples to find your way into the flow and make your own writing more powerful.
You Can’t Get There From Here
I believe that the most essential ingredient for getting into the flow and creating powerful writing is focus.
When you know who your hero is, your theme, and how the story will play out, finding the flow is not such a big leap. You know where you’re headed.
Yes, you may insert an infomercial for outlining here, as I’ve hammered that point home in countless seminars, talks, and articles already. I’m a true believer. For my students, outlining includes a header that pops up perniciously at the top of each page. There are boxes for title, genre, three prototype films – story, theme, and tone – the logline, the essential characteristics of the hero at the outset – his inner conflict – how he is different in the end, his arc, and the theme. When you can fill in all those blanks and they fit together harmoniously, you have laser focus and are truly ready to tell the story.
Embarking on a storytelling journey without this kind of focus is like trying to traverse a foreign country, where you don’t speak the language and haven’t got a map. It’s going to be a long, hard and convoluted trip. Don't expect to easily slip into the flow and be carried toward your destination.
For those of you whining about “stifled creativity,” having a map doesn’t mean that if you spot an unexpected scenic overlook, you can’t pull over for a picnic. It means that afterwards, you can get back on the road and head confidently toward your journey's end.
For me, I knew my subject well – obviously since the day I was born – and knew what I most wanted to convey to those gathered, despite a wealth of material. That it was time to wash away thoughts of my mother’s prolonged and tragic death, and focus on the good things: the happy times, the funny moments and, most importantly, the stories that illuminated her personality and the immense impact of her life. That was my focus and my theme. I also began with a clear structure in mind for the piece.
The Tone, The Tone, The Tone
Just like the famous quote about the three most important things in real estate, “location, location, location,” I believe that in storytelling you cannot underestimate the significance of tone.
When I am teaching pitching, working with writers on loglines or refining query letters, I constantly hit home the importance of tone. If you fail to establish the tone immediately, your reader will not know how to interpret what follows.
Many writers confuse genre with tone. They are not one in the same. While genre might do the trick, it’s not nearly as specific as tone. In a film, you will have lighting, music, cinematography, and countless visual elements to establish tone. In a logline, query, or pitch, you’ve got a couple of words. Choose wisely.
You know the old saying, “There’s a fine line between comedy and tragedy”? Yeah, well there’s a reason it’s “an old saying.” And there are dozens of types of comedies and dramas.
If you omit the tone, a sophisticated audience (e.g., an industry professional) is likely to start making it up to fill in the gap. That means that they are in the movie in their head, not the movie in your head. All because you didn’t take a few seconds or a handful of words to convey “a rom-com,” “a comedy with romance,” or “a comedy with a fantasy element in the vein of Groundhog Day.”
In my situation, tone would certainly be tricky, but it was crucial. I knew that I wanted my audience to see the joyfulness and humor in my mother’s life. Given that this was a funeral, I knew I had to set the tone and give people permission to laugh and enjoy the stories that followed.
A few minutes in, I included a story – ironically about my father’s funeral – that I felt would give people permission to laugh. But, in the handful of steps from my seat to the podium, an improv popped into my mind that I knew would do the job from the very first, key moment. And I went with it.
“My mom is very close to my heart today,” I said, placing my hand on my chest. “I found one of her earrings, and I put it in my bra.” And they laughed.
Improvised, yes, but one of those moments that is only possible when you’re focused and in the flow of the moment.
And true as well. A few hours later, that earring made me feel itchy in an inappropriate place.
As my eulogy was largely made up of anecdotes about my mother and her life, and about my siblings – four of them, all younger – as well as a couple about me, I now have an excuse to talk about the power of the anecdote – the simple, condensed, and comfortingly familiar little story with a hook, a twist, and punch line. Delicious tales that never grow tired over time. In fact, they grow more appealing when told again and again.
I believe anecdotes are at the very root of all storytelling. Whether they were drawn on a cave wall or told around the fire after a successful hunt, our ancestors recounted the stories of their experiences.
What makes the timeless anecdote so compelling, is that it is a microcosm of the larger stories we tell. Everything we love about a good film, TV series, or novel, is jammed inside this little package – the hero, his flaw, his goal, conflict, escalation, twists, and suspense.
It is storytelling’s amuse-bouche – that one perfect bite.
It is what we want from our stories – a little something familiar combined with a taste of something unique and surprising. That something surprising is what you, and only you, can bring to a story. It might be based on something you have experienced or observed, that enriches a character, a setting, a scene, or a theme, by contributing a sense of authenticity. If you are aiming to become the kind of writer all the industry is seeking – “a writer with a voice” – authenticity is an essential quality.
I imagine you’d feel just a bit cheated if I didn’t share an anecdote from the eulogy, although it is hard to choose just one. But here goes. This one is about my sister, the youngest.
And that brings us to “And Sue Ellen,” as in BarriAlexRobertNeil AND Sue Ellen. Mom was furious when we took over the crawligator she bought for Sue Ellen, a developmental toy designed to help a baby discover crawling on their own. We couldn’t help but interfere, from trying to teach her, to taking rides ourselves. But this did not hold Sue Ellen back one bit. She was determined to do anything that her older siblings did. She insisted on playing Monopoly even through she was still too little to count. It was soon evident that, despite our co-opting the crawligator, she was independent and fearless.
In middle school, when they taught sex education and asked for questions, Sue’s friends were afraid to speak up. She told them, “I’ll ask my mom.” After all, my mother, who headed the dinner table alone, as my father, [a psychologist] was always still at the office, taught us reproduction over supper with pears and peas and spoons. So Sue asked my mother what a blowjob was. “Go ask your father,” my mother replied blithely. Only a slight smile on her face belied the fact that she was relishing the idea of my dad most certainly choking on his own tongue.
Can you see all the essential and appealing story elements packed into this one anecdote? That’s what makes it rich and retell-able.
And In The End
The entire focus of the eulogy was to illuminate my mother and her life through stories. With that clearly in mind, the words simply flowed. I could have listed off her philanthropic accomplishments for pages, with numerous nonprofits (yes, plural) that she headed, as well as her many acts of hands-on philanthropy, but the most powerful and visceral way to convey them was through stories.
One day, when mom picked us up after school, the station wagon “way back” was filled with cases of baby food. We said, “Oh no mommy, we’re not having another baby are we?” She said, “No, that’s for Head Start. They help people who are less fortunate than we are.”
It stuck. I have worked with Head Start families, founding a children’s literacy nonprofit 20 years ago that puts brand new books into the hands of children living below the poverty line. It’s just what you do.
As we grew older, we adopted a family in impoverished Appalachia that had 12 children. Every Christmas, my mom would take us to Sears to pick out presents for them. With all those kids, about a year apart, almost everything we could spot, a basketball, a doll, was bound to thrill and delight one of them. We were so excited to be able to do it! And my mother, who grew up in a Kosher home, always sent a honey-baked ham.
My mother taught her children how to live a meaningful life and how to make the world a better place by living it. She showed us that philanthropy was a part of everyday life.
I hope you can see why I’m asking for no condolences, as for me the consolation is in the life my mother led so spectacularly her infinite impact on the world. If you’d like to honor her memory, you can make a donation to the nonprofit I founded – truly because of how my mother raised me. Over twenty years, Better With Books has given over 150,000 brand new books to Head Start children, and their siblings, as part of a Holiday Food Giveaway.
For $2.50 you can put a brand new book into the hands of a child living below the poverty line. $25 dollars will reach a dozen kids. Visit our website, to bring stories to kids that will ignite their imaginations and open new worlds creating endless possibilities for their future.
Who knows, maybe some of them will want to grow up to be storytellers.
- More articles by Barri Evins
- Balls of Steel: Debate and Tips for Outlining a Script
- Breaking & Entering: Keep It Simple Storytelling
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