Story Lessons from South Park

South Parkified Keith
my South Park selfie (with spatula)

Wait, what?

Yes, I’m serious. My post today is about the storytelling lessons we can learn from possibly the most tasteless and offensive TV show of all time: South Park.

Full disclosure: I haven’t actually watched an episode of South Park in quite a long time. But I’ve seen many episodes over the years, and I am embarrassingly fond of the movie Team America (one of the most tasteless and offensive movies I’ve ever seen, as well as one of the funniest), which was also written and directed by the creators of South Park: Matt Stone and Trey Parker. So I feel confident that they continue to be tasteless, offensive and funny – and damn good storytellers.

I recently stumbled onto a very brief video clip of Stone and Parker making a guest appearance at what appears to be a film class at NYU, and I was struck by the simple but powerful lesson they shared.

That’s the curse of funny people: it’s easy to forget that part of the reason they are so funny is because they take the craft so seriously.

I’ll admit, I was a little surprised by how seriously these two took the concept of storytelling when talking to a group of students. But that’s the curse of funny people: it’s easy to forget that part of the reason they are so funny is because they take the craft so seriously.

It’s not hard to imagine Stone and Parker just sitting in a writers’ room making fart jokes all day long, but you don’t keep a show running for 18 seasons as one of the highest-rated series on Comedy Central by accident. No, there’s some brainpower at work here, which became clear as Matt and Trey addressed their audience.

Cause and effect

In discussing how their writers’ room worked, they revealed that although they brainstorm and develop individual funny scenes, the key to turning those scenes into an actual story is in making sure that each scene causes the next scene to occur.

Why is this important? Because if there’s no relationship of cause and effect between scenes, you end up with simply a list of events or plot points, without anything driving the story forward. Parker pointed out how this is a common problem in the work of inexperienced writers, but Stone noted that he sees similar problems even in some current films, leaving him wondering, “What the @#$% am I watching this movie for?”

To avoid this pitfall in their own work, the South Park writers developed a very simple litmus test for determining whether they had achieved the desired causation between scenes, by seeing whether one of two words could be inserted between each scene: [Read more…]

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Gender Bias: Fact or Fiction?

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By Flickr’s Michael Coghlan

Lest you think I’m a “man-hating feminist,” let me assure you I am not. In fact, I like to think that in my day-to-day life mine is a pretty equal world—all things considered. But when I hear things that make me think that women aren’t equal (for whatever reason), I pay attention. And we’ve all seen the tweets about gender inequality in the publishing industry: the rumors (and more) that men are more published than women; that more men’s books are reviewed than women’s books; even that there are better roles for women than men in movies.

It’s something I acknowledge—it’s there—but to be honest, I never really give it much thought on a daily basis. I certainly never let it preoccupy my time. And it would never, ever discourage me from writing. And so I’ve never considered blogging about it… until three things happened, three things that brought it into focus, that made me want to find out more.

Those three things.

  1. My latest WIP. One of my beta readers was an Army veteran who was incredibly helpful in my research about the Vietnam War. When I gave him my manuscript to read, he said, “This is the first book I’ve ever read that was written by a woman.” The first book he’d ever read that was written by a woman. (He’s over 70, and he’s a big reader.) That was troubling enough. But what he said next really gave me pause: “I’m afraid I won’t be able to relate.” Because it was written by a woman.
  1. A casual comment by a friend. We were talking about one of my main characters—a man—and she asked me, “How would you even know how to write from a man’s point of view?” That surprised me. She surprised me. How would I know? Are male writers asked the same thing? Do you think Jeffrey Eugenides’s friends ask him how he knows how to write from an intersex POV? How would he even know how to do that? I never answered my friend, by the way. Not because I was offended. But I just didn’t know how.
  1. Something I read about Gone Girl—the movie. No, this post won’t become about Gone Girl. In fact, I’ll just come out and say it: I wasn’t a huge fan of the book or the movie, but that’s not the point. The point is that the article about Gone Girl (on Forbes.com) made me like it a whole lot more. That Gone Girl has an abundance of strong female characters—characters with real substance—and the story passes the Bechdel Test, which is (surprisingly) unusual in today’s movie industry. (That said, I do find other aspects of the novel/movie problematic for feminism and our world in general.)

A movie passes the Bechdel Test if it “features at least two women who talk to each other about something other than a man. The requirement that the two women must be named is sometimes added.”

What’s the Bechdel Test?

I’ll admit I’d never heard of the Bechdel Test until I read the article. So I looked it up. It’s not without its critics, by the way, but according to Wikipedia, a movie passes the Bechdel Test if it “features at least two women who talk to each other about something other than a man. The requirement that the two women must be named is sometimes added.”

There’s a test. Hmmm. My first thought was to wonder if there was a similar test for male characters (more about that later). My second thought was how ridiculous. [Read more…]

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Because Size Matters: McKee’s Four Tips on Writing a Big Story

Writing the Big StoryYou know how certain types of feedback get under your skin like road rash, so that months or years later the grit is still working its way to the surface? Well, eons ago, as she contemplated a novel I’d set in my province, a critique partner sent me metaphorically skidding on the asphalt in a pair of Daisy Dukes.

The comment she dropped  which I found so distressing? “I think this would appeal to readers outside of Canada.” (Meaning, as I took it, that my beloved story wasn’t sufficiently big or universal to warrant a larger audience.)*

If you’ve had similar concerns about your fiction, today’s post might help. It’s a summary of four techniques advocated by Robert McKee in his seminar on Story which, when employed individually or collectively, promise to give your fiction a sense of expansiveness. While you’ve likely encountered the first three in one venue or another, it’s the fourth which lit up my neurons and where I’ll focus the bulk of this article. (If you’ve missed my former McKee Morsels, you can read them here and here.)

1. Take the Story Conflict Wide

In this circumstance, what is the worst thing that could happen to my character?

Writers are encouraged to use the above question when brainstorming progressive complications for their story. If attempting to go wide, then, while the story might begin at the level of personal or interpersonal  conflict, the “worst” ripples outward to affect the larger world, including societies and institutions, possibly even nations or worlds.

2. Take the Story Conflict Deep

[Read more…]

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Lessons Learned from the Original Star Wars Trilogy to Up Your Writing Game

strike a match“It’s called picking up the game, people. So from now on, every. Single. Story that we do is gonna have to be sensational. We’re gonna me more aggressive. We’re gonna work harder. And we’re gonna do it right now.”

When Rachel McAdams’ character said the above quote in Morning Glory, her crew behind the scenes of Daybreak were in a desperate situation. They had two choices–either pick up their game or the morning show would be canceled.

As a new author in today’s era of publishing, I feel like I’m in the same desperate situation. To make any kind of headway in your career, or even just stay afloat, every story you submit for publication has to be sensational. And whether or not you are published yet, it’s time to pick up your game right now. Light a fire under your own ass.

So, as any professional author would, I put on my R2-D2 panties and watched every episode of the original Star Wars trilogy back to back to back, drowning my writerly insecurities in buckets of popcorn, until somewhere between Tatooine and Endor, the answers hit me.

Lesson #1 from Episode IV — Start in the middle.

The advice to “start as late as possible” in your story is nothing new, and it is sound advice. But that wasn’t good enough for Star Wars. The saga starts in the middle with episode four, not one. Even the title itself–A New Hope–makes it clear we missed something significantly tragic. Did this hinder the audience of 1977 from being fully engaged in the story? Not at all.

When we are dropped into something in progress, the automatic response is to start questioning. If the opening has forward movement despite the unknown, this questioning leads to intrigue. And instead of trudging through a swamp of setup, we are immediately immersed in a fleshed-out world with fleshed-out characters, each opposing side already in pursuit of something vitally important to them.

The result? We want to know what happens next AND we want to know how things came to be this way, so we continue on to find out.

Lesson #2 from Episode V — Destroy everything.

[Read more…]

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How to Start Your Novel: What The Movie TRUE LIES Taught Me

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image credit: 20th Century Fox

GIVEAWAY: I am so very excited to announce the Nov. 2012 release of my newest book: CREATE YOUR WRITER PLATFORM. It’s a book all about how to build your visibility, brand, network and discoverability so you can better market yourself and your books. I’m giving away 2 copies to random commenters based in the U.S. and Canada; comment within one week to win. Good luck! (UPDATE: C.L. and Staci Troilo won.)

My columns usually discuss the business of writing, but today I’d like to try a thought on writing craft — specifically: a guideline on how to start your novel.

One of the most common reasons why agents and editors stop reading sample pages is simply that the story starts too slow. Gone are the days when a book could “get good on page 12.” We also can no longer compare our writing to classic works or even books written 30 years ago that started slow and found marketplace success. Today’s novels — especially debut novels — must grab readers from the first page, the first paragraph, even the first sentence.

Despite the fact that the importance of starting strong appears to be well known by most aspiring writers, people still have a hard time with it. I was freelance editing a client’s first 15 pages last year and was dismayed to see that all 15 pages simply described a mystical woman walking across the desert heading for task at a faraway location. There was no question that the writer had talent — this was good, descriptive writing. But it was also boring as hell. 15 pages of essentially nothing happening. That is kind of an extreme example, sure, but this problem — starting too slow — also exists in smaller, more subtle forms.

This past summer, I sat with two literary agents on a “Literary Idol” panel at a writers’ conference where people read their first page and we would raise our hands when we would “stop reading” the submission, as if we were considering a real page one in the slush pile. I specifically remember two participants and the agents’ similar feedback to both. [Read more…]

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