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The Good and Bad of Storytelling

Since this has been a week of lies and rumors (or has it?), I thought I’d continue the trend.

I don’t know where I first heard this—a screenwriting blog some years ago, I think—but it described the Coen brothers’ writing process. Ethan and Joel have been top screenwriters in Hollywood since the late 80s and the 90s with hits like Raising Arizona, Barton Fink, Fargo and The Big Lebowski. They’ve continued their success ever since with many more movies, including No Country for Old Men, Inside Llewyn Davis, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and the forthcoming The Tragedy of Macbeth (maybe they’re not responsible for all the plotting on this last example, or some of the others too).

In other words, they know how to write.

The story goes that one brother writes a scene, usually ending with the main character in an impossible position, and then hands the writing over to the other brother to see if he can write the protagonist out of that situation, only for him to end the scene in yet another hell, before passing it back again.

Back and forth and back and forth they go—according to the rumor—until they have another smash hit.

Their process then seems to be to consistently find a series of impossible obstacles for their main characters to overcome. The audience go through that same emotional rollercoaster of tension and despair as these cinematic heroes face death once again only to feel that relief and elation as they yet again prevail.

For some reason, many—if not most—of us enjoy these thrills, as long as it’s from the safety of our armchair/couch/flip-down movie theater chair.

But not all of us have a close family member or friend we can—or want to—work with like this. Writing, we are so often told, is a solitary pursuit. So how can the rest of us recreate the same ups and downs that will keep readers turning those pages?

Fortunately, I have the answer.

Unfortunately, you have to read on to find out.

Fortunately, I won’t make it too long.

Unfortunately, it’s already taking longer than it should.

OK, that’s a poor illustration of how this works. And, if you haven’t guessed yet, it’s based on the game Fortunately/Unfortunately. It’s a perfect road trip game or for distracting kids when they’ve been spending too much time on their phones, and it’s often used in classes for people learning English as a new language. It’s fun, and it follows a similar process to the (rumored) method the Coens use.

The first person starts with a situation that begins (but doesn’t have to) with “fortunately,” then the next person has to come up with follow-up that starts with “unfortunately,” tthen he next with a “fortunately,” and so on. Let’s go to the Coen brothers for an example. This is part of the basic plot from Fargo:

(Fortunately,) Jerry Lundegaard has secured a $300,000 loan for his car dealership.

Unfortunately, the loan officer discovers he committed fraud on his loan application.

Fortunately, Jerry’s father-in-law is very rich.

Unfortunately, he won’t lend Jerry the money.

Fortunately, Jerry’s mechanic knows a couple of guys who could kidnap Jerry’s wife and get the ransom money from her father.

Unfortunately, things go horribly wrong.

Unfortunately, this is not the truth about how the Coen brothers actually write. It’s a way more collaborative process that, as they revealed in the book The Making of the Big Lebowski by Tricia Cooke and William Preston Robertson, involves a lot of naps.

Fortunately, it’s still a useful process to go through to create those emotional highs and lows that keep readers engaged in a story. It’s something that’s worth trying in the early stages of your story planning process or when you get a little stuck with what’s going to happen next.

It can be a useful way to brainstorm your story with another person or even several people in a creative writing workshop. Present them with the situation in your story and see where a series of fortunately/unfortunately takes you. It really can be fun.

What’s your writing process? What techniques do you use to vary the emotions throughout your story.

About Jim Dempsey [1]

Jim Dempsey (he/him) is a book editor who specializes in detailed analysis and editing of novel manuscripts through his company, Novel Gazing [2]. He has worked as an editor for more than 20 years. He has a master’s degree in creative writing and is a professional member of the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading [3] and is a trustee of the Arkbound Foundation [4]. Jim is fascinated by the similarities between fiction and psychotherapy, since both investigate the human condition, the things that make us uniquely human. He explores this at The Fiction Therapist [5] website. If you have a specific concern with your novel, send an email to jim [at] thefictiontherapist.com, or visit the website to ask for a free sample edit. You can follow Jim on Instagram @the_fiction_therapist [6].