If You Can’t Answer These 6 Questions You Don’t Have A Story
If you struggle, like I do sometimes, with whether or not you’re writing a good story, these 6 questions from Glenn Gers will help.
I’m subscribed to the youtube channel Film Courage because they interview a lot of screenwriters (and other genre of writers) to get their take on the process of writing.
I find most of what they discuss Highly informative.
So, to that point, I’m including their interview with Glenn Gers who discusses the 6 questions you need to ask to determine if you have a real story or not.
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Below are the questions the interviewer asked and then Glenn’s answer in quotes. When I throw my 2 cents the text is in Red.
Film Courage Asks: How do you define story and how do you teach it to clients and students?
Glenn Gers replies:
“I think the basic idea of a story is going to be that you are following a character or characters. It is entirely possible to tell a story of multiple characters.
You don’t only have to tell one person’s story. It’s nice, you can do it, but it’s also possible to tell a story with 11 main characters. It takes a lot of work.
You have to follow each main character and follow their story all the way through the narrative.
But in fact, I believe any story is really about how a character trying to accomplish something runs into other people who either help or harm their intention.
It’s sort of like Isaac Newton’s theory of the billiard balls that once they get set in motion they will roll in that same direction because they are being pushed by a physical force.
I think a character is also doing that.
They are trying to get somewhere and they are rolling in a certain direction until either they hit something or something comes along and knocks into them and then that changes their direction.
But they are still trying to get to that one place. The physics kind of falls apart there because billiard balls aren’t trying to get anywhere.
But the idea that things are moving until they run into something else which is also moving is sort of how characters work.
Every character thinks they are the main character. If you have your hero walk into a hotel and try and get a hotel room, that hotel clerk, they think they are the center of the movie because they are the center of their story.
And this person coming up to them is either getting in their way or they are trying to charm them or whatever it is that they are doing, they are trying to do something. And that interchange is the basic building blocks of story.
That’s what you call dramatic action. Someone trying to accomplish something which mostly involves interacting with other people.
Sometimes the action can be I have to take this suitcase and put it on a train, whatever. But it will still be I have a thing I am trying to accomplish and that’s what story is. I have a thing I am trying to accomplish.
I am a character and I need to get this thing and it will be a more interesting story if there is something in the way.
If I am a character and I am trying to put a suitcase on a train and I go and I put it on the train and nothing happens, it’s a very short, boring story.
If they are carrying a suitcase and another person comes and they steal the suitcase, it’s more of an interesting story. And it’s a more interesting story if that person has got something important in the suitcase.
If it’s just a suitcase they can say, oh, somebody stole it, oh well, I’ll go get another one. Not that strong a story.
Every story is about a character trying to accomplish something and having an obstacle. And what they do, what action they take in the face of the obstacles, is your story.
The obstacles don’t have to be external. The obstacle can be I am really afraid of the train station.
I need to get this suitcase to my uncle and he is going to be at the other end of the train so I have got to get this suitcase onto the train but I am terrified of loud noises.
That’s a story.
The only obstacle is in there, but it’s real. So every character is facing obstacles.
The obstacles don’t have to be physical. They don’t have to be another character. They just have to be something that is getting in the way of them trying to accomplish something that is important to them.”
Film Courage asks: Can you explain how a basic 6 questions or more informs the choices a writer makes in their writing process?
Glenn Gers replies:
“Writing is a process of questions. More than 6 questions, but important questions.
There are a couple of things that I wish I could get tattooed on the inside of people’s eyelids so they knew….
Think in scenes and writing is a process of questions.
It’s not a thing you have to fill out. It’s not a form that you have to fit into.
Writing is a question, is always a process of having something. It could be just I want to write a western or I want to talk about how love hurts or I want to talk about how love saved my life.
Whatever it is that you start with then you start to ask questions. How am I going to tell this story? Am I going to tell it through a character who gets it or a story that doesn’t get it?
Everything is going to be a choice. Every question that you ask is going to be a choice.
Every question that you ask if you write down that question, how am I going to tell this story? Who is the main character?
Everything is a question and those questions are who is it about? What do they want? Why can’t they get it?
What do they do about that? And how does it end? I think I skipped one. Oh, why doesn’t that work? Right. Who is it about? What do they want? Why can’t they get it? What do they do about that? Why doesn’t that work?
How does it end?
I did a whole video on this called the six essential questions. The 6 questions.
So I explained it better there.
But those six questions basically will help you write anything. They’ll help you write a movie or help you write a video game.
They’ll help you write a series because that’s the essential thing that you get of how am I going to turn whatever feeling or idea I have into a story is a person who is trying to do something, to get something and there’s something in the way and then eventually something will end it.
Either the end will be I don’t get it or I do get it. And whatever they do that they had never tried before is how it ends.
Because if they had tried it before it would end before. So who’s it about? What do they want? What do they do? Why doesn’t that work? What do they finally do?
What is the end? That’s storytelling. And it can work for three acts or 27 acts or one act. It always works. It’s my go-to set of questions. And then just keep asking questions.
Who is it about? It’s about a plumber. Where is he from? Just ask who? What? Why? Where? And just keep asking why. Why is he afraid of heights? Why does he love this particular person?
Every time you ask a question and you get a specific answer you’re moving closer to writing a scene.”
REMEMBER THE 6 QUESTIONS
Film Courage asks: What’s the easiest way for someone to figure out an enjoyable writing process for themselves?
Glenn Gers answer:
“The first important thing about your process is recognizing that it’s yours.
That there is not a right or wrong way. Some people write at night, some people write in the day, some people write in short bursts, some people write in long extended bursts. There is no particular better or worse process.
The important thing about a process is it’s something that you can do relatively easily for whatever reason it works for you. And that means you have to spend time paying attention to yourself, trying different things and seeing which ones work and which ones don’t work and being really honest about that.
I personally…I keep doing that, sorry…I personally turn out to write very well in short bursts. I thought I should do more because when I’m writing in a short burst it’s like holy crap if I could keep doing this for eight hours I’d be a miracle.
But I can’t. And I would sit there and I would grind. After the burst was running down I would grind and not only would that be unproductive and begin to be disheartening but I would start to undo my good work.
Because when you start to grind in a bad way you start to doubt, you start to feel bad and you say well I must be feeling bad because this work is bad.
Which is not necessarily the case. It could be that your process is bad. So, what I would do is I would write something really good and then I would grind until I was unhappy and then I would say oh that sucks and then I would write something over it and destroy my own good work.
It took me a long time to pay attention to the fact that I do really well in short bursts.
And if I stop when I feel myself starting to lose it and take a break, take a walk, do exercises, whatever, I can then come back and do another short burst.
Getting myself to sit down again is rough but that’s the thing I had to teach myself by paying attention to what worked.
I’ve gotten much more productive since I learned my process.
It’s not for everyone.
(Although asking the 6 questions to determine if you have a real story or not IS!)
Everyone will have a process that’s dependent on their own inner mechanisms and on their own reality. Some people only have free time on weekends.
Some people only get a little bit of free time in the evenings and so they have to find a way to work at the time that they are allowed by their life.
You have to pay attention to reality and pay attention to your own inner working and the best way to find out is to do it and see how it goes.
It’s always better to try and do some work and see how it goes.
You’ll never get to the place where you absolutely know that you can write and then you start writing. It’s always a question of let me try this and see what comes out. That’s the best test of a process.”
Film Courage asks: And working these temp jobs for many other reasons aside from income and the study of people helped you realize that was your preferred style?
Glenn Gers answered:
“It forced me because I’m stubborn and I would just keep doing the wrong thing over and over again until circumstances forced me to work in short bursts and then I was like wow, that actually is better.
Trying to be open to your process, trying to pay attention to what actually makes the work good, what feels good.
Feeling good is overrated.
Like the fact that you have to learn to write when you don’t feel good.
For me, having a process that I can say I always have five basic documents that I open like an outline, a place where I write notes, the text itself and a sort of overview.
I’m going to be doing a video on this actually soon but that’s my personal setup.
Everyone has their own.
But what you need to be able to do is to get a process that works for you. Some people will do it on their phone. Some people will do it, not for me my own organization, but that they’re already in the process. One of the at risk cases. not an aha moment, it was an aha couple of years.
I think that’s actually sort of a misleading thing that our culture has developed from movies, that there’s a decisive moment and after it you are always changed. In stories that is a very important thing.
You need decisive moments when people are changed, but in truth it’s more like a series. (And keep asking the right 6 questions)
I have a couple seasons where I get a little bit of it, then I fall back into my old ways, and then I have some reward or I think of something new. It’s a process in which you try to do two steps forward, one step back instead of the other way around because you’re trying to head forward. You do a little forward, you fall back, you go a little forward.
And the main way it always is, the doing of it. Just throw something on the paper even if it’s just, and I have done this, I’ve written a scene where I say this is the scene where he comes home and is miserable.
And I just took it out of the outline and I wrote it into the script because the next time I look at it I now am familiar with this process. I say okay, I created a scene.
The scene is a description, this is where he comes home and is miserable. Now I have to think okay, how do we see that he’s miserable? Ask a question. We see he’s miserable because he takes his dinner out of the refrigerator and throws it on the wall.
Each thing that you get when you ask a question, to me it’s always a process of questions and a process of writing down the answer. Now I have a scene where a guy comes in, opens his fridge, throws his dinner against the wall.
Okay, we know he’s miserable. Now I can add a couple of lines, move on to the next scene. Everything that you can do to put a little something down to create a bit of something for your creativity to hang on to, that’s for me the essence of the writing process.
So if this were a movie then it would show Glenn as a temp and you know, all right Charlie have a good weekend and then you had like a half hour and then the music plays and you realize wow, this is it and here I am writing it.
I actually think what we would do in that case is we would show that we would cut to the imaginary scene, we would play it out and so we would get to catch the thrill of the creation by seeing the created magic of this character in the scene.
Oh so… Yeah, I’m sorry I’m writing now.
No, I love it, I love it. So Glenn is the writer… I’m sitting there writing and we cut to or dissolve to.
By the way, that’s a little thing. Most of the time, A, don’t ‘write cut to’. William Goldman started it. It’s a delightful thing in his scripts.
Obviously they’re going to cut to. How else are they going to get there? You’re wasting page space. Don’t say ‘cut to’. And most of the time, don’t say ‘dissolve to’ or ‘fade out’ or anything else because that’s their decision.
Unless it’s really important that you dissolve, just write the next scene and they’ll figure out how to get there.”
To watch the full video of Film Courage interview with Glenn Gers who answers the 6 questions you need to determine if you have a story, see below…
As one last reminder the 6 Questions to ask to see if you have a story are:
For other inspiring writers tips go here…
To learn more about Renee’s coaching for creatives go here…