The Storytelling Forumla

Oh the formulas, why are you so plentiful?

While there are many, to be fair, not all are created equal. Some are little more than substrates to help hold a plot together just long enough to screw up the story in some other way. But at least those can be somewhat flexible. On the other end of the spectrum there are methods that are all-encompassing, so full of rules they beg a level of devotion usually reserved for a doomsday cult.

Still others are more about the state of being human, philosophy, mythology, psychology, what have you – an earnest attempt to guide you toward getting in touch with theme and compelling characters.  (And if you’re lucky, they might even help you understand why you did what you did, rather than just how)

There’s no question that there’s a lot to learn from these books. And it’s where all of us start. (well, at least the ones who admit it) But here’s the thing…

How-to books and formulae can only take you so far!

No matter how ingenious and insightful these tomes may be, they are only a beginning. Thinking you can learn to write by reading is like thinking you can play the guitar by listening to Hendrix. It’s like getting a book about how to break a brick with your forehead. By the time you turn to the last page of…


… you understand everything from the anatomy of your noggin, to the molecular structure of cinderblocks, and that mass * acceleration = force.

I mean, you’re a god damn expert on how to break a things with your melon! And yet, somehow you wake up in the E.R. with a puffy purple rectangular across your forehead and feeling like you went out drinking with that one buddy of yours that always manages to talk you into that horrible-idea-2:00am-fist-sized-shot of lukewarm discount gin after lots of beer that has you begging to anyone’s god who will listen for a clean death. Yeah, you know the buddy I mean.

I’m telling you, read all the how-to writing books you can get your hands on, and then read a few hundred amateur screenplays and you’ll see what I mean.

And not that there’s anything wrong with reading these books. Not at all! Pry every single pearl of wisdom from their pages you can. That warm gin has killed off enough of your gray matter that you need all the help you can get. Hell, look at my shelf of dusty writing books leering at me mockingly as I write this…


But once you’ve written for some time, and start to get a feel for it, don’t be too dogmatic about following the writing-by-numbers systems that you’ve cut your teeth on. Try it by instinct. Take your guts out for a spin. See how much of the good (and bad) you’ve internalized. You might be pleasantly surprised.*

* Results may vary.


Note: in case anyone’s interested, here’s a small selection of writing books I’ve read in the past that had a positive influence on my craft:

3 Wacky Ways to Generate Story Ideas

There isn’t a writer alive who hasn’t had someone corner them at an awkward party and ask them where they get their ideas. While many of us resist (often futilely) the temptation to supply a snide retort about how we mail-order them from somewhere upstate, we really should be flattered, not scanning the room for the nearest window to leap from. I mean, every so often, the person is asking because our material has captured their imagination enough for them to want to know how we did it. And that’s pretty cool!

But wait…  where exactly do ideas come from?


From everywhere! That’s where. Yes. Everywhere.

But before we get into all that, let’s tackle something you’ll often hear from writers – that ideas are worthless. Don’t misunderstand what they’re saying. They don’t mean that all ideas have no merit, just that undeveloped ideas are not very valuable by themselves.

So, heads up to all you non-writers out there – before you approach your writer-friend with your HUGE BESTEST IDEA EVER about the boy/girl from a sleepy town in (enter wherever you grew up here) who finds out they’re really a vampire/secret agent/wizard/submarine captain/Greek god (you know the idea I mean…), and it’s worth $$$ MILLIONS $$$!!, and the ever-so-small task you need this writer-friend of yours to perform is…well… TO WRITE IT… just remember this:

In fact, repeat after me…

All good writers have more ideas than they will ever, ever be able to write before they die.

Everyone, writers and non-writers alike, has ideas. A few even have decent ones. Lack of ideas isn’t the problem for writers, it’s the lack of time to write them.


Now that we’ve got that out of the way… while I still contend that ideas truly can come from anywhere, let’s narrow the field a bit and look at a handful of unorthodox places I’ve personally found inspiration that’s ultimately resulted in material I’ve written.



Screen Shot 2013-09-12 at 5.25.31 PM

Here’s an exercise I try to do every once in a while – I listen to a song I’m currently obsessed with and let my imagination run wild! I’m talking wild like running naked through the woods, yodeling, and mashing foraged berries on my chest WILD!

Ok, substantially less wild than that, but still…

As I listen to the song, I picture a story like a movie playing in my head. I instill the lyrics with subtextual meaning and allow the mood created by the melodies to paint the landscape of another world. It’s possible for an entire story, front to back, fully populated, to emerge from a single song, but you can also try it with an album or playlist and see what happens.

And don’t be confined to the artistic intentions of the musicians either. (actually, it’s best if you steer clear of their intent altogether)




(*NOTE – admittedly, being inspired by dreams isn’t too unorthodox, but the way I suggest utilizing them might be)

Everyone’s had the experience of thinking they’ve had a revelation in a dream, but the moment the cobwebs of sleep are flushed out with a little caffeine, we inevitably realize: damn, that’s one stupid ass idea!

The problems with trying to turn dreams directly into stories could fill a standalone essay, but suffice it to say that the visions that visit us during the night aren’t concerned with plot or continuity. When we try to lift events out whole cloth, we find they only made sense during our dazed dream-state.

So then, what am I proposing? Well, I’ve used ideas from dreams in two ways. The first is simply lifting a single event or location that occurred in a dream and then free-writing to expand on it, letting go of the rest of the jumbled mess the subconscious had layered in. One of my favorite projects started this way – a raging blizzard, blood on a snow-covered cliff, and a burning city on a distant horizon…

The other way I’ve used a dream to jumpstart a story is by capturing the absurdist tone of the setting and/or characters. The events themselves aren’t as important as the wacky people and places your mind has conjured from… wherever it is that comes from. While I admit this technique tends to produce silly or crazy Terry Gilliam-like results, the direction you take it from there is up to you. A dream with truly odd characters is how I first started the only full-on comedy script I’ve ever developed and written.




This is that moment when you’re reading a book or watching a movie and you go WHAT?! That’s not where I would have gone with this! When a non-writer experiences this during a story they’d otherwise been enjoying, it’s a pretty big bummer, but for a writer this is an opportunity. The place you thought the story should have gone could be a clue to a new idea of your very own.

None of these techniques are a license to copy or steal, but simply to be inspired by the genius of others, and anyone who says they create in a vacuum is a fool, a liar, or both. Inspiration is a gift. Plagiarism is theft.

You own where your imagination has taken you, not what brought you there.


Why Copyright Doesn’t Suck

I first learned the basics of copyright while in film school. I’m not a lawyer, and my knowledge of the subject is by no means comprehensive, but I do understand the reasoning behind the laws that govern intellectual property.

Recently, I stumbled onto a crowd-funding campaign where an artist was attempting to fund a series of illustrations of famous (copyrighted) fictional characters, all owned by a giant corporation. When this company warned the artist he was in breach of copyright, many of the campaign’s supporters were furious and thought the law was just the stupidest thing ever and that the company should just piss off.

Although I too think the suckiness factor of vertically integrated companies is often high, I must admit, I was scratching my head at the anarchistic tone of some of the comments about this company’s right to defend the intellectual property it owns.

(*NOTE  — I decided to avoid going into more detail about the campaign in question because finger-pointing isn’t really what I’m going for. Also, baiting angry fans is like putting on the One Ring – it draws the Eye of Sauron and his army of orcs trolls…)

So it got me thinking… what if these fans got what they wanted?

Yeah, what if we made it perfectly legal for:

  • Illustrators to draw and sell characters copyrighted by others?
  • Writers to create stories in copyrighted worlds?

Well, first off, let me acknowledge that the intellectual property laws are far from perfect. There are undoubtedly aspects that could be refined to better fit the realities of the 21st Century, such as the controversial Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), or the fact that companies can actually patent living things!

All that said, from the perspective of someone who writes fictional material, copyright protection may be the single largest asset society bestows upon creative individuals who want to make a living with their work.

Do big corporations benefit from copyright protection just as much as individuals?


Is that a bad thing?


It’s not that I think corporations should be granted the same scope of rights as individuals. Don’t even get me started on the recent 2010 Supreme Court ruling that said corporations are allowed to contribute money to political campaigns in federal elections as though they were people!

But I do believe that giving individuals and companies the same access to copyright protection is the only way creators of entertainment and art might have a small (very small) chance of supporting themselves through their endeavors.


Well, for one, any rational individual who is talented/lucky enough to see their creations start making money should strongly consider limiting their liability exposure. And that means – wait for it – setting up an LLC or Corporation.


Because it protects individuals from losing their personal assets – their car, home, savings… everything – if their venture ultimately goes tits-up, for whatever reason.

But that is far from the most compelling reason to honor copyright protection to individuals and companies alike.


Think of it this way – if we went the ”Dude, just make everything free for anyone to use however they want!” model, that not only means that Batman and Star Wars fans would be officially allowed to make and sell their own stuff set in those worlds, it would mean that the owners of the Batman and Star Wars franchises would be able to do the same with your material as well!

For example:

Let’s take the web cartoonist, Howard Tayler, and his long-running webcomic Schlock Mercenary. I’m a fan of the comic, respect Mr. Tayler as a storyteller, and am amazed at the amount of effort he’s put into turning his creation into a successful business. And I’m sure it wasn’t an easy road. I’m guessing his success was the result of:  tons of hard work refining his craft, a patient spouse, lots of talent, good timing and luck.

So, rainbows and kittens for Schlock.


But wait…

What if copyright didn’t exist?

What if any fan could make a t-shirt/book/toy/whatever featuring their favorite fictional characters and sell them?


“Harry Potter 8: Harry Potter and the Secret of the Mid-Life Crisis”?



Or perhaps a Spiderman-My Little Pony crossover?

Best idea ever.


I mean, what’s the harm, right?

Well, in this alternate world, Mr. Tayler would potentially be competing against every t-shirt manufacturer, every video and board game publisher, every animation studio, and every other comic producer to sell stuff themed and branded with Schlock Mercenary. Every single aspect of his material – material for which he alone took all upfront risk creating and nurturing – could be exploited by someone who took zero risk.

I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t seem too fair to me.


The way I see it, you can thank copyright law for the vast majority of the modern entertainment you love, because, honestly, does anyone really believe that in a copyright-free world, that the best-of-the-best would dedicate their work-lives to creating unprotectable, free material?

How many of your favorite stories would never have been told in the first place?

And here’s the real kicker…

It wouldn’t be the likes of me or some other schmo successfully exploiting the work of others. Oh, no. We’d all be hopelessly outmatched by the powers that would mobilize to process and package every piece of profit potential from anything and everything in sight, as us small creators watched, helpless, as the dizzying economies of scale were unleashed, unchecked and unstoppable.

So who would run the show?

Marvel (i.e. Disney)… or D.C. (i.e. Warner Bros)… or [enter name of large entertainment conglomerate here].


So, here’s my message to any fans of… well… anything… who get bent out of shape when soulless companies prevent others from making money off their intellectual property…

Ensuring these companies have the right to defend their copyrights is the price that must be paid for the protection of our own material. These rights serve to nurture the delicate ecosystem that spawns fresh material from the minds of hopeful new storytellers like you and me every single day.

Copyright-haters who yearn for an anything-goes world wouldn’t be the liberators of their favorite stories and heroes, but oppressors – maiming or dooming every single independently created piece of art and entertainment. All material would ultimately come from the factories of industry or ultra-wealthy hobbyists, more than happy to work for free.

And it’s not like we need help to be pushed in that direction anyhow. We’re already like 80-90% there already. Just saying…

Previous Blog Entries

Just a quick note about the entries that appear prior to this one. These posts were originally published on an old blog that I abandoned (left that thing as derelict as a wayward mining spaceship in a Ridley Scott flick). I grabbed the few posts I thought had enough merit to save before deleting the whole sad mess, but failed to notate the dates. I believe they’re from early 2012?

Let’s just call them timeless and move on then, shall we?

Merlin: The Unchanging Wizard Mentor

The wizard mentor. Whether labeled a mystic, a wise one, a shaman, or any of a hundred other names, this archetype has appeared in stories from nearly every culture and period, and is a particular favorite of modern fantasy.

Whether it’s Gandalf…




…or Obi-Wan…


…they’re all cut from the same cloth (and obviously subscribe to the same fashion magazines). While a cynical person might call them unimaginative copies of one another — barely altered versions of Merlin — I would argue that’s beside the point.

Because these characters aren’t supposed to be reinvented from the ground up. That’s not their function in story or myth. Rather than an opportunity to conceive of something new, they’re one of the constant, familiar elements that allow us to accept all the fantastical aspects of a story that are innovative.

Whether it’s epic battles between forces of good and evil…

lord of the rings

…schools of magic hidden in distant  mountains…


…or spaceships you really, really, really wanted to fly in as a kid (okay, even more so now)…

millenium falcon

…the setting, the plot, the rules of the world…  even the hero of the story may change dramatically, but the wizard mentor remains steadfast.

So, beyond the stable ground they provide a story, what is the function of a wizard mentor?

One classic role they fulfill is as father figure to an (often orphaned) hero. But their main goal is to steer, nudge, bribe, inspire, trick, convince, shame… basically do anything they must to guide the hero into taking the path that is their destiny, and ultimately, face the evil they will inevitably have to confront in the end.

Another aspect that I’ve always found fascinating about these characters — and one that seems nearly universal as well — is that the wizard mentor keeps secrets from the hero. Not that they don’t like and trust (or even love) their young champions, but wizards do what they must for the big picture, for the greater good. They endure the guilt for the peril they puts their apprentices in, and keep their secrets out of a desire to shelter their hero from the burden of the dark truth about their plight… their destiny… and often their slim (or nonexistent) chances for survival.

How about a few more wizard mentors you might be familiar that show they don’t always have to have long gray beards (couldn’t hurt though). Let’ see, how about the bald one from X-Men…

professor x

…or that geeky guy from Buffy…

giles buffy the vampire slayer

…and how about a woman (no small task to find one, let me tell you)…

fin raziel

Slap a beard on her, and you’ve got Gandalf again! And if you know who she is, you’ve watched entirely too many badly written 1980’s fantasy films staring Val Kilmer. (There could be an entire discussion on the lack of women wizard mentors, but that’s fodder for a future post)

And how about one from History.  I would argue that this guy fits the bill pretty closely…

ben franklin

Franklin fits the archetype of a wizard mentor in his relations to many of America’s founding fathers.

Ok, that was fun… but let’s get to grandaddy of them all…



The stock wizard mentor, recast a hundred (if not a thousand) times in countless versions of the Arthurian Legends over the last millennium, retains these core elements.

But in modern versions, he’s sometimes more of a bumbling professorial, rated-G, white magic type…

sword in the stone merlin

…while in others, he operates in a moral grayish area…

john boorman merlin

…and still other times, he’s just a teenager, learning the ropes, worried about pimples and girls (or maybe boys, unclear)…

merlin tv series

…whoa… wait a second.  If you’re familiar with the show, I know what you’re thinking. This Merlin doesn’t fit the bill! Well, although I could argue that this Merlin is still a mentor to Arthur, and is indeed keeping secrets about Arthur’s destiny from him… I’d have to agree. In my opinion, in the BBC Merlin TV Series, Merlin is not the wizard mentor…

He’s the hero.

And the man training him — Gaius — is the wizard mentor…

merlin tv series gaius

That looks better, no?


Film Scripts vs. Comic Scripts

While there’s no 100% accepted industry standard format for scripts of any type, they all share much in common. The main similarities stem from the fact that scripts are not intended to be read by an audience like, say, a novel would be. Instead, they are maps that guide the creation of media rather than the media itself. Whether it’s the performance of a play, the filming of a television show or movie, or the illustrating of a graphic novel or comic book, scripts are at work behind the scenes, part technical document, part (if done well) entertaining read of the story.

Here’s a compare and contrast of a film and comic script:

film script vs comic script

Dialogue and action/description are essentially the same for both, but looking at the other elements, it becomes clear how the differences are dictated by the practical needs of film crews or illustrators during production of their movies or books.

For example, in a film script, the labeling of scenes makes it easier to break down the story into filmable pieces. It might be nice to know exactly which ones take place outside or indoors (EXT. vs. INT.) so a film crew can shoot multiple scenes with one setup, even if they don’t appear sequentially in the story. (Saves big $!)  Likewise, it might be good to know which scenes occur during the DAY or NIGHT for the same reason.

In a comic script there are no such needs. The penciller can draw a panel that takes place outside at night, drink a cup of coffee, and move right on to draw the next panel that takes place inside and during the day. It makes no practical difference. What many comic scripts do to grease the wheels of productivity is spell out exactly what chunks of the story constitute separate panels, and how many panels appear on each page of the finished book. But there are also comic writers who leave all of that up to the illustrator, delegating the control over the pacing and flow of the story. But to a type-A writer like myself… that’s just crazy talk.

This topic could fill a book… and has. Many of them. But suffice it to say, if you’re a screenwriter who wants to learn how to format a story for comics, or vice versa, then you’re bound to already be halfway there!

The Dangers of Amatuer Art Direction

In the final weeks of the concept art stage for the first volume of 13 Legends, when pieces were still being commissioned to help get a handle on the look and feel of the story-world, I turned my attention to a cool new design — an airship. What story is complete without an airship? Thus, I contacted an illustrator who I’d worked with on some of the other technological concepts, Alfredo, from Argentina, and we got to work. From my written descriptions for the function of the ship, Alfredo came up with a trio of options:

airship concept

I ruled out #3 immediately, thinking it was too futuristic. #2 was cool, but I felt it didn’t push the boundaries enough. I really liked #1, but to me, the balloon parts still seemed too modern. So, it was time to put on the “art director hat”. (yes, I know a collective shutter just ran through all freelance artists in the world like a planetary-sized disturbance in The Force) So there I am with this hat — speaking metaphorically, of course, for I don’t really have such a hat, nor do I believe one exists, but if it did… never mind. I came up with the obvious, yet brilliant, answer to the problem:

Combine specific aspects of both #1 and #2 into a new, even better design!

I promptly e-mailed Alfredo my pearls of wisdom, and, as I was the client, he followed my instructions carefully.

The art came back, and I thought, “awesome! Really great! Perfect, in fact!”, followed by, “damn, I’m good!!” (okay, so Alfredo drew it, but I… I told him to draw it! Which makes it at least a 50% victory for me, right?) I proudly showed my better-half the latest design, and awaited the obvious praise that was bound to be bestowed upon me… and she said, “don’t you think it looks like boobs?” My smile faded as I turned back to the screen. My god, she was right! It was boobs! Giant, flying boobs.. but boobs nonetheless.

I suppose the moral of this story is that, until you’ve subconsciously steered a design toward resembling gender-specific anatomy, you haven’t really earned your “art director hat”… even a metaphorical one.




The Future of Book Publishing?

While bookstores are shutting their doors left and right, publishers have been taking increasingly desperate measures to squeeze cash out of what they apparently still believe is their core business — applying ink to tons of wood-pulp, shipping it on trucks around the country to be sold, and then destroying any leftovers. The thing is, most everyone else has noticed that the digital age isn’t coming… it’s arrived.

So, with the business models of many major publishers floundering, what does this mean for the future of books… and more importantly, the stories they deliver?

Personally, I believe that printed books will always be around, but as time passes, they will become cherished objects rather than shot-in-the-dark, mass-produced fodder with Martha Stewart or Fabio on the cover. People will buy physical books that contain the stories that they love, as mementos, souvenirs, or to collect… or perhaps to support certain graphic novel writers that beg them for their support!

As I see it, publishers will need to do two things to survive:

  1. They’ll need to abandon their roles as printers and focus on becoming even more trusted certifiers of quality — giving their stamps of approval on well-written books to help readers filter through the ever-rising oceans of bad ones. (After all, anyone can ‘publish’ a book today, but, let’s face it, most self-published ones are crap)
  2. Publishers will need to increase their focus on the promotion of their authors.

This is not to say that publishers will be able to make the same kind of money they have in the past. They won’t — just look at the music business! While the digital revolution will bring the costs of distribution down to almost nothing, simultaneously, many of the publishers’ justifications for the high price of books, and low payments to their authors, will evaporate. It will be the readers and authors who will benefit from this new landscape, each squeezing the publisher from opposite ends. Readers will enjoy more competitive prices, while authors will gain leverage to retain more rights to their work and larger shares of profits, turning their noses at royalty rates not worth the paper they’re printed on. (sigh)

And for all you people who refuse to read on anything besides gen-u-ine paper (regardless of how good the e-reader technology gets), you guys will still get your way. You’ll eventually be able to print licensed copies of nearly any book while you sip your latte and watch it being constructed before your very eyes. Actually, you can do that now!  Have a look…