11 Laws of Great Storytelling

The Adelaide (that’s in Australia, kids) Screenwriter Blog is layin’ down the law, amigos. It behooves us to obey or face the consequences:

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Writers are special people in some ways, and just like the rest of humanity in others. We like tips, and tricks, and formulas that promise us insight. Sometimes these things help, sometimes they distract, and sometimes they mislead us, but just offer us another batch and we’ll be there, sniffing hungrily.

Jeffrey Hirschberg is an Assistant Professor and Director of the Television and Film Arts Program at Buffalo State College. A member of the Writers Guild of America and judge for the WGA awards, Jeffrey has been a professional screenwriter for eighteen years and has written and/or created shows for Showtime Networks, Lifetime Television, and ABC. He has worked at NBC, Viacom, and Warner Bros. Then he wrote a book called Reflections of the Shadow: Creating Memorable Heroes and Villains for Film and TV. The following list of insights are taken from that book.

Throughout my eighteen years of screenwriting I have read and analyzed thousands of scripts from writers of all levels. During this time, I discovered eleven Laws of Great Storytelling – trends that tend to exist in many of the most memorable stories of all time. Of course, creating unforgettable heroes and villains is an integral part of all the Laws and should always be in the forefront of your mind as a writer.

So while it is impossible to have a foolproof objective formula for a great story, I have learned that if certain principles are followed, the probability of your story achieving a modicum of greatness increases dramatically. With this disclaimer firmly in place, here goes: 

  1. Assume everyone has A.D.D.

There has never been a greater truism in Hollywood. While I am guilty of playing dime store psychologist, one does not need a PhD in Clinical Psychology to conclude that audiences (that means us) tend to have short attention spans.

Now, we can argue there are certain external factors contributing to a population of diminishing attention spans (MTV, video games, text messaging, IM, and the Internet to name a few possible culprits), but it is safe to say that the attentiveness (or lack thereof) of the audience is directly related to its ability to make a successful emotional connection – and that connection must be made quickly, or you will lose your audience even more quickly.

Readers, like moviegoers, need to be entertained very quickly.

  1. Spend most of your time on the first ten pages of your script.

In Gladiator, we are immediately engaged as we are introduced to our hero – General Maximus – and the respect he commands from the Roman army. Add an action-packed, bloody opening battle to the mix, and we are sold.
In Pulp Fiction, the first ten pages of the script feature a restaurant robbery and the prophetic musings of two unforgettable hit men. The dialogue is fresh, imaginative, and unrelenting in its pace and originality. If you are a reader perusing the screenplay, you undoubtedly want to continue turning the page.

When you are finished with your script, give the first ten pages to a group of friends or family you trust. Then ask each of them one simple question: “Do you want to read more?” If the overwhelming response is in the affirmative, you are on the right road to writing a memorable screenplay.

  1. Write roles to attract movie stars

Create a memorable hero or villain and chances are you just might attract a movie star to your script. Why? Because characters like the heroes and villains featured in my book are unique, intelligent, and intriguing people with magnetism to spare. Who wouldn’t want to play Hans Gruber, Norma Rae Webster, Hannibal Lecter, Ellen Ripley, or Gordon Gekko?…

Read it all at Adelaide Screenwriter