You hear it all the time. “Trust the process.” “Story is hard.” And the ultimate cop-out, “No one in Hollywood knows what they’re doing.” Each one of these excuses relies upon the belief that somehow story is this magical mysterious thing that can only be acquired through months of sweat and heartache.
The heart of a story—the actual meat hiding underneath the pomp and circumstance of 1080p HD and 7.2 channels of surround sound—has edges. It has form. And it can be readily acquired and understood provided the Authors have access to the right tools.
In the end, it comes down to a matter of focus.
Letting Writers Write
Typically, a discussion of trusting the process leads to an even more esoteric discussion surrounding “flow” and the creative process. Writers receive words of encouragement enabling them to journey forth without purpose and without design. Anything goes.
As a writer and working professional artist for several years I can tell you that I love this mindset. Why wouldn’t I? That I should somehow become a vessel for the mighty Universe to create through…what singular ego would turn down such a magnificent opportunity?
Id run rampant. Toss in several more egos, perhaps a whole writing “team”, and this highly touted process descends into a tangled morass of competing ideas with no real meaningful connection. Sure, occasionally this approach results in a gem. But for the most part constant guessing, missed opportunities and endless rabbit holes become the cornerstones of “letting yourself go.”
There has to be a better way.
The Problem With Collaboration
Suggesting a plot point or character moment because you once had the same experience in 4th grade rarely improves a work of fiction. Collaborating with others who also insist on injecting their rose-colored elementary school life into a work in progress only compounds the error. How?
Quite simply, the singular vision triumphs over the trust-the-process crowd because there is one mind writing one story. The trust-the-process collaborators group thinks consist of several different minds each trying to boost their egos by putting their particular idea into the story.
But what if the idea has no place in the story? Could one even tell if the idea was trash before mixing its way into the process?
A story is an analogy to a single human mind trying to solve a problem. Unless the team agrees ahead of time to adopt the same mindset, the end result will always be a mish-mash of incompatible psychologies. In short, the story will be schizophrenic.
Or even shorter—the story will suck.
This is why the films based on a singular vision (one writer/director) often turn out to be the most solid. One human mind writing one story mind. The trust-the-process collaboration group-think model consists of several different minds vying to satisfy their own egos. They compete to gain traction with their own ideas, regardless if those ideas even have a place within the story.
But how could one tell if an idea had a place within a story before the story was complete? Isn’t that why you have to “trust” that everything will work out?
Focusing on Meaning
Complete stories model the mind’s problem-solving process in regards to one problem. While hundreds upon thousands of problems exist, a truly holistic story only stops to consider one.
This singular problem cannot be described in words nor can it be expressed with a simple sentence. If that were possible, it would negate the need for story. Instead, aspects of character, plot, theme and genre work together in concert to approximate the problem (really the inequity) at the heart of a story. These story points surround the inequity and define it in order to provide a unique perspective.
If part of the story focuses on understanding, then the other areas of the story need to focus on what has happened in the past, on what is remembered, and on figuring out a way to better apply any new understandings. Likewise if the story focuses on what will be, other parts need to focus on achieving, on what is desired, and on the changes needed to reach that desired future.
All of these concerns work together. And while they offer different points-of-view, they all cover the same thematic ground. To mix and match would prove disastrous.
I’ve Got an Idea!
Toy Story 2 focuses on developing an appreciation for toys. Everyone in the story finds themselves concerned with this issue. Their focus lies in developing that understanding. The rest of the film matches that initial concern, thus insuring a complete and fulfilling story. Woody’s concerns himself with issues of what once was. Jesse shares a similar concern, yet focuses more on the memories of what was lost. And together the two try to figure out where they best fit in.
Four major throughlines, four major areas of concern, all focused in the same thematic area.
Now what if instead, Jesse concerned herself with her love for horseback riding, or her unrequited love for the Old West? Ludicrous idea, right? Yet this is exactly the sort of incompatible thematic material brainstormed in story meetings time and time again.
The writer who might have suggested it can probably relate to such an instance, perhaps they’ve always loved Westerns and cowboy culture and can’t wait to infuse their personal take on the genre into this film. But would the audience appreciate this new perspective? For that matter, would the story mind itself be able to appreciate it?
No. And that is why it is paramount that these areas of concern be solidified early on in the development process.
Starting with the End in Mind
More often than not, a project falters because of this misplaced trust in the Universe. Meaningless character moments and stilted sequences wedge themselves into a piece that simply has no place for them.
Trusting the process places trust in the human mind to keep perspectives consistent. Anyone who knows anything about human psychology will tell you that our minds are context-shifting machines. Changing perspective allows us to survive, granting us the ability to judge the landscape of our lives and the people and places we interact with and help us better assess a more reliable and profitable approach.
Leaving the context of a story up to a human mind is foolhardy at best. Leaving it up to the responsibility of several human minds, each with their own unique ego requiring massaging and fulfillment? A catastrophe set to doom the crews following up to many hours of wasted overtime.
Of course a writer needs to be allowed their moments of creative exploration. Those chance moments of divine inspiration? That’s why many set out to write in the first place.
But if the end result remains producing something truly meaningful and ultimately powerful to an Audience, nailing down the singular mind of a story becomes job one. Once found, then and only then can a writer (or writers) feel free to “let themselves go”, trusting that process that so many enjoy.
Doing Away with Magical Thinking
Story is not magic. It’s not hard. It is not some rare talisman that can only be grasped during dream walks late at night. If story concerns itself with solving problems, then it only follows that a better understanding of how the human mind solves problems will lead to a better and more meaningful storytelling.
Breaking the area of concern breaks the mind of a story. Broken minds reveal themselves in fits of insanity. If you want an answer as to why many films as of late simply don’t have great stories, this is why. Deluding oneself into believing that benevolent artistic forces guide writers down the path of success only robs Audiences of something truly moving. It robs writers of the opportunity to say exactly what it is they want to say with their work.
Madness. Both in the process and the result. A mental health disorder for writer and work.
Advanced Story Theory for this Article
How can a writer keep the context of their story consistent, if their own mind has been proven to be unreliable at such a task?
The Dramatica theory of story presents a model of the human mind that can easily help writers maintain context. This imposing map, consisting of four “towers” chock full of concerns, issues and probelms answers that very real struggle to tell a meaningful story.
The way it works is this: for every throughline in a story there is a Concern. If a throughline focuses its energy in one area, ALL the other Throughlines must follow suit. If one throughline finds itself in the Upper Right quad, then ALL the other throughlines find themselves situated in the Upper Right box. Lower Left box? The other three fall into place in that Lower Left box. A deviation from this results in stories that are confused and a waste of what little money anyone has anymore.
If the Overall Story Concern is Understanding (as it was in the above example of Toy Story 2), then the other three Throughlines will focus their area of Concern of The Past, Memories, and Conceptualizing. And this is precisely what that great Pixar film does. Woody concerns himself with his place in Andy’s life and how much better it used to be. Jesse’s concern with her memories of better days with her little girl impact Woody and give him reason to move on. And together the two work together to figure out a place they can call home.
This is why the thematic concerns of that film work together so seamlessly. They all fall into place within the model of the human mind. Understanding the Dramatica theory of story and the model of the human mind it presents offers the writer a chance to say something meaningful with their work.