The late novelist Harold Robbins, best known as the author of THE CARPETBAGGERS (1961), a roman a clef based on the life of Howard Hughes, with cameo appearances by a barely disguised Jean Harlow and several other recognizable figures from the Golden Age of Hollywood, was a gifted storyteller who made millions from a long string of bestselling novels. Once successful he developed a taste for–or was finally able to afford–the sybaritic lifestyle of his fictional heroes, which led to spending his money almost as fast as it came in. When the bank accounts sank too low, it would become necessary to write another book. The only way he could get anything done was to temporarily abandon his yacht with its pulchritudinous habitues in their highly distracting bikinis and check into a hotel room where nobody could find him except one or two friends sworn to secrecy. There he would pound away virtually around the clock until he finished the next novel, which could be counted on to unleash a new flood of cash.

One day a friend stopped by the hotel for lunch and started reading the most recent pages. "What happens next?" the visitor asked when he reached the stopping point.

"I don’t know," Robbins said. "The damn typewriter broke down, and the guy hasn’t come over to fix it yet."

Whoever recorded this anecdote for posterity probably intended to make us laugh at Harold Robbins, but personally I think it’s actually pretty awesome, especially when you consider that Charles Dickens apparently did exactly the same thing. Having learned to write under ruthless deadline pressure as a young reporter and then laboring under constant financial anxiety as a mature novelist supporting a wife and ten children, Dickens wrote most of his novels in monthly installments for initial publication in magazines, which must have increased the pressure enormously, since he rarely managed to stay more than one or two months ahead at most. Dickens claimed he had only the vaguest notion where each novel was going when he began. Performing under this level of stress, he reported being constantly surprised at what came out of his quill moment by moment. Not only surprised at what his characters said and did, but astonished at how well the stories turned out in terms of quality and narrative drive. For us lesser mortals than Dickens, we probably need another approach.

My overpowering ambition since childhood has been and remains to direct films and preferably write them as well. Having studied the lives of every director I could learn anything about, I knew that the most common road to directing was to become a successful screenwriter first. In subsequent years I have learned that mastering the art of screenwriting is also great preparation for writing novels. For anyone who aspires to write both screenplays and fiction, I would definitely advise concentrating on screenplays first. Why? Mostly because screenwriting is storytelling stripped down to its basics. As the great Simon & Schuster editor-in-chief Michael Korda put it in his autobiography, "Screenwriters usually make good novelists because they know how to keep a story moving and they understand the purpose of a scene."

I was particularly fortunate in that I did my undergraduate studies at the University of Miami in Coral Gables, Florida, where I took the screenwriting course taught by Professor Paul Nagel, Jr., then head of the Mass Communications Department and a man I still consider one of the best screenwriting teachers in America. I say this because he took a completely practical, nuts and bolts approach to creating stories and turning them into shootable scripts. He did this without ideological prejudices of any description, whether as to politics, subject matter, genre, or the "right" or "wrong" way to structure a story. He was also a very encouraging teacher, always looking for something positive to say even when pointing out failings that needed to be criticized and corrected. He forced you to write as well. You didn’t pass the class without turning in pages. Theory is nothing without practice, which is the only effective method of learning to do the work. The best way to get into screenwriting, he insisted, was to watch a lot of great movies, watch a lot of good movies, watch a lot of bad movies, figure out which was which and why, and then write, write, write. He loved the classics of the past, when people were developing the narrative techniques we now take for granted, though lately they seem to be increasingly forgotten in theatrical film production. These days he’d probably tell aspiring students that their greatest learning resource is the Turner Classic Movies channel.

Professor Nagel has now retired after fifty years of teaching, but his class turned me and others into professional screenwriters, most famously for a guy in the acting program named Sylvester Stallone. As a tribute to our excellent teacher, I’d like to share a basic outline of his approach to creating a story from scratch, a technique which can be used effectively not only in screenwriting but also for developing novels, shorter fiction, and stage plays as well. My only caveat when it comes to writing advice, including my own, is that you as a writer have to do whatever works for you. I share the principles acquired in that screenwriting class simply because they have worked for me over a period of many years.

The first day of class was a sort of general session, with a lot of back and forth between teacher and students. Three salient points emerged, beginning with the most important. Films are a form of drama, and Mr. Nagel’s first basic point was that the essence of drama is conflict, which is also the essence of comedy as well. By now the necessity of conflict has become a cliche, but it’s amazing how many writers miss that particular boat. The absence of a true clash of wills or of an individual determined to overcome difficult circumstances of whatever nature in order to achieve a goal is a sure harbinger of a dull story whether on screen or in print.

The second important point, also transposable to any other form of storytelling, is that the audience has to care about the characters and their problems. You can create the greatest spectacle in the world, with all kinds of action scenes, special effects, and car chases, but if nobody gives a damn about the people, then the story’s going to be a yawner. An alternative approach to making people care about characters is through casting–hiring charismatic actors with an extremely high lovability quotient, which is what the most successful tentpole franchises usually manage to pull off. But a screenwriter is still needed to write the deeper allure into the character, no matter how compelling the actor or actress, and this takes work, talent, and experience on the part of the scribe. With short stories and novels, of course, there’s no other choice because every reader does his or her own imaginary casting.

The third point is that every story that can be called a story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. A narrative film or novel should be a kind of journey from where the characters start out at the beginning to the place where they wind up at the end. That "place" can be the end of a literal journey, or it can be the achievement of a goal, a position of success or defeat, the fulfillment of personal experience and growth, or even a state of mind, positive or negative. Again, the necessity for narrative progress of one kind or another seems almost stupidly obvious, but it’s amazing how many works of film and fiction do not involve even the most rudimentary form of journey or change of circumstances.

Before proceeding to the actual process of story creation, the second day of screenwriting class was devoted to teaching the proper format for typing a script. Mimeographed rules and sample script pages were handed out, and these proved invaluable. I kept those pages close at hand for years, not only to share with others but because most studios, production companies, and talent agencies refused (and still refuse) to read any script that was improperly formatted, the sure sign of an amateur. Today, of course, format is not a problem because writers can purchase relatively inexpensive formatting software for use in composing one’s script. Final Draft is the screenwriting software almost everybody in the industry uses. If you’re temporarily illiquid, however, Trelby freeware is supposed to be a pretty good substitute, and it works across all platforms.

Once our young skulls full of mush were sufficiently convinced of the necessity for correct formatting, we could proceed to the business of story creation. For this Mr. Nagel taught a specific process which took a few class sessions to convey, with the rest of the semester devoted to writing and being critiqued. The constructive criticism does not concern us here except to observe that the goal was to help each writer develop his or her own unique style and perspective. This stands in stark contrast to most creative writing courses, which are usually taught by writers lacking that kind of objectivity. The advice of most practicing writers boils down to, "This is how I would do it." This is why I think creative writing courses should be taught by good editors rather than writers. Fortunately, though a writer himself, Mr. Nagel always wore an editor’s hat for his students.

Every good screenplay begins with an idea, so how do you get an idea? Where do they come from? The answer to that second question can become a bit mystical, so rather than invoke the muse or wax theological, let’s just say ideas can come from anywhere, and they can come at any time. Mr. Nagel suggested that a writer should carry a pen and a pocket-sized notebook at all times in order to write down anything you think of that you don’t want to forget. I began the practice immediately and try never to go out of the house without them, having filled dozens of little spiral ring notebooks over the years. Many’s the time I’ve stopped right in the middle of a sidewalk or pulled over to the side of a road in order to write down anything from an original idea, the solution to a difficult scene, or a snatch of dialogue. I found out only this year that Stephen King also carries a little notebook in which he writes down anything that might spark a story, including unusual men’s room graffiti he copies during his semiannual drives between his primary home in Maine and his winter home in Sarasota, Florida.

Whether you already have a bright idea you believe would make a good film. simply need an idea because you want to write a script, or wish to write a screenplay in a particular genre you enjoy, Mr. Nagel taught that the initial step for creating a story is to start writing a series of random notes. This process is very similar to what some of the great nineteenth century authors did in keeping a notebook.

The random notes are very much a stream of consciousness affair. You sit down during your writing time and start writing whatever pops into your head concerning the kind of story you’d like to tell. There really are no rules for this process. Some writers start with characters and situation, some with conflict, and some with a genre that sooner or later suggests the nature of all three. Sometimes I like to begin with a theme, a moral dilemma, or spiritual truth I want to dramatize. Personally, I hold to the very old-fashioned opinion, which I see continually validated at the box office and on bestseller lists, that successful stories are nearly always morality plays on the most basic level. Even in an era of cynical post-modernism, stories of good versus evil remain as compelling as ever.

The purpose of this initial stage of the work is to get a flow of thoughts going. The specificity of the thoughts or the length of time they take to become more specific depends on how much of an idea or germ of a story you possess when you first sit down to record these earliest notes. If you don’t have a clue, you can always start by writing notes to yourself about the kind of films, television shows, plays or novels you enjoy the most. Can you see yourself writing one of these? Write down what you like about this kind of story or what you don’t like. What would you differently, if it were up to you? It’s always best to write the kind of movie you want to see or the kind of novel you most enjoy reading. It’s never a good idea to write a certain type of story because it’s currently popular. Fads pass quickly. Always follow your passion, and there will always be a potential audience out there of viewers or readers who share your enthusiasm. Eventually, as you write notes, they will coalesce into an idea.

The process of random notes continues as you develop your idea. The notes will themselves begin to coalesce into the elements of your story, the characters, the plot, the setting, and all the rest. What kind of person would be involved in this situation? Start writing notes about characters who might fit. After awhile, the characters will begin to suggest themselves, to form into people with personalities who start to take on a life of their own. Make notes about the conflict or conflicts as the characters begin to firm up. Sometimes it works better to make notes about the conflict first, which will in turn suggest the nature of the characters. Perhaps the characters and their conflicts will develop simultaneously. Remember, there are no rules. You simply continue to make notes.

Eventually, sometimes after pages and pages of seemingly random jottings, you begin to get a sense of various incidents that need to take place in order to dramatize the nature of the conflicts and the characters involved. As soon as you start coming up with the actual incidents and character versus character collisions required to tell the story, that’s the point at which you begin the next stage in the process: making a scene list.

Sometimes ideas for scenes appear early in the note writing. Sometimes they begin to pop into your head only after you’ve done a great deal of work on character, conflict, and theme. At whatever point ideas for scenes begin to occur, even it it’s only a single scene, that’s when you start your list. The scene list, however, is not compiled as a list per se, not at first. The recommendation was to buy a pack of index cards. Whenever you think of an idea for a scene, you create a brief title or phrase that sums up or reminds you of what that scene is about and write it on one side of an index card. Later, as you develop the story, use the opposite side of the card to jot down elements you need to include in the scene or little reminders about how to write it. As you continue to write more random notes, you figure out more and more scenes that need to appear in the story, each with a card of its own. Soon the proper order of the scene cards will begin to suggest itself.

What you’re doing at this point is developing structure, the narrative framework of your story. Almost as if by magic, the scenes will begin to resolve themselves into a beginning, a middle, and an end. In other words, the traditional three act structure of most theatrical motion pictures. On a "one hour" television show (currently about 42 minutes on a channel with commercials), the structure is usually an initial "grabber" followed by a four act structure, though acts two and three are the equivalent of the theatrical middle or second act, which in movies is usually the same length as acts one and three combined.

The real genius of the index card system is that it allows you to experiment with the order of the scenes. Mr. Nagel recommended taping the cards to a wall or pinning them to a bulletin board, divided into columns or column groupings for acts one, two, and three. This provides a readily available visual picture of your emerging story. As you develop it in greater detail, you almost always realize that certain scenes will work better at a different point in the narrative, and this system makes it a lot easier to shift them around. Don’t be afraid to mess with the cards, it’s part of the process. The last time I saw Paul Nagel was at a UM showbiz alumni function at a big house in Pacific Palisades, where I told him I was still using the index card system. He joked that he still taught it in the same way as well but now recommended Post-it notes, which are easier to reposition.

These days there are several story development apps available which incorporate a virtual index card system, including the latest version of Final Draft. I have tried a couple of these programs but found I prefer the more tactile approach of real index cards. If you don’t have a free wall or bulletin board, you can gather up the cards in the existing order and put a rubber band around them. Anytime you want to "look" at the story, you can deal the cards out onto a floor, table, sofa, or empty bed, though you had better keep the pets and toddlers away. I like to have this scene "diagram" available as I work, in case I realize I need to make changes. At the end of the workday, you can gather up the cards in the chosen order and put the rubber band around them for next time. If your story has a lot of scenes, you may need a separate rubber band for each act, just don’t be afraid to shift a scene to a different act if it works better.

Eventually you reach a point where you feel the scene list is fairly complete and the order pretty close to being locked down. This is when you’re ready for the next stage, which is writing a treatment. The story treatment is a scene by scene narrative description of the story in prose. The amount of detail included in the treatment depends on the individual writer, largely because the use of a treatment has become so rare that it’s primarily for the use of the writer himself. In the old days, back in the 1930s and 40s, writing treatments was a very common stage of developing a screenplay at most of the big studios. When Cecil B. DeMille, for example, was developing the 1938 version of THE BUCCANEER, one of his best stories, his writers were forced to write forty-nine drafts of the treatment before he felt they had the story right. That’s when they finally got the go-ahead to write the script. That was then, though, and this is now.

One of the big problems with today’s Hollywood is that there are a lot of powerful people who don’t have the requisite imagination to read a screenplay and even begin to visualize what it would be like on the screen. There are powerful executives and producers who have never read a script in their lives. I recall a Simpsons episode in which Marge decided to write a novel and sent the manuscript off to New York. A publishing executive called her back to say, "Mrs. Simpson, you have written the greatest novel my assistant has ever synopsized!" As the clever Simpsons writing staff well knew, this is more truth than poetry.

If you think some of these people don’t know how to read a script, they are completely hopeless and at sea when it comes to reading a treatment. If you’re hired or commissioned to write an episode or adapt a book, I recommend never sharing anything with an executive or producer for go-ahead approval beyond the beats of the story presented verbally, possibly with a one page outline if required. These people spend most of their time talking on the telephone or taking meetings, and too much material printed out on paper tends to confuse them. Unless I’m working on something of my own, I tend to skip the treatment and work from a detailed outline. Ignore this paragraph, however, whenever you experience the very great blessing of working for a producer or executive who is both extremely smart and possessed with good taste. They do exist.

A story treatment can be very useful for the writer himself. It’s a tremendous focusing tool, not just for screenwriters, but for novelists as well. Russell Blake is one of the most prolific thriller writers around, perhaps best known for his novels about the beautiful Mossad operative codenamed JET. Before beginning a new book, Mr. Blake writes a terse but detailed treatment that covers every story beat and incident in every single chapter. This allows him to write the novel with blazing speed. Sometimes working as much as twelve to fifteen hours a day, he has become wealthy by publishing a new novel about every five weeks, with two drafts per book. By the way, never assume that because a writer writes fast, this means that his or her work is inferior, superficial, and stupid, as a certain science fiction author has recently and pompously asserted. Russell Blake writes very well, as have many other fast writers down through the years. Mr. Blake explains how he does it in a blog post he cheerfully calls The Philosophy of Being a Hack.

The final stage of the actual writing involved in turning your story into a workable screenplay (or readable novel) would be a new and entirely different subject, with its own set of challenges, processes, and solutions, which took up all the remaining weeks of our screenwriting course. I hope you can find someone as good as Mr. Nagel to help you along the path. For myself, I’ll always be grateful to a great teacher. Thank you, Paul.

AUTHOR’S NOTE: I haven’t posted for awhile because I’ve been finishing the final draft of my new novel. The only book currently available is my historical novel, THE SECOND THANKSGIVING, A Novel of Plymouth 1623, which can be purchased on Amazon in Kindle or paperback.

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