Steve's All Is Lost Moment, 1974

What It Takes

What It Takes

Love Story Cheat Sheet /Controlling Idea (Theme)

By Shawn Coyne
Published: January 13, 2017

Matthew Macfadyen as Mr. Darcy and Keira Knightley as Elizabeth Bennet in Joe Wright's Adaptation of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice

Matthew Macfadyen as Mr. Darcy and Keira Knightley as Elizabeth Bennet in Joe Wright’s Adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice

This is the fourth in my series about love story. If you’d like to catch up, here is the first one, here is the second one, and here is the third one.

If there is one question I get more than any other it’s this:

“Could you tell me what the controlling ideas/themes, obligatory scenes and conventions are for Genre X?”

Well, I could.

And I did go through the OSs and Cs for Thriller and Crime in The Story Grid book as well as those in the Redemption story (part of the Morality Internal Content Genre) too over at

(And I plan on analyzing each of the twelve content genres, plus some of the reality genres too, with serious coursework specificity in mind before I leave this mortal coil…click here if you have absolutely no idea what I’m talking about.)

But come on…part of being a writer is exploring the story universe you wish to enter all by your lonesome. And there’s no better way than reading a whole bunch of your favorite novels from a particular genre and then compiling a list of what they all have in common.

That’s a lot of work. I know. I’ve done it. You should too.

Getting the answers to the test so you don’t have to study is rather lame, but I get it.

Just like the next guy or gal, I like to know that something is worth learning before I book a long trip into the autodidact’s lonely intellectual desert for an extended stay.

So as I pick up where I left off with the mini-love story genre course I’ve been writing here for What It Takes, I thought I’d just throw down a three part cheat sheet for love story.

So here you go:

What’s the global value at stake in love story?
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Posted in What It Takes

Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

50 Ways to say “I Love You”

By Steven Pressfield | Published: January 18, 2017

A case could be made that many, many books and movies are about one thing and one thing only: getting Person X to say to Person Y, “I love you.”

Paul Newman and Robert Redford saying it in subtext in "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid"

Paul Newman and Robert Redford saying it in subtext in “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid”

The trick is our characters can never use those blatant, overt words. That wouldn’t be cool.

It wouldn’t ring true to life.

And it wouldn’t possess the power and the impact we want.

In fiction, “I love you” has to come in subtext, not text.

Here’s one of the ways William Goldman did it in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

It’s the final scene. The outlaws are shot up and bleeding in a cramped hideout in a town square somewhere in Bolivia. Surrounding them, outside, are hundreds of uniformed, rifle-toting Federales. The instant our two “bandidos yanquis” step out through the door … well, we all know what’s coming.


I got a great idea where we should go next.


Well I don’t wanna hear it.


You’ll change your mind once I tell you.


It was your great ideas that got us here in the first place. I never wanna hear another one of your great ideas.


Australia. I figured secretly you wanted to know so I told you: Australia.


What’s so great about Australia?


They speak English there.


They do?

BUTCH tells Sundance about the banks, the beaches, and the women Down Under.


It’s a long way, though, isn’t it?


Aw, everythings’s always gotta be perfect with you.


I just don’t wanna get there and find out it stinks, that’s all.

In Billy Wilder’s The Apartment, junior exec Baxter (Jack Lemmon) has been in love with elevator operator Fran Kubelik (Shirley Maclaine) for the whole movie. But Shirley is blind to Jack’s infatuation. Instead she’s in a doomed affair with married exec Mr. Sheldrake (Fred McMurray). When Shirley tries to poison herself after Sheldrake dumps her, Jack saves her life by getting her stomach pumped and sitting up all night with her playing cards. Next day he stands up to Sheldrake (who’s his boss), quits his job, etc., all the while believing Shirley still has no romantic interest in him.

Shirley MacLaine and Jack Lemmon in "The Apartment"

Shirley MacLaine and Jack Lemmon in “The Apartment”

In the final scene Shirley sees the light, races to Jack’s apartment just in time to catch him before he packs up and leaves town.


What’d you do with the cards?


In there.

Shirley gets the deck. sits beside Jack on the couch.


What about Mr. Shelkdrake?


We’ll send him a fruitbcake every Christmas. Cut.

He cuts a deuce, she cuts a ten.


I love you, Miss Kubilek


You got a two, I got a ten. I win.


Did you hear what I said, I absolutely adore you.


Shut up and deal.

Joe E. Brown and Jack Lemmon in "Some Like It Hot"

Joe E. Brown and Jack Lemmon in “Some Like It Hot”

Billy Wilder topped this of course with the last line of Some Like It Hot, when Jerry (Jack Lemmon), hiding out from the mob in drag with a girl band, explains to his zillionaire suitor Osgood Fielding III (Joe E. Brown) that he can’t marry him.


You don’t understand, Osgood. I’m a man!


Well, nobody’s perfect.

Subtext beats text every time.

That’s love.
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Posted in Writing Wednesdays | 4 Comments

Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

Fictionalizing Your Real-Life Story

By Steven Pressfield | Published: January 11, 2017


We said a few posts ago that sometimes we, as writers, have to tart real life up.

Mark Hammill as Luke Skywalker on the evaporate farm on Tatooine

Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker on the evaporator farm on Tatooine

Real life is too ordinary.

It’s too interior.

It’s too boring.

We have to heighten the drama, ramp up the stakes. Otherwise readers won’t care.

But how, exactly, do we perform this wizardry?

Do we just dream up wild stuff—sex, violence, zombies—and hurl it into the stew willy-nilly?

How do we know what’s appropriate?

How can we tell when we’ve gone too far?

The answer brings me back to my favorite subject: theme.

The principle is:


We may fictionalize but only on-theme.


I was watching the movie Midnight Special (2016) last night. Have you seen it? It’s good. The film stars Michael Shannon, Joel Edgerton, Kirsten Dunst, and Adam Driver. The plot follows a young boy who possesses mysterious powers as he flees apocalyptic cultists and the NSA, protected by his father. I won’t spoil the climax for you except to say that it is wildly fictionalized … and it works completely.


Because the filmmakers fictionalized on-theme.

Midnight Special is about a father’s love for his son and the passage the father must endure to face ultimate separation. That’s the core. That’s what the story’s really about.

Michael Shannon and Jaeden Lieberher in "Midnight Special"

Michael Shannon and Jaeden Lieberher in “Midnight Special”

An alternative version could have been told very simply: a special young boy gets sick and dies, despite heroic efforts to save him by his father and mother. Perhaps that was the real story from which Midnight Special evolved.

The filmmakers ramped up the tale’s power by making the boy special special special, i.e. possessed of powers that can bring satellites down out of the sky and cause the entire US government to chase him halfway across the country.


We may fictionalize all we want, as long as we stay on-theme.


When Ernest Hemingway gave Jake Barnes, his fictional protagonist in The Sun Also Rises, an emasculating war wound, he was heightening reality indeed. But that heightened reality was 100% on-theme.

The theme of The Sun Also Rises is the soul-devastation that the horrors of WWI wreaked upon Hemingway’s “Lost Generation” contemporaries. Hence the wound.

There’s a storytelling axiom in Hollywood:


If horses can fly, you’ve got a story. If everything can fly, you’ve got a mess.


When we fictionalize on-theme, we heighten the drama legitimately. When we make sh*t up off-theme, we just produce craziness.

The first principle we talked about in this series was


Make the internal external


Or put another way


Make the invisible visible.


We can make ourselves cowboys or princesses or private eyes as long as that external story is on-theme with our real-life internal one.

What was Rocky but Sylvester Stallone’s fictionalized-on-theme rendition of his own struggles as an unknown trying to get noticed in the movie biz?

What was Luke Skywalker’s journey from the evaporator farm on Tatooine to saving the galaxy as a Jedi knight, except George Lucas’ own odyssey from his boyhood in Modesto, California to entertainment immortality? For that matter, what was American Grafitti?

Fictionalize as much as you want, but keep it on-theme.

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Posted in Writing Wednesdays | 7 Comments
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