What I have learned this year #4 – Story

I’ve banged on enough about Stephen King’s ‘On Writing’ book this year but I have really learned so much from it, this sentence notwithstanding. I am going to commit to reading it again each January because I think it carries hidden gems within its pages.

When I was in Sydney recently, I ducked out to Bondi. It was a beautiful day and the beach was heaving with people – presumably… I didn’t even look at the beach…I just visited Gertrude and Alice Bookshop. I picked up Jurgen Wolff’s Your Creative Writing Masterclass. The book has some great information and activities so I am working my way through it. I learned so much about STORY this year! From The Hero’s Journey through Chekov’s Gun to the Id List, it has been a steep learning curve to begin to understand exactly what it is that makes us fall in love with a story – and helps us write a story for others to fall in love with!

The one bad thing about being more aware of story is that I now watch movies and read books with this at the forefront of my mind. This and how the characters – I find I am very aware of how people are written who in the past have either played supporting roles to (white) men or simply were not part of the story at all.

I am more than happy to admit that I was really ignorant of so much of the necessary craft for writers but I’m working on remedying this.

Wolff urges writers to read as many books as they possibly can, and watch movies, especially the old classics. Robert McKee also has a list of books and movies he recommends and analyses many books and movies on his website. His seminars often focus on one or two movies/books in detail, picking apart what works and what doesn’t, for us to learn from.

Here is the first ‘Advice to Action’ activity in Wolff’s book, page 7.


A Star is Born was remade in 2018 by Bradley Cooper (sigh). He cast himself in the male role and the formidable Lady Gaga as the lead.

What is the story about? The story is about an aging rock star who meets and falls in love with a talented young artist the star helps the young woman launch her career and then through envy and battling his own Demons derails it and his own life
What is at stake for the main character? Elly is the main character – protagonist and Jack is the antagonist. Elly really has no belief that she can make it because of her looks Elly is scared of being seen because she feels insecure about her appearance. He tells her she is beautiful so she begins to see herself as beautiful and this gives her the courage and strength to pursue performing her original work as ‘herself’.
Jack had a very set idea of what kind of music Elly should make (his taste) and resented her when she went outside of his genre. When he feared his control over her was diminishing and she could make it on her own he lashed out hurting her where he knew she was least secure – calling her ugly. What an ass. She has to decide whether she can still be a success if she doesn’t have his love and support.
What does the story reveal about the characters and how? Jack had a terrible childhood and didn’t receive the love he needed. He is very open about this problem and aware that this is why he drinks. Neither he nor Elly appears to have had a female role model or mother in their lives and both reveal twisted ideas about what a woman should look like, do, and be.

How does the opening capture my interest? Elly is introduced as the feisty but financially insecure MC. She’s incredibly talented but is working in hospitality as she feels she can’t make it as a singer. It grabbed me because let’s face it, we’ve all been there! She finishes work and goes to a bar to perform. She is electrifying! This is where she is ‘discovered’ by Jack.

How do the action and central conflict escalate? Jack very quickly takes Elly into his stratosphere and she then becomes reliant on him but very quickly it becomes obvious she can make it without him. As her ‘star’ is on the rise, Jack continues to implode, dragging in and down other players such as his brother who have had enough and leave him to his own devices. Elly is the only one who doesn’t abandon him. He sees his brother, and Elly, thriving while he is in rehab and begins to believe they will be better off without him around.

What are the story’s surprises? Watching it through the lens of a storyteller there are few surprises. There is nothing in the narrative that does not drive the plot forward. As a viewer, I was sad for Elly that he called her ugly. That surprised me and made me sad. The implosion at the Grammy’s was horrible to watch as was the conversation between Jack and Elly’s horrid manager. It takes courage to write a truly nasty character like that. (I know I struggle to write characters that no one will like!) It probably took a scene like his meltdown at the Grammy’s to make the audience dislike Jack sufficiently. I was musing on what it would be like to write a similar story with an established female star and young male ingenue. I really don’t think it would take anywhere near as much to have the audience dislike the character. I think women are far more forgiving of men than we are of other women.

What emotions does it evoke? and How? So many feels here! I think most viewers will recall a time when they felt insecure about their appearance so certainly empathy for Elly. Then I was envious because she had such talent! Who cares about her face when she can sing like that! Oh and the frustration that he wouldn’t get help until he really fucked up. Then anger that he could be such a pig to her! Then sad…so sad… How many people out there are walking around with gaping wounds in their hearts? 🙁

So there is my little break-down of the movie. I’ve done a few more since but I won’t bore you with them!

What else did I learn about writing this year…thanks so much to my sister for telling me that ‘speech marks’ look like ‘this’ and not, as I had thought, like “this”.

Oh and in the hero’s journey, everything has MEANING! I love that! I am going to investigate this further.