Derek Sivers

The Secrets of Story - by Matt Bird

The Secrets of Story - by Matt Bird

ISBN: 1440348235
Date read: 2022-08-02
How strongly I recommend it: 9/10
(See my list of 320+ books, for more.)

Go to the Amazon page for details and reviews.

Amazing insights into what makes great stories work, and bad ones fail. Emphasizes the importance of irony: the meaningful gap between expectation and reality. Specifically about screenwriting for film/tv, but fascinating even if you never plan to write a screenplay. Gives you deeper appreciation of the movies you’ve loved. And along the way, some good insights about life itself.

my notes

Remember what it feels like to be a jaded audience in this oversaturated environment.

A story needs to become interesting right away.
Skip background information.

A focused story is about one unique and interesting thing.

Write for an audience, not just yourself.
If you’re only doing it to please yourself, you will, but your end product will never satisfy anybody else.
You already know how to identify with yourself, so achieving self-satisfaction will be way too easy.
What you don’t know how to do is make strangers identify with you.

They want you to set, upset, and reset their expectations.

Beginners believe their ideas are valuable, and will protect them with secrecy and copyright symbols on the title page.
Professionals know that ideas are a dime a dozen and nobody wants to steal them.
It’s only the unique expression of an idea that’s valuable.
Ideas are ephemeral and the only marketable skill is good writing.

Audiences have their interest piqued by your concept, and that’s what gets their attention.
But as soon as your audience steps into your story, they lose all interest in your concept. Now all they care about is your story’s hero.
Audiences don’t really care about stories; they care about characters.

Introduce every element of your story from your hero’s point of view.
Once you’ve gotten us to care about the hero, we’ll care about anything the hero cares about.
Your audience must identify with your hero.

Friendship is born at the moment when one person says to another, “What! You too? I thought I was the only one!”

The best way to create identification is for a character to be misunderstood.
Everyone feels misunderstood.

Successful stories are structured around one and only one problem.
Cut out everything that doesn’t relate to the hero’s problem.
Most of us will tend to follow the same steps and missteps when solving a large problem.
Therefore, stories will feel more natural if heroes tend to follow those same steps and missteps.

People are delighted to say, “I knew that was going to happen!”
Defying expectations is easy. Creating expectations is hard.

The audience has to want your hero to change.
Your heroes act consistently, and consistently fail to change.

Irony is the source of all meaning.
Irony is any meaningful gap between expectation and reality.
(Someone is trying to preserve a false expectation or prevent an unwanted outcome, then reality upsets their expectations or efforts.)
The greater the gulf between expectation and outcome, the more meaning the story will have.

Almost every element of your writing should be packed with irony:
a fundamentally ironic concept
an ironic backstory
an ironic contrast between their exterior and interior
a great flaw that’s the ironic flip side of a great strength
an unwelcome crisis - a crisis that ironically provides just the opportunity your heroes need
sometimes an ironic title
The conclusion of each scene will be more meaningful if the character’s actions result in an ironic scene outcome in which the events of the scene ironically flip the original intention.

Ironic concept:
Casablanca: The least patriotic American has to save the Allied cause.
Groundhog Day: A man who just wants to get his least favorite day over with has to live it again and again.
Silence of the Lambs: The only way to catch one serial killer is to work with another serial killer.

Once you feel you’ve finally mastered every skill, that one skill you had a natural talent for is now your weakest area, because you’ve been doing it instinctively rather than intentionally.

How to make people identify with this character as the story begins?
Once you start asking that question, all of the not-good-enough ideas begin to fall away.

“Write what you know” means write about the emotions you know.

A great idea is worth its weight in gold. There’s just one problem: An idea doesn’t weigh anything, so it still equals $0.

A good story needs conflict, so start with the title, which is your first opportunity to set two incongruous elements against each other:
Blast of Silence, Dark Days, My Favorite Wife, Safety Last, Unfaithfully Yours.

Your story is not about your hero’s day. Your story is about your hero’s problem.
Begin the moment the problem begins - no sooner and no later.

To get from scene to scene, don't ask, “What does the hero do next?” but rather, “What is the next step in the progression of this problem?”
That next step might happen immediately after this scene, or the next day, or years later.
Your audience will happily make that leap forward with you, because they are invested in this one problem, not the progress of your hero’s daily life.

story start at the moment the problem becomes acute, and then end at the moment the problem is solved

Take two familiar characters and give them a believable but never-seen-before relationship:
My Bodyguard is about a high school outcast who pays a scary bully to protect him from the other kids.
Rushmore is about a high school outcast who strikes up a friendship with one of his private school’s funders who feels equally alienated.
Election is about a high school outcast who infuriates her teacher so much that he tries to sabotage her student government election.

If you just show people doing their thing and having a great time, there’s no story.
If you show them doing it despite opposition, then the audience can appreciate the meaning of what they do.

Challenge = something that’s not just hard for the hero to do (an obstacle) but also hard for the hero to want to do (a conflict).
Obstacles are fine, but conflicts are better.
An obstacle is anything that makes a task difficult to do.
A conflict is anything that makes a hero not want to do it.

There needs to be a deeper reason why your heroes are the only ones who can solve this problem.

At least one “Holy Crap!” scene to create word of mouth.
One moment that will make readers perk up and go, “Whoa! I’ve never seen that before. This story actually went there! I’m out of my comfort zone now!”
The surprise (which astonishes your audience after they’ve shown up) has to be different from the concept (which got them to show up in the first place).
The surprise can’t eliminate the concept.

Audiences don’t want to admire your heroes; they want to identify with them.

Audiences identify with heroes who are misunderstood.

Stories are more compelling if the heroes start out with the wrong philosophy.

Start with your characters on the edge of a crisis.

Moment of humanity to make them care: Something Funny:
An Out-of-Character Moment, where the audience realizes this character won’t just be one-note.
An Oddball Moment, where the character, rather than single-mindedly pursue a goal, indulges in a bit of idiosyncratic behavior that briefly interrupts the momentum of the story in a good way.

The only good reason to reveal a backstory is if it’s an ironic backstory.
Maybe your cop comes from a long line of college professors, or your preacher used to be a gang member.

Characters will engage in one big philosophical change over the course of the story: from selfish to bighearted, from innocent to cynical, from loner to joiner, etc.

Early on, reveal the hero’s strong, simple, primary motivation for tackling this challenge.

Whenever someone gives you a lot of reasons, none of them is the real reason.

Total reversal of values is hard to pull off, but when it’s done right, it’s one of the best.

Making yourself vulnerable is heroic. Exceeding your capabilities is heroic. Taking a risk is heroic.

Heroes need a great flaw.
Flaws add conflict: The hero is his own worst enemy.
Flaws add motivation: The hero has a big reason to change.
Flaws generate sympathy: It’s easy to feel for a flawed hero.
Flaws foster identification: The audience feels flawed and is more likely to identify with flaws than strengths.
Ensure each one is the flip side of a great strength. It’s naturally ironic.

Your heroes’ internal struggles are only going to have dramatic tension if they’re reluctant to overcome the flaw, and we must empathize with that reluctance.

All a hero is: the character who has to solve this problem.
The audience chooses the hero - the character who is trying the hardest to get what he wants.

A hero is the sort of person who actively pursues things.
Nobody wants to watch somebody do nothing.
Heroes aren’t passive

Why most kid heroes are orphans: They need the ability to commit fully to whatever they decide to do without anybody preventing them from rising too high or falling too far. They need to be on the hook for the consequences of their actions.

When we start to solve a large problem, we don’t perceive the size of the problem - and that’s good, because if we did, we would never begin.
Heroes shouldn’t have any idea how long or how much work it will take to solve this problem. They should fully intend to wrap everything up in almost every scene and be overconfident about imminent success until the big crash wrecks those delusions.

Heroes realize this external problem can only be tackled by confronting an internal flaw, which means this will be a much more harrowing process than they could have predicted.

When the story begins, the hero is becoming increasingly irritated about her longstanding social problem (while still in denial about an internal flaw).
The hero starts out with a long-standing social problem, and the inciting incident (even if it’s something horrible) presents itself as an opportunity to solve that problem.

The hero discovers an intimidating opportunity to fix the problem.
The hero hesitates until the stakes are raised.
The hero’s pursuit of the opportunity quickly leads to an unforeseen conflict with another person.
The hero tries the easy way, treating the problem as an external obstacle rather than an internal dilemma.
The easy way leads to a big crash around the midpoint, resulting in the loss of a safe space and/or sheltering relationship.
The hero learn from mistakes in a painful way.
The hero replaces a false goal with a true goal, and a false philosophy with a corrected philosophy.

Everybody hates a lucky man.
The solution shouldn’t land in the hero’s lap.

The hero switches to being proactive instead of reactive.

Add time limit countdowns to almost every scene: “quick before anybody notices we’re gone.” || “I have to go, so I can only talk for a second.”

To generate sympathy is to closely watch someone who is (a) making decisions, (b) doing something difficult, and (c) overcoming setbacks.

Try to have every plot point, positive or negative, be an ironic reversal of what the audience and the character expected.

Journalists: After they transcribe all that dialogue, they have to take the actual conversation and cut it down.
Leave in the essential information, and the moments that have a lot of character.

Yes, you want to reveal your characters’ complex emotions, but the one thing you’re not allowed to do is have them explain those complex emotions.

So how do we reveal our feelings?
When our mouths lie about our feelings, our body language and actions betray us.
Make your characters reveal emotion through behavior.

Audiences love jargon. It makes them feel like the characters (and the writers) know what they’re talking about.
Write all three types of tradecraft: pleasantly incomprehensible stuff, stuff that’s fun to explain, and stuff that makes the audience feel smarter.

Dialogue has more personality than real talk. (I have no pet names for my wife.)
Fictional characters have more personality than us.
Vince Vaughn in Swingers doesn’t say, “You’re awesome, dude!” like he probably would in real life. Instead, he says, “You’re so money, and you don’t even know it!”
Duryea calls his girlfriend “lazy legs”.
“I’ll be home soon, Sharkface,”

Cut out everything before or after your commas.

Never use dependent clauses, conditionals, and parallel construction.

In real life, we know we’re always about to be interrupted, so we lay out our thoughts one at a time, in case we don’t get to finish.
We do this to others, and we know they’ll do it to us, so we speak with the assumption that we’ll be interrupted.

If you say “If A and B, then C,” that sounds weaselly.
If, on the other hand you say, “C! Because A! Because B! C!” then you’ve basically said the same thing but sound more like a leader.

The audience can’t care about the story until they care about the hero.
Once invested in the hero’s problem, then they’re going to want to know everything the hero wants to know.
Once we’re firmly perched on the hero’s shoulder, the audience will want, nay demand, to figure out everything at the same time.

A scene is not about something happening; it’s about a character’s attitude toward something happening.

Every scene should reverse an expectation.

Don’t reveal a backstory unless it’s ironic — irony defined as any meaningful gap between expectation and outcome.
Without that gap, there’s no meaning.
You must first establish one aspect, then ironically reverse it once the audience has had some time to accept the original notion.

Audiences love old stories and fear new ones. If they can’t have the comfort of an adaptation, then they at least crave the reassurance promised by familiar genre conventions. They want to know what expectations to bring to your story.
Genre allows an author to say, “Don’t worry, you may not have seen this before, but you’ve seen something like it, and I’m going to play by those same rules.”
Then, and only after a while, will they say, “Hey, wait a second. This isn’t really like anything I’ve seen before … and I think I love it!”
Genre is all about marketing. It’s a way to connect to the customers who are already interested in the story you want to tell.

Audiences try their best to guess what might happen next.
They want to be proven right some of the time and proven wrong the rest of the time.

People call the nineties the “Ironic Decade”:
Seinfeld played on our expectations that sitcom characters had to grow and change, then shocked us by having them learn nothing.
Bands like Nirvana played on our expectations that rockers had to be earnest badasses by treating the entire thing as a farce.
They had a playfully antagonistic relationship with their audience, as if they were saying, “We know what you want, and we’re not going to give it to you,

“A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away …,” is brilliant.
This may look like science fiction, with spaceships and lasers and robots, but it’s really a fairy tale.

Both Sunset Boulevard and American Beauty are narrated by heroes who explain right away that they’re dead and this will be the story of how they died.
This makes the audience pay much closer attention to the seemingly low-stakes domestic problems, and look out for the one that will lead to the hero’s death.
Sacrificing surprise in favor of suspense.

Methods of foreshadowing. Here are a few:
When a scene cuts away right before a big reveal, or when the story pointedly refuses to identify an important person in the room.
Interrupted dialogue: Somebody sounds like she's about to say something important, but she gets cut off, leaving the audience to perk up their ears in hopes of filling in the blanks.
Whenever we only hear one side of the conversation, or even when we hear both but something still doesn’t add up,
Dangling questions: Someone asks a leading question, such as “Why does this keep happening?” and nobody can answer.
Unpaid debts weigh heavily on an audience’s mind. In both Chinatown and The Godfather, a debt is incurred in the first scene that gets called in at an ironic moment later in the movie.
Threats or vows of revenge. Use them to keep the audience on their toes until they finally forget about them. At that moment, deliver the payoff.

Foreshadowing is a way to the audience into caring about things they might not have cared about.
You tease the audience with details about the future, which makes them demand to know what you’re not telling them.
If you hadn’t teased them, they wouldn’t care in the first place.

Theme should arise naturally when irreconcilable values come into conflict.
Your audience doesn’t want to reach the end of your story and ask, “So what’s your point? Was this a meaningless series of events?”

An irreconcilable moral dilemma: a contest between two equally appealing or appalling ideas that come into conflict.
A hero who must choose between good and evil is always going to be boring.
Your hero should be forced to choose between goods or between evils.

Complex, volatile characters sometimes act in ways the author doesn’t expect.

The meaning of your story is created by the dilemma that drives every scene, not merely by its conclusion.

More meaning will be created by the clash of characters representing different values than by any “words of wisdom.”

Force your hero to confront this painful choice.
This dilemma should seem totally irreconcilable for most of the story, and both the hero and the audience should feel torn and anguished over the decision.
Silence of the Lambs: dealing with one monster versus letting another go free
Groundhog Day: acceptance versus ambition

A good theme isn’t a statement but a question the audience has to answer for themselves.

Just because we believe that Superman can fly doesn’t mean that we’ll believe it when he turns on the TV at the exact right moment to hear the news he needs to hear.

Big ideas are actually poison for a writer.
A big idea is a set of self-satisfied certainties that allows you to stop looking, listening, and learning.
Perpetual observation is the antidote to those certainties.
Ideas are rigid; observations adapt.
Ideas make you seem smart; observations actually make you smarter.
But for a writer, the most important distinction is this: Ideas are generic, and observations are specific.
Journalists are trained to jot down ten observations every time they walk into a room.
Write what you actually see and hear, not what you expected to see and hear, and not what you presume is actually going on.

Nothing is more powerful than a truthful observation.

Ideas are the true recipe for passivity, and observations are the true spur to action.
But you can’t observe anything if you’re using your ideas as an excuse not to pay attention.
The worst bias a writer can have is confirmation bias.

Once your story and characters are set, you can go back and second-guess every minor choice you made and change many of them to subtly reinforce your theme.
When we write, we inevitably make a lot of choices at random, just to keep writing. Go back and make all of those choices more meaningful.

Don't revise. Rewrite. Tear it apart and rebuild it.
Your “second draft” will often be a page-one rewrite.

If one person says something, that’s their opinion. If two people say the same thing, then there are probably millions of people that’ll agree.

Have a simple story about complex characters, and not vice versa.

Set up a plant for every payoff, so as the audience reaches each twist, they’ll say, “Aha!” instead of “Yeah, right!”

Have a computer read your work back to you using text-to-voice.

Cut out the “fallout,” or any other type of unsurprising scene.
Create a “Too-Short Version”.
Save your current version with all of that connective tissue safely intact, and create a new copy called “The Too-Short Version.”
This will give you the mental freedom to make cuts that seem to be way too much.
Go through and cut out all the lines that ramp up, ramp down, and string together your scenes.
Then go back and reread it. Do you miss those lines? If so, put them back in.

When I told him I was stage 4B cancer, his face went pale and he started looking at me in the past tense. He urgently took me aside and confided a terrible secret he felt I needed to hear: The most important thing I could do to stay alive was to make sure my doctors remembered me, even when I wasn’t in their office, and the only way to do that was to make my story a lot more compelling than their other cases. Doctors, he admitted, only allow themselves to get upset if certain heart-tugging patients die (new parents, for example), and they unintentionally reserve their best care for those patients. For the rest, they unconsciously decide that if this patient dies, it must just be their time.

The ability to make strangers care about a story is a vital skill, whether fiction, nonfiction, or just your own story.

Wake your audience up.
Let them know that, this time, it’s safe for them to really care, because you have an emotionally satisfying conclusion.
This time, they’ll be moved. This time, there will be a satisfying payoff.