Does Eric Edson Have the Story Solution?

I’ve now worked my way through the first of my great Christmas gifts, The Story Solution by Eric Edson. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and I got insights into why my fiction isn’t working. Certainly worth the price of admission! But let’s not run ahead too far…

Who is Eric Edson and why should we pay attention to him? He’s been in the screenwriting business for a while now. He’s completed seventeen screenplays (I’m not sure why the specific number) for the big networks (ABC, NBC, TNT), big studios (Disney, Warner Bros., Twentieth Century-Fox) and others. Okay, he knows how to write for sale. Anything else? Yes, he teaches screenwriting: He’s Professor and Director of Graduate Studies, both in Screenwriting, at Cal State Northridge (close to Hollywood!) and lectures at the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program.  He has Masters’ Degrees in Playwriting and Screenwriting and he’s been in the Writers’ Guild of America for three decades.

Whew! We should all be so proven. Yeah, he’s qualified, I’ll listen to him.

The Story Solution is so new the launch party hasn’t even happened yet. It’s official publication date is January 1, 2012. (Makes me feel like a special reviewer to have my copy so early!) The book is a nice-sized trade paperback of some 350 pages, the last 50 or so taken up with indices and references. (Mr. Edson’s an academic, after all! Besides, having the original references is useful.) The cover is very appealing, a beautiful picture of an old, spiral staircase overlaid with clear type. No fuss or busy mess.

The subtitle is the part that hooked me: 23 Actions All Great Heroes Must Take. That sure sounds like the kind of juice I need in my writing. I like to write Heroes, but mine are always missing important stuff. And if the Hero doesn’t work out well the story’s a dud, whether we’re talking novel or screenplay.

Sound too formulaic? I was a bit concerned too, once I’d carefully processed the early information. Okay, I thought, I’ll glean some good points and then go my own way. (What writer doesn’t pretty much have that first response to good advice?) After all, if it was so simple, then anybody could just build a hero quickly and take them through their paces and BOOM! We’re all rushing to the theaters and spending second mortgages to see this story. Right?

Well, of course it’s not that easy. And Mr. Edson didn’t just fall on his head either. No, he’s gotten hold of something vital, fundamental to the notion of story that’s hard-wired inside our heads. The only question you can ask then is, why now? Why haven’t we seen this expressed clearly say, several centuries ago? My opinion: Fish don’t know they’re in water. We live so close to “story” every day that we can’t get enough psychological distance to puzzle this sort of thing out. (Don’t believe that? look carefully at your daily activities and see how many story bits you hear, from gossip to jokes to news to songs.) There have been thousands of tries in the past, of course, and Mr. Edson has built on them, as everyone with great insight builds on the works of their predecessors.

I think he’s hit the ball out of the park. And those of us who are fans of great stories should stand and applaud his fist-pumping jog around the bases.

The book kicks off thoughtfully with an Introduction titled New Tools for Writing Great Stories. Four pages that set the table. The first part of the book presents the foundations of screenwriting; not the wordsmithing or page layouts, but the meaty concepts that you must internalize to write great scripts (and novels): The Screenwriter’s Goal; How We Film a Film; How Change Grips an Audience; Conflict is King. If you’re a novelist, maybe the first two bits aren’t critical; but they sure give insight into how a story gets from one medium (script on paper) to another (images on a big screen). Don’t put these aside! You’re probably thinking, “Yeah, change and conflict, those matter. I learned that a long time ago.” Good; here’s another reinforcement of how important those two concepts are to story.

The next part is about Creating Your Characters. Even if you think you’re great at this, Mr. Edson’s presentation of the elements of character and dialog is compelling. Folks who review my fiction often say they get bogged down in my characters’ dialog, and now I know why. Fixable? Certainly. And as a novelist I’ll have to do that. (Screenwriters may be provided help with this topic, after a sale. Not to say they shouldn’t work the dialog to the best of their ability; just that they’ll likely get a lot of help punching up dialog from specialists.)

Part Three of The Story Solution presents story structure from a tight screenwriter’s view. How the story is structured on the page, and how that gets “translated” (in general terms) by the director and others. Again, another section that novelists may want to skip; I don’t recommend doing that. The discussion here involves elements every story can’t live without: Things like increasing tension and challenge; the climax that isn’t the ultimate climax; and the Obligatory Scene, or Big Blowoff (as I like to say; but I’m a diehard fan of action and thrillers). Mr. Edson takes pains to compare screenplays to novels so that both communities can profit from his views.

The second chapter in Part Three is essential: The Character Growth Arc. If your Hero doesn’t grow through the story, then you don’t have a great story. (Maybe a commercial success; consider the early Bond movies. I hope by now you don’t confuse brilliance with cash in Hollywood.) The general frame here is the three-act dramatic structure; whether you are a fan of this structure (as Mr. Edson clearly is) or you hate it (as John Truby does), you should still put your mind into the frame and see where the book takes us. Trust me, it’s worth the ride. General elements such as the call to action, the midpoint, and how to bring action and tension to (at least) two climaxes are clearly presented without flogging them. I like his use of the term “Obligatory Scene,” and why we need it.

At this point we’re halfway through The Story Solution, and still no 23 Actions. That’s a lot of preparation, but I found it to be worthwhile. The latter half is spent on these Actions, and it’s amazingly dense while at the same time clear and accessible. From Chapter Nine on you will be immersed in Hero Goal Sequences and how they’re found in all great movies. It’s clear to me that Mr. Edson’s a powerful teacher from the way this material is structured and narrated. He takes care to first present (the “Tell” part of the adult learning cycle) and then to give examples (The “Show” step.) The part where the students try it out is, well, left to the students (you and me). Here’s an opportunity: A “Hero Goal Sequences Workbook.” But I digress. The fourth part of the adult learner experience is also outside the scope of this book, wherein the students get feedback on how well they’re doing. You can find qualified reviewers, or take the product to the market; either way, it’s up to you to get the feedback. Having the Tell and Show in hand, though, I feel empowered (and motivated) to execute.

So what is a Hero Goal Sequence? It’s a collection of scenes, all involving the Hero, that present one of the required Actions the Hero must live through and succeed. Each Sequence is usually 2-7 related scenes. Other plot lines, like Adversary-only items, back story, etc., don’t count in these. Using the three-act frame, there are six Sequences in the first act; six Sequences in the second act before the Midpoint; six Sequences in the second half of the second act; and three to five Sequences in the final act. From this we learn that there are really 20 to 23 such Sequences in all stories; a bit of complexity, but by the time you reach the third act you’ll be ready to handle the ambiguity.

In The Story Structure, Mr. Edson takes us carefully through each Sequence, not to put us into a straightjacket, but to show us how to take the fundamental premise of each Sequence and expand and expound to fit the needs of our Hero and our story. I found working through this portion of the book to be tough at first, so I made light notes on each piece as I went through it. Things flowed much better for me at that point, and I think I got more out of it too. Once I had grasped the points of a Sequence I immediately began to think how to use it in my own writing. Indeed, I often had trouble turning off the creative flow and getting back to the book! So rather than constraining, I found studying Hero Goal Sequences to enable my creativity.

After reading The Story Solution I now think it’s likely I’ll write Hero-only scenes first and make notes about the other elements, then come back through with the other plot lines and interleave; I think that will save me lots of over-writing and chopping, as well as deep rewrites. After all, the story is all about the Hero and his growth; everything else is included to help the reader/viewer see enough to appreciate the Hero’s life.

The concept of Hero Goal Sequence is powerful, and I believe it’s universal enough to escape the three-act dramatic structure. For novelists it provides richness and guidance, and I think it’ll be especially useful at moments when the novelist is stuck or struggling through a hard part of their narrative. The ultimate cure for writers’ block? Perhaps. I know novel writers like to experiment with juggling the flow of their stories, often violating the screenwriter’s sense of how a tale should flow. Does this mean the Sequences are less useful to novelists? I don’t think so. Ask me again in a year or so…

Here’s an interesting bit of trivia: Already nearly three dozen people have jumped onto Amazon to review this book. All but two of the reviews give five stars, and nobody’s tough on the volume. I don’t get the impression these reviews are “stuffed” at the request of the publisher or author either. And the book’s not officially out yet!

Overall, I give The Story Structure top marks, certainly 9 quills (out of 10), and I find myself agreeing with the majority of the reviews on Amazon. (My personal reluctance to fully embrace the three-act structure may account for the missing quill; If so, that’s not on Mr. Edson.) A short distance in the future I believe we’ll see just how powerful the Hero Goal Sequences conjecture is, when it finds its way into writer’s toolkits so deeply that they can’t remember where they picked it up. Once they’re “universal” then Mr. Edson will have won. I’m glad I got an early look-see; now to take these Sequences to the workspace…

Growth and Change, the Hero’s Lot in Life…

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