Task Master

I collect writing advice like some people collect spoons. But every once in a while a piece of advice that is so amazing that it completely alters the way I work. The first was when I discovered Syd Field’s description of the four act screenplay structure. That was revolutionary to me and just the sort of thing I needed to get through the mess of writing my first novel.

The second was when I heard Dennis Lehane say that most of his dialogue was unfinished senetences and people interupting each other. Again, that was revolutionary and helped me create the rythms in my dialogue people have commended.

But last week I found one that may be the most important of all. On Terry Rossio’s screenwriting site Wordplayer he was talking about Tasks. What it boiled down to is you have to give your characters something to do while the story is taking place. It may sound simple, but this is what’s been eluding me in plotting. I always have the story there and the ultimate goals and such, but I’ve never really had a single, concrete task for my character. Here’s some examples:

In LEGALLY BLONDE, Elle’s main goal is get back with her boyfriend. That’s the plot. The task is to win her first trial case.

In JUNO, the goal is for her to deal with her pregnancy and survive her life, the task is finding a suitable family for adoption.

Get the idea?

Now you would think that a detective story has a built in task for the hero: find the villian. And that’s true. But the task that’s always eluded me is the villian’s task. My villians have never really being trying to do anything important, so my hero doesn’t have anything important to stop.  So that’s what I’ve been working on is solidifying that task and it’s opened up a whole new fount of possibilties for me. Yay.

In the meantime though, I’m working on a screenplay instead of the novel. I needed to do something that would get me looking at storytelling in a different way and I think this is the perfect way to do it. I’m having a blast, though getting in a screenplay rythm is a whole lot harder than getting into a prose rythm.

What the most life-altering writing advice you’ve ever received?

7 thoughts on “Task Master

  1. Basically everything in the book SELF-EDITING FOR FICTION WRITERS. It’s a nuts-and-bolts guide to making the story say the things you want to say. It helps me tighten my writing so I can kind of get out of my own way.

  2. My whole blog is dedicated to writing advice like this. Some of the best writing instruction I have ever received came from novelist Holly Lisle.

  3. I’d have to go with Elmore Leonard’s, “Leave out the parts people skip.” (that and only use ‘said.’)

    Really, the oldest, most basic advice, “write for yourself,” is what’s worked best for me. As simple as it is, I have to constantly remind myself. Whenever I’m stuck I think, what would *I* like to see happen next and I try that.

    Once in a while it even works.

  4. And this above all else: “Kill your darlings.”

    John: Ditto on the Elmore advice.

    Bryon: Congrats on the wedding and baby! That “flu” you feel ain’t flu, it’s yellow pollen season here in FL – guaranteed to make you feel miserable during the only decent weather we get here.

    Ah, paradise.

    Great post on “task” and thanks for turning me on to that screenwriting site. I too write screenplays and novels – definitely a different set of creative muscles for those approaches to a story.

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