Do stay for tea and coffee: ‘God is woven through each creative story’
Paul Kerensa on how to write stories
I’ve been running a sitcom-writing workshop for the BBC Writers Room, an initiative to find tomorrow’s scribes. After a fierce whittling process, 20 finalists enjoy a year of development and guest speakers. I actually applied, didn’t make the cut, but was invited to coach the winners. Essentially, a university turned down my application to study, but employed me as a visiting lecturer.
We dwelt for a while on story structure – a talk I’ve since given at the London Screenwriters Festival, Greenbelt and writers’ workshops in churches and the like. It’s a work in progress – but aren’t we all?
The more we talk about story, the more I notice how God is woven through each one. If it’s creative, the Creator’s in it. It’s been particularly gratifying to see religiously indifferent folks grapple with this.
At last year’s workshop, we started with Aristotle’s observation of a beginning, a middle and an end, with that middle section named by some as ‘the muddle in the middle’, where the adventure arrives. In our lives, that muddle is where we need God’s help. Enter the hero of our story, Jesus. Alright, non-Christians might not agree, but bear with… it gets more convincing.
More recent theorists, like Joseph Campbell and Blake Snyder, suggest around a dozen key story points. An ordinary-world starting point leads to a call to adventure, then a threshold to be crossed, an ‘all is lost’ moment, and a journey into the darkest cave. A redemptive conclusion returns us home with a reminder that it wasn’t a dream.
No theory is perfect, but they can help make sense of our own lives. That’s why we unknowingly flock to patterns on the big screen and or on the page, in Star Wars, Harry Potter or The Wizard of Oz. From an ordinary Kansas, there could be an owl-mail call to adventure, a darkest duel with Darth Vader, or a return through the wardrobe, changed for the better.
Those story beats are even there in the Bible (the greatest story). A comfortable Eden gives way to God’s call to Abraham. There’s a vast threshold to be crossed when the Red Sea parts. ‘All is lost’ moments come in the wilderness and in exile. When the challenge becomes too great for us, Jesus goes to the darkest, innermost cave, but emerges victorious. Our reminder of what we’ve gained is the message and the Spirit left behind.
It’s a theory. And here’s one more – my own attempt to find a pattern in it all. Because those story beats can be tricky to remember, I’ve come up with a structure I call calendar theory.
To start your story, imagine it’s January. Your characters are back to work, meeting new people, trying to find their groove. In your February chapter, like Valentine’s Day, two people connect. It’s only fleeting, but leads to an opportunity. In March we ‘spring’ onto that opportunity and try something new. But April fool! There are showers when sun was forecast. Our hero isn’t quite as in control as we thought.
Characters bloom in May, overlapping and underlapping like the Maypole. The hubbub of a spring fayre mirrors Halloween’s shock and noise, but safer and quieter (this is when thrillers have minor shocks hinting at what’s ahead.) In June and July, family reunions might be rained off, plans are foiled, and like the end of the school year, there’s an end to rational learning. In the long, hot summer, characters learn new skills or dig deep to achieve their aims – realising that what they actually want isn’t what they thought. August might bring exotic locations (ooh, a montage) or we might bump into long-forgotten characters, out of context. It’s a summer playground, so have a play, test things out… and have your hero scrape their knees when they fall.
The September of our plot is when the dark draws in. Characters stumble (it’s Fall, after all). October scares and November fireworks lead to December’s darkest day. But then Christmas: the time to tell people the truth about how you really feel (according to Love Actually anyway). There’s a festive rush, a ticking clock, perhaps a holy arrival, then a family reunion where it’s not about the presents but the presence. Ultimately, we zoom out as snow falls, harsh outside but warm and protected inside. Ready to start again…
It’s just a theory. But at last year’s BBC workshop, one writer commented: ‘It’s funny how that works. It’s almost like that pattern’s been sown into stories, and life, and everything, all along.’ Funny indeed. Not ‘funny ha ha’ – but at least our life story has a happy ever after.
Paul Kerensa is a comic writer, performer and broadcaster
This article was published in the May 2019 edition of Reform