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How To Write A Good Story

Whether your intention is to sell, educate or entertain, a good story is an important factor in accomplishing your media goals. Freelance writer, Adam Mezei, offers advice on some basic elements in the following article.

By Adam Daniel Mezei

White Heat, The Wild Bunch, and Saving Private Ryan represent a trio of standout examples of sensational cinematic storytelling that have withstood the test of a century of international filmmaking. These stories, with onetime staid lines on a lifeless sheet of felled forestry, when converted into Hollywood celluloid magic, became the studio tentpoles of their respective eras. These are the memorable tales, which viewers repeatedly enjoyed, until today.

So what makes for rock-solid storytelling? How exactly does one go about writing a kickass script that someone, somewhere out there, will find so positively irresistible that the only thing left for them to do is cash in, cast up, kit out, and go produce that puppy? What elements does a compelling story include to make it positively magnetic? Moreover, is there a formula you can follow to help you write good story? That’s the subject of today’s discussion as we cycle through the steps on how to pen that truest of film-worthy tale

It All Starts With An Idea:

The three films mentioned above were at one time nothing more than the figments of someone’s fertile (or alcohol-drenched) imagination. Like the Biblical "something from nothing," the writers of those, and thousands of other iconic period films, were just like you and me, sitting on a hard stool with either a pen, a coffee, or a snifter of well-aged whiskey in hand, dreaming about how to best combine the disparate elements of something which only they knew was on the verge of becoming the next “Great American Fable.” So where do good ideas hail from, you ask?

Well, to start, perhaps you’ve personally undergone an event so deeply meaningful that you feel others might gain something from learning of your experience first-hand? Something which has a universal aspect and appeal which others might almost instantly relate to because it cuts so close to the human condition that almost anyone could have been through at some point in their lives. These are always the easiest stories to transcribe because they’re so "there" (on the surface), that they require almost little forethought. The only caveat here is not to make them sound too self-serving, otherwise they lose authenticity.

I’ve also found that reading daily and often (and not just how-to books about the film industry or on Hollywood), are great for shaking up the memory and getting into your characters. Make reading “anything you can get your mitts on” a daily habit. And with today’s inter-webs, audio podcasts and viral video clips also supply ample imagination fodder. So try to schedule in some listening time during your commute to work. Don’t forget to tap out your ideas as you receive them because ideas are often fleeting, as I’ve discovered myself.

Opposites Attract:

Another benefit to daily reading is that it trains your mind to pair seemingly disparate things into dizzyingly interesting combinations, the core of true story innovation. For instance, I once wrote a screenplay called Crossover which told the story about a former South African heavyweight boxer from Johannesburg’s Soweto Township who injured himself in a local boxing match, only to later take up the more gentlemanly sport of fencing in order to slake his burning competitive spirits. For fun, I threw in a twist — the protagonist would become the protégé of a diminutive former Hungarian secret policeman who absconded to South Africa at the end of Eastern European Communism with his daughter, a one-time orphan who knew nothing of her father’s past. I sat back as the sparks flew off the page. The script was full of romance, race, intrigue and several curious historical tidbits which wouldn’t normally arise for the typical sports-genre film.

Be Audacious:

When drafting your story, this is hardly the time to apply your mental brakes. Let your wild thought-horses roam free! Think of the most astonishingly, and potentially silly, situations you can put your characters in and carry on from that point. You might be surprised to learn where your story meanders once you settle into this kind of mode.

The film Hancock comes to mind. Remember John Hancock, played so convincingly by star Will Smith? This was a picture about an urban superhero in desperate need of a personal rebrand, because, well, the old Hancock, despite being superhuman, was a downright jackass. Rather than leap tall buildings in a single bound or save old ladies from being trampled upon by out-of-control tractor-trailers, Hancock would spend his days destroying public property or being sauced off his gourd on park benches, telling off little kids when they’d jeer at him for being such a listless layabout. If I’m not mistaken, when’s the last time you heard about a drunkard unlikeable superhero, jaw-droppingly cast as an African-American, no less — turning life’s corner and making a comeback?

Draw Three-Dimensional Characters:

Remember that heroic characters aren’t always good, and that not every villain is consistently bad. True, all stories have protagonists and antagonists, but just as in real life good guys do indeed have foibles and bad guys also strangely possess redeemable qualities. A good example might be 2007’s Mr. Brooks, in which Kevin Costner plays the role of Earl Brooks, a mild-mannered family man who has a fetish for death — in fact, for murder. During the day, Costner’s Brooks is the picture-perfect captain of industry. At night, he slips into his assassin’s garb, and dons his leather gloves and silencer, as he prowls around town in his SUV in search of a killing spree.

While it’s definitely an extreme example of the antihero phenomenon we’re discussing, Costner’s portrayal of Earl Brooks was eerily attractive in an, “Andreas Baader of Germany’s Baader-Meinh of Gang or Che Guevara kind of way.” As the film progresses, our repugnance of Brooks’ bloodthirsty habits lead to a paradoxically strange likeability, and if you haven’t seen the film, it’s likely one of the better examples of what the three-dimensional character phenomenon is all about.

Also, try to draw out characters others can readily relate to in order to make your stories more “every-manish.” History is great for this. Study it and the newspaper for better insights into what made past or current “greats,” or “so-called greats," into whom they were and why posterity later canonized, lauded, or besmirched their reputations in the manner it did.

Was General Douglas MacArthur the true Liberator of Japan as history remembers him to be? Why not? One possible answer: he was as much of a dictator in post-war Japan as he was its savior? And, sure, while Bill Clinton may be remembered as the clever statesman he was, the man retained certain, shall we say, proclivities that weren’t necessarily becoming of the Leader of the Free World. On a more contemporary note, Fidel Castro is considered our nation’s Enemy Numero Uno, yet why has he remained so popular in his native Cuba, a nation struggling under the crippling weight of the US-led economic embargo? Answers to these sorts of questions show that not everything is what is seems: neither in life, nor in story.

The act of writing a good story is agonizing even for the most seasoned of screenwriters. Following just a couple of the above steps, however, will make coaxing them out a more routine process and at the end of the day the quality of your stories hinge upon how significantly they diverge from the mainstream. Anything else is just groping at low-hanging fruit, and none of those stories ever made the grade or could be called truly great. The key is to always keep at it but go against the grain.

--Adam Daniel Mezei

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR Adam Daniel Mezei is one crazy Canuck (Toronto). He goes by a variety of titles: entrepreneur, vidcaster, podcaster, and amateur Sinologist. Currently, he is the host of Vitamin C: Your Daily Dose On China. He was’s Central European Ambassador and was also the former host of “The Knowledge,” a weekly podcast whose guests have included prominent members of the business and diplomatic communities in the Czech Republic’s capital, Prague.

As a writer, he has penned articles for such notable expatriate publications like the Prague Post and Czech Business Weekly, and was awarded the British Czech and Slovak Association’s (BCSA)’s 2006 Writer’s Prize for “Mayor Sulc’s Astonishing 2010 Directive,” a story which appeared in his previous anthology, “We Are the New Bohemians: The Post-Communist Collection.” He has also written for the Toronto Star, the Globe and Mail, the New Statesman, Hidden Europe, and is the author of two works of fiction. To learn more about Adam, visit his website at