The Three Most Important Things I Teach

Alex EpsteinStraight from our Cameo archive Alex Epstein dishes up writing advice while standing on one foot.

Rabbi Hillel was asked to sum up the Torah while standing on one foot. "That which is hateful to you, don't do it to your neighbor," he said. "The rest is commentary."

If you asked me to sum up my writing advice while standing on one foot, I would tell you three things.

a. You need a hook.

The hook is what gets people reading your script and gets the audience to see your movie. It’s just a compelling, attractive story idea in a nutshell. “Five unemployed steelworkers put on a strip show to raise money.” “A kid discovers his dog can play basketball.” “A ditz joins the Army to prove herself.”

The hook should implicitly ask a question—how does that turn out—that we have to read the screenplay or go to the movies to see answered. It should imply the main character, imply the obstacles he or she faces, and imply the stakes.

Movies get made, and screenplays get bought, without hooks, but only if they already have bankable elements attached — they are based on a hit musical, or novel, or have a major star attached.

b. The elements of story

A story is:

  • a hero we care about
  • who has a compelling problem, an opportunity or goal
  • who faces difficult obstacles and/or an antagonist
  • if they succeed, they (or their world) will have something they didn't have (stakes)
  • if they fail, they'll lose something precious to them (jeopardy)

80% of all screenplays that fail, fail because one of these story elements isn’t strong enough. We don’t care about the hero, or his problem isn’t serious enough, or he doesn’t face strong enough obstacles to solving it, or there’s nothing for him to win or lose.

If your script is not working, see which one of these elements needs strengthening.

c. Pitch your story

Before you write your script, tell your story out loud to as many people as you can get to sit still for it. Not necessarily fellow writers. Waitresses, people in line at the checkout counter. Your mom.

Tell it in person. Tell it without notes. You will discover valuable things.

You will see when your audience is bored or confused. You will know where the story needs fixing.

You will learn where you can’t remember what the next step is. Obviously that’s not the right next step.

You will come up with more interesting story ideas on the fly.

You actually know how to tell a story. We all tell stories, every day, about things that happen to us. The more we tell them, the better they get.

But once you write things down, they become fixed. You start ignoring the boring sections—your eye just blips over them. You can’t do that when you’re telling a story live to an actual human being in front of you.

Tell your story off the cuff, to anyone who will listen. It will get better. When you can tell your entire movie story, as a story, to anyone, and get them to sit still and pay attention to it throughout, then and only then should you start to write things down.

Okay, can I have my foot back now? Thank you.

Alex Epstein is a writer for movies and television.

He was nominated for a Jutra, and won a Canadian Comedy Award, for his work on the comedy BON COP BAD COP. The film won the 2007 Genie for Best Picture, and broke the Canadian box office record for a Canadian movie.

He co-created the comic drama series NAKED JOSH for Showcase; it ran three seasons and won him two Canadian Screenwriting Award nominations. He was also Head Writer on CHARLIE JADE and Executive Story Editor for GALIDOR.

He has written two books, Crafty Screenwriting: Writing Movies That Get Made, and Crafty TV Writing: Thinking Inside The Box.