Is a Story Really Necessary?

I got an email from a reader asking for a copy of this post from February 2005, so I thought I share it again with everyone…

I spoke at the San Francisco Writers Conference about screenwriting and
breaking into television. Afterwards, I was cornered by a senior
citizen who showed me his scrapbook from his days in Hollywood and
rambled on endlessly about all the stars he met. I don’t know why he
wanted to share this with me…but we had to go through every single
page, clipping and photo. Then I mingled with the attendees,  got asked
some incredibly stupid questions and had some bizarre conversations.
Here’s a sampling…

"I’ve written a novel and everyone tells me it’s a script," one woman said. "How do I turn it into a script?"

"Well, you write a script." I said.

She stared at me. "How do I do that?"

"You get a book or take a course, learn the principles of screenwriting, and then you write a script."

"That’s too much work," she said. "Isn’t there software that can do all of that for me?"

"Yeah," I said. "The same way Microsoft Word wrote your book for you."

* * * * * *

Another person came up to me and asked me if I wrote for television. I said yes.  She then asked, "How do you do that?"

"You mean, how do I write for television?"

"Yes," she said.

"I write screenplays," I said.

"Which is what, exactly?"

"The story, the action, the words that the characters say," I replied.

She stared at me. "Somebody writes that?"

"Yes," I said, resisting the urge to strangle her. "It’s like a
writing a play, only for the camera instead of a theatre audience."

She shook her head.  "No, it’s not."

* * * * * *
"I’ve written  a book but everyone tells me it s a TV series," the man said.  "How do I make it into a TV series."

"You can’t, " I said, and gave my standard speech about how ideas
are cheap and execution is everything, how networks go to people with
TV experience, or who have written hit movies, or who have written
bestselling novels, blah blah blah.  And when I got done, he stared at
me. I got stared at a lot today.

Hee said:  "How can I get around that?"

"You can’t," I said.

"Why not?"

"Because you haven’t established yourself  as a writer in any
field," I said. "Why would a network, studio or producer buy a TV
series idea from you?"

"Because I’m smarter and more talented than they are," he said.

"It’s not going to happen," I said.

"Is it because I’m black?" he said. "That’s it, isn’t it. It’s because I’m black."

* * * * * *

"Did you have to sleep with a lot of people to get into TV?" a woman asked me.

"Just my wife," I said.

"You were lucky it wasn’t someone else," she said and walked away.

* * * * * *
"I have a great idea for a movie," a woman said to
me. "What’s the market like for true stories about black lesbians in
the 1880s?"

"I don’t think studios are looking for scripts to fill that
particular niche," I said, "but there’s always a market for good
stories that are told well."

"Oh," she said. "That’s going to make it a lot harder to sell."

* * * * * *
"Mysteries are hard work,"  a man said to me. "Could
I write an episode of a mystery show but leave out the mystery for
someone else to do?"

"No," I said.

"But my talent is character and I’m brilliant with dialogue," he said. "I really don’t know how to plot a mystery."

"Then don’t write a mystery," I said.

"But that’s what’s selling," he said.

"Don’t try to write what’s selling," I said. "Write what you enjoy. Write the story you want to tell."

"The thing is, I don’t know how to tell stories," he said. "But I write killer dialogue. Is a story really necessary?"

"Yes," I said.

"You people in Hollywood don’t make it easy, do you? That’s  the
problem with the Industry. They are constantly creating obstacles so
people can’t get in."

18 thoughts on “Is a Story Really Necessary?”

  1. Thank you for the laughs. I’ve been working on my novel since 7:30 this morning, and I just realized I will probably throw away everything I’ve written today. You helped me stave off the crying.

  2. You know that’s funny, where have I heard that before? We all learned one way or the other what it takes to break into the writing business, no matter what – like Billy Crystal’s character in the move, “Throw Momma from the train”, he tells his students, “a writer writes, always”. Lee kills his keyboard every to beat his deadlines on Monk, each and every writer on every show we’ve seen on the tube is doing the same thing.
    Oh don’t you just hate those evil stares when someone ask’s, if there’s a way around the backdoor? Like I say, ain’t gonna any easier, unless they or we write something, when the car payment is due by the 5th.
    Go figures! Lee’s right, write, work and write and get established is the way to make it work. Grr….

  3. How the hell are people that stupid, did they all decide that hard work and learning about what you want to do are irrelevant? That’d be like asking how you write sentence? Ah words people, words. Credit to you for not backhanding them all a few times.

  4. A Writers Life: Is a Story Really Necessary?

    Lee Goldberg, television writer and novelist, runs into a whole lotta folks who ask how he does what he does . . . Their questions, and his answers, are covered in Is a Story Really Necessary? and its a classic read . . . check it out, dojo-mo…

  5. That’s the most infuriating/hilarious thing I’ve read in awhile, and I think I read that post the first time you made it.
    The only thing I can imagine more frustrating than that is the dreaded civilian pitch. I’m a Creative Writing major in college. I have absolutely no connections. And yet, still, I get pitched ideas for stories. My marketing teacher tried to pitch me his idea.
    I’d like to hear about some of the pitches people have given you, because the ideas people have…

  6. Lee,
    Thanks for the laugh.
    This reminds me of the conversation I had with a neighbor the other day while walking my dog. This neighbor knows I am a published writer, so he stops me to ask my advice. He is a member of Mystery Writers of America but says he never goes to the meetings because there is nothing he can learn. Then he tells me he just got his novel “accepted” by a POD-press in Canada. When I asked him why he self-published, he said, “I got tired of trying to get lucky.”
    I suggested to him that POD wasn’t the best route to success, and that it takes work, craftsmanship and perseverance. And that it took me ten years to get published.
    He said, “You got lucky, that’s all.”
    I wish my dog were bigger so I could have sicced him on the moron.

  7. Al I can say is… God BLESS you for putting up with all of them… that “isn’t there a computer program for that?” was genius.

  8. “Somebody WRITES That?”

    Lee Goldberg is an author and television writer who blogs about the writing life. Here’s an excerpt from a post he wrote after he spoke at the San Francisco Writers Conference about screenwriting:Another person came up to me and asked

  9. Lee, thanks for sharing. Humans don’t you love them? Without them no writer would have a story. So we need our less enlightened kin to provide us with material to tell our stories.

  10. Off-subject- The first few seasons of Monk there was stuff between characters; Stottlemeyer jealous of Monk… Monk jealous of Sharona’s boyfriends? Sharona cruel to Disher. Is Disher attracted to Sharona? Sharona like Disher? Why mean to him? Monk dismisses Sharona’s fears, Sharona betrayed, how will Monk respond? How, or will, she forgive him? This stuff was great, it was why I watched. I don’t care about the mystery. Now, no more stuff between characters. No more psychological complexity. I miss it.

  11. Haven’t ckecked in for a while:
    Season’s Greetings – Wishing you and yours the gifts of peace, joy and love this season and everyday of the coming year.
    “The Greatest Gifts”:
    May we break boundaries, tear down walls and build on the foundation of goodness inside each of us. May we look past differences, gain understanding, and embrace acceptance. May we reach out to each other, rather than resist. May we be better stewards for the earth, protecting nurturing and replenishing the beauties of nature. May we practice gratitude for all we have, rather than complain about our needs. May we seek cures for the sick, help for the hungry, and love for the lonely. May we share our talents, give our time, and teach our children. May we hold hope for the future very tenderly in our hearts and do all we can to build for bright tomorrows. And may we love with our whole hearts, for that’s the only way to love.
    Best to you,
    Peg Long

  12. Thanks for sharing that again.. I never tire of those exchanges (well maybe I do when I’m actually involved in the exchange.) Perhaps there is a subcourse you could teach at these events called “Let’s Get the Stupid Questions Out of the Way”, any participant who successfully passes that course, is allowed to learn the very basics of screenwriting.
    I ran a screenwriter’s group for a few years, not far from LA. Our meetings would inevitably conclude with at least 30 minutes of discussion from the hopeful screenrwriters boasting that they’d never send their work for others to read because the producers and agents would steal their ideas or change their stories if they read it. No amount of reasoning could release them from this notion.. and still, no doubt, their works are still sitting in their kitchen drawer unstolen, uncompromised, and unread.


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