Is a Story Really Necessary?

Today, 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."

14 thoughts on “Is a Story Really Necessary?”

  1. “””The thing is, I don’t know how to tell stories,” he said. “But I write killer dialogue. Is a story really necessary?”””
    Did you send this to John Scalzi for BOOK OF THE DUMB 3?

  2. A casual consideration of these remarks would go to suggest they are made up, but here’s the thing: I’ve encountered remarks that are even worse.
    Let’s see: Just this past week I’ve had no less than six people tell me they have a great idea, and all I need to do is write it down and we can share the subsequent profits.
    Oh, yes: They were quite serious.
    That’s the concerning part. The very concerning part.

  3. “It is amazing how naive people are about show business.”
    It’s not just show business. It’s everything. I’m an engineer, and we have a saying: “Everything is easy for the man who doesn’t have to do it himself.”
    Everyone has an idea for a neat invention. They tell me what it will do, and leave me the easy part of figuring out how to make it happen.
    It’s all the same.

  4. I think that’s true Steven. As for Scalazi, he’s a journalist in Ohio but writes fringe sci-fi. That about covers all of it, but as with any genre there are a few stars. He’s tough on Publishamerica as is any writer worth his/her salt.

  5. Yikes, poor you. *pat-pat* I was volunteer at the SFWC this weekend and also noticed that there was a wide spectrum of experience and understanding among the attendees, though I also spoke with some savvy, driven, and talented writers. OH WELL. Anyone can attend an open conference if they have the price of admission. And I will bring up the absence of your books in the book store at the rehash meeting next week. That sort of thing is unforgivable.

  6. Hi Lee,
    I was at the conference this past weekend. I found it ‘interesting’ I’m not sure I would attend next year. I enjoyed most of the speakers. I also was looking for your books, they dropped the ball on that one.

  7. Lee, I can’t say I’m sorry you attended, since it made for yet another fabulously entertaining chunk for this fabulously entertaining blog. This ode to the 2004 conference, posted on the web site, might have been a tip off to the attendees you could expect. Or maybe not. You be the judge.
    by Deirdre Watt, a Los Angeles Pre-Published Author 2/16/04
    Skeptical was I.
    When “FIRST Annual” I read.
    Surely chaotic,
    If this be the FIRST they’ve led.
    “Poorly organized,”
    Whispered the voice in my head.
    Better off I’d be–
    Just staying in my own bed.
    Take a chance, did I,
    Though filled with apprehensive dread.
    Shocked and amazed when
    Into the first class I tread!
    Authors, journalists–
    Giving us Advanced Writer’s ed.
    Everyone focused
    Helping us to be well-read.
    Speed Dating Agents and
    Open Mic Nights kept us from bed.
    Treated like Kings and Queens,
    Pampered, coddled, and well-fed.
    “Pretty  impressive,”
    My little voice now said.
    What a conference!
    Inspiration for my head!
    And on my way home,
    A thought occurred when I fled:
    Next year at this time,
    To Ol’ San Fran I will head!
    So much fun had I!

  8. ugh. i’m debating on going to this conference since i’m less than three miles from it…but i might start a fight with anyone who tries to ask these questions during seminars.
    who knows, maybe it’ll get me the attention i need to get the right agent to read my book.
    thanks for posting this, and here’s to reading and commenting over two years later. 🙂


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