THE BLOG
03/30/2011 06:37 pm ET | Updated May 30, 2011

Write Better Stories; Go "Inside Story"

It seems everyone's looking to tell better stories these days. Peter Guber's Tell to Win and Seth Godin's All Marketers are Liars are both wildly popular and illuminate the concept for businesspeople, not just writers. As marketing becomes more about communicating to people instead of at them, the ability to tell effective stories is becoming all the more essential.

If you're a screenwriter, you're probably aware that there's no shortage of titles about telling better stories. From Syd Field's Screenplay to Robert McKee's Story to Blake Snyder's (RIP) Save the Cat, it's hard to keep them all straight.

I was first drawn to Inside Story by Dara Marks last year. It dawned on me that I was a young, cocky, (sometimes lazy) writer who didn't give basic story structure its proper appreciation. Like Christian Slater says in True Romance, "It's better to have a gun and not need it than need a gun and not have it." I figured I should learn more about structure, even if I wouldn't end up putting all of the instruction to use.

Simply put, Inside Story blew me away. It's not the type of book that tells you "on page 15, your protagonist must do this..." It's about going deeper into your stories beyond just the outer action to unify plot, character and theme into a whole. It's about your characters transforming within to ultimately satisfy the demands of the plot. It's about applying knowledge you already know in order to craft richer, more emotionally resonant stories that people will want to discuss long after the credits roll. Whether you're writing a teen sex comedy, a mainstream horror script, a branded web series or a novel, I'm confident you'll find value in Inside Story. If you're wired like me and consider a good story essential to both viewing entertainment and brand engagement, you might end up considering it a game changer.

Last weekend, I attended Dara Marks' and Deb Norton's writing workshops in Ojai, CA, as part of Ojai WordFest. Saturday was a half-day devoted to "Engaging the Feminine Heroic." It wasn't about writing female characters, but the feminine side of our nature and how it relates to storytelling. The gist of it was: Our culture is very in tune to the masculine, which is more about striving and reaching the highest pinnacle of what you can be, about building ego, about conquering the bad guys and sharing the bounty with the village. The problem with the masculine adventure existing solely in a story is that its the yin without the yang. Inner work, being the realm of the feminine, is about getting past inner blocks, fear, depression; it's about breaking apart and opening to new spaces inside, ultimately allowing for a new outward expansion. In essence, the worst stuff you've had to endure can translate to magic on the page if you're willing to be in touch with it. Getting through the shit and to the light, so to speak.

Saturday's "Engaging the Feminine Heroic" set the table well for Sunday's full-day workshop, "Inside Story: The Power of the Transformational Arc." While Inside Story doesn't focus specifically on masculine vs. feminine aspects of story, the workshop offered a new perspective for those familiar with Inside Story and an appetizer for Sunday's full-day class.

The classes weren't large, but Dara Marks is awesome in front of a crowd. Her relaxed tone and energy convey undoubtedly that what she's selling is the truth. She's dealt with hardship in her own life and she's not afraid to talk about it in order to better explain how dealing with conflict is essential to evolution -- not just for our characters but for us as, well, humans.

While I'm confident it wasn't fully intentional, the weekend turned out to be one hell of a therapy session. At several points, we were prompted to write for 6 minutes without stopping to think; the prompts were intense and served to personalize the concepts taught in Inside Story. A big lesson was that everything you need to know about writing you already know. It's about making conscious in you what you're already doing unconsciously. It might sound overly simplistic, but if you're having trouble writing subtext and you're afraid to go deeper into your own consciousness... hey, maybe that's it!!!

While I found a lot of value in the book, Save the Cat, (especially the parts about writing compelling log-lines to grab people's attention), parts of it still made me think of painting by numbers. I personally don't like to outline my first drafts. A lot of people might see that as wrong, though Marks doesn't think it's wrong at all. At one point, she asked, "How do you analyze a dream before you've even dreamt it?" She's in favor of just letting it flow at the beginning of the creative process, whatever gets it on the page. To her, it's fine if the first phase of the writing process is intuitive.

Inside Story is about sorting out the dream (aka, sloppily written first draft) and turning your subsequent drafts into a well-structured story. It's about the evolution of character anchoring the story that exists in the outside world.

I could write a lot more about the workshop, but honestly, I'm more motivated to work on my own scripts right now after attending the workshop. Hopefully, that endorsement alone will encourage you to check out Dara's site and Inside Story. (She explains it far better than I can.) Also, check out Deb Norton's site at partwild.com. (She knows what she's talking about.) If you're in southern California and love writing, be sure to check out Ojai WordFest, too.