A couple of years ago I took Aaron Sorkin’s online masterclass on screenwriting. I’m not a screenwriter, I’m just a huge fan of his and a firm believer that, by and large, writing is writing, regardless of the medium. The course mostly focused on things like storytelling, dialogue, and character development, but the most impactful lesson, for me, was about how to approach story structure.
Sorkin asks his students to visualize their story as a clothesline. At either end of that clothesline is an intention and an obstacle.
For any story to work, there needs to be a character that wants something (the intention) and there has to be something that gets in the way (the obstacle). If both of these are interesting enough, then the clothesline is pulled taut. At this point, the writer can hang as many things from it as they want: conversations, side stories, plot twists, intellectual tangents, you name it. But if the intention and the obstacle aren’t interesting enough, if they don’t keep the viewer wanting more, then the clothesline has too much slack, and those aforementioned things–conversations, side stories, what have you–start to weigh the clothesline (i.e. the story) down.
In other words, if the driving action of a story is compelling, the writer is freed up to add in as many colorful touches as he or she wants without losing the viewer’s interest. That’s when you have them.
“I worship at the altar of intention and obstacle,” Sorkin says.
If Every Blade of Grass is any indication, so does Thomas Wharton.