Writer’s Toolkit #2

In December 2012 I attended the 28th International Papillomavirus Conference in San Juan, Puerto Rico. The second day of the pre-conference public health workshop was devoted to “The power of story: Learning storytelling techniques from Hollywood’s master storytellers.”My first news item about this workshop was about the elements of effective storytelling. This one is about tools and techniques for creating a compelling story, as presented at the workshop by Jennifer Cecil, 
Executive Producer, Private Practice (ABC).

Jennifer took us through a speed writing exercise – fabulous white hot writing – that I’d really recommend you try yourselves. Our instructions were to write for two minutes, as quick as we could, using pen and paper, about a memorable health event. Here’s what I wrote.

So the earliest health event I recall is having an earache as a child. I first had it and it went away after some pills my father gave me but it came back again and was very sore. I spoke to my mother and she was like, “Are you sure?” And I said I was but then I was worried when it eased off because I knew that my parents couldn’t really afford to take me to the doctor. So when we got to the doctor’s office and he syringed my ear and lots of green goo came out I was immensely relieved because it was a sign of how really sick I was and the money seeing him hadn’t been wasted. My most vivid memory is not so much about the earache as about this sheer relief I felt that I hadn’t ‘cried wolf’. I think my mother was also relieved that she’d taken me to the doctor as well as slightly guilty about not taking action the first time round with the earache.

We then had to go through our story and underline the most salient words; that is, the details that add to the story rather than the ones that are totally irrelevant. Here’s what I underlined.

So the earliest health event I recall is having an earache as a child. I first had it and it went away after some pills my father gave me but then it came back again and was very sore. I spoke to my mother and she was like, “Are you sure?” And I said I was but then I was worried when it eased off because I knew that my parents couldn’t really afford to take me to the doctor. So when we got to the doctor’s office and he syringed my ear and lots of green goo came out I was immensely relieved because it was a sign of how really sick I was and the money seeing him hadn’t been wasted. My most vivid memory is not so much about the earache as about this sheer relief I felt that I hadn’t ‘cried wolf’. I think my mother was also relieved that she’d taken me to the doctor as well as slightly guilty about not taking action the first time round with the earache.

We had to reflect on whether our story had an emotional though line; that is, a theme or idea that runs through it. I thought mine was possibly about health decision-making, but I’m open to suggestions.

We also had to pick a beginning and, because we were focusing on television drama writing, the advice was to try and pick a beginning as late as possible – because time is short. My thought was to start at the ‘green goo’.

This sort of exercise is great whether you’re planning to be a big name script writer in Hollywood or someone who just wants to practice writing so that your research reporting becomes a bit easier.

Contributed by Fiona Cram

Writer’s Toolkit #1    –     Writer’s Toolkit #3    –    Writer’s Toolkit #4
Writer’s Toolkit #5