My job was to summarize your magnum opus into a blurb. To condense your gut wrenching work into a column no larger than an obituary. To turn your hero’s journey into a stroll. To turn your feast for the imagination into an hors d’oeuvres. To take your epic and make it a limerick.
Have you ever tried to write a haiku? Ever try to right one with a three-act structure?
They gave me a pre-formatted template to write all of my coverages in. Much like a Tweet, I only had so many characters to summarize a stack of pages. I had to turn your screenplay into an elevator pitch, a talking trailer, a cinematic stanza. You know when someone says, “Just give me the cliff notes.” That was my job, to turn your rambling prose into a cliff note.
Have you ever had to give a presentation? Ever had to finish before the room burns down?
My report card determined if you were to be put on academic probation or if you made the Dean’s list. If your script sank to the bottom of the pile or if it swam across the producer’s desk. I was the bouncer who decided if you were a VIP or if we were at capacity.
My paragraph was little, but it held clout. It told the producers if your writing was mind-bending, heartbreaking, or bowel moving
Did I mention I was writing these coverages while recovering from a traumatic brain injury? Go ahead and reread the last sentence, I’ll wait. Kind of pisses you off doesn’t it. It shouldn’t. I’ll tell you why.
I was recovering from a concussion, while the other readers read circles around me. They’d type three coverages in one sitting. Meanwhile, my short term memory was limited to that of a gold fish with ADHD. It wasn’t Memento bad, but I had trouble remembering names I’d known weeks before. The information was there, it was just hidden beneath a fog, a thick white brain fart.
I needed to find a way to do the job with my memory impaired.
This is where the memory palace came in. The memory palace is a mnemonic device designed to create associations between the familiar and the unfamiliar. It creates a link between long term memories, like the house I grew up in, and short term memories, like the plot points of a screenplay.
Here’s how it worked. I had a list of nine things I looked for in every screenplay:
A good script has a clear protagonist, a hero with a strong drive, unique skill set and an inferiority complex. We like our underdogs with lofty aspirations and chips on their shoulders. You should relate, after all you’re a writer.
2. BREAK IN THE ROUTINE:
The break flips the hero’s script. Gone is the monotony of his daily grind. Gone is the safety of what he knows. Dump him. Fire him. Burn his house down. Pour sugar in his gas tank and salt the earth beneath him.
He’s spent his whole life on the bench. The time has come to put him in the game. Tell him he’s the only man for the job. Tell him he’s the chosen one. Tell him the window of opportunity is closing. Just light the fire under his ass.
The break in the routine has to do the impossible. It has to set a change into motion and the hardest thing in the world to change is a person.
We break our own routines whenever we decide to pursue a goal. Every hero needs a goal, preferably one at odds with his drive. Internal conflict is the best kind. Characters come with built in trajectories. It’s our job as writers to give them a reason to change course.
The situation is what broke your hero’s routine. Be it a series of accidents or a calculated scheme, it upset the balance. It set the stakes. Now you’re hero is stuck in it, like a marble in a Rube Goldberg machine.
The situation is the chessboard the story plays out on. It has an integral relationship with the setting, the time period, and the tone.
The situation should be just as, if not more, attractive than the hero. Pay attention to how much attention situations get in movie trailers. Sometimes the situation is the star.
Remember this rhyme, “Heroes are swell, but situations sell.”
This is the major player, the clear antagonist, the one whose goal is incompatible with the hero’s goal. They’re not a speed bump in the hero’s journey, they’re a mountain of manure. Villains are the catalyst for the conflict. We measure our hero’s worth by the strength of their villain. A good villain is free in ways we are not. We revel in their defiance of social mores and moral codes. They either live outside the law, or above it.
If the HERO is “the who,” the BREAK is “the how,” and the SITUATION is the “what,” then the CONFLICT is “the why.”
5. PLOT POINT 1:
This is the point of no return. When your hero is in too deep to turn back. When breaking from their goal would lead to ruin. When the only way out is through.
6. ACHIEVE GOALS:
The balance between hope and dread has tipped toward hope. Your hero has a shot at achieving their goal, to defeat the big bad. They’ve started to learn a lesson. They’ve started to make a change.
Alliances shift. Confidants become traitors. Enemies become allies. Your hero starts to see the error of his ways.
8. PLOT POINT 2:
This is your protagonist’s lowest possible moment. When Murphy’s law is proven. When the antagonist makes their power play and leaves your hero to die. With our hero humiliated, we the audience make such a profound connection we forget the line between the hero and ourselves.
Their goal becomes our goal. Their lesson becomes our lesson. This is where the author inserts the moral. Their epiphany becomes our epiphany.
This is when your hero rebounds, armed with the lesson they’ve learned in one hand and the change they’ve made in the other. Driven not by greed or entitlement, their cause is a righteous one. They’ve chosen their goal over their drive, they’ve been tempered into someone else, someone noble, someone confident in their abilities. The shit hits the fan. The invulnerable evil get’s bested by the underdog. Davy owns Goliath.
I should have warned you, there’d be spoilers for virtually every plot line in western storytelling.
It’s those spoilers that I plucked out of every script I read. My coverages were nine short sentences. They told you everything. It’s those nine elements I use to pitch my own stories.
How did I commit those elements to memory with my memory on the fritz? I put them someplace familiar. Someplace I knew by heart, the beige house where I grew up. Those red carpets, those foam ceiling tiles, that cartoon dinosaur wallpaper. None of that stuff was going anywhere. If I closed my eyes, I could see every door knob, every throw pillow, every power outlet.
I had to find a way to store my short term memory in the house my long term memory had built.
There were nine story elements to put into nine separate spaces. Ambling through this memory palace, I planted visual cues in every room. The bigger and more absurd they were the better.
1. The CHARACTER paced back and forth on the driveway.
2. The BREAK IN THE ROUTINE was parked beneath a tarp in the garage.
3. The SITUATION waited in the entryway with a bowl of Halloween candy.
4. The CONFLICT tumbled down the basement steps.
5. PLOT POINT 1 wandered the main hallway, a ghost with some ectoplasm to work off.
6. The hero started to ACHIEVE his GOALS in the bathroom.
7. The MIDPOINT lay comatose in the master bed room.
8. PLOT POINT 2 invaded my sister’s room to raid her closet.
9. The CLIMAX of the story took up residence in my room, lofting my bed so it could install a mini-fridge.
When I met a CHARACTER in the driveway, I didn’t imagine them as they were. I imagined them as a caricature of the statement I needed to make. If I needed to recall the phrase, “Richard is a private eye who specializes in tailing cheating spouses,” I’d imagine a giant eyeball in a trench coat with a fox tail hanging out the back.
If I needed to recall the phrase, “Murphy is a lawyer who makes his living representing paranormal patsies.” I’d imagine a defense attorney sharing a desk with a row of translucent clients.
Each of the story’s events needed to be turned into still images, showroom displays for my memory to reinterpret.
If I had to recall the phrase, “The fear event turned Pilgrim Valley’s nightmares into a reality.” I’d imagine a pilgrim with a series of tiny thought bubbles leading to a storm cloud over his buckled hat. I’d see it raining on the welcome mat. I’d catch tiny lightning strikes upending the hairs on his face.
If I had to recall a CONFLICT like, “The artist’s inspiration was taken from him by a curse in the Curator’s terms and conditions.” I’d see a dapper gentleman, dressed like Magritte’s painting The Son of Man, with a contract written on tanned flesh.
Sometimes these cues would go for a stroll. They’d venture out of their space to lead me to the next room. They’d introduce themselves to each other. One plot point would link to the next. The story would tell itself.
Trust me, notecards don’t have shit on this. There’s a reason why you remember faces over names. There’s a reason why they say, “show don’t tell.” There’s a reason why a picture is worth a thousand words. Memory is a visual medium. You want to tell stories, then think cinematically.
My screenwriting professor clocked my pitch for Savior Complex in at twenty-five minutes. That’s not an elevator pitch. That’s a trapped in line at the DMV pitch. After giving it the memory palace treatment it clocked in at two minutes and thirty-seconds. It might not be short enough for an elevator pitch, but it will work on a decent sized escalator.
Over time, my brain injury healed. My braincells fired back on. My IQ rose a few digits each month until it was almost back to normal. I was able to fill the gaps in my memory palace, to patch the bricks, to reinforce the support beams. With the renovations complete, my healing technique became a superpower.
Take it for a whirl. Break your story down into those nine elements. Create a crazy visual cue for each of them. Then store them someplace familiar. Walk through your palace, all night long, until your pitch becomes a permanent resident. You just might enjoy living with it.