An extraordinary ingredient for every story.

In yesterday’s blog, I hinted that I was going to reveal one of my “rules” of writing today, so here goes.

You’ve probably heard descriptions of basic plot structure before like, “A stranger comes to town, and everything changes,” as well as “What makes this night different from all others?”

And both of those simple statements echo between my ears every time I’m building a show from the ground up.

But here’s the other one that I came up with that helps keep me on track when I’m working on a show, or more importantly, when I’m coming up with an idea for a show.  Because if I can’t make my hero a part of what I’m going to say below, then it’s going to have a hard time getting out of the gate.

Something extraordinary happens to someone ordinary.

You see, audiences need someone to relate to.  Someone they can go on the journey with.  “I know what that guy is feeling.  I know him or her because in some way (no matter how small), I am him or her.”

And that’s the ordinary.  (I’ll use Richard Collier from Somewhere in Time as an example.  He’s a hard working writer – and he has struggled for success.  Could be a lot of folks, right?  Me?  You?  People you know?  The majority of people in some way or another?)

But then, here’s where the fun, and the fantasy, and the reason for making your show into a show (or a book, movie, video game, etc.) in the first place comes in.

Something extraordinary happens.  (In Richard’s case, he is diagnosed with a terminal illness, and then he meets the love of his life, only to find out she lived almost 100 years ago . . . and he decides to travel back in time to be with her.)

And Somewhere in Time is only one example.  Jean Valjean was just a typical French dude trying to help his sister out when he was jailed for 19 years.  Luke Skywalker was just a farm kid.

Check out your favorite shows, tv shows, movies . . . you’ll find this contrast of the ordinary person on the extraordinary journey all over the place.

Now, just make sure it’s in your shows.  Because if you do, you may just find your ordinary self with some extraordinary success.


(Got a comment? I love ‘em, so comment below! Email Subscribers, click here then scroll down to say what’s on your mind!)

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  • Ed from CT says:

    Another great post, Ken! Thanks!

  • Justin says:

    Ken! Thank you for the nod in yesterday’s Fringe list. And man you hit the nail on the head when it comes to the story of Quake. I hope to see you out at one of our shows, catching ordinary people in an extraordinary situation!

  • Julia says:

    Who is ordinary? I have yet to meet such person.

  • Derek says:

    A three-year Drama/Theater/Filmmaking course in one succinct blog post – brilliantly encapsulated, Ken! I think your points cover the absolute essence of effective storytelling
    and entertainment that really engages an audience. A slightly different take on your plotline would be a “fish out of water” story – taking an ordinary person ( that the audience can easily identify with )- and throwing them into an extraordinary situation and watching how they cope and grow – and taking the audience on the journey with them.
    The way in which the audience relates to the hero/character reminds me of something Michael Caine said. He said when he plays a character he is holding up a mirror – but he is not saying “look, this is me” – he is saying to the audience “look, this is YOU”

  • PDXComposer says:

    Seems like a perfectly reasonable writing approach. It does only provide the writer with a single goal – to write about an extraordinary event.

    No extraordinary circumstance occurs to ordinary Romeo and Juliet – and their tale is been worth retelling for centuries. There are many such examples. So this is a pretty simple, one dimensional “rule.”

    As for your example, I do not recall Richard being diagnosed as ill in the movie and no screenplay outline I find mentions this. I assume this was either in an earlier draft and cut from the movie or added by the musical librettist.

    The fact that this was added or left in created much audience confusion – for it suggests to the audience that Richard’s extraordinary experience in time travel might have been merely a result of hallucinations caused by his prescription medicines. A dialog warning by the MD character underscored this point. By using this device, the librettist specifically robbed the story of the extraordinary event of time travel and explained it away as unreal – simply the result of over-medication (or terminal illness stress.)

    Furthermore, as the movie makes clear, Richard dies of a broken heart – unable to reunite with his one true love. But, by this “terminal illness” device the librettist robbed him of this sacrifice and explained it away as the hastened result of his terminal condition.

    There are a litany of other and far more helpful “rules” that should have been applied to this example. Embracing extraordinary events is one approach but not one that will guaranty success. And confusing an audience by explaining the extraordinary event away as a drug hallucination works against the argument in favor of such a rule.

    Lehman Engel always said that a play/movie/book is worth adapting into a musical when the addition of music improves the story-telling – that the emotional expression of music makes the result better than the original. I would add that projects with an inherent surreal nature to them (such as the example given here) can be improved with the surreal inclusion of music and song. But this requires that you embrace the surreal and tell the extraordinary story as something unreal.

    As a perfect analogy, imagine that Tommy Albright interacted with the town of Brigadoon because he was drunk; that it was a hallucination brought by the DTs. How sympathetic a character is that? Would you have the audience desire he fall in love with Fiona even though she may not be real, but the result of his illness? Or would you, as the Master’s Lerner and Lowe did, embrace the surreal story and tell it straightforward.

    No audience in 1947 or since, has had a problem accepting the surreal fantasy of this hunter and his friend stumbling across a town that exists once every 100 years.

    Therefore, if the goal is to tell of an extraordinary event, then be certain you remove any device in the story which would cast doubt on the event being extraordinary.

    Another rule for this list.

    • rich says:

      I like your comment. Very astute and Ken would do well to heed your suggestion.
      I had the honor of studying with Lehman Engel throughout the 1970’s in his L.A. Workshop. He was such an inspiration. I still think about him all the time.

  • Charlie Fink says:

    All great stories have three acts. In the first act, the heroes are introduced to great fanfare. In the second, the heroes, on the verge of victory, stumble and take a fall. And in the third act, the heroes return, victorious, to win the battle.

  • Zanne Hall says:

    I’m a playwright and this is a good re-reminder where my writing is headed!

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