Secrets of Story Structure – Interview with Hollywood Writer Eric Luke

Writer and director Eric Luke has worked on films for Paramount, Disney, and Fox TV.  He’s the writer of the science-fiction cult classic Explorers, which starred Ethan Hawke and the late River Phoenix

I recently chatted with Eric about story development and narrative structure, as well as his latest project, the self-aware audiobook Interference.

How did you get into screenwriting?

I’ve wanted to make movies ever since I can remember.  I picked up the family wind-up 16mm camera, started shooting, and very quickly found out I’d need a narrative to keep people interested.  The first scripts were more like verbal storyboards, and I’ve always tried to hang onto that: just enough description to get an image into the reader’s head, then onto the next and the next: a really fast read.  M. Night Shyamalan talks about the Sixth Sense script where he rethought the format: sentence fragments to keep the pace as fast, as visual as possible.

When I graduated from UCLA film school, the only way into the industry without a really slick, really expensive reel was to write a spec script and pitch it, and that’s when I seriously started hitting the keyboard every day: as a way to be able to make the movies that were in my head.

Where did the idea for Explorers come from?

I was driving home from a frustrating job editing Special Effects in North Hollywood, literally looked up at the moon and was hit by the idea.  When I was kid the first NASA moon shots were happening and everybody’s imagination was captured.  I used to sit in an empty garbage can and pretend with my brother and sisters that we were launching it into space.

So the idea was to recapture that childhood feeling when anything was possible, when your imagination was more real than the world around you.  It was about trying to bring that particular childhood dream to life, make it come true in the real world, and the reel world of course.

Once you had the idea, what steps did you take to develop it into a story?

I ran it through a series of science fiction requirements: what would it take for kids to actually launch themselves into space?  Couldn’t be propulsion or they’d be flattened; they’d need protection from that harsh, airless environment: the cosmic rays, the temperatures, etc.  A lot of the character and plot points came from addressing those problems, and then developing them into something entertaining.  The three kids were based on friends I had at that age, and the particular ones who had the skills to actually build a spaceship.

It’s pretty rare for a screenplay to make it into production, let alone become a beloved cult classic like Explorers.  How did this happen?

It almost DIDN’T happen.  My original agent rejected it, I went to another agency, they sent it out and all the studios didn’t get it.  Then a producer responded, I did a rewrite, it got sent out to particular executives and one at Paramount really liked it.  It got picked up and I was put on a studio contract, something pretty much unheard of now.  Then it was passed on by a whole list of directors until Joe Dante signed on.  It was a tortuous route but it all led to production.

It was a strange film in the end, too.  It wasn’t a hit initially, but I’ve met many people over the years who remember it fondly as one of their childhood favorites.  It hasn’t evaporated from the public consciousness, which has been really gratifying.

Explorers: Ethan Hawke, River Phoenix, and Jason Presson.

For people my age, Explorers was one of those films that every kid was talking about.  And even today, it still holds up really well.  Is it true that you had a cameo in it?

It’s true.  We needed a teacher who was a complete jerk and somehow I got cast.  Hmm.

How important is structure to telling a great story?

In some ways structure  is the most important part of any narrative.  And the dance between instinct and structure.  Planning a narrative you find yourself shifting back and forth between inspiration (a great idea for a scene) and structure (how does this fit in?).  It’s a constant struggle between right and left brain, isn’t it?

In your experience, is there any specific structure that lends itself really well to telling a story?

It’s different for every story.  If it’s a big canvas like INTERFERENCE, you want a mosaic structure: several independent, intersecting story lines.  If the plot involves memory, do you want parallel timelines running?  If it’s a smaller, more intimate story, you probably want one point of view, but do you want to cut outside that to an omniscient narrator?  Will you lose focus by doing that?  You constantly question your original concept of the structure to make sure you’re not stagnating, that the reader will be surprised not only by the plot, but by how it’s revealed.

You said that there’s a tension between inspiration and structure.  Can you elaborate on that?

I go through a period when the “big idea” first pops into my head where I try not come up with a structure at all.  If I consciously keep things loose, like pinning index cards randomly to a bulletin board, you give yourself the freedom to fully explore the whole concept, take it to places it might not have gone otherwise.

There’s lots of great software out there to capture ideas in this stage.  My favorite is Scrivener, because it helps you move to the next stage:  as you look at all the ideas, you feel the structure emerging, to involve as many of your favorite ideas, scenes, dialogue, etc, as possible.  And the ones that don’t fit start to become obvious.  Sometimes you have to get rid of your favorites because they’ll actually weaken the story.

Then once you’ve got the structure, it can actually suggest more scenes to illustrate missing parts of the plot.  That’s where the balance comes in: it tips back and forth. Great scene: necessary plot point: back again.

How is structuring a novel different from structuring a film?

Writing a novel is a luxury.  You get to craft moments, passages, play with the actual language.  A novel is the finished product; you’re writing the actual word that the reader will see, perceive, adopt, and hopefully transform into an image or emotion.  A screenplay is a blueprint for the final product: the film. You’re writing for the studio, the director, the actor, trying to get them to imagine the movie in your head.  It’s all about economy, shorthand.  How can I get this image, this cinematic moment, into the reader’s head in the shortest amount of time, create a film experience for them through reading?  Lots of short, choppy sentences.  Lots of visual images.  No poetic passages.  Maybe a few.  Very few.  Like.  That.

Film structure is very strict and sometimes confining.  It has to work like a well-oiled machine because it’s so brief and fast.  The three act structure (four acts if you’re James Cameron) is sometimes obvious, and clunky at its worst, because you have so little time; one scene has to lead directly to the next at a rapid clip, with little or no time to stop and explore.  With a novel you feel the same highs and lows, the general act structure, but again, you have the luxury of exploring how you get there.  A character can literally sit and think about what’s going on, make a decision, and it can be one of the most dramatic scenes in the book.  That rarely happens in film because it’s an almost purely visual medium.  The ability to write interior drama makes all the difference, even affecting big structural changes.

What is INTERFERENCE?   

INTERFERENCE is an audiobook about an audiobook… that kills.  (to be said in deepest, raspiest voice possible.)

It’s “meta horror” because it’s self-aware, self-referential: you’re listening to the same thing that the characters are listening to.  I was able to incorporate all sorts of audio production that plays with the levels of reality.   When the Voice of the Narrator, the Unknown Evil at the heart of the horror concept, talks to the characters, it’s addressing you too at points.  When the characters hear bursts of static that become a trigger for mayhem, you hear that static in your own ear buds.  The effect is very creepy and I think keeps the listener off-balance.  It works well on the page, but it’s really meant to be downloaded and listened to as an audiobook, just as the characters are doing. Response has been great; the download numbers keep climbing.

How did the idea for this project come to you?

I got the idea from listening to the self-recorded audiobooks at Podiobooks.com.  The authors are almost always impassioned, completely devoted to their creative vision, published or not.  I realized that during the many hours you spend listening to an audiobook, you develop an intense, personal connection with the narrator.  On some level it reminds you of being read to as a child, before you could read by yourself.  Well, what if the narrator was in some way exploiting this?  What if this Voice was aware of your life, and was trying to manipulate you through the narrative?  The concept grew from there, and the idea to record it as a self-recorded audiobook: the exact thing that’s inspiring fear in the narrative.

What were some of the challenges of structuring this particular story?

It needed scope.  It’s about four characters and the effect that the central horror conceit, the Voice of the Narrator, is having on their lives in different ways: seduction, blackmail, threat, emotional bullying.  So the mosaic novel structure was the best way to go.

George R R Martin does this extremely well, of course.  You see the whole plot through many different lenses, points of view, so you simultaneously get intimate character development and become involved in solving the puzzle of what’s going on because each character is only aware of their piece of the story.  It draws you in.  The danger is that you’re thrown off balance by skipping between four or five narratives, but you also get to write chapters that lead up to cliff-hangers that don’t get resolved until you cut back to that character again.  It’s a great way to propel the plot.

How can someone listen to INTERFERENCE?

INTERFERENCE is available free on iTunes here.

For more info, including future projects, my website is Quillhammer.com

Finally, do you have any practical tips for a writer who is having a hard time working out the structure of his story?  Is there any sort of system or method that you would recommend?

I’ve tried a lot of the approaches that are out there, including Dramatica, and finally realized I was always coming back to Scrivener.  It’s not so much a story system as the perfect organizational Inbox.  It catches all your loose ideas and then helps you organize them, mine the structure, with complete flexibility.

I think each story creates its own approach, but one of the most important phases is that initial time when ideas are just going off in your head like fireworks.  Anything you can do to enable that is most important.  And anything you’re doing that limits it is the worst thing you can do to a story.

Keep your mind open as long as you can before you decide on a structure.  That way you’re sure you’ve explored just how good it can be.  You might pick a direction and miss a whole better story.  Keep stepping away from it and looking at the big picture.  Then have a cup of coffee, put in your earbuds and go for a walk.  That’s the best method I’ve come up with.

Question for Our Readers:

How do you go about structuring your stories?  Do you follow a purposeful structure, or let things fall where they may?

Antonio del Drago is a writer, philosopher and professor. His latest book, The Mythic Guide to Characters: Writing Characters Who Enchant and Inspire, is now available.

19 Responses to Secrets of Story Structure – Interview with Hollywood Writer Eric Luke

  1. Nice interview and insights. I hope it’s not too late to ask another question… Mr. Luke, What about ‘narrative structure’ in a serialized format? 
    If someone’s been given complete creative freedom over, let’s say, a comic book miniseries or ongoing, How should a story’s structure be best approached? I mean, in Ghost, for example, the division between acts seemed to change from issue to issue… The first 10 or 12 issues come to mind… Excellent setup and conflict in the first 3 issues, then issues #4 and #5 kind of “arbitrarily modified” the whole structure… But then, the excellent #6 and 7 issues presented us again with a phenomenal rising conflict that, again, kind of became stagnant on issue #8, and then concluded way too fast in issue #9… In this way, I experienced several of what can be called “1st & 2nd acts iterations” which somehow kept my interest unitl issue #22 when I decided I’d never know the truth surronding Elisa Cameron’s death. How did you decide when to make the cut between acts?

  2. Listened to most of Interference today (I’ll finish tonight). Loving it so far. Thanks for bringing this one to my attention.

    • @Stephanie  Thanks for listening Stephanie.  A lot of thought/work went into the recording/production so it’s great to have your response.   Tell any friends you think would like it.  : )  I’m at work on the next one, which will be set in the same “universe” so be sure to check back, or Like my page on Facebook for updates:  
      http://www.facebook.com/Quillhammer

  3. Thanks for the writing tips and practical insights!  I never saw ‘Explorers” but I’ll try to check it out now!  It’s my dream to someday see one of my works on the big screen!  =)

    • JulieTran20 Thanks Julie.  EXPLORERS was my first big break and will always be an important memory for me.  I learned a lot, and it launched me down the road of life.  And a lot of personal childhood memories were written into it.  Maybe there’s a lesson there about what subjects to explore in projects?  Anyway, INTERFERENCE is a darker, more intricate work, but was just as much of a blast to write.  Check it out if you have the time.  : )

  4. INTERFERENCE sounds wonderful.  I am going to check it out tonight.  Eric — Has there been any interest yet from Hollywood studios for a theatrical version?  I can see this being made into a very creepy psychological thriller/horror film.  If it was, would you like to do the screenplay, or let someone else take over that task?

    • GonzoJuano Thanks for checking it out, and for commenting.  The concept from the beginning was that this would make a great, low-budget, smart sci-fi thriller (which is an encouraging trend recently, with Inception leading the way.)  The road to production is a long, bloody one, and the first step is NUMBERS: of listeners, readers, interested people, so with the downloads building (32,000 so far) I hope to take the numbers to industry contacts and get them to give it a listen.  Then it’s a roll of the dice.  It’s a different world than when Explorers was picked up, and social media is a powerful but mysterious tool.  No one knows what it really means yet: viral hits are so random and really can’t be manufactured.  They have to be discovered.  But you can put your writing out there in as many ways as possible, to help make that discovery happen.  I still have faith that quality will be recognized, in whatever form! And yeah, I’d love to do the screenplay. : )

  5. I really enjoyed this, thanks! I recall a similar interview on writing a novel by Stephen King in which he discussed his approach to setting and character development and it’s relation to story structure. A while back someone told me to write spec scripts if I wanted to break into screen writing, especially since very few schools in my neck of the woods offer anything remotely approaching writing for the screen. :(

    • @Kim T Thanks for the comment Kim.  A Stephen King reference!  I’ll take it.  : )  Another thing you can do to develop your craft is get a small group of writers together for a read-through when anybody’s got a script.  I’ve belonged to a group for years: great emotional support for ongoing efforts, but most important is the process of hearing your words read out loud.  You find out fast what works and what doesn’t.  But choose your members wisely: very easy to hurt feelings if not careful.  Or… it’ll help you develop a bulletproof ego, which is sometimes absolutely essential!

  6. Awesome to be able to hear first hand how professionals get it done! As for how to structure a story when writing it, that is something I could likely do better on. I tend to start with a general idea, and plan out the structure as I go. Often when I read over it later, I will still change a few things. As Eric Luke said above, “the dance between instinct and structure”, that is definitely a bit of a challenge!

    • RuthMartin1 Thanks for comment!  Leaving the structure loose as long as possible makes the process more fun for me: leaves your imagination open for more, crazy ideas from left field, one of which might be the best yet. : )

  7. @Betty Completely agree about structure.  Actually, it’s where I start most concepts, after that initial idea bomb goes off, and the characters grow from there: what person would be the best fit for this part of the plot?  Given those (mostly) loose requirements, the characters start to take off on their own, if you’re lucky.

  8. Mr. Luke,
    When talking about the difference in structure between writing novels and writing screenplays in the above interview, you say “The ability to write interior drama makes all the difference.”
    With that thought in mind, I’d like to ask:  Is the first-person point of view a better choice for a writer who wants to emphasize a particular characters inner conflict?

    • @Sparkie Thanks for the great question.  First or third person is a big question.  They both have advantages/disadvantages.  First person can put you right inside a character’s head; it makes you think, moment to moment what it would be like to stand in their shoes.   The disadvantage is that the plot is limited to what the character knows/doesn’t know.  It’s awkward to switch to omniscient narrator for plot points.  There are devices like a found diary or something that works in first person narration, but you lose the immediacy of action; you’re reading something after the fact.  Third person interior drama (what I mostly use) works well too, but loses some of the in-your-face raw emotion that first person can achieve.  It’s basically a personal choice.  Hope that helps. : )

  9. First off, let me say the concept for INTERFERENCE has piqued my interest.  I’m going to go download it later tonight.  
    I have a question regarding finishing projects.  Oftentimes, I start writing something and then for whatever reason my interest wanes.  Then I’ll start working on something else or I get discouraged with the path I’m on and give up.  In regards to your screenplays and other works, what helps you push through to the end and keep you on task?  
    Second question:  Do you find that drawing from real life people (as you did with Explorers) is the best way to flesh out characters or have you found other methods that work for you as well?

    • The_Drill99  Thanks for checking out INTERFERENCE. : ) 
      Finishing a project: it’s the writer’s curse, isn’t it?  I find that artificial deadlines you set for yourself, even if no one’s waiting for the project, are a must.  NaNoWriMo is excellent for this: a readymade community, sheer word count and a finished project.  What more does a writer need?  : )   Also, commit to finishing whether you hate it or not, because at some point you always WILL hate it (at least I always have.) Once you commit, your inner editor can keep you on task while your inner writer does everything in the world to get out of it: raid the fridge, browse every site on the web, check the Tivo, catch up on old podcasts, on and on…  A hard deadline effectively cuts through all this bs and gets the job done. 
      The real life character question: even if the character isn’t completely someone you’ve known, I base character motivations, actions, dialogue on moments I’ve had with people throughout my life.  Real people will always surprise you, which is what you hope for from characters.  You get those amazing moments when a character says/does something unexpected, and you realized it makes perfect sense.  That’s when you know they’ve come to life.  
      Thanks again for the questions, and hope you enjoy INTERFERENCE.

Leave a reply

CommentLuv badge