“How do I move the needle?”

I enjoyed this video about screenwriter Dustin Lance Black’s writing process shawnblanc.net linked to today:

Black, who wrote the screenplays for J. Edgar and Milk, has a richly complex, yet clear and beautiful process for putting together his screenplays. Watching him lay out all those note cards on that giant table sparked memories, happy memories, of working on a research paper in college. I wrote an honors thesis in a religion class my senior year and used a similar process where I researched like crazy and then sorted my note cards like I was playing a delightfully challenging game of solitaire. I would rearrange and discard and rethink and see it all eventually unfold into a meaningful narrative that flowed logically and came to a satisfying conclusion.

Black has a clear commitment to digging deeply into a subject, doing meticulous, even excruciating work, and taking his time to let the story come to him. And he’s willing to let go of ideas he loves to better serve the story.

I find a similar workflow works for me in light table view in Keynote. It’s the digital equivalent for me of a table full of note cards. Analog or digital, there’s much to value in a process where you can see the big picture of a story or a project or an idea and make connections and rearrange and discard to better serve the narrative arc.

Do the hard work. Dig deep for details. Spend the time necessary to know your stuff. Then zoom out and find the big picture. That zoomed out perspective might show you a completely different direction than you had originally expected.

Of course, the big picture, the point of your work, has to begin and end with “Why?” Black says just this at the beginning of the video:

“That’s where I start, taking an idea, whether it’s fiction or non-fiction, and figuring out why. Not just what you’re going to tell, not that it’s entertaining or interesting. But why are you telling that story? What is the purpose of that story? For me it’s always, How do I move the needle? How do I change the culture? Now.”

We all want to “move the needle”, to do something worth talking about, to make a difference. I’m inspired to invest in a crisp, new stack of note cards and get busy crafting a story worth telling.