Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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December 9, 2011

Writing Advice From Famous TV Writer, Stephen J. Cannell

by Jenny Hansen

Today, I’d like to introduce you to the late, great mystery and TV writer, Stephen J. Cannell. Trust me, most of you have watched his shows.

As many of you know, all of us at Writers In The Storm are blessed by geography to live near an active RWA chapter that gets incredible speakers.

Several years back, Stephen J. Cannell came to our monthly event to speak and there was a huge flurry of excitement. At the time, I hadn’t a clue who he was, but I still got caught up in the buzz.

So Mr. Cannell gets up to talk and he just looks like a Hollywood guy: sexy in a lanky-guy way, salt and pepper hair, snappy dresser. His easy smile and raspy voice commanded attention.

Here’s what I know now that I didn’t know when I arrived at the meeting that day:

Obviously this man changed my life and had enormous impact on me as a writer.

When it comes to a story, 3-Act structure is…everything. And I never quite understood what it was until that first day Stephen spoke. I’ll never forget that moment, when he stood at a podium in front of 100 writers and broke down When Harry Met Sally in easy 3-Act detail. He did a few other movies, but this post is going to be long enough as it is, so we’re sticking with my favorite one.

A paraphrase of Cannell’s description of When Harry Met Sally:

When I ask young writers what 3-Act Structure is, they say it has a beginning, middle and an end. This is not the answer. A lunch line has a beginning, middle and an end. The Three-Act structure is critical to good dramatic writing, and each act has specific story moves.

Take the movie, When Harry Met Sally. The First Act is all about the hook, or the premise. In this case, it’s that “men and women cannot be friends.” So you’ve got the set-up where they meet and then decide they’re not going to be friends.

Act Two opens with Harry and Sally meeting up again in the bookstore and slowly becoming good friends. Their friendship becomes the single most important thing in their lives and the worst thing in the world would be to lose it. The scene in the wedding is the dark moment climax of Act 2 because it is the end of their friendship as we know it.

They’re off to the side of the reception, speaking in furious whispers about why they’ve been at odds since the night they had sex:

Harry Burns: You know how a year to a person is like seven years to a dog?
Sally Albright: Is one of us supposed to be a DOG in this scenario?
Harry Burns: Yes.
Sally Albright: Who is the dog?
Harry Burns: You are.
Sally Albright:I am? I am the dog? I am the dog?

The scene ends with her slapping him across the face, saying, “F*ck you, Harry!” and storming away. The curtain closes on Act Two because the WORST thing has happened…the two of them are no longer friends.

Act Three is the “clean up” act, the resolution to your story. In this case, it’s all about Harry trying to get back into Sally’s good graces so the two of them can be friends again, just as they were. Sally’s having none of it.

Finally, on New Year’s Eve, Harry has his turning point and we get the final scene of the movie where he runs through New York City to get to Sally before midnight. When he sees her at the party, he gives his now famous "I love you" speech:

Harry Burns: I love that you get cold when it's 71 degrees out. I love that it takes you an hour and a half to order a sandwich. I love that you get a little crinkle above your nose when you're looking at me like I'm nuts. I love that after I spend the day with you, I can still smell your perfume on my clothes. And I love that you are the last person I want to talk to before I go to sleep at night. And it's not because I'm lonely, and it's not because it's New Year's Eve. I came here tonight because when you realize you want to spend the rest of your life with somebody, you want the rest of your life to start as soon as possible.

If you want to wallow in the brilliance of When Harry Met Sally dialogue, click here.

I don’t know if this quick breakdown turned the lightbulb on for you, but it sure did for me the first time I heard it. To see Stephen Cannell’s “official description” of 3-Act structure click this post – he does a fantastic breakdown of the movie, Love Story.

More Stephen Cannell Trade Secrets:

Cannell discusses a myriad of “trade secrets” in this entire series on writing that he did on WritersWrite.com. But the main piece of advice that I remember, besides my 3-Act Epiphany was the way he’d refer to the villains in a story. I can hear his voice in my head right now.

He called his bad guys “the Heavies” and he was brilliant with them. It’s no surprise to me why his television shows were so wonderful. Whenever, he’d get stuck in a story, he’d ask himself, “What are ‘the Heavies’ doing?” Once he wrote the story from their angle for a while, he’d get back on track.

If you’d like to hear his voice too, he’s got more than 60 videos recorded on YouTube. Here’s some simple, yet sage advice from the man himself.

Advice for Aspiring Writers by Stephen J. Cannell

If Stephen Cannell is a new discovery for you, enjoy! He’s awesome. His mantra was: “be honest, be sensitive, be reasonable, be fair and you can succeed marvelously in business and in life.” Go, Steve.

Who has made the biggest impact on your writing life? Do you have any other 3-Act or story planning tips to share with the rest of us?

About Jenny Hansen
Jenny fills her nights with humor: writing memoir, women’s fiction, chick lit, short stories (and chasing after the newly walking Baby Girl). By day, she provides training and social media marketing for an accounting firm. After 15 years as a corporate software trainer, she’s digging this sit down and write thing.
When she’s not at her blog, More Cowbell, Jenny can be found on Twitter at jhansenwrites and here at Writers In The Storm. Every Saturday, she writes the Risky Baby Business posts at More Cowbell, a series that focuses on babies, new parents and high-risk pregnancy.

0 comments on “Writing Advice From Famous TV Writer, Stephen J. Cannell”

  1. Thanks for the wonderful post. He was a truly gifted, yet humble man, open to new writers, generous. I'm off to follow his other video clips on Youtube.

    1. Oh, you're going to have SUCH a great time watching them. It's really sweet because he has his daughter, Chelsea Cannell introduce most of them. You can tell she loves her daddy.

  2. Thanks so much Jenny! As a newbie writer, I'd not been exposed to Mr. Cannell. There is some wonderful information here. I am always remotely aware of the 3 Act structure, and think of it as a meta template. It informs when in the story stuff should happen, but after reading your article, I am itching to learn more about it. Thanks for always writing a column that leaves me better informed and thinking.

    1. Derek, I'm happy to pass on the 3-Act treasure I received from Mr. Cannell. I hope you click all the links in the post. His series on WritersWrite helped me tremendously.

  3. Jenny, you just hit a vital nerve in my electrical system! I have ranted into nauseum that what we do is not "just write" but create what I love to call mixed-media. There is a direct connection to our muse from the sights and sounds, the structure and plot archs of movies and television. I didn't do it with a conscious thought, but with a keen sense of what I love so dearly about story telling, and I have absorbed them as seriously as I have books.

    I am one of those people who are still sitting when the movie theatre has emptied. Reading the credits and watching for all the main players. I remember the producers, writers and directors who are seen at the opening, I wait for the music credits. I used to look up TV and movie people and with the help of the internet, I have enjoyed so many hours of reading about my fav TV and screen writers. Another good one is Donald Bellesario, who many say was inspired by Cannell (Rockford and Magnum).

    I also have heard him and looked him up. I enjoyed his jaunt into Castle the year before he passed. We lost one of the great ones. Thanks for the memory 🙂

    1. Hi Florence! I'm delighted anytime I hit any vital nerves with you. 🙂 I'm totally one of those credits people - I want to know who did what all the way down to the caterers.

      Thanks for the comment - we so appreciate you here at WITS!

  4. Thanks Jenny,
    I went to that meeting with him in Brea and it changed my life as well. He was gracious, accomodating and fascinating to listen to. He genuinely loved writing. Thanks for the post.

    1. Oh, Craig, I'm so glad you got to see him live! It was such a treat, and life changing. You're very welcome. It was nice for me to visit with him again.

  5. What a wonderful post. Thank you so much for the links to his lectures.
    We all grew up watching his shows, seeing him toss the paper in the air from his typewriter at the end of each episode. I caught a repeat of the Rockford Files a few weeks ago and the writing still holds true, (I'm not so sure about those bell bottom pants though.)
    I'm going to re-watch those videos today.

    1. LOL, on the bell bottoms. Oh my God, those 70's clothes were deadly, weren't they?

      Please come back and give us links if any of the videos particularly speak to you. 🙂

  6. Stephen J. Cannell was such a great writer not because he was brilliant (as he says from his video), but because he overcame his crap and wrote. He didn't just talk about it or whine that he was dyslexic, he sat down and did the hard work. Not only that, but he's one of the best guys to have around if you're a new writer. Some established writers don't have time for the newbies, but not Stephen J. When Castle had him in the poker scenes, I loved watching him interact with other guys. He's just so darn awesome.

    1. I agree, Tameri. He just sat his but down and wrote. And he's right, all of us worry about being brilliant enough. And it doesn't matter - done is better than good. I love what he says about writers liking to "have written." LOL...

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