September 20th, 2017

Writing Secrets from a Television Great

We can all remember that first moment we felt like we might understand "how to write a story." The excitement, and the thirst to know more more more. The writing advice moment that turned the key for me came from the late, great mystery and TV writer, Stephen J. Cannell.

Trust me, most of you have heard of his shows: The A Team, The Rockford Files, 21 Jump Street, and a dozens of others. More than a decade ago, Stephen J. Cannell spoke at my writing chapter's monthly event 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 he gets up to talk and he just looks like a Hollywood guy: sexy in a lanky way, salt and pepper hair, snappy dresser. His easy smile and raspy voice commanded attention. He was mesmerizing.

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

  • Cannell created or co-created nearly 40 television series, mostly crime dramas, and more than 300 scripts. If you look at his IMDb Bio, you won’t believe it.
  • He was dyslexic and overcame huge hurdles to be a writer.
    Example: he frequently had to dictate ideas or even complete scripts to a personal secretary and typed on an IBM Selectric typewriter unless he was doing research.
  • He would unlock the mystery of 3-Act structure for me. 
    This man had an enormous impact on me as a writer, and has shared the wealth with thousands more through his free video series.

Anyone who has hung around WITS for a while knows I'm a scene writer, a story quilter who can't write linear. I have to put the story in order separately from the writing process, which means...

When it comes to my stories, 3-Act structure is everything.

I never really understood what the heck it was until that first day Stephen spoke. I’ll never forget that moment. He stood at a podium in front of 100 writers and broke down When Harry Met Sally in easy 3-Act detail.

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, a middle and an end. The 3-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. (See the video clip if you don't remember.)

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.

This scene is full of awesome. 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.

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 bit I remember, besides my 3-Act Epiphany, was the way he’d refer to the villains in a story.

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.

On WritersWrite:

Once we get past the complication and are into Act Two, we sometimes get stuck. "What do I do now?" "Where does this protagonist go from here?" The plotting in Act Two often starts to get linear (a writer's expression meaning the character is following a string, knocking on doors, just getting information). This is the dullest kind of material. We get frustrated and want to quit. 

Here's a great trick: When you get to this place, go around and become the antagonist. You probably haven't been paying much attention to him or her. Now you get in the antagonist's head and you're looking back at the story to date from that point of view. 

If you’d like to hear his voice too, he’s got dozens of videos on his site. 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? (It's okay, you can share more than one.) Do you have any other 3-Act or story planning tips to share with the rest of us?

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About Jenny Hansen

By day, Jenny provides training and social media marketing for an accounting firm. By night she writes humor, memoir, women’s fiction and short stories. After 18+ years as a corporate software trainer, she’s delighted to sit down while she works.

When she’s not at her personal blog, More Cowbell, Jenny can be found on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, or here at Writers In The Storm.

40 responses to “Writing Secrets from a Television Great”

  1. Terry Odell says:

    Thanks for this - and the memories of hearing Cannell speak at a conference shortly before his death. His stories of what he overcame to write were inspiring. Me - I have to write linearly or I'm a wreck. I'm also more of an organic writer, and the thought of conscious structuring in the first pass makes me more of a wreck. I know I should plan more, and I've tried, but I. Just. Can't. Yet I've finished 20 books, and my editor likes them.

    • Jenny Hansen says:

      Wasn't he AWESOME? I was so impressed with how he overcame his dyslexia to do what he was meant to do. And that's okay, I can't write a book in any kind of linear fashion until the last pass. We all do what we do. And go for your 20 books!!

  2. olderwriter says:

    This was a great inspiration to me. I am having trouble with my latest book and now I know the problem is the "heavies". Yep, I need to pay attention to what the heavy is doing.Thanks.

  3. […] For my writing peeps, I’m also over at Writers In The Storm today, talking about writing secrets from a television great, including insights into 3-act […]

  4. Fantastic post and great example. Stephen Cannell was a master of his craft. When Harry Met Sally remains a favorite of mine.

  5. Kristi Rhodes says:

    Thank you for the introduction to Stephen Cannell. I enjoyed his videos and think I could listen to his advice all day. Loved this post!

  6. Just watched the "I love you" video of H & S. *sniffles* So romantic! I it's romantic because it's so specific to each character- and that makes it real. I haven't heard of Cannell and look forward to watching the videos. Thanks, Jenny! Back from the cruise yet?

    • Jenny Hansen says:

      I know!! That's the best scene ever, for precisely the reason you mentioned. It couldn't have happened between any two other characters. I'm back from the cruise and it was AMAZING.

  7. John Holton says:

    I had no idea he had passed away. Melanoma, no less. Terrible way to go.

    Cannell was a hell of a writer, and because I watch a lot of vintage TV, I see his name all the time. He makes 3-act structure sound so simple (Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back). So why is it so hard to do?

    • Jenny Hansen says:

      I don't know why proper structure is so hard, but it kinda is, isn't it? I love going back and watching vintage Cannell shows! Which ones are your favorites?

      And no, I didn't realize until I went back to him that he died of melanoma. I honestly had thought it was lung cancer from smoking. It's all miserable, but dying from exposure to sun seems the most cruel.

  8. colleen says:

    Cool, Jenny. Thanks for this intro. I'll definitely be checking out his videos. We hear about the 3-act structure often, but as a pantser, it's always good to be reminded! :O)

    • Jenny Hansen says:

      You are welcome, Colleen! He has wonderful videos, and he's such a humble man. I too am a pantser and I use the 3-act structure after the first pass of writing.

  9. I loved The Rockford Files! I'll definitely be watching his videos, thanks!

  10. Thanks for this today. I had forgotten about Cannell's videos. Love his reminders to have fun. Some days that's hard!

    (P.S. The Twitter link in your bio goes to your Facebook page.)

    • Jenny Hansen says:

      Thanks for the heads up about the link! I'll change it. (My Twitter handle is @JennyHansenCA, if anyone needs it.)

      Many days it's hard to find the fun in the writing, but when we do...my God, it is glorious.

  11. C. Clemetson says:

    This was such an awesome post Jenny! How inspiring! I'm looking forward to watching his other videos. Thanks for sharing!

  12. barbdelong says:

    Great post, Jenny! I remember his talk at OCC very well. I bought one of his books and he autographed it to my husband, who has not read it to this day. Grrr! I'll certainly check out his website! I was a big fan of almost all his TV shows back in the day.

  13. Dominique Blessing says:

    Thanks for the wonderful post! I discovered Stephen J. Cannell as an 80s teens, and he created many of my favorite shows. I had no idea he made a video series--I will definitely check it out. Though I'm familiar with the 3 Act Structure, you presented it concisely, and I jotted down notes to keep me from digressing

    • Jenny Hansen says:

      I never really understood what 3-act structure was until he explained it to me, Dominique. As a pantser, I was just fascinated that there was a way to structure a story that helped draw the readers along. Periodically, I go in and watch his videos and they never get old.

  14. Fae Rowen says:

    I loved his work. He seemed to know exactly what would click with audiences. And his talk at OCC was fantastic. Thanks for this "review" as just the right time, Jenny!

  15. LauraDrake says:

    I'm sorry to have missed him speaking - think it was before I joined. Loved his work...in awe of his 3 act structure - though it's one more of the shiny things I can't use as a total panther.

    By some miracle though (osmosis?) it comes out in my writing. Great post, Jenny.

  16. anneclermont says:

    I spent half the morning perusing his site, reading, and watching his videos yesterday. Thank you so much for this blog and for introducing me to him! I'm already inspired to keep going!

  17. carrienichols says:

    Thank you for this blog post (love Stephen) and especially for confessing you're not a linear writer. I'm not either! I wish I was because it would make my writing life much easier.

    • Jenny Hansen says:

      You are so welcome, Carrie! And yes, non-linear writing is often the pits because you get jealous of all your linear pals. But it's also super fun because you aren't so hemmed in by structure on the first pass.

  18. christopherlentzauthor says:

    Jenny, thanks for the inspiration! Looks like I have some learning to do...from a master! Sounds like he left quite an impression and legacy.

  19. Thanks for this blog post, Jenny. Stephen Cannell is someone I always looked up to for his prolific output. I forgot for awhile, but now I am reminded to get back to it! I've got a lot of catching up to do. 😉

  20. kourtneyheintz2 says:

    Love this post! Thank you. Your summary of the three act structure really helped drive it home. I love the idea of seeing things from the antagonist's POV too. Thanks!

  21. dholcomb1 says:

    loved his shows!

    the 3-act structure makes sense

    so many writers influence me...one even graced me with kindness today, one-on-one

    denise


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