Writer's Workbook: Invisible Ink by Brian McDonald

September 15, 2015


"There is no art which does not conceal a still greater art." – Percival Wilde
A couple weeks ago, my husband and I spent a lazy Sunday afternoon at the movies. On the recommendation of a friend, we watched Inside Out, Pixar's most recent movie about a 12-year-old girl moving with her parents to a new city and leaving her old life behind.



Inside Out is told from the point of view of the girl's emotions: Joy, Anger, Sadness, Disgust, and Fear. I've loved Pixar films ever since the first Toy Story, and this one was no exception. The story was fresh and captivating. It created a visual landscape for abstract ideas that was easy to understand and fun to explore.

I read somewhere that Pixar spends an incredible amount of time developing stories for their feature films. Months go into putting a together a story and taking it apart to make sure every scene is clean and purposeful.

The work pays off.  While Pixar movies are visually arresting, more often than not I'm the dope sitting in the audience weeping into my popcorn about a rat seeing Paris for the first time, or a little robot singing songs from Hello Dolly, or an imaginary elephant crying tears made of candy. These movies have lots of heart. 

As a fairly new storyteller, I wanted to know...what makes Pixar movies tick? A little digging brought me to this post about Pixar's story rules, laid out by story artist Emma Coats.  Here's a sample (there are 22):
#1: You admire a character for trying more than for their successes.
#2: You gotta keep in mind what’s interesting to you as an audience, not what’s fun to do as a writer. They can be v. different.
#3: Trying for theme is important, but you won’t see what the story is actually about til you’re at the end of it. Now rewrite.
#4: Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___.
#5: Simplify. Focus. Combine characters. Hop over detours. You’ll feel like you’re losing valuable stuff but it sets you free.
#6: What is your character good at, comfortable with? Throw the polar opposite at them. Challenge them. How do they deal?
The points Coats made were so clear that I had to learn more. A little more digging led me to Brian McDonald, a story consultant who has taught classes at Pixar, Disney, and Industrial Light and Magic. I ordered his book Invisible Ink: A Practical Guide to Building Stories that Resonate

Whatever genre you write, I recommend Invisible Ink. McDonald's advice is both fundamental and practical, a reminder of things we know in our gut as storytellers to be true. The book is also a succinct catalog of the invisible forces at work behind the movies, books, and T.V. shows that stay with readers and audiences forever.

To better explain the concept of invisible ink, here's a 2005 blog post by McDonald.
Often when I listen to how people evaluate stories, I hear them talk about dialogue. When they talk about “the script” for a film they are often talking about the dialogue. Or when they mention how well a book is written, they most often mean they way the words are put together—the beauty of a sentence.

When people speak of Shakespeare’s work they almost always talk about the beauty of the language.

These are all forms of “visible ink.” This term refers to writing that is readily “seen” by the reader or viewer. They often mistake these words on the page as the only writing that the storyteller is doing.

But how events in a story are ordered is also writing. What events should occur in a story to make the teller’s point is also writing. Why a character behaves in a particular way is also writing.

These are all forms of “invisible ink,” so called because it is not easily spotted by a reader, viewer, or listener of a story. Invisible ink does, however, have a profound impact on a story. More to the point, they are the story itself. Invisible ink is the writing below the surface of the words. Most people will never see, or notice it, but they will feel it. If you learn to use it, your work will feel polished, professional, and it will have a profound impact on your audience.
McDonald also helped me view my genre in a different light. I recently stumbled upon a NYT/Women in the World article about a sociological study that "explore[s] the stigma experienced by the mostly female readers and writers of romance novels, and how they deal with it." The author quotes sociologist Joana Gregson and author Maya Rodale.
Gregson describes the community of romance writers — comprising “upwards of 90 percent” women — as “very supportive, very friendly, very optimistic.” Some of the writers they met were full-time professionals, while others found time to write while pursuing careers as lawyers, chemists and doctors....
Yet for many of these women, “the most distinctive feature of their professional lives,” Gregson writes, is feeling “belittled.”
Writers of the genre “are aware that romance is looked down upon, and that it’s something they are expected to feel ashamed of,” said Maya Rodale, a prolific romance novelist and author of Dangerous Books for Girls: The Bad Reputation of Romance Novels Explained. “One question I frequently get is, do you do this under your real name?”
Because a little shadow of this stigma lingers in the back of my mind, I enjoyed the section in Invisible Ink called "The Myth of Genre." It reminded me that good storytelling is good storytelling, no matter what its genre conventions are. McDonald writes (and damn if this isn't some of the best ammunition against romance-haters I've read in a long time)...
I believe that thinking of stories in genre terms only makes one think of how stories are different from one another instead of what they all have in common. Good drama doesn't understand the boundaries of genre. It doesn't care if someone rides a horse, a car, or a spaceship, as long as you care about the rider.
My favorite section in Invisible Ink is called "Tell the Truth."  I write erotic romance with the intention of telling stories that are fun and sexy. But I want readers to feel some truth in my books, too. 
The worst of us has good in him and the best of us has some bad. That is a truth that many of us want to deny, but as storytellers it is the truth we must illuminate.

The truth will always be sadder, happier, funnier, scarier, and more profound than the best lie. More importantly, the audience never "sees" it, but does feel it.
Wherever you are in your writing career, whatever genre you write, I recommend Invisible Ink. It's a short, profound, mighty book about storytelling and one I'll be keeping on my shelf.