… the unknown element
This next one is tricky. Slippery. And, often, when you think you know it, you are wrong.
To find it requires empathy, empathy in the sense that you have to experience your work the way an audience does. The ‘it’ is the ‘X-Factor’.
To begin with, you also need to have a sense of where the work is not unique, where it is universal. This is just as important. In an era driven by narrative, one where everyone has a story, you have to know what the unique part of your story is.
On Saturday Night Live the sketch “Celebrity Jeopardy” seems to be a parody. However, it has endured because of its X-Factor. Staff writer Jim Downey has said the sketch “is about hope.” What makes the sketch work is seeing Will Ferrell’s hapless Alex Trebek character do his very best to tolerate a never-ending chain of vapid celebrities, each with his or her own quirks. And when Ferrell’s Trebek finally shares a moment with his in-sketch nemesis (Darrell Hammond as a delightfully crass Sean Connery), we secretly root for the gameshow to have an actual decent ending (while also sensing that, somehow, Trebek will have his hopes dashed yet again). Knowing the X-Factor is hope makes the whole thing work.
The X-Factor will help you shape your piece of writing. Take the movie ‘Titanic’ as an example. Even starstruck high schoolers who barely speak English know the names of Jack and Rose, the characters portrayed by Leonardo Di Caprio and Kate Winslet. The movie’s director, James Cameron, called it ‘Romeo and Juliet on a boat’.
Everyone remembers the love story. Nearly all remember the names of the lovers. Meanwhile, Cameron knew what truly captured the imagination: the ship.
The X-Factor – the unique selling point – is the sinking of the unsinkable. While letting his stars take the spotlight, Cameron writes a script to harness the X-Factor. He teases the end by starting with an elderly Rose, looking at touchstone items and reminiscing. He frames the ship on a scale so vast that it’s hard not to be in awe of its size and majesty. Later when it hits an iceberg, the director gives us every grown as the hull is ripped open, every scream as passengers realize what the audience already knows. In fact, the savage sensuality of those desperate moments forces us to suspend our disbelief. When the ship goes down, we are there.
Cameron found the X-Factor buried in his story. He used it to guide his writing. It made his script unique. So what’s the X-Factor in yours?
LEARN: Pick the last five Booker Prize winning novels as well as the last five films to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. Can you identify the ‘X-Factor’ in each of these?
USE: Never mind sensibilities or what is fashionable. Grab a premise that captivates you . . . your own personal X-Factor. Write a piece around that captivating idea.