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Editing Our Short [Life] Story

“Stuart Cornfeld once told me that in a good screenplay, every structural unit needs to do two things: (1) be entertaining in its own right and (2) advance the story in a non-trivial way. We will henceforth refer to this as ‘the Cornfeld Principle.” – George Saunders, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain

I don’t recall who recommended Saunder’s book to me. It was most certainly a podcast or blog somewhere along the way. On the face of it the book seems a bit academic, but it’s a delightful class in writing well using Russian short stories as the vehicle for instruction. If that sounds boring, I understand, but Saunders makes the stories come alive while informing us on the craft of building a story.

Which brings me to this observation on writing a screenplay by Stuart Cornfeld. Who can argue each point when it comes to building a story? Yet so many fall flat in one or both element. And what of building a life? Shouldn’t a life be built around joy and purpose? There’s a balance there between fully enjoying this short life and making something of our short time here, isn’t there? What do we keep in our stories and what do we eliminate? This Cornfeld Principle offers a simple template, even if the application isn’t always so simple in practice.

Stuart Cornfeld passed away last year. He’s best known for collaborations with Ben Stiller, including a joy nugget, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. I don’t know much about him other than his work, but it’s clear he brought a bit of happiness to the world in his brief go at life.

Shouldn’t we all aspire to a similar contribution? As we write our oh-so-brief life stories day-to-day, don’t we owe it to ourselves to make it both interesting and non-trivial? Whether our story becomes a page-turner of a life or a satisfying epic is up to us. Edit well.

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