— Chris Stokel-Walker (@stokel) March 1, 2019
Crime writer Jeff Maysh, originally from Bromley, London but now living in LA, joins Well Told as the final speaker of the night. His presentation focuses on stories that set social media alive and catch the eyes of both readers and film producers. His primary focus is structure and how using screenwriting methods his true crime stories are being reimagined in Hollywood.
Maysh started his career at Loaded magazine but “the less said about that the better,” he jokes.
In 2010 he left to become a freelance correspondent in America, originally covering major breaking news in the Rockies. Today, however, he freelances for publications such as The Atlantic, The Daily Beast, and Playboy.
“In 2016 I was tipped off to an amazing story about McDonald’s. The story was about an ex-cop named Jerry, who had managed to rig the Monopoly game for 12 years. Every major game prize was stolen.”
“I pitched the story everywhere, everyone said no,” Maysh says. Due to the time delay between the crime and his pitching, no one wanted to commission the story, stating it was too old. Bloomberg was all for it until they heard the date. The crimes occurred in 2011, yet Maysh was pitching in 2018.
The reason for the story falling under the radar is that the final court case occurred on 10th September 2001 and all the media attention focused on the 9/11 attacks. The story had remained untouched ever since.
Eventually, The Daily Beast commissioned the 8,600-word article and it was published in June 2018.
The story consequently became the number one top trend worldwide on Twitter. “By the Sunday things were getting a bit bizarre,” he comments. That day the story was covered on Fox News and by the evening there was a bidding war for the film rights. The story was wanted by Stephen Spielberg but eventually bought for $1m by Matt Damon, Ben Affleck and Fox.
“I’m not telling this story to tell you I was right and the editors that turned it down were wrong,” explains Maysh. He even comments on how some editors now brag that they turned ‘The McDonald’s Story’ down. His aim, he explains, is to encourage writers to not give up if they believe they have a good story that no one will commission.
Structuring the Story
“I’m obsessed with structure,” Jeff says. He describes how he turns his living room into a Sherlock Holmes-style crime scene investigation board to help him write a true-crime piece.
He uses a three-act structure to construct his stories, influenced by the ancient Greek dramas. The three-act structure is broken up into five stages. The first, he says is the set-up – where you introduce your main character, a protagonist who has a desire. “They must want something,” he explains.
Stage two introduces the protagonist into a new situation, an unknown territory in order to pursue their desire. Stage three shows the progress of the protagonist on their way to achieve their desire. This should take the reader to the halfway point of their journey and it needs a twist. The whole story changes at the midpoint, “Something completely different happens,” Maysh says.
Stage four shows the protagonist facing complications and higher stakes, often facing a major setback. The fifth and final stage is what Maysh calls the ‘final push, the end game’. He compares the four stages to sex; “stage five is a bit like the cigarette that comes after”. It should return the reader to the beginning of the story with a positive end. “The end card is the mirror image but everyone is happy,” Maysh says.
— Andrew Garthwaite (@AndGarth) March 1, 2019
The Hero’s Journey
Jeff Maysh talks about Hollywood and about narrative structure, noting the similarities of the structure of screenplays and longform. In one of his articles, the concluding part even has a kiss scene.
It is no surprise when he begins speaking about literary theorists such as Aristotle and Joseph Campbell, the latter of whom penned theory of the ‘The Hero’s Journey’, which despite it being a literary device, Maysh finds useful in shaping his narrative.
As he walks the audience through a few of his stories and how each follows ‘The Hero’s Journey’, he mentions:
The one thing separating The Murder House from other stories he had done was that it was self-published because he could not get it commissioned. It later became the most read article on Medium in 2015.
He wraps up the talk on a positive note.
“You all have stories in you that you can’t get commissioned, but I want to say, don’t give up on the stories you know in your heart are amazing. If you’ve got something on the go that you believe is a killer story, then just go ahead and write it. Publish it yourself if you have to.”
All slides from Jeff’s talk can be found on his website: jeffmaysh.com
Words by Corrie David