Most people who claim to be story tellers tend to have a hard time actually telling a story if they're put on the spot. Just try it. The next time someone says "I'm a storyteller" politely ask them "can you tell me a story?" and see what they say. My guess is that they will have a hard time coming up with a prepared story or even a new story and if they were to recite a memory from something that happened even earlier that day. My guess is it would involve so many rambling details that your attention would have a hard time holding on.
We all know natural story tellers in our lives, whether they be aunts, uncles, friends, colleagues etc. The truth is that besides a select few, most people can't tell a good story to save their lives. To be caught in a “bad conversation” style story is as uncomfortable as sitting in the theatre in a bad movie; they may be different but they tend to fail and succeed in very similar ways.
An example of a conversational style story from someone without an understanding of the building blocks of storytelling may sound something like this:
"So I travelled all the way across the city, in the worst traffic I think we've ever seen and we show up to the house and absolutely nobody was there! No lights. No cars. Nothing. Here we were, expecting a full surprise party for our friend James and we're left in the middle of nowhere with no cell reception and nobody there to ask whats going on. The party was set up by James' friend Cathy, who we got the directions from. Cathy's husband is Todd... Todd... whats Todd and Cathy's last name again? Todd went to school with your cousin Frances. You know the guy. He's tall, drives a grey minivan..."
...and so on and so on.
Some questions to someone listening to this story may be:
1. Does it really matter that I know Todd's last name?
2. Do I even have to know Todd's first name?
3. Isn't this a story about James and his party? And you getting lost? What happened after?
This way of thinking may come natural to some people but is definitely a skill to most. We learn it by wondering "How do you tell a good story? What keeps people attention... and why?"
Knowing whats wrong with a bad story just isn't enough. Omitting the wrong details does not guarantee the presence of the right details.
ex: In a diet, NOT eating french fries doesn't guarantee that you DO eat your vegetables
It's crucial to know in your mind what will support and build the story you'd like to tell. And whether or not that story is honestly worth telling.
So what makes your story worth telling?
It's often worth asking yourself honestly at the start, is the story that you're about to tell worth telling and would I want to hear it if I wasn't the one telling it? Why or why not?
If this story is going to be made into a movie then it's important to ask yourself:
is this event one of the most important things that have ever happened to your lead character?
Is this the pivotal turning point in their lives?
Is this story relatable to your audience? If so, in what way? Circumstantial/primal/societal?
So what is storytelling then?
"Storytelling -- is joke telling. It's knowing your punchline, your ending, knowing that everything you're saying, from the first sentence to the last, is leading to a singular goal, and ideally confirming some truth that deepens our understandings of who we are as human beings." - Andrew Stanton (Writer at PIXAR)
Story theory can be thought of like music theory; there are chord progressions, tempos, BPM's for a good reason. Because they sound so damn good AND because it works.
At the beginning, nobody is really above traditional structure. It's good to know how things have traditionally fit together in the past and why some things often work and some things often don't. We can use this information to dissect our favourite movies and stories and see why we enjoyed them and why exactly they resonated with us so much.
When looked at carefully, any narrative story can be broken down into pieces that make up the whole. In a traditional film or play those pieces tend to be 3 acts. Those 3 acts are broken into scenes then finally those scenes are broken up into what are called beats. Beats keep the pace of the story like they would in a song. They count along throughout each action, pacing through the growth of the characters as well as the pace of the actions.
After learning about this basic structure, its easy to make the biggest mistake you can in storytelling. Before even getting used to doing it any other way, lets step in and learn this lesson together. Trey Parker and Matt Stone; the brilliant minds behind South Park and Team America describe the relationship between beats as a causal relationship.
What does that mean?
"we can take these beats, which are basically the beats of your outline, and if the words (and then) belong between those beats… you’re fucked. Basically. You got something pretty boring. What should happen between every beat that you’ve written down is either the word “therefore” or “but”.
So what I’m saying is, you come up with an idea and its like….
This happens (and then) this happens
No no no. It should be
This happens (therefore) this happens (but) this happens (therefore) this happens"
“(but, because, therefore)… that gives you the causation between each beat. and thats a story"
Character Archetypes -
No matter what, your characters will generally fall into some sort of category. Their actions and beliefs cause them to be somewhat stereotyped in how they interrelate with the other characters in the story. Perspective is everything in determining whether a character is a protagonist, antagonist, sidekick etc.
eg. The protagonist is determined by the story revolving around them and their challenges, its their story that we're following. If we switched the audiences perspective to a supporting character for the entire story then that character would become the protagonist. The story would then be about them and have the other characters somehow support their journey.
Heres a writing exercise that I've done:
Describe, in as much detail as possible, one of your memories. Think of the most exciting thing thats ever happened to you and then write a short detailed story about this memory. Once you've written it down, notice if there are any other people in this story throughout the entire thing. If there is, write that same timeline from their perspective and see how the story changes.
Genres can look a bit different from a writing perspective then they do from a marketing perspective. These genres can be a self imposed structure or a structure that you follow from a traditional model. Just like the real world principles that guide our lives, the same is true that our stories rest on the principles of storytelling. Our characters follow the rules of their universe just as we follow the rules of ours.
Note* most people avoid this due to the fear of being cliche, this is a good thing to keep in mind so these are just good to use as starting points.
In Blake Snyder's book 'Save the Cat' he takes another approach at genres by renaming and re-categorizing them into something that can feel more familiar to new writers.
1. DUDE WITH A PROBLEM - Every story, in essence, is about a “dude with a problem.” But this particular genre dictates a certain type of problem: one that is life-or-death and immediate, that must be solved through some sort of physical battle, right now. The whole movie is essentially a chronicle of that battle (which might consist of a series of mini-battles). Think Die Hard, Bourne Identity, Misery, 2012, or Apollo 13.
2. GOLDEN FLEECE - This often seems to be the “catch-all” genre when no other will fit. But it, too, has its own specific requirements that must be met for it to really work. The key is that the main character’s “team” is chasing a very clear and definable “prize” that seems unreachably hard. You’ll know the movie is over, because they’ve achieved the prize, or not. Often, I find in scripts purporting to be a “Fleece” that the “prize” is unclear, or not big or challenging enough, and the journey toward achieving it thus not as compelling as it could be. Think The Bad News Bears, Finding Nemo, Saving Private Ryan, Ocean’s Eleven, or Cast Away.
3. BUDDY LOVE - All movies have relationships with problems. But it’s not a “Buddy Love” unless the main problem of the movie has to do with a key relationship that seems essential to the main character, which is threatened by something. “Will they or won’t they end up together?” is the central question of the movie, and the main issue that is explored throughout. Think The Black Stallion, Starsky and Hutch, Pretty Woman, Mr. & Mrs. Smith, or An Officer and a Gentleman.
4. INSTITUTIONALIZED - Just because a story takes place at an “institution” of some sort, does not make it fit this genre. And the “institution” does not have to be literal. The question is whether there is a group with its own rules and norms that the main character is exploring the costs and benefits of membership in – and ultimately deciding whether they want to be a part of it or not. It’s about deciding who they want to be in relationship to it, and the risks and reward of same. Think Full Metal Jacket, Goodfellas, Office Space, The Devil Wears Prada, orCrash.
5. RITES OF PASSAGE - Similarly, just because a character is going through some sort of rite of passage (in the generic sense) does not mean it meats the criteria for this genre. The key here is that it is a relatable life problem (like adolescence, divorce, mid-life, loss of a loved one, or addiction), which the main character is avoiding by chasing something else. They are clearly on a wrong road, as they spend most of the movie in pursuit of some challenging goal that is entertaining to watch, but not ultimately going to work out well. Finally, they’re left having to face life after all, hopefully having learned something in the process. Think 10, The War of the Roses, Ordinary People, Trainspotting, or American Pie.
6. SUPERHERO - The key here is a nemesis and problem that is seemingly bigger than they are. It’s never compelling watching amazing people (real-life or made up) succeeding over and over again. Good stories are always about characters being pressed to their limits and overmatched – in hell, essentially – until the very end. (I cannot say this strongly enough. Stories are about dealing with big problems that only get worse when you try to deal with them. So are scenes, most of the time. This is the main issue that I work with on almost every story – making sure it’s a compelling problem that is big enough, hard enough, and complicated enough to take a whole movie to solve.) Think Erin Brockovich, the Harry Potter series, The Matrix, Gladiator or Spider-Man.
7. OUT OF THE BOTTLE - The “magical” catalyst should cause complications and challenges that never would’ve been there without it. Again, they make the hero’s life harder, in ways that demand to be solved. Usually, it’s easier for readers to swallow if the magic emerges from some sort of relatable, semi-explainable place (i.e. not too arbitrary or contrived) like a carnival wish machine, an electrical storm, or some established mythology like genies or witchcraft. And the magic should go away or be resolved in the end, with the character back to an essentially “normal life,” where they’ve grown in some way. Think Big, Aladdin, The Nutty Professor, Liar Liar or Field of Dreams.
Classic note: Don't confuse rules with guidelines. Knowing this information doesn't mean you have to do it, it just means you have more tools in your belt when you sit down and stare at the blank page with a blinking cursor.
Humans are a narrative species. We connect with stories because they are the best way to perceive a set of events and find the commonality between all the pieces. This commonality can be seen as the theme of the story.
Narrative connection not only pleases us generally but is a specific tool and how we navigate the world. To have some sort of causal connection between all the elements is what unifies it as a interdependent sequence of events.
Humans greatest cognitive ability is the ability to seek pattern and meaning and how we most effectively do this is with stories.
To be continued...