BACK TO BASICS: STORY 101

Last week, I had the pleasure of attending ScriptFest as a speaker and story consultant. I got to hear some really amazing pitches. I also heard many pitches where the writer had not included some of the most basics elements of storytelling for the screen. We never advocate for any formulae when it comes to telling a story, but we do believe in forms. You would never build a house without a few load-bearing walls. Every house has a floor and a ceiling. There are doors that allow you to pass from room to room. None of these elements cause every home to look alike. Instead, they act as tools that to allow our brains to respond to the fact that we are hearing a story and not a series of random scenarios. Here are a few elements you really should consider having the next time you tell a story.....or at least the next time you pitch one in the film and tv industry.

A PROTAGONIST

I have been amazed at how many story pitches I've heard where the writer had not yet figured out who's story they were telling. We connect to other people. This is how we experience empathy. If your story is not about a human being, it must be about an animal or object that displays human traits. Your story can't just be an exploration of a situation. It needs to be about people at the end of the day, and specifically about one person, or at least one collective human force. 

AN ANTAGONISTIC FORCE

Usually, the antagonistic force will come in the form of another human. Even stories where the antagonistic force is nature, an animal, or the supernatural -- the force usually either displays human characteristics or another human will metaphorically represent the antagonistic force. Without an antagonistic force, your story will lack conflict. Without enough conflict in your story, people tend not to care. 

AN EXTERNAL GOAL

This needs to be something that our protagonist can accomplish, that we can take a picture of (see last week's post for more info on this.) Have you ever tried to take a picture of someone learning a lesson. You can't really tell what's happening in the picture. This is because lessons are learned inside our head. We can't take a picture of things that happen inside a character. We can only photograph things that character does in response to the lesson they have learned.

STAKES

This is one element many writers struggle with. The audience must feel some investment in the goal the protagonist is trying to reach. If the goal is for the character to find his car keys -- we won't have a high degree of investment. If the goal is for the character to find his baby sister, suddenly we are much more engaged. The stakes are best when they are life and death, either metaphorically or literally. 

Is Your Story Photographable?

All stories are visual. Whether you're watching a movie or telling your kids a bedtime story. All narratives strive to paint vivid pictures in our minds. The best stories, even the ones that aren't flickering to life up on the big screen, are rich with imagery.

The choices and decisions your characters make should be cinematic or "photographable." Film is a medium of action (motion) and imagery (pictures). Action and imagery are the fundamental tools of crafting stories for the big screen. If you're story isn't unfolding through action and imagery, you're not writing for film.

Finding photographable moments in action films, detective stories, and horror films is easy. These genres rely heavily on highly tangible, external (cinematic) goals. Every single film in the Indiana Jones series has a physical, photographable object that Indy is striving to protect or find. In fact the Ark of the Covenant is so photographable it even made the cover of a few versions of the movie poster.

When I was in grad school, my screenwriting professor assigned us an exercise that, at the time, made very little sense. We were tasked with creating a movie poster for the script we were writing. The homework seemed like a throw-away assignment - just a professor trying to kill time in class. I had to write poorly for a long time before I realized just how important of an assignment it was.

More than a decade after taking that screenwriting class, I was preparing to market my first low-budget feature film at Le Marché du Film at the Cannes International Film Festival. The film was a labor of love, a personal piece of cinema that we put together over the course of three years with whatever scraps we found lying around. The film wasn't produced with any sort of distribution in mind. But after finishing it, we didn't want to see our film end up on a shelf somewhere just collecting dust. So despite not having a game-plan, we went ahead and took the film into the marketplace just the same.

We never sold the film.

When we started to put the marketing campaign together we ran into a major problem. What should our movie poster look like? Not one single scene in the film jumped out as a profoundly cinematic moment that defined the film. Not one single image encapsulated the themes and journeys of our main character. I scoured through the footage looking for my "ET and Elliot silhouetted against a larger-than-life full moon as they soared atop their bicycle through the mid-night sky" moment. But as the writer and the director of the film, I had to hang my head in shame as I realized that I never created such a moment in my film.

And so we ended up with what most low-budget independent films end up with - a poster with a couple of disembodied floating heads superimposed over a nondescript background with the title of the movie written out in an interesting looking font that tried to make up for the rest of the poster's lack of originality.

At first it was a lesson in film marketing, but in the end, it taught me a great deal about cinematic, photographable storytelling.

All stories are visual stories, but movies need indelible imagery like our bodies need oxygen. Movies just don't work well (or make any sort of lasting impression) without images that "stick".

So as you're writing your story, consider this: what if your script was going to be reworked and presented as a children's picture book? Would an artist be able to easily find the iconic moments in your story to illustrate? Or would your book just be filled with a bunch of drawings of people talking or performing actions we've seen a thousand times before? Only one children's book would ever have an image of a boy and an alien soaring on a bike through the night sky.

If you had to create a movie poster for your film, is their a pivotal scene (probably towards the end of the film) - a poignant image that encapsulates the theme of your narrative - an image that is uniquely YOUR film - that would serve as the perfect image to convince people that they must see your movie? Don't be fooled into thinking that this is just a marketing ploy; iconic imagery is what movie making is all about.

Back before the days of smart phones, I'd sometimes find myself in situations where I wished I had a camera. I'd see something in the world that made such an impression on me I couldn't help but want to preserve it on film. That's how you want your audience to feel as they watch your movie or read your script.

So as you craft your narrative, create actions and images in your stories that beg to be photographed!

The 1's of Storytelling

WHERE DO I START

One of the biggest challenges a writer will face at some point in his career is writing a story based on real life. Whether you're writing a biography or a completely fictional story, we writers imbue our stories with elements from our own lives all the time, and it can be difficult to develop* the discipline of separating oneself from our experiences in order to objectively ascertain whether or not real life actually makes good story.

You should see the looks I get from my students when I tell them their autobiographical stories aren't any good. "But it actually happened!" is their usual response. And I understand their heartfelt frustration. They had a life-changing experience, and they want to share it with people... and I just told them that their story was muddled and confusing.

The problem with telling real-life stories is multi-faceted, but usually the most frustrating part for the writer is knowing where their story should begin. Stories need context to make sense; that's why I take my students through a very deliberate process of constructing their protagonist's backstory. When you're creating a protagonist from scratch, you're tasked with building a character, but when you're borrowing a protagonist from real life, you're tasked with refining a character.

STORY ARCHETYPES

Different types of stories follow different types of archetypal structures. When we think of archetypes, we usually think of characters. But comedies, dramas, horror stories, etc., follow very specific patterns, and if you're trying to fit your real-life story into a specific genre, you're more than likely going to have to make some adjustments.

Stories also work best when they are centralized around specific themes and goals. When a story has too many problems to solve, the narrative gets diluted and the writer has no idea what to do with the character throughout the majority of the second act. Second Acts are all about testing your main character in really specific ways as they fight to solve a central story problem.

The central story problem should be a single problem that is uniquely designed to test your main character in a single way, resulting in a single lesson that your character learns about herself. Of course there are countless examples of amazing films in which multiple problems are solved (secondary and tertiary storylines), and a film can have more than one theme (they often do).

But as an exercise, it's good for novice writers to begin by focusing on the singulars, or the "1's" of their story. When we writers tell stories from our lives, we tend to include more information than the audience really needs. We want to tell a story about the 3 lessons we learned as we tried to solve 5 different problems, as we contended with 4 different antagonists, while living our lives with 8 redundant characters most of whom serve no narrative purpose whatsoever. Yes, I just called your baby sister redundant.

Of course lil' Suzie is an important part of your life, but once you narrow your story down to one central story problem, you might realize that lil' Suzie actually didn't affect that particular part of your journey that much, and so, in the big screen adaptation of your life, you might have to let lil' Suzie go... or at least save her character for the sequel.

THE 1'S

So what are the 1's of good storytelling? Here is a list of ten questions to ask yourself as you begin putting a story together. These questions can help you build a fictional story or refine a real-life story. They can also be very helpful when creating documentaries; use these basic questions as a template for writing questions you'd ask a documentary subject. Because even in documentaries, you're not looking to just show someone's life, you're looking for their story.

1.     Who is the 1 main character?

2.     What is the 1 problem your main character had to face in their story?

3.     What is the 1 thing that kept your main character from dealing with their problem?

4.     What is the 1 thing that forced your main character to finally deal with their problem?

5.     What is the 1 thing your main character had to do in order to solve their problem?

6.     What is the 1 thing that stood in your main character’s way?

7.     What is the 1 thing or person that kept your main character from giving up?

8.     What is the 1 lie your main character believed about him/herself at the beginning of their story?

9.     What is the 1 truth the main character learned by the end of their story?

10. What is 1 example of how the world was made better because the main character solved the problem?

Once again, keep in mind that many great stories have more than 1 of everything, but by coming up with singular answers to the above questions, you're on a solid road to discovering your story's foundational structure. Once you have that backbone in place, you can experiment with adding some thematic elements back into your storyline.

Real life doesn't always play well on the big screen. If it did, why would we ever go to the movies? Most of our stories are very internal; films are all about the external, the cinematic, the photographable. The greatest writers who are able to write stories based on real life are the writers who are able to slightly remove themselves from the process, be objective...

...and always put story first!

 

MINI STORIES

Try to imagine all the stories you encountered while growing up. You probably can quickly recount episodes of Land of the Lost, The Brady Bunch, or maybe Bugs Bunny cartoons. If your family made it to the movies, you might have had stories like Star Wars, Indiana Jones, or E.T. in your story arsenal. What you might not recall is that Coke, McDonalds, and Maxwell House probably told you as many stories as Warner Bros did. Commercials were longer back then. It wasn't uncommon to see a 60 second commercial and 30 second stories were the norm for commercials. Today, our attention spans are shorter. 10 or 15 seconds has become the norm for commercials on television. 60 second commercials would be considered infomercials.

Of course, most storytelling in the form of commercials now comes to us through the medium of the Internet these days. Have you given much thought to the way stories are told through commercials on-line? Next time you encounter a video ad, which shouldn't be very long if you browse on a regular basis, ask yourself a few questions:

1) What is the narrative they are presenting? Do I notice any structural story elements in the video? Is there a catalyst? What is the problem (or external goal) the company is trying to solve with their product?

2) Could I have used the tools on my story utility belt to tell a better story than this company did about their product? The opportunities to practice our storytelling are all around us constantly. Learning how to tell stories that rival those of multi-million dollar companies takes practice and hard work. But it can be done. 

3) Is the story about the product they are selling true? Will it deliver the results they infer it will? Stories are powerful. It's important we notice and remember how easily people can slip into behavior they never would have considered through the power of a story. 

Diversifying your storytelling is important for writers in the new world of media. Sharpening our skills even while going through the mindless routines of our day can benefit us when we set down to tell a story we actually care about.

Keep telling stories,

John & Jeremy

A Whirlwind Week in Review

WOW! It's been a whirlwind of a week for us! Exactly seven days ago, we were packing our bags and gearing up for NAB and BEA. We left Saturday morning, and I don't think we've stopped to breathe since!

On Sunday morning we were the featured guests (along with our friend and colleague, Chris Krebsbach) on a panel at BEA where we discussed the future of storytelling in the ever-changing world of media. We talked with one attendee who said he can't even complete a semester with his students before the technology changes. Keeping up with trending media is more important now than every before.

Right after our panel, we rushed over to the NAB Main Bookstore where we held our first book signing for new book Master of the Cinematic Universe: The Secret Code to Writing In The New World of Media.

On Monday we booked it over to the convention at 9:00AM for our first of many meetings with product vendors. We were hired by MovieMaker Magazine to write a "round up" article about some of the newest technology presented at NAB 2016. BlackMagic, Adobe, RED, Vitec, Panavision, and Canon were just a few of the awesome people we spent the day with.

We landed back in LA and immediately received the great news that several other exciting speaking engagements have been approved for this summer. Look for us at UFVA in August and at a really cool (yet to be announced) event in June. There's lots more REALLY great stuff coming up soon that we have to keep under wraps for now.

And as always, we both have several writing project in the works.

Keep telling stories everyone!
John & Jeremy

CATCH JOHN & JEREMY AT NAB 2016

 

We will be making several appearances at NAB 2016 in Las Vegas this week. First, we will be speaking on a panel discussing storytelling in changing mediums at the annual gathering of the Broadcast Education Association (BEA) April 17 at 10:00 A.M. We will also be signing our latest book, Master of the Cinematic Universe: The Secret Code to Writing in the New World of Media on April 17 at noon in the NAB Bookstore inside the Las Vegas Convention Center. We would love to meet you if you plan on being at NAB, so stop by and see us.

We are also excited to announce that we have been invited to write about NAB in the summer issue of MovieMaker Magazine. Besides talking about new tools for storytellers available in  the marketplace, we will also be discussing our upcoming work in Virtual Reality. We are in the early stages of writing a book about storytelling for VR and the article in MovieMaker will be the first place we talk about it. 

Also, check out John's article on LA SCREENWRITER this week about crafting difficult protagonists: http://tinyurl.com/gnypdno