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.
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.
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.