Storytelling – the Fourth Definition

March 2, 2015 Leave a comment

And the final version: Denny O’Neil’s Comic Book Structure. I’ve been talking about storytelling structure on the blog for the last couple of weeks, and different people’s definitions of structure. Here’s the first post with all four definitions, then here’s part 1, part 2, and part 3 to get you caught up.

DennyONeilDenny O’Neil is a pretty famous comic book writer from the late 60’s to the 90’s. His biggest comics were Green Lantern/Green Arrow in the early 70’s, considered to be a landmark run in making comic books more relevant to current social themes, as well as being the editor of the Batman books from about 1985 to about 2000. If you know about important times in the Batman mythos, that time period is pretty key. My favorite, though is a book he started in 1987 called the Question, which included a reading list in every issue of thematically related books to each story. That’s how I came to the works of Hermann Hesse and Robert Pirsig, and my library still has many of those books that I bought because he suggested them.

O’Neil went on to teach comic book writing and had his own version of storytelling structure specific to writing comics. Here’s the outline:

  • Hook
  • Inciting incident.
  • Establish situation and conflict.
  • (Major visual action.)
  • Develop and complicate situation.
  • (Major visual action.)
  • Events leading to –
  • Climax with Major visual action.
  • Denouement

First I want to dissect this as a standard super-hero story, and then look back at it to imagine it in other genres, where it has a lot to offer.

ComicsA quick side-note. As a comic book fan, it’s important to me to mention that I’m using a typical super-hero story as the generic genre of comic books, but you should know that comic books are much more than super-heroes. There are many great comics that have nothing to do with comics, and you should check them out. No matter who you are and what your interests, there is a comic book that you would love, I’m certain. You might need to look past the first 18 shelves in your local comic store, which are all super-heroes from Marvel and DC, but they’re there, and many are awesome. Go check some out!

So the standard super-hero story is about action, and the Hook is where you grab the viewer. In a super-hero story, that means on page one, someone should be hitting someone, or saving someone from a burning building, or some other exciting action. Get the story off to an exciting start to “hook” the viewer into reading the rest of the story.

untoldlegendbatman3The Inciting incident is a behind-the-scene writing term for the moment the hero gets into the story. For our super-hero story, it might be the Joker robbing a bank, which incites Batman to catch him and bring him to justice. It’s that event that causes our hero to take action, whatever that may be.

Establishing the situation and conflict is actually not much deeper than it sounds. The story needs to set up its details. The Joker was last seen at some location, and has been known to associate with Catwoman recently. Whatever info we need to be able to follow this story.

Major Visual Action. I like this a lot, and we’ll get into why when we look at this point for other genres. In super-hero stories, it generally means a fight. Batman finds Joker, and they beat each other up for a bit before Joker escapes with the help of Catwoman who takes Batman by surprise.

Develop and complicate the situation – again, not a lot to discuss. The situation gets more developed. Batman digs into Catwoman’s last whereabouts, and discovers she was seen at the Ace Playing Card Company warehouse – might the Joker be there, too?

Major visual action – more fighting! This is why we buy super-hero comics, right? Joker and Catwoman overpower Batman because they’re on their home turf.

Events leading to the climax – more complications and development of the story. Batman figures out why Joker and Catwoman are teamed up and what their plan is, and prepares his own plan to stop them.

The climax with Major Visual Action – and they duke it out and Batman wins! Hooray! And they celebrate their victory in the denouement – the “moment after.” Like the “what’s different” moment in the Bob Reiser structure, but in French.

So what does all this comic book stuff have to do with your story? Everything. While this is specifically for comic books, and probably directly for super-hero stories, this structure has some excellent reminders for any film storyteller.

The first is that your story needs a hook. What draws the viewer in and makes them want to watch? Your story is likely to be seen in one of two places – youtube or a film festival. Both of those places have HUGE options of other films to look at. Think about your own habits. How long do you watch a youtube video before you click to look at something else? I’m a pretty rough audience and give about 10-30 seconds at most. Sometimes less, almost never more unless I know it’s something I want to see. Film Festival screeners are the same – they’ve got a stack of films to get through in a short amount of time and if you don’t hook them somehow, why are they going to take the time to watch your whole film? You have to start with something that draws us in! Your first moments are the most important moments, and they need to be something that tells me this is worth my time.

Jim CarreyThe other great reminder in this definition is the repeated “Major Visual Action.” No matter your genre, film is a visual medium, and so many of us fall into the habit of having our films talk through every moment, that we need to be nudged and pushed to make our films visual. If you have a comedy, you should include major visual comedic moments. If it’s a romance – major visual romantic moments. If it’s a drama, let me see some visual drama, not just words thrown around. It’s a great little prod to get us out of the dialogue and into the visual actions.

And those are the four storytelling structure definitions that I use – both to teach and for my own work. They each have something that helps draw out key elements in telling stories, and I suspect others find different uses for them than I do. Let me know if there’s a version you like that I don’t have here (there are LOTS of them), and please, point me to them. I’d love to add more to this list!

Storytelling – The Third Definition

February 26, 2015 1 comment

This is the 3rd part of a series of posts about different versions of storytelling structure. For the earlier posts – here’s the first introductory post, here’s where I dig into the first version, and here’s the second.

academicThis version is a more academic version of the definition, and it’s intentionally buried third. I’m often not a fan of “academic-speak” (which is funny given my day job),  but I like this version for a couple of reasons. First, the definition again:

A story is a structured narrative designed to achieve an emotional effect, demonstrate a proposition or reveal character. Now add:

  • It must have conflict and there must be something at stake.
  • Action should rise and culminate in most powerful moment.
  • Everything should be presented with maximum clarity.
  • Every element of the film–action, dialogue, camera work, lighting, production design, costuming, editing, sound design, music–should be aimed at achieving all of the above.

A “structured narrative” of course refers to the structure discussed in the first two versions. I’d revise this to say that the narrative is designed to achieve an emotion effect –period-. And it can also demonstrate a proposition (make a point or moral, which stories inherently do) or reveal character. But not to quibble – let’s get to the good stuff.

  • It must have conflict and there must be something at stake.

Just as we were saying in the earlier versions – the story needs conflict and stakes. Nothing new here.

  • Action should rise and culminate in most powerful moment.

But here’s something. Action should rise. As the film goes along, things should get more interesting. The simple way to look at this is that in an action film, things should get more exciting. The big explosions should wait until the end, and each sequence throughout the film should be in some way more exciting than the last. In a drama, things should get more and more dramatic, building to the most dramatic. In a comedy… you get the idea, yes?

Fortunately, stories often do this naturally. As we watch a film, assuming that it’s working, we get more emotionally involved with the characters as the story goes on. So as we’re more engaged with them, we care about them more and more, and the events they’re involved in often are more interesting/exciting/dramatic/funny as a result.

But the Avengers should still end with the Alien invasion. Put the big stuff at the end and build to it.

james-bondJames Bond films turn this on their ear a bit – they usually start with some big exciting piece, then slow down and build a story. And by the end, even though the final action sequence may not be as much of a thrill-ride as the opening, it has more meaning because we’re involved with the characters and the story. There’s context and emotion with the events that the opening sequence doesn’t have. So it does build to that most powerful moment, even though, out of context, the opening may be stronger.

  • Everything should be presented with maximum clarity.

Table at Luigi's Logo - 6x8A story about Table at Luigi’s, here. As my first feature film, I wanted to add a small mystery to the story. Two of the characters had a rough backstory that I wanted to keep mysterious. We saw the results of their backstory on their relationship, with little clues and suggestions thrown in, but  without their history ever being explicitly revealed. As a writer, I loved this little mystery. As a director, I loved this little mystery.

As an editor, who showed my work to test audiences, I hated the mystery. As we screened the film, many things just weren’t working for viewers. And we finally traced the key problem back to this little mystery. Audiences didn’t like those characters because they were frustrated trying to sort out what was going on with them, and that started creating confusion in the main story.

We used some ADR, and a few simple pickups to clarify those character’s backstories, clearing up the mystery, which helped keep new test audiences involved and engaged. But we did encounter a new problem – audiences now liked those characters and were frustrated that their problems weren’t resolved. Another pickup later and we had that problem solved.

Everything should be presented with the maximum clarity. Give the audience what they need to follow your story.

  • Every element of the film–action, dialogue, camera work, lighting, production design, costuming, editing, sound design, music–should be aimed at achieving all of the above.

This is a big one in film school. So much of the work we have students do in classes is about the camera and the lights and the microphones and all the technical elements that students often think that the mechanics of filmmaking are the whole process. I’ve sat through many terrible films where students sit around praising each other for the wonderful angles and color correction.

Because here’s the problem – good luck getting an audience to sit down to look at your wonderful angles, if they’re not revealing something about a character that I care about. I’ve seen lots of films with great sound design that I’d never want to see again because there was no story.

Not that the technical elements don’t matter – they absolutely do! But they matter in how they serve the story and engage the audience more directly with the material. Nothing is more important than that.

Next post, we’ll look at Denny O’Neil’s comic book structure – I like it a lot for films, too.

Storytelling – The Second Definition

February 24, 2015 2 comments

I’ve been talking through four different versions of storytelling structure – all basically the same, but with some differences that help me to look at my stories with a couple of different focuses. Here’s the first post with all four definitions, and here’s me digging into the first definition.

bob reiserThe next version of storytelling is one I really like a lot. I learned the basics of it from a storyteller named Bob Reiser (whose website is here at a storytelling workshop. He’s an great storyteller and fantastic teacher – you should check out the website. Again, this structure formula is simple, but the genius is in how you implement it. Taking it point by point:

  • Meet Dave (why should we like him?)

This is sometimes another sticking point for people. There’s a book called Save the Cat by Blake Snyder. It’s often derided as being a simplistic way to tell simplistic unoriginal stories, which I’m sure it could be. Any storytelling method can lead to telling simplistic unoriginal stories. I happen to like the book.

One of the things that Snyder suggests is that early on your main character should “save a cat.” Not literally, but that your character should do something that puts the audience on their side. It’s not difficult to imagine how this could lead to an unimaginative cute-sy beginning to a story, but that’s not what Snyder really means. What he means (I think) is that if your audience is going to spend time with your character, there has to be some reason we want to watch them. They have to endear themselves to us somehow.

There are a billion examples of this idea, where a character who is unlikable, who I would never want to be in a room with, is in some way interesting – and that’s the point. I don’t have to like Dave in that I want to be his roommate. But I do have to like to watch him.

House is a great example of this – a thoroughly unlikeable character who I couldn’t stop watching. He’s fascinating because he’s so clever, and so wonderfully rude. I don’t want to hang out, but I want to watch.

  • What does Dave want? Why?

house-m-d-wallpaper-3What’s Dave’s goal? And (equally, maybe more important) why does he want that? This is the idea of making your character’s personality an intrinsic part of what they want. House wants to solve puzzles – because he’s obsessively curious. His personality is completely a part of his goal. Take House out of any episode and replace him with generic doctor, and you have a lousy episode of House.

Another example: Indiana Jones. What’s he want – the Lost Ark of the Covenant. Why – because “it should be in a museum!” Who he is defines his goal.

  • What’s at Stake?

There’s another reason Jones wants the Ark – personally, he wants it in a museum, and those are fine stakes. But oh, yeah… if he doesn’t get it the Nazi’s will take over the world. Not a bad set of stakes. By the way – there’s a transcript of Spielberg, Lucas and Larry Kasdan (the screenwriter) spitballing ideas that became Raiders. It’s awesome and is on the internet here.

What’s at stake for House? For him, it’s solving the puzzle. And part of what makes him fascinating is that that’s all that’s at stake. That someone’s life hangs in the balance doesn’t really matter to him, but it does to us, and raises the stakes to his personal goal.

Often, your best, most audience-involving stakes are both internal, personal stakes (“this should be in a museum!”) and external, larger stakes (Nazi’s take over the world).

  • What stands in his way?
  • What does he do to get it?
  • What stands in his way?
  • How does he overcome?

This is your standard storytelling “rinse and repeat.” What’s the character do, actively, to try to achieve their goal, and what’s the conflict? Every scene should be about Dave trying to work towards his goal, and what stands in his way, over and over in different ways, until he finally overcomes and gets his goal. EVERY scene.

  • What’s different?

And finally, what’s different? When you’re character achieves their goal, what’s different? Every romantic comedy ends with 1) a kiss or 2) holding hands or 3) a wedding. It depends on how deep into the relationship the story gets. But really, they probably achieved the goal just before, but this scene is their and our reward. We want a chance to enjoy the result of the struggle, to revel in it for a moment. “What’s different?” is something my students often miss – they got the bad guy, the story’s over, right? No, they need to enjoy their success, just for a moment. So we can too.

We’ll dig into the next definition in the next post.

Annual Academy Awards Post

February 22, 2015 Leave a comment

This is a re-post I do most years, but it’s a fun story and thought I’d put it up again.

Sunday morning, Feb 29th, 2004. I was having a pretty lousy weekend, then Sunday morning came. I had done some work for a friend as a favor, and she called to return the gesture. Did I want to go to the Academy Awards tonight? Short version: a friend of mine who worked the event had spare tickets from people who weren’t going to make it. Who does a no-show for the Oscars? At least two people, I guess, because I got two tickets. This was pre-Kat, and may I say that you’re incredibly popular when you call to invite girls to the Academy Awards. My date (Hi, Anna!) and I met a friend who gave us our tickets a few blocks away from the theatre.

They asked us to come early so we wouldn’t get in anyone’s way, so we’re there at 2pm for the show to start at 5. I’m expecting that we’ll drive around to the back, and get shuffled in through an alley or something, and all we were told was to drive around the barricades through the streets – they basically shut down a two block radius around the Kodak Theatre. Police stopped me every so often to check the car and make sure we’re not a bomb.

And finally, we get to one more check point where a guy opens the door and asks me to get out. I’m so wide-eyed stupid that I ask him what’s happening, and he tells me he’s the valet and hands me a ticket for the car. I ask him where I’m supposed to go and he points to the long red carpet across the way. The one with all the press on either side of it leading into the theatre.  I look at him and he looks at me, and I decided not to ask again.

One of my students was in the stands that they set up for onlookers, and yelled out my name.  I didn’t hear it, but she asked me the next morning in class if I was there, so I got to tell my story in front of the students, which was nice. :)

So we walk the red carpet. We were so out of our element, we didn’t stop, we didn’t do anything, we just walked across the end of the carpet and giggled stupidly. I think Anna posed for a couple of pictures. I was still expecting someone to tell me “You shouldn’t be here.” Somewhere, the next morning, a copy editor was looking through his pictures, sees one of me, and goes “who wasted film on this loser?”

I had to look better than this, right? At the end of the red carpet, I called my mom. I’ve had a few fun “guess where I am?” phone calls in my life, but that one was probably the best. We get inside, now about 2 1/2 hours early for the show. It’s us and what appears to be everyone’s 50-year old hookers that are owed favors, so they get invited to the Oscars and told to show up early. I wish I were creative enough to make that up, but that’s who everyone looked like. I talked the bartenders into making me a couple of rum and Cokes (Bartender: “we’re only supposed to make the drinks on the menu” Me:”You have rum, you have Coke, I’m never going to be here again. Please?” and drop a $5 bill in the tip jar. It only occurred to me later that that was probably the cheapest tip he got all night.), and we hung out.  For two hours. With the 50-year old hookers. We noted that we were probably dressed in the two least expensive outfits in the place, but that we made them look good. About 30 minutes before the start, people showed up. I’m terrible at recognizing anyone, but Anna told me that I almost tripped over a Weinstein. Probably Harvey. I watched Jeff Goldblum run into someone. Many, many other people shuffled all around us, and we decided to get to our seats. In the Kodak Theatre, there are four levels. The lowest level is what you see on TV, with all the cool people. The second level is the editors, the sound guys, documentarians – you can still get to the stage from here, just not in a big hurry. The other levels are way up there with no stage access.  We were in the second level (!). Again, there must have been some mistake.

And we sat there for four hours. I think we were both afraid to get up. What would happen if we left the seats? Don’t want to know! It’s so stupid in retrospect, but we were really afraid to get up. The telecast begins – Billy Crystal does a big number and it goes to commercial. And that’s when the show starts, because the ENTIRE front level gets up and runs around. This is not an awards show. This is a trade show, and everyone’s there to do business. During one commercial, Crystal yelled at everyone to leave a business card and sit the Hell down. I thought that was pretty funny.

The show itself was pretty uneventful – Lord of the Rings III took all the awards (still haven’t seen it…).

My favorite, strange thing about the evening was that they had video monitors up everywhere, and it was so hard not to watch them. About a dozen times I caught myself watching TV, then realizing that if I just turned my head a little, Robin Williams was actually on the stage in front of me. That’s kinda better.

Then it was over, we climbed back in the PT Cruiser (we didn’t have tickets to the Governor’s Ball, unfortunately), and shot straight to a TGI-Friday’s because we were STARVED not having eaten anything but hors d’oeuvres many, many hours ago.

Categories: JoeRants Tags: ,

Storytelling – The First Definition

February 20, 2015 3 comments

casablanca-sceneFinally have a bit of time to dig into that last post about storytelling. If you haven’t seen it, I posted a handout from a storytelling workshop that I did for theatre students last weekend, with four different definitions of what a story is. Let’s take a look at it, shall we?

The first definition is a basic version of a story, described as having three acts: the beginning, middle and end. Aristotle defined this idea back in Poetics (c335BCE), after analyzing successful stories and seeing that they all had a basic structure.

The simplest way to looking at a story is that it’s about a character who wants something, meets obstacles and conflict while going after what they want, and finally overcomes all the obstacles and gets what they want (in some way).

Most often, friction from people who aren’t believers in stories being structured (who is this Aristotle guy, anyway?) is centered on that last part – where the character achieves their goal. Doesn’t that just lead to stories that end simply/unoriginally? Can’t my story be different?

Sure… but there’s a reason stories are told this way. Not to dig too deeply into it (he said, as he digs deeply into it), stories are how we pass down traditions, beliefs, and pretty much how to perceive the world. I don’t like to admit it, but the Disney corporation probably has as much to do with what my daughter thinks about herself and the world around her as I do.

And part of that is the form of the story. Life can be a confusing and difficult series of events that can often seem random, cruel, or just pointless. Stories tell us that it is not that way – that our struggles, our disappointments, our conflicts all can lead us to something. Not necessarily exactly what we wanted (though that’s nice, too), but our difficulties can lead us to our goal in some form. When stories don’t conclude in some way that feels satisfying, it’s a letdown. It doesn’t feel complete. Because the purpose of story is to reassure us in that way. That’s what a story does.

bibleThere’s a reason the Bible isn’t a series of lists and commandments – it’s a lot of stories.

The genius of a good story (one of the infinite number of genius methods of storytelling) is that it doesn’t have to end the way you necessarily expect, but still fulfills the characters goal(s) in some form.

My go-to example of this is Casablanca. You’ve had the entire Internet to see Casablanca before now so I’m going to spoil the ending. Stop now if you still want to see it…

Rick doesn’t get Ilsa in the end. What does he get? He gets to be the guy he was when he was with her. He’s a freedom fighter again—someone who believes in something more important than himself. And that’s what he really wanted all along – not necessarily Ilsa, but to be that guy again, to feel like that again. That’s why that story works so well – it’s not the ending we expect, but it’s a true ending where Rick achieves his goal.

Romeo and Juliet is another. Every time the two lovers (who don’t really get to be together in the end… not really) get together, they talk about how they want their families to stop fighting. When you ask anyone what the ending of R&J is, they’ll tell you they die. But that’s not the ending. The ending is their families rushing in and deciding to put their differences aside. They got their goal, in the worst possible way, but they got their goal. That Shakespeare might be an up-and-comer. Look out for him.

I’ll dig into the next version of story definitions in the next post.

Storytelling From Four Points

February 13, 2015 4 comments

I just did a workshop on storytelling, and had so many students that there weren’t enough handouts to go around. I’ll post some description about this later, but for now, I wanted to make sure the info was on the blog so that anyone at the workshop can have a copy. Here’s a downloadable pdf (click this link), but this is the info without having to download it – it’s an outline of four different ways of looking at story structure:


A story must have:

  • a Beginning (a character is introduced who has a goal)
  • a Middle (in pursuit of that goal, the character meets obstacles and conflict)
  • and an End (the character overcomes the obstacles and reaches their goal in some form)


  • Meet Dave (why should we like him?)
  • What does Dave want? Why?
  • What’s at Stake?
  • What stands in his way?
  • What does he do to get it?
  • What stands in his way?
  • How does he overcome?
  • What’s different?

VERSION 3 (the academic version):

A story is a structured narrative designed to achieve an emotional effect, demonstrate a proposition or reveal character.

Now add:

  • It must have conflict and there must be something at stake.
  • Action should rise and culminate in most powerful moment.
  • Everything should be presented with maximum clarity.
  • Every element of the film–action, dialogue, camera work, lighting, production design, costuming, editing, sound design, music–should be aimed at achieving all of the above.


Denny O’Neil’s Comic Book Structure

  • Hook
  • Inciting incident.
  • Establish situation and conflict.
  • (Major visual action.)
  • Develop and complicate situation.
  • (Major visual action.)
  • Events leading to –
  • Climax with Major visual action.
  • Denouement

So Many Festival submissions…

January 15, 2015 Comments off

I was recently sent emails by both and withoutabox. Festhome is yet another new festival submission service. Looking at its FAQ page, it seems to be centered in Europe, and either didn’t proofread it’s FAQs or (more likely) isn’t centered in England, so it’s translated into English. Which explains the many grammatical errors and strangely/confusingly worded answers to questions I didn’t ask.

Festhome doesn’t seem to offer anything that FilmFreeway doesn’t, and in fact charges for every submission you make, on top of the entry fees. It does store films on their own servers at (they claim) high quality, which again doesn’t necessarily differentiate them from FilmFreeway.

The more interesting email was from Withoutabox, asking me to take a survey about their website. I wish I’d written down the questions, but have you ever taken a survey that feels geared for you to give a particular answer? Never having been asked to take a WAB survey before, I can only assume they’re trying to figure out why they’re losing so much business to FilmFreeway. But the survey kept asking what was most important to me – depth of entry information or simplified entries, as if the problem they’re having is a question of priorities, not that their website is a slow-moving dinosaur, and their search engine actually comes up with different festivals, depending on the… whim of the server…? I’ll put in the same key words, hit search, wait a strangely long time for it to be 2015 and a broadband connection, and be told no festivals match that criteria. Try it a little later, wait the same amount of time, and there’s my festival.

I did make a comment on the survey about how they’re asking the wrong questions to make their upper management think that the problem isn’t their lousy website, but is instead some other problem of not understanding their customer base’s priorities.

And it’s FilmFreeway with the win.

Educate me – is anyone using Festhome? Does anyone still prefer withoutabox. I only use WAB if the festival I’m looking for hasn’t migrated to FilmFreeway (yet).

p.s. I cheated on this one and edited for 2 1/2 minutes.

Categories: Uncategorized

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