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Storytelling – The Second Definition

February 24, 2015

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 www.bobtales.com) 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.

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  1. February 26, 2015 at 1:16 pm
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