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Storytelling – The Third Definition

February 26, 2015

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.

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  1. March 2, 2015 at 9:06 am
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