When working with new screenwriters, I often ask them what their story is about. The answer I usually get is a ‘this happens, then this happen, then this other thing happens.’ Somewhere along the way, I politely stop the writer and again ask what the story is about. Usually the conversation starts up where they left off. What I am trying to get out of the writer is not the plot, but what their story is about in one paragraph or less. What I usually get is the frustration of a writer realizing that they do not know what their story is about.
There are three elements to story telling: theme, one word or simple phrase that describes the story; story, what the story is about in one paragraph or less; and plot, the ‘this happens’ then ‘that happens.’ Each of these elements of storytelling serve single; but ultimately unified, purposes.
Theme can be expressed in one word or simple phrase. For example, love, hate, revenge, heroism in the face of overwhelming odds. As one gains experience in writing, one is able to go beyond simple themes to more complex ones realizing that at their core stories are simple things.
Story is what the story is about in one paragraph or less. In screenwriting terms, a story should be able to be described in a log line. At its core, story is the STORY. Here are some examples of a description of a story in a log line. Of course, you will recognize many of these stories in their movie form.
- Earth is invaded and nearly destroyed by a super-powerful alien force.
- A circus clown has a mid-life crisis and decides to become a mailman.
- A six-year-old American boy is separated from his parents and finds himself lost in Act II of Japan.
- An autistic gardener is put out on the street when his boss dies, but manages to survive by making friends and impressing people with his “wisdom”.
- A 20-year-old suicidal boy falls in love with an 80-year-old woman who loves life.
Below are some truths about story and storytelling. No, I did not write any of these. Of course, I stole them.
- Story is about eternal, universal forms, not formulas – archetypes, not stereotypes.
- Story is about thoroughness, not shortcuts.
- Story is about respect, not disdain, for the audience.
- Story is about mastering the art, not second-guessing the marketplace.
- Story is about originality, not duplication.
- The stronger the idea the stronger the unity of the story.
Plot is the ‘things happens’ then ‘this happens’ followed by the ‘then this other thing happens.’ However, plot is all of those things and more. Plot is structure. Plot is control. Plot is design. There will be more in future blogs on story design and structure.
Theme, story, and plot work separately and in unison to bring your story to life. There is a synergy between these elements. A synergy that only you, as the writer, can bring the story to life.
Insight has several, related meanings:
- a piece of information;
- the act or result of understanding the inner nature of things or of seeing intuitively;
- an introspection;
- an acute observation, deduction, penetration, discernment, or perception;
- an epiphany.
What has all this to do with writing, you ask? Shhh, and I will tell you.
Writers are people (well, one hopes) that tell stories that titillate us, threaten us, cajole us, and hopefully entertain us. Often time, what we lack is the insight into a story and its workings. You all have been there. Some folks call this place ‘writer’s block.’ I call this ‘time for a scotch and a nap.’ In any case, this is a time where introspection and deduction work at solving design and structure problems.
A couple of thoughts allow the writer to look at their story:
analyze past experiences, not only yours but others as well, with the purpose of gaining insight for use to develop your story;
create simulations of story scenarios using existing insights gained from the mind mapping I have previously written about in order to predict outcomes.
A mature writer looks at many ways to gain insights and understands cause and effect within a story. You need to have a clear understanding of your target readers’ or viewers’ attitudes and beliefs, which connect at an emotional level, that provoke a clear response in the reader or viewer.
For a writer, insights are most effective when they do one of the following:
- the story is unexpected;
- the story creates a disequilibria;
- the story changes momentum;
- the story exploits a point of difference.
Why are you reading this? Go write!
John still practices screenwriting in King County, WA along with a small rat dog, a mortgage, and a great view of the valley.