Paula Landry dives into story basics, from structure to plot to audience satisfaction.
Paula Landry, MBA, is a writer/producer and consultant helping writers create strategies to excel. Landry teaches film business classes at NYU, SVA, Wagner College and MCNY. She’s co-authored This Business of FILM; and Sell Your Screenplay; and is the author of Scheduling and Budgeting Your Film. Twitter: @paulalandry. Read full bio.
The question of how to write a story seems so obvious as to be easily overlooked. Something about the end of the year brings me back to story basics. To the essentials. Looking around the world helps me focus on what I’m doing. I often discover external patterns that relate to the internal process of writing.
Storytelling and Organizing Story Structure
Perhaps you have holiday food traditions. Baking is a fun activity that I enjoy during the holiday season. Storytelling is a lot like baking a holiday treat, it helps to use recipe. What is a recipe, exactly? It is the structure of a food.
Recipes help to stay organized and balance flavors for the best results. While writing a story, creating an initial story structure is similar in that it will help you stay organized, and give your story balance.
What is the Difference Between Plot and Storytelling
Plot is a series of events, while story is the relationship between those events, and how those events affect certain characters. Events in and of themselves aren’t as interesting as their impact. Just like event headlines in a newspaper, they are imbued with meaning when we know how they affected people. How we write a story is the manner in which we connect characters and events.
Plot and storytelling basics – these are all about the WHAT – what is the story about.
In recipe terms, Chocolate Chip Cookie is a basic plot – we know what to expect, the basic ingredients are fairly universal. But merely the words Chocolate Chip Cookie do not really convey any story, there’s no promise of drama or conflict. The name Grandma’s Best Chewy Gooey Fudge Chip Cookies holds a certain promise, as does These Ain’t Yo Granny’s ChocChip Cookies.
Story Structure Basics
Structure is all about the WHEN – when things happen. In most cookie recipes, wet ingredients are combined together first, then dry combined together, then wet and dry are added. In a story, you think of this as the order of events, what happens first, then next, then last.
Before you play with what order to put the story in, you should know this linear structure. Then you can fool around with it. You have a few options, you can play with the sequence of events as follows:
- Beginning, middle, end: Start at the beginning and go all the way to the end – linear time.
- Middle, beginning to middle, end; Start in the middle to get us intrigued. Press on the brakes. Jump back in time, tell us what happened to get to the middle, zoom by the middle – then head to the end.
- Almost end, beginning, middle, end: Start right before the end, piquing audience curiosity (how did you get here and what the heck is going to happen?). Jump to the front, progress to the middle, then head to the end.
The more you play around with it, you can see how fun it can get, but after watching films like Memento, you may want to take a nap. It’s one of the reasons that the index card (helpful for cookie recipes and story recipes). Index cards represent important moments of your story. Move them around in different order to see what works best.
There are several computer programs that can help you organize and put together story basics, such as Save the Cat program.
Why change the actual order? To mess with the audience, usually surprise them or tease them. Ryan Mcguire CC0
How to Write a Story that People Will Enjoy
One secret ingredient in stories that people find fun is spinner toys.
I’m kidding, those are super annoying. One reason people tend to be drawn to certain storytelling relies on the characters; the
- Friends, helpers, tricksters (sometimes we can’t tell difference)
However well-drawn and realistic of interesting the characters are, we have to have interesting things happen. Each of the characters need ups, downs, sidesteps and harrowing, exciting experiences, just like us.
Example #1. The nice person did a happy thing and no problems ever occurred, everyone was super kind and helpful to the nice person and everybody had happy ever after, forever for infinity. Zzzzz.
Example #2. The mean person did a mean thing and only bad things ever occureed, everyone was super awful to the mean person and then destruction and horror ensued, forever for infinity. Shudder.
Too Much of a Good Thing is Dull
The first one, stuffed with niceness until you blow a sugary gasket – is too sweet. NICE person blah blah happiness so much happiness blah blah super kind sugary sweet helpful blah blah nicety nice-nice blah blah happy. Zzzzz.
The second one, so horrible you want to chew your wrists open until you bleed out – is too sour. MEAN person blah blah blah blah mean and bad blah blah, icky awful yucky blah blah destruction blah blah bad bad bad. Shudder.
Mixing Story Basics – Taste Test Your Ingredients
Once you start to combine them then they get interesting. Sour and sweet. Bad things happening to good people, and they either overcome the (happy ending) or not (tragedy). The reverse, good things happening to bad people – and they change and grow (uplifting art film) or not (downer drama).
That doesn’t mean that the end result of that story will be good. However, it will be infinitely more interesting than choices 1 or 2. And balance, surprise, shifts in the amount of sugar or vinegar added to your recipe throughout will keep it spicy. I’m going overboard here with the food thing to make a point. The point is… now I’m hungry and want a pfeffernusse cookie, which is both sweet and spicy and cannot be spelled correctly by anyone except those from Germany, The Netherlands and Denmark.
Practice, Practice, Practice
The point is, YOU are the cook so make your story interesting and flavorful for you at all times, with the expectations of your audience. Reading screenplays that you like, in your genre, are one way to see how others do this. Studying pros is key to getting good, and finding your approach in the writing kitchen. Also, writing regularly will help with this balance. If you are seeking ways to keep your screenwriting process and career on track, here’s a tutorial I created to that point.
Don’t get too weird with your recipe though until you have the classics down. Otherwise, diners will be confused and leave the table gagging, spitting your story on to the floor. Like the famous meat-cake, by George Carlin.
In conclusion, best wishes for the holidays! Remember that how to write a story begins with the basics… and that basics are not only comforting, they keep you grounded. Homemade storytelling starts with a great recipe, practice and honoring the good taste of your audience.
Rock your writing!