From prehistoric drawings on a cave wall to ghost tales around a campfire, from classic novels written by the greatest writers to the latest Hollywood blockbuster, there are many ways to tell a story. But just what is a story? More specifically, what is a story in the context of a screenplay?
In the coming months, this column will explore what a story is through analysis, movie reviews from a story perspective, and interviews with movie industry professionals whose job it is… to tell stories.
There won’t be a single answer. However, we will start with a premise: In screenwriting, a story is defined as a flawed character overcoming seemingly insurmountable obstacles to reach a desired goal. It’s unknown where that exact definition came from, but most likely from a combination of screenwriting gurus like Robert McKee and Syd Field.
Some stories are formulaic. For instance, the classic structure of musicals from the Golden Age often revolved around, “boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl in the end.” Quite a leap from those days of syrupy love stories to films like War of the Roses, Fatal Attraction, or even Brokeback Mountain.
It’s like making a stew: Make sure you have all the necessary elements, i.e. plot, premise, theme, character, etc., throw it in the pot, stir it up, and it’s a good bet,you’ll end up with some kind of a story. But as anyone who’s ever tried to make the perfect pasta sauce, a little bit of this or a little bit of that makes all the difference in the world.
Every writer knows what it’s like to come up with an idea, an idea they think will make a good story. “Hey, that would make a good movie,” a phrase most of us have heard at one time or another from someone sitting in a bar who hasn’t a clue about how to write a script.
Those who actually set out to turn an idea into a tangible script might start with an outline. They might use software, index cards, or a friend good at drawing storyboards. The storyline starts to take shape via various configurations like loglines, summaries, treatments. At some point, they realize… something is missing. A theme? A premise? A turning point? Not enough character development? Everything is in place, but there’s a missing spark that lights it all on fire to make it work as a unified story. You know, something you can pitch without having to say, “It’s still a work in progress.”
In a recent article by Script Mag columnist Jeff Lyon, the issue of outlining a story is a contentious one. Some writers think it stifles the creative flow, while others see it as a way to open the floodgates. A story without structure is free association, something that is more suited to poetry or the therapist’s couch. A movie takes you somewhere, and to do that, there needs to be a linear order, where one thing leads to another. By all means, explorations in non-linear story telling offer intriguing ways to tell stories. Dance can tell a story, without the need for a beginning, middle and end.
Why do some stories flop? What went wrong? Was it the story itself, or one of the tools used to tell the story? Wrong format? Maybe it would work better as a novel, TV series, comic book or game. Well, movies flop for all kinds of reasons with the storyline not necessarily being one of them. Bad acting, direction, editing, even marketing can bury what might’ve had the potential to be a great story.
Would it be true to say that a great story will find its way? That is, if the story is solid, everything else will fall into place? The same thing is said about music: It’s all about the song. Everything else is icing on the cake. And so it goes for the script–if the script is solid…
Some stories can take many forms. The novel, short story, comic book, theatrical play, TV series or game–vehicles for delivery. Why would a story work well only in one medium? Or, was it written specifically for that medium? Obviously many great movies started out as novels. Is an adapted screenplay a re-creation of the original story, or does it become an entirely new story?
One of the latest developments, a term that has not quite yet become mainstream, is transmedia, where a story is adapted across a spectrum of media. The story–like a symphony–can take the shape of variations on a theme. However, each variation gives the story new meaning. A story told in another language takes on a different meaning.
One way to understand what a story is, is by understanding what it is not. An idea is not a story. A situation is not a story. Even a character, without something happening, is not a story. I woke up this morning, is not a story. A car driving by is not a story. Even a baby being born is not a story. It might be the beginning of one, but something must take place that compels us to ask, “What happens next?”
Something can have a beginning, middle and an end, but still not be a story. You wake up, got ready for work, and went to work, but still…that’s not a story. Nothing happened. Nothing engaged us. Nothing compelled us to see what conflict gets resolved. Throw in a car accident, or a doctor’s call announcing a terminal illness. Maybe the wife left or was kidnapped. Now we’re on our way, because something happened, something that requires our attention and demands resolution. Something happened that produced conflict.
Without conflict there is no story.
Let’s say Rocky is a story about a fighter. What does that mean? Why not pick any fighter? Why Rocky? What makes him so special? Even a fighter who wins fight after fight, is really not a story. What did he overcome to win those fights? Inferior opponents? Simply showing up? We still don’t have a story. Ah, but Rocky suffers from low self-esteem. He’s a nobody. Now we got a story about a nobody who becomes somebody. If this guy can overcome the obstacles, then maybe anyone can, and now the audience is on the edge of their seats watching to see how Rocky overcomes the obstacles.
A story is a journey.
We can also ask not just what is a story, but also, “what is this story about?” Now we ask, what is the theme? Rocky’s quest for redemption, for honor, for identity, to be somebody, this is the stuff that captures our imaginations. Rocky doesn’t stand a chance in hell of a nobody becoming somebody. We identify with Rocky. Audiences are filled with nobody’s trying to become somebody’s. We need a hero. We need to cheer the underdog. If Rocky can’t win, how can we?
What happens next? What’s at stake? What is it about the story that compels us to stay engaged? What happens if the ending is disturbing or doesn’t satisfy? And all told, what is it about a movie that makes it a satisfying experience?
Gunfights, car chases, special effects, sexy actors, love scenes, explosions, lighting, songs, scores, sets, camera angles–these are all devices used to tell, enhance and move a story forward. But… we still don’t have a story.
Something or someone must change.
Saving the planet is a classic basic for many movies, a.k.a., the disaster film. There must be a threat to the survival of the planet. Someone must overcome the threat in order for the planet to get saved. But why must the character change in the process? Why is a character arch a necessary element in storytelling?
In Armageddon , we’ve got a rag tag crew of losers who don’t stand a chance in hell of saving the planet. Clearly everyone of the characters of the oil rig crew is flawed. But everyone of them is also very lovable. The audience doesn’t want the planet saved as much as they want this band of losers to do the saving. And knocking an asteroid off its course by drilling a hole and planting a nuclear bomb most certainly qualifies as a “insurmountable obstacle.” Plus, everyone of them becomes a hero. Like Rocky, everyone of them is a nobody who becomes somebody.
Why is failure not a story?
A story can be about revenge, greed, hate, love, becoming a better person, disease, honor, redemption, overcoming fear, changing something bad into something good, removing a threat, good overcoming evil, a story about winning (a race, a war, a game, a prize). Knowing what a story is about is critical… but it’s still not yet a story.
Robert McKee reminds us of humankind’s insatiable appetite for stories. In fact, Robert McKee’s, Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting, is available in the Writers Store.For the uninitiated, Robert McKee is a foremost screenwriting guru and an excellent place to start is exploring the question, “What is a story?”
A video on You Tube introduces McKee’s book.
And, the many books of script guru Syd Field.
McKee says that good storytellers must have a good deal of life experience. He can teach the fundamentals of storytelling, he says, but not to someone who has not had a breadth of experience (good and bad—especially bad). “Self-knowledge is the root of all great storytelling.”
What is fiction, what is drama, what is conflict?
We are now telling stories via the smartphone. Yet, how does a 3 inch screen affect the telling of a story, especially when the “larger than life” tag associated with movies comes, in part, from being viewed on screens the size of buildings?
Technology truly is a story shaper, and in turn, the story of technology reveals much about how we tell stories and what kind. Stories handed down by word of mouth take on new meanings and interpretations with each retelling, while fixed media is, well, fixed, unless someone happens to do a remake. But the classics are forever, enjoyed and reinterpreted by new audiences, perhaps, but the words never change. Director’s cuts are one way for directors to show audiences, “Hey, we had a different ending, but it got cut.” And now, the audience has the option to choose their own endings from a list, an open-ended story, if you will.
In the coming months, screenwriters, producers, filmmakers, directors, actors and anyone associated with the art and science of storytelling, will offer their definition of what a story is. It will truly prove to be an exploration in Storyland, where happy endings are not always the goal, and good guys don’t always win.
Humans love fiction, and reality and truth are not necessarily the end goal. We want our spirits lifted. We want to be entertained. “Are you not entertained?”, Maximus asks, in Gladiator. But entertainment is not a story. We can be entertained without telling a story, while stories must certainly entertain if they are to be successful.
And of course, what’s a story without an ending?
Some stories are timeless, while others, largely those based on real life events, have an expiration date.
Some stories are self-explanatory with nothing else needed other than what is conveyed in the movie. Others need exposition–or backstory–conveying the context in which the story takes place, and prior events leading up to it.
Brad Johnson argues, “There should be a layer beneath the plot. Something you’re trying to say. If there’s not; If everything in your script only goes skin deep, and if you have nothing to say about your characters, their position in the world, or the conflict you’re putting them through…then why bother to tell the story?”
The importance of theme is captured in the book, Inside Story: The Power of the Transformational Arc.
In terms of the importance of structure, and how 3 acts are traditionally used to structure a script, Robert Piluso says, “This Narrative Question you might even recognize as the main substance of your logline (if you have one, yet). If drafting a logline poses difficulty for you (don’t dishearten—it does for so many us), the problem isn’t in distilling the entire story (Acts I, II, III) into one sentence—it’s in knowing your Narrative Question of Act II.”
What is it about 3 acts that so aptly encapsulate’s the telling of a story in movie form? Some script gurus argue there are more than 3 acts, or that each scene is a mini-story in itself, used to tell the grander story of the entire movie.
You Tube video: What is a story?
Future column entries will explore:
What is the story about?
What is the theme?
What is the premise?
What are the major plot points? What are the scenes?
What’s at stake?
What is the inciting incident?
What is/are the character arcs?
How does it begin?
How does it end?
What is the timeline?
Who is the protagonist?
Who is the antagonist?
Who are the protagonist (antagonist) allies?
What are the goals?
What are the obstacles?
What are the conflicts?
What is the major conflict?
What are the characters strengths/weaknesses?
How is time condensed?
How is time a pressure?
What is the series of events?
What is the plot?
Why does the audience care?
What is the message?
What is the action?
What is the dialog?
What is the genre?
How do characters react/respond?