Getting Back to the Basics
I recently returned from a trip to the Middle East where I was blessed to stand before a group of eighteen students from five different countries and teach them about the art of crafting short stories. My overseas teaching experiences are rewarding beyond measure, but the language barrier is always frustrating. Every time I work with an interpreter, it forces me to choose my words carefully and focus on the essentials. But, most importantly, it makes me reexamine the basics of good storytelling.
My experience in the Middle East reminded me that writing is really tough work and not for the faint of heart. It showed me that the elements used in powerful storytelling are complex – they work together in a deeply poetic, symbiotic relationship. Asking students to immediately craft powerful stories is like asking first year biology students to come up with a cure for Ebola. Years of studying the basics of molecular science and familiarizing oneself with the intricacies of the world of biology and chemistry must happen first, and the same is true with storytelling – you have to begin with the basics.
But, the need to return to the basics of solid storytelling isn’t a problem faced by my international students alone; I sense the need right here in my own American backyard. The Los Angeles Film Studies Center is where I regularly teach narrative storytelling with my friend and colleague, John K. Bucher, Jr. After several years of seeing our students make the same mistakes over and over again in their short stories, John and I decided it was time to take our collective knowledge (based on our own filmmaking endeavors and our experiences workshopping well over a thousand student short films) and write it all down.
Next month, our book entitled The Inside/Out Story: Discovering Structure for Short Films will be available for purchase on Amazon. In the book John and I discuss different types of short films – everything from abstract films vs. realistic short films to the difference between Fairy Tales, Fables, and the American Myth. But regardless of what type of story you’re telling there are a few basic, fundamental things you need to know before you begin. So, here is just a preview of some of the many things we discuss in our book.
Storytelling – Where do I start?
If my students were allowed to write down and take with them only one point from my lectures, I would have them write down this simple statement:
A story is… a narrative about a single character who must overcome some sort of conflict in order to solve a very specific problem.”
This statement might seem elementary, but if I had a dollar for every script I’ve read that failed to follow this basic tenet of storytelling, I’d be a rich man.
Many times my students think they’ve successfully executed the above statement, but here is where most writers fail. Most writers have a difficult time grasping the concept of “…a very specific problem.” I cannot emphasize how important it is for you as a writer to give your main character a very clearly defined, measurable problem with a cinematic solution. And, by “cinematic,” I mean a solution that is external and visual.
The solution should be revealed through images not through dialogue. This is why sports stories work so well – there is always a tangible finish line or a physical trophy to win. I can show a team winning the national tournament without ever uttering a single line of dialogue. YOUR stories should work the same way. We know Frodo accomplished his goal at the end of The Return of the King, because the solution to the problem was so clearly defined – the story isn’t over until the One Ring of Power is cast into the fiery pits of Mount Doom – can you get any more cinematic than that?
Where most writers fail is by making the central problem of their story too internal. Let’s look at a specific example. The following statement is a poor example of a central story problem:
A man wants to find true love.
There are a thousand stories I could write about a man wanting to find true love. In fact, there are so many possibilities that I’m overwhelmed. I don’t know where to start, so I walk away from my laptop and claim I have “writer’s block.”
The above problem is a great “internal” problem for a story, but it’s not strong enough to drive the narrative. By externalizing the above problem and making it cinematic, I narrow my options and suddenly the writing process doesn’t seem so daunting. So, instead of trying to operate from a vague premise with endless possibilities, let’s tell a story about a man waiting to find true love but make our central story problem more specific and measurable:
A man must propose to a girl before his 30th birthday…
which is only two weeks away!
I don’t even fully know my story yet, but I already know what my final image is going to be – the main character kneeling down on one knee, with ring in hand, proposing to the girl of his dreams, underneath a giant clock just before it strikes midnight. No words are spoken, but the image tells me that our hero has solved his problem.
Many writers have something to say. They know they want to tell stories about a particular theme like forgiveness or mercy, but often times that’s about as far as they get. When starting with a theme ask yourself, “What are some very tangible ‘photographable’ ways I could show my main character learning how to forgive or show mercy?” Try to come up with your final image before you ever write one word of your story.
By answering that question, you are one step closer to figuring out the single most important element of your story – What is my main character’s very specific problem. Your final image will serve as your bull’s eye. With every scene you write, you can ask yourself, am I moving my main character closer to that final image or further away?
So, the next time you find yourself staring at a blank screen at two o’clock in the morning; or when your friends begin to worry about your self-diagnosed “writer’s block;” or when you know the theme of your film, but you still haven’t found your story; stop what you’re doing and ask yourself the single most important question a storyteller can ask: “What is my final image?”