Storytelling is about presenting a series of events as words, images and sounds that are of such interest and novelty to an audience that they become fully engaged in the presentation. Stories teach and entertain.
Every filmmaker must learn storytelling because the entire basis of filmmaking, of the entire multi-billion dollar filmmaking industry, is built on the insatiable human desire to experience stories.
There isn’t a single set of rules that you can learn to become a good storytelling filmmaker but there are many guidelines and tricks that have been used and refined over the centuries that you can learn and call upon as you weave your storytelling magic. Any rules you try to make up will always have exceptions and sometimes the opposite is just as true.
In the hands of great storytellers the breaking of the rules can make the story even more engaging. In Hitchcock’s Psycho the hero appears to be Marian Crane, but she gets killed 1/3 of the way into the story. The antagonist seems to be Norman Bate’s mother, but she’s dead. The classic storytelling guidelines are broken right and left but the result is a totally engaging and highly emotional story.
Storytelling for filmmakers – The story’s world
The world of the story needs to be described to the audience. For most stories this may be just the everyday world they are familiar with but many stories are about a different time or place, real or imagined, and the audience needs to know the important rules of how this world operates.
The storyteller in turn needs to construct the world such that s/he doesn’t have to break any of the rules of the world in telling the story. Audience’s do not like it when their expectations of what is possible in the world of the story are suddenly changed by the storyteller.
The character’s world
Just like a story needs a consistent world to take place in, each character needs his/her own consistent world of experiences and beliefs that will determine how they behave. In fact a story is driven by the personalities of the main characters as they behave in the way they must due to their own private view of the world.
The basic behavior of the characters should not change during the story until something the characters learn during the story changes their beliefs. This basic change in the beliefs of the hero is ultimately the point of all good stories. The audience, who is emphasizing with the hero, gets to share in the emotions and enlightenment of learning what the hero learns.
The most important element of any engaging story is conflict. Stories must have at least one clear, central conflict. The conflict must be one your audience can relate to because it might be similar to a conflict they have or could experience. In experiencing the story they get to experience the emotions and lessons of the protagonist as s/he deals with trying to solve the conflict.
The basis of conflict is that two people both want the same thing, they want it very badly, but they can’t both have it. At all times the two main characters should be trying to get what they want and prevent the other from getting it. The conflict should not just be about a minor misunderstanding but a real do-or-die, I can’t go on living if I can’t have this, kind of conflict. Achieving the thing should be very, very difficult but not quite impossible.
The story should always focus on the main conflict. The story shouldn’t wander off into side-stories unless they directly relate to the theme of the central conflict. This is especially true for movies where you have about two hours at the most to tell your story.
The conflict that is central to the story should be the most important event in the characters lives, and maybe the most important event in the history of the world. Eventually the hero will have to deal with the conflict in a final crisis.
The story needs good characters that are believable, interesting and that can be emphasized with. The characters should also be 3-dimensional. They should have interesting backgrounds and talents and not be all good or all bad. Characters should surprise us.
There has to be a protagonist, the hero, who has a clear goal or problem. There also needs to be a clear antagonist who is a worthy opponent to the hero. Both of these characters should generally be introduced as early as possible in the story.
In some cases the hero is an animal or something complex such as a group of people. The villain could be an inanimate object or force of nature. Remember that your audience needs to emphasise with the hero so it’s much better to have a single person they can relate to. The same holds true for the villain. If the “villain” is the ocean then every attempt must be made to personify it so there should be just the right number of characters, just enough to tell the story. The biggest mistake is having too many generic characters that are hard to keep track of and distract from the central characters and their conflict.
Making the characters interesting has the side benefit that actors like to play interesting characters so casting gets easier. Ways to do this include having great entrances, great dialog and interesting, quirky personalities for the actors to explore.
What the characters say has to seem real, full of stumbles, overlaps, short incomplete statements, true to how each character talks. Get rid of the tongue twisters and big technical words unless that is how the character would really talk. Speak the lines out loud to see if they really flow smoothly.
The story introduction
The first scene of the screenplay should be a “grabber”. To hold an audience’s attention you must first capture it. Right from the first word on page one your goal is to get the audience’s attention. Watch the opening minutes of these movies for examples of how to do it right:
For Your Eyes Only (James Bond)
X2: X-Men Unlimited
Star Wars IV (the first Star Wars released)
Raiders of the Lost Ark
The story should be linear. The events of the story should be told in the order they happen, or at least in the order that makes for the most interesting experience, so the audience feels they are on a journey of discovery. Proper sequencing also makes for suspense and surprise.
The story needs to always be going somewhere so the audience can anticipate.
Favorite stories generally have a strong emotional core, a clear and admirable sense of rightness.
There are are a very small number of original story ideas. Most can be boiled down to one of the following conflicts:
-Get the prize (money, love interest, respect, etc.)
-Save one’s self from destruction
-Save the world (or some part of it: country, city, tribe, family members)
As much as audiences love seeing the same basic plots over and over they still want each story’s approach to be unique and fresh. At the same time audiences are used to the conventions of various genres and will be disappointed and confused if you stray too far from their expectations.
One of the biggest storytelling mistakes is to write yourself into a corner where there is no way the hero can escape and then just solve it through some previous unmentioned device. It’s called “deux ex machina” which very roughly translates as “the gods decided to fix everything”.
Your audience will hate you for leading them on. The solution is called foreshadowing.
If your hero is trapped with the monster closing in when he suddenly finds a bow and arrow and makes one perfect shot to kill the monster — your audience will hate you.
Instead have a shot of his childhood room complete with a bow and arrows and trophies for marksmanship, then later when he he enters the trap show a bow and arrow on the floor beside the skeleton of the last victim of the monster. Now your audience will think you are a clever writer when you have the hero pick up the bow and shoot it perfectly.
A group of teenage couples go to stay in an isolated cabin in the woods for the weekend in your slasher screenplay. One of them comments on the huge bear trap hanging on the wall. The audience will think it very clever when the hero remembers the trap and uses it later to save himself.
Subplots comment on the hero’s story
Our teenage couples are getting drunk in the cabin. The hero’s best friend argues with his girlfriend and storms out of the cabin into the dark woods. As the teenager stumbles through the underbrush a big man wearing a hockey mask and carry a chainsaw steps out from behind a tree and starts following the teen.
The point of the subplot has been made that we are safer when we stick together.
Set a deadline. The bomb is going to go off in one hour and harm the characters we care about. As the time counts down the suspense builds. The closer to zero the more the suspense.
There hero needs to complete something by a certain time or suffer a loss. That makes for suspense.
Show the audience something the characters don’t know. The bad guy is hiding to attack the hero. The hero doesn’t know it, but the audience does. The audience is rooting for the hero but can’t let him know he’s in danger so they feel tremendous suspense.
Hide information from the audience that a character knows. The hero enters a place the audience thinks is dangerous but the hero knows a secret. This creates suspense, but when the audience realizes they’ve been fooled they feel some resentment for being tricked. This technique is less desirable than the previous one of having the audience know more than the hero.
Cut from the action at the climatic point to a subplot to heighten the suspense. Another good use of subplots is to enhance suspense.
Our hero’s friend has gone out into the woods alone at night to sulk. The crazy slasher steps from behind a tree. The audience knows something the character doesn’t know. That creates suspense.
Now have your story cut away from the lone teen in the woods back to the other teenagers drinking in the cabin. The audience will go wild with heightened suspense wanting to know what is going to happen to the lone teen in the woods.
Secrets and gossip, laughter and tears
Everyone loves learning secrets and hearing gossip. Reveal important secrets from time to time. Include occasional bits of shocking gossip about one of the characters.
Even the most serious drama must have lighter moments. Humor in a story is not about telling jokes. It’s about observing our fellow humans in novel, silly and embarrassing situations that we have experienced ourselves.
Everyone loves to cry for some strange reason. Even men love to cry although not necessarily over the same things as women. Tears of joy when the hero finally gets his/her reward after much suffering are the best kind of tears.
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The story must be of interest to a large enough segment of the population that you will get an audience. Although most human conflict is of interest to nearly everyone, if your subject matter is so offbeat and specialized that only a few people care you will not be able to find an audience. The audience must care about the characters.
You must remember the sensibilities of your audience so you don’t turn them off by presenting inappropriately offensive material. What is inappropriate varies widely depending on your audience.
If you are trying to appeal to a broad audience then you need to have elements that appeal to all ages and sexes. This might include offbeat humor for adults and physical slapstick for kids, action and adventure for the guys and romance and drama for the women. Creating a story that is equally appealing to everyone is very difficult.
Entertainment values in storytelling
Audiences want the emotional experience of observing the conflict of the story and at the same time they want to be entertained. Certain story elements will give the audience the entertainment aspect they want. Look at your story idea and see if you can incorporate some of these.
Does the story transport the audience to an unfamiliar world?
Does the story have luxury?
Does the story have things you can’t have, or that don’t happen in their lives?
Does the story have fantasy?
Does the story have elements of another interesting time period?
Does the story have war or other extreme violence?
Does the story have large crowds/armies?
Does the story have exotic foreign locations?
Does the story have sex/romance?
Does the story have booze/drugs?
Does the story have guns?
Does the story have murder?
Does the story have other crime?
Does the story have juicy gossip/scandal?
Does the story have toe tapping, involving music and rhythm?
Does the story have dance?
Does the story have fun, involving skits?
Does the story have humor?
Does the story move fast?