Planning a story at the whiteboard.

We all have that one friend who is just absolutely horrible at telling stories. They give way too much unnecessary backstory, there is no suspense or drama and if they read the audience or the group of friends they are telling the story to, they would quickly realize that no one is interested. But out of respect, we let them finish the story anyway. That friend has not mastered the art of storytelling. When it comes to movies, no one is obligated to sit through the entire thing! And, no matter how much time, effort and money you put into a production, no matter how talented your actors are, how extravagant your locations are and how passionate you feel about a project, if the story isn’t strong enough, the movie isn’t good. Point blank, period. Let’s look at the most important factors when creating a story for the screen.

Before there were cameras, before there were words written on scrolls, before there was theater; when there were just cavemen and fire, I imagine a group of cavemen sitting around telling stories. As time goes on, more and more elements are created to help tell these stories. Once in awhile, filmmakers get googly-eyed at the new technology. And why not, some of it is really cool. But, the technology and tools are created to help better tell the story

The Bigger the Production the Better, Right?

“I need a bigger budget. I need explosions. I need the best camera!” The truth is, you need a strong story.

Iconic image from “The Blair Witch Project.”

“The Blair Witch Project” is a perfect example. There was an incredibly strong story that was told in a very creative way. No huge production cost was involved, but the tools that were used supported the story. Some films have all the bells and whistles but with an incredibly weak storyline, movie goers will still leave saying, “I don’t get it” or, “That movie sucked.” Bad production value can be counteracted by a good story, while great production value can’t rescue a bad story.

“Well, what are some flaws that can ruin a story?” I’m glad you asked.

The Importance of the Arc

Stories have been around for so long that a structure has been created that we naturally gravitate toward. That structure is known as the story arc. Understanding that arc is crucial. You see, the point of telling a story is to have a point. And to get to that point efficiently, you must follow that arc. In it’s simplest form, the arc is the beginning, middle, and end. And generally, the beginning, middle and end are certain lengths and have been created based off our attention spans. The arc can also be broken down into the first, second and third act.

The first act usually sets up the mood of the story and in a feature length script is around 30 pages. In those first pages a sense of normalcy is established. I like to say, “Everything was ok until…” That switch or main events that interrupts the normalcy in our character’s life is what’s known as the inciting incident. The character then begins on this journey.

Understanding how to tell a story is crucial…let’s look at the most important factors when creating a story for the screen.

The second act (approx. pages 30-90) is the character attempting to overcome that obstacle while getting in deeper and deeper. We also begin to learn more about the character, including their mindset and backstory, which we will cover later. This is usually the longest section of the screenplay and continues until the major turning point that sends our character into the final battle.

That is the beginning of the third act (approx. pages 90-120). The energy has picked up by now and we are on the edge of our seats to see what will happen. The character has made a conscious attempt to solve the problem. The main superhero and villain have their final fight. That is the climax, the highest point. After the climax, is the resolution and the understanding of how life is now different than when we began the story, giving us the complete arc.

There are even more beats within that arc. A good friend of mine and awesome screenwriter and director Ben Alagna, put me on to this book called, “Save the Cat” by Blake Snyder. I highly recommend you read it.

Put Your Hero Through the Pain

We want to see our main character go through something. We want to see them change. They start off a certain way and by the end, they have completed the arc and come out on the other side. But we need to make sure the premise is strong. We need to put the main character into the most uncomfortable situation they can be in.

The shark from “JAWS” gets dangerously close.

What’s the worst thing that can happen to a town who thrives off of living on the beach? A shark! (“Jaws”) What’s the craziest thing that can happen to a woman from Kansas who seemingly lacks courage, heart and brains? Being dropped into the land of Oz! Try to come up with scenarios for the main character and see what the worst situation is for that character to be in. If it’s not drastic enough, then you have a faulty premise.

We Need Conflict

All good stories have drama. Yes, all, even comedies. And that drama comes through conflict. Imagine that storytelling friend from the beginning, telling you a story that has absolutely no conflict. Even a weak conflict is still a bad story. The conflict has to be so great that we think the character may never get out of it, until they find a way to do it! Characters have wants. And when the protagonist and antagonist face each other with two different wants,  we have conflict and we have drama.

Your main character must also get to a point where they must make a decision. They are faced with two choices. And here is the kicker, they must believe they can only have one. When a character or a person in real life faces that scenario, that is the ultimate drama. Will he take the job of his dreams or marry the girl of his dreams? He can only choose one. Drama.

We Have to Relate with Our Hero

We have to care about these characters. That is actually where the term “save the cat” comes from. It’s that moment in the beginning of a film that makes us empathize with the character. If our character commits a crime but on the way home literally saves a cat from a tree, we say, ”Oh, they must not be that bad.” That moment that makes us say, “You know what, I see flaws in this character, but this person is a good person and I want to see them make it.” We want to root for people who are flawed but have a good heart. Not every “save the cat” moment is literal, but next time you’re watching a movie, look for that moment at the beginning where the character proves they have a good trait that makes us like them and relate with them.

We also want to see characters that relate to us. We can understand the person who is fighting for their family. We can understand the person who is misunderstood, who is not living up to their potential. We feel that in ourselves, we root for those characters, the ones we can relate with. Even if the exact situation is not something we’ve experienced, the mindset and the motives are. As long as that’s translated, we will relate.

We must even relate with the antagonist. Although we don’t necessarily agree, a good antagonist is not just a bad guy, they have real motives. Just like no one in the movie is crazy. They have an objective that others may not get, but they are not crazy and in their minds their action makes perfect sense. Those motives just strongly go against what our character wants and the way the story is set up, we relate with the protagonist. The same story can be written from the antagonist’s point of view, and with a couple of shifts, we will root for them, making them the protagonist.

Introducing the Backstory

There has to be depth to your character. We must know a little bit of where they come from. That is called the “backstory.” It lets us know their motives and why they are doing what they are doing. The backstory is critical. If overdone, we lose interest. The story is about the present, not the past.

The backstory does not have to be at the beginning. You control when you let the audience in. It’s sort of like dating. You don’t give everything away on the first date. As the story unfolds, pick and choose when to introduce the backstory. When is the best time for the audience to realize exactly what is going on inside our hero’s head. And all of the backstory doesn’t have to be revealed at once. >

Ryan Stone floats high above Earth in “Gravity.”

One instant that stands out is in “Gravity” written by Alfonso Cuarón and Jonás Cuarón. We know that Ryan Stone had a daughter, but what exactly happened to her daughter and how it affects her thinking is revealed at very specific parts of the film.

Don’t Be Too Predictable

Again, back to that friend who is horrible at telling stories. Doesn’t it bother you when they start a story and everyone in the room already knows what’s going to happen, but the story draws out anyways? Do not make your story too predictable. True, there is a structure to the story and the audience could start to piece together and make assumptions based on foreshadowing and other storylines similar to it. But, the drama should still be there, and just like the backstory, crucial information should be revealed at select parts of the film.

When I watch the “Who Done It?” genre with family and friends, it never fails for someone somewhere during the middle or towards the end of the film to say, “I know who it is!” We take so much pride in feeling like we’ve solved the puzzle. Well, I don’t like to bring them down so I refrain from telling them this, but, chances are you discovered who did it at the exact time the writer and director wanted you to discover who did it! With the proper story structure, foreshadowing, and all the other aspects of cinema, you were given the information when you were supposed to be given the information, and pieced together the parts you were supposed to piece together, when you were supposed to piece them together. Which brings me to this next point.

Drama can be increased by the audience knowing what the character doesn’t and vice versa. We know there’s a killer in the house, but the character doesn’t. The character knows who the murderer is, but we don’t. Drama! (Insert “Law and Order” soundtrack in your head.) The audience is also smarter than you think. So keep that in mind. Make them guess a little. But not to the point where they are all out confused.

How Do They Talk?

One tricky part that takes people out of a story is the dialogue. You have your voice, and you’re creating characters that all have their own voices. Be aware that they all talk differently than each other and most likely differently than you. What country are we in, and even in that country, what part? What year? Is our character direct? Does our character whisper? Does our character say a lot of words, or very few? These are all questions you should ask yourself when giving your character dialogue.

Pay attention to how people around you talk. Notices their tones, their nuances. What words or phrases do they like to say? Will a preacher talk the same as a sinner coming to him for help? Will a teacher talk the same as a student? Avoid the cliches like: Bob, “Hi Sarah.” Sarah, “Hi Bob.” For one, do Sarah and Bob even need to say hi, and if so, do they say “Hi,” “Hola,” “What’s Up,” “How’s it going?” “Howdy,” “Good morning”? All of the dialogue should advance the story. If it’s not advancing the story, it doesn’t need to be said. So, go with the rule, show not tell. Viewers should be able to follow the story with the sound off. But the dialogue can be a huge asset when done right.

Also, a huge part of dialogue is subtext. What the characters are literally saying may have a totally different meaning behind it. Is the couple really fighting about who broke the vase and how to put it back together or about their marriage falling apart?

Practice Makes Perfect

Practice storytelling all the time. When you’re with a group of friends, and you’re saying what happened a couple days ago, practice. Study how other people tell stories. How do people respond? What do they respond poorly to? What do they laugh at? Study the difference between 30 minute stories and feature length movies. Maybe your idea is better as an episodic television show. Maybe your idea would be a nice commercial. Maybe your idea is perfect for a feature length film.

Study the beats and the moments in movies when certain events happen. Recognize the pattern. Take notes. Eventually, you will be able to predict what happens. Read feature length screenplays. You can find a lot of them online. Have others read your script and give you feedback. Don’t be afraid of the re-write. It’s a part of the process. And most importantly, don’t be afraid to put your character through the fire. We have to see him or her go through the pain in order to take in that wonderful moment when he or she comes out on the other side, just like we want to see your triumph when you go through the fire and finish your awesome script. Oh yeah, and give some of these tips to that friend so they can better their storytelling as well! Good luck!

JR Strickland is an award-winning director, filmmaker and musician. He specializes in strong, narrative storytelling. 

1 COMMENT

  1. This is an excellent primer for movie makers. Sharp and to the point.  I am a retired video provessional who teaches Movie Making in our local schools.  This article is a nice overview. It is surprising how many movie making courses do not include such good information,

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