This blog describes my journey exploring storytelling - words, images and the sensations they generate. The lot, basically.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Story Learnings - So Far...

One of the side effects of spending too much time at work, writing company wide emails about made-up nonsense (more about that in another post), is that you become the go-to guy for writing just about anything.

The other day one of our lighters asked me to teach him about storytelling. Massively flattered as I was, I managed to object, that I am only just learning myself. But what I do know, I will happily share. So put on the spot like that, I managed to break into a 10 minute improvised lecture - which in hindsight wasn't half bad. We continued this over our instant messenging client over the days that followed.

As I said, I am just a humble student of storytelling, but I do think others might benefit from what I have learned at the feet of the masters so far. Here goes:

1. The universal story: Light wins over darkness

I have spent a lot of time looking into universal plots and what they tell us about the human psyche and our need for and use of storytelling. In short, there is really only one plot: Light wins over darkness. All other meaningful plots are merely viewing this master plot from different angles.

2. The heartbeat of a story

A story must invariably be told with a certain rhythm: Tension and release; Greater tension and greater release; Greatest tension (climax) and greatest release (resolution). Like a heartbeat, constantly expanding and contracting. If you follow tension with more tension and more tension still, you will lose the effect of the tension. Likewise with release. The audience will grow numb.


I could have sworn there was a 3rd point in there somewhere. Which I seem to have lost. I will leave it unnamed as the unmarked grave for the anonymous soldier. Or maybe I just don't want to reveal my secret sauce? You will never know...

4. The Gap

Hitchock said, "drama is like ordinary life, with the dull bits cut out." Yep. We can't have that. Dull bits. Things that go exactly according to plan. It doesn't make for good stories. So when we write, we look at what our characters are expecting... and never give them that. In that gap between the expectations of the characters and the outcome sits lovely, lovely drama; Conflicts that force your characters outside of their nice-guy behaviour; Conflicts which escalate tension; Conflicts which entertain the audience at the expense of our characters, who now will have to work harder for it.

5. Sub text versus text

Just as in real life, what is said is never the full picture. Dialogue is the text, the sub text is what the characters really are feeling, thinking and reallly trying to say. I remember the great salesman Frank Bettger always said, "The first reason sounds good. The second reason is the real reason." Also in stories, nobody will volunteer what they really mean all the time - unless they are the fool on the hill. It is up to us as storytellers to construct these layers of what is said, and is really meant underneath.

6. Character is shown through dilemmas

Take any serial killer, dress him up nicely, ask his neighbours about him - 'oh, he's such a nice young man'. What is really inside of us, will only be revealed when we are out of our depth; When we have no game plan and we have to improvise. Those are the moments where the slick surface of careful grooming and learned manners crack open to reveal the true person underneath. All the surface stuff doesn't really count. How do we create those cracks? Throw our characters into tough dilemmas, where they have to make tough choices about the lesser of two evils. That is when we will see what they are really made of.

7. No scene, that doesn't turn

A scene that starts with a man being in a good mood and ends with him being in a good mood is a non-event; A waste of precious time. It will not advance the plot, it will not entertain, it will most likely just be there to fill in the audience about background details (exposition). Never should it be found in your stories. By "doesn't turn", I mean the emotional values do not turn: Turn from positive to negative or the other way around. No scene, that doesn't turn! It is storytelling fluff. We can't have it!

8. Show, don't tell

Actions speak louder than words. A nigh on universal truism. Also in stories. What we tell people will not have as much impact as what we see them do. In screenwriting whatever can be said with images should be done so. Only resort to dialogue, if you can not tell the same parts of the story with images. The emotional response from the audience will be far greater.

9. Storytelling is story delaying

Save the best for last, they say. I guess, that is just good showmanship. Likewise, a story is not a story, if you upfront tell your audience all the facts. For starters, suspense goes out of the window as all questions are answered. So don't insult the intelligence of your audience, and don't tell them anything a moment before they absolutely have to know. Tension will build and as a result the exhilleration of the revelation will be so much stronger, when you do tell.

10. Setup and pay off

You know how there are two parts to a joke? The punchline is what people laugh at, but it makes no sense without the setup. Likewise, the really important moments of your story needs careful setting up as well, to make sure they will have the impact on the audience that you intend. 

11. Plot turns

Ah plot turns... Those moments of exhilleration, where a story is completely turned upside down. As you learn that Darth Vader is actually Luke's father, your mind races, in a split-second, back through two entire movies, and all of a sudden there are so many things that make sense at last. Carefully setting up plot-turns with subtle hints and delivering them with impact will leave your audience thrilled and excited as they experience the joy of piecing it all together in their minds. Believable plot turns take quite a bit of imagination and careful planning on the structural stage of a story. But if you can manage to deliver a well-built plot turn, it will stay with your audience for the rest of their life - the above example being ample proof thereof.

I could, and probably will, add another 20 to these 11. But it is a start. Besides, I need to practise some more; Juggling with 11 balls in the air, is plenty hard for me still.

What are the most important parts of storytelling for you?

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