Stories are tough to tell. Some people (even friends) start to tell a story, and immediately you want to put a pillow over your head, run out of the room, or throw yourself under a bus.
They begin and you think, “How can I get out of here. Won’t someone stop him?!”
(If only there was a bad storyteller remote—you could flip to Netflix or hit mute…If one of you can invent that, please let me know.)
On the other hand, some people launch into a story, and you’re caught—hooked. You’re into it from minute one. You know the people in this story, even though you don’t. Maybe you’re not sure where the story is going, but you want to know more. You’re laughing. Or, if not laughing, you’re feeling something—you’re sad. You’re worried about the characters in the story:
Will they make it out alive? Will they find love?
As it goes on, the story only gets better. You relate. The situation is familiar. You’ve been there, but not really. You love the story.
Why is that?
Well, some of us are natural-born storytellers. And some of us ain’t.
Here’s a sad fact: non-storytellers are usually not aware of their storytelling inadequacies. Someone tell them, please. Tell them so I don’t have to: “You’re not a storyteller. You’re a story-listener.”
Or, better yet, someone teach them how to tell a story.
Actually, that’s the good news: storytelling is a craft. Storytelling is an art. It can be learned.
Screenwriting is storytelling.
If you want to be a screenwriter (which I assume you do, if you’re reading this), telling a good story is your first job. It all starts with a story—which we in the biz call the “screenplay.”
A director doesn't set out to make a movie without first knowing the story. It starts with a screenplay. Without a screenplay—or story—the director doesn’t know what to shoot. It’s that simple.
Why do people care about your stories? Because storytelling is human nature.
People have been telling stories since the beginning of time. Cavemen—and women!—carved stories on cave walls. Telling stories is, you could say, as natural as breathing. (Okay, not that natural, but pretty close.)
Here’s why we tell ‘em:
Reason #1: Stories Entertain.
If you had to pick one reason we tell stories, this would be it. Stories have to entertain, or else nobody cares. Why do you struggle so hard to pay attention to a boring history lecture? Is it that it’s uninteresting? No. It’s because you’re not entertained.
Good stories make us feel. Judd Apatow makes us laugh. Stephen King scares us. Michael Haneke (if you don’t know him, you should) makes us cry.
We listen to music, read a book, go to the theater, look at a painting, all for the same reason: because we want to be moved. Because we want to feel something emotionally and, sometimes, intellectually.
Reason #2: Stories Inform.
A good story shows us how to behave. The protagonist of the movie, against all odds, behaves heroically. In that way, he or she informs us as to how we might behave—because we all want to be the hero of our own stories.
So why do some storytellers suck?
Remember…the audience is demanding. Even if they want to be informed, they must be entertained.
The primary culprit of all bad storytelling is the storyteller's lack of direction. You know the deal. Uncle Fred starts in, telling a story, but you aren’t paying attention. “…So then we went to Bob’s—I’ve told you about Bob, right? Bob’s got that dog who is always lookin’ for squirrels. Speaking of squirrels, we got a squirrel problem…”
You’re not even sure what his story is about. “What’s the point?!” you want to scream.
A good storyteller knows where the story is going. He doesn’t ramble. He doesn’t bore. And of course, he doesn’t make you want to pull out the Bad Storyteller Remote.
Hey. You’re probably a culprit too!
Maybe you’ve done this. You’ve started a story, not really knowing where it was going, not having given it much thought. The story begins to stray, wander this way and that. Your friends stare off into space. They yawn.
And they are your friends! Imagine how a non-friend audience would behave.
Not so good.
So, yes, you’ve probably been guilty. As a screenwriter, you are in command of the story, and as you know, the audience demands a good story.
How do you become a good storyteller, you ask?
We’re going to teach you how to tell a story without the boring parts, that’s what. And to do that, you have to learn to recognize a story when you see one.
That’s what this screenwriting series is all about. We’re going to take it one step at a time—and end up with a killer script.
For today, the only thing you need to worry about are these action steps. Every single post will come with action steps. In case you hadn’t guessed it, this is how you will take action on all the knowledge we’re puttin’ into yo’ brain. Lock it in, so to speak.
So if you want results, don’t skimp out.
Learn to get rid of anything that's not relevant to the story—the boring parts. Let's start with your new mantra: every scene must drive the story forward or teach us something new about the protagonist.
Things to Remember:
- Storytelling is a craft. It can be learned.
- A good storyteller knows where the story is going.
- Every scene drives the story forward or tells the audience something new about the protagonist.
- The writer must know the story: beginning, middle, and end.
Films to Watch:
I will refer to several movies during this series. It might help if you watched, or re-watched, those movies before we get started. (If you choose not to, there will be spoilers. You’ve been warned.)
- The Wizard of Oz
As you watch, keep these questions in mind:
- What is the story? (That seems obvious, but before you blow it off, ask yourself if the audience knows why they told this story.)
- Whose story is it?
- Do you have a central character, and do we follow that character throughout the story?
- Is there drama (which means, is there enough conflict in the story to make the audience care what happens)?
- What are the “high points” of the story, and when do these high points happen?
- Does your story build to a climax—a point where all the drama comes to a head?
- Do we care about the main character?
- What is the point of the story, or the theme?