Starting with story is going to disappoint a lot of you here to just make pretty pictures, but “Story is King” has got to be one of the most overstated and under-applied principles of media making. This Pixar-coined phrase has graduated to beyond-cliché status because of its importance as a first step in the creation process. As able wise man Abe Weissman says “If you’re going to have a voice, you’d better be careful what that voice says.”
The concept of story applies to both photo and video-making. Crafting an image worth “a thousand words” could take a thousand hours of forethought to create a single frame. Because technology makes image making so accessible, modern images are often made thoughtlessly, even harmfully. I harp on the importance of intentional imagery in its own section here. In this world quality trumps quantity. You need to figure out what you want to make; don’t rely solely on chance to give you something good by simply pointing a camera and capturing what someone else has made. It could be a single frame photograph or a million frame epic film motion picture trilogy. Either way, figure out if what you want to make is worth making before you begin. In media production, the how is fairly easily explained and will comprise 95% of this course. For a moment, have some patience as we discuss the what. I promise to eventually minimize the philosophical and focus on the actionable, but be patient.
There are some forms of photography that are concerned with capturing reality objectively. They seek to record reality without bias. This is both rather impossible, and exactly the opposite of what I’ll propose here. This sort of training is designed to give you all the tools you need as a visual storyteller to tell your story, to take advantage of a hundred small decisions to make something memorable. We could argue that the following two images show roughly “the same thing”: two people, one praying the other not. But I didn’t capture these two images to simply make you aware that two more individuals, and oil lamp and an exercise ball exist. What you’ll remember about these images is not so much what’s in them but what it means to you. The emotional connection you make with an image is the story we are talking about here. Additionally, these frames mean something quite different to me than they do to you. The baggage of life experience we bring to whatever media we ingest is a vital half of the experience.
So every frame tells a story, and the business of photographing isn’t all that different from that of cinematography. That said, the latter gives us the opportunity to develop these emotional concepts and relationships over time. So let’s talk about structuring story.
Stories help us make sense of the world and seem to have done so as long as man has been self aware. One oft-cited historical source is Aristotle, who in 350 BC defines a “well-constructed plot” with great application to modern story telling. Some of his observations may seem self evident in retrospect, but several fundamentals he mentions are often neglected. We’ll use several of his ideas to frame our discussion. Remember at all times that you are writing your story for an audience, and the “pity, fear and catharsis” you kindle within them are what make your story memorable. Tension drives stories. Uncertain anticipation in the audience can be the tension; it doesn’t have to be a character conflict. Conflict ultimately leading to crisis, makes for watchable material. Journeying with a character for our own cathartic experience is our right as an audience. Aristotle determines the need for believable consistent characters with enough good in them to be relatable. Acting and doing need to feel properly motivated by dimensionally fleshed-out characters. He advocates they experience a “change from ignorance to knowledge“. Too often stories show no development in the course of a character’s journey. A “destructive or painful” tragic incident. He advocates a beginning, middle and end. A caution to avoid overdeveloped spectacle. Aristotle’s poetics are more plot than character driven, which may not be so modern an approach, but of plot he says “A well-constructed plot should…be single in its issue“. As simple as that sounds, too many students can’t even figure out what their story is “about”. And once they do, they have a hard time sticking to it. The process of story, from planning through post, is one of whittling down the unnecessary and discovering what your true message is all about. It’s not unlike the quote attributed to Michelangelo: “I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.” A bit dramatic, but you get the gist.
The above is a wonderfully simplistic explanation of why structure matters. It will seem self-evident, but after watching lots of students films you’d be shocked at how overlooked some of the basics are. The three act structure is likely the most commonly referenced narrative structure. It separates your story into a beginning, middle and end. Each act culminates in some sort of turning point which then launches the story in a new direction at the opening of the next act.
Exposition. Establish world (status quo). Inciting incident kicks off the journey. Establishment of “dramatic question”–the big question of the whole show (e.g. “will he get the girl?”)
Protagonist embarks on perceived solution to the problem created by the inciting incident. New worlds explored, sidekicks introduced, new powers tested and wrangled, dramatic tension rises by the end of the act (“rising action”). The end of Act 2 usually sees the character at an all-time low.
Climax and resolution. The final crisis of your story will help inform the entirety of the rest of the story. The character goes back home a new person or settles into the new status quo.
I discuss the 3 act structure mainly because it’s simple–there’s not a lot to remember and it’s therefore likely to be applied. It’s also consistently “fractal” in that it’s represented on the micro/scene level and the macro/overall story level. If you’re writing for TV however, you’ll more often see 4–5 act structures. And other forms of writing will employ differing structures still. The same concepts apply to the written word, examples here and here. The broader point is that these are helpful ways to represent change in characters and situations over time.
Using this understanding of story structure and terminology, take a look at a story you may be familiar with. Can you find any exposition? An inciting incident? A beginning, middle and end? What is this story saying thematically, both explicitly and implicitly?
Show, don’t just tell. Dialog isn’t as useful as we think it is in real life. So often we use words to hide what we really think and feel. We stop listening half-way through a sentence because we assume (usually accurately) we’ve already got the gist. We believe what we see over what we hear so dialog is so often not the best solution. Counterintuitive as it sometimes seems, remember to use a visual medium to tell a story.
“Drama”, another word of Greek etymology, means little more than “to do”. The fundamental element of drama is that some thing is taking action in some way. Though two people talking together can make up the majority of a film’s screen time, remember to have some sort of “doing”. It’s much easier for an actor to “act” while doing something else simultaneously.
I’ve found, almost universally, that the modern audience is smarter than I am. Just as they don’t want to be beat over the head with relentless expositional back story. In so many ways it completely undermines the tension you’re striving to create.
Good opening exposition often creates questions as much as it provides back story. Create curiosity. Now you have a captive audience. Feed it.
Direct dialog is generally not a great expositional tool. Here’s a crude example: We need to know Bill likes cheese but is highly allergic to most dairy products and that his brother Bo shares similar dairy insensitivities which claimed his life 5 years prior. Belle was dating Bo at the time, and our film will ultimately revolve around Belle falling for Bill and the increasing strength of their relationship as they overcome this cheesy trauma. How do we start to set the stage?
1. An omniscient narrator opens our film with “Bill likes cheese but is allergic to most dairy products. His brother Bo died 5 years earlier from a similar dairy reaction… (While this may seem cheap, it’s not that far from the straightforward approach many films employ). Or maybe Bill is marking his calendar (because everyone does this) and there’s a big red ‘X’ on the date that says “Bill died 5 years ago today”.
2. So those are both bad. As the film opens, Bill and Belle talk in friendly conversation, Belle helpfully interjects “It’s been 5 years since Bo died of that dairy thing. Please never eat cheese Bill. If you go the same way, I just don’t think I could take it.” While this may provide information to the audience, it’s not remotely believable. Why would Belle need to remind Bo how long it’s been since his brother died, or how his brother died? How often during a casual walk do your loved ones stop you to tell you how sad they’d be should you die?
3. The first two approaches are clearly lazy, and comically exaggerated. Consider a third option, similarly ridiculous, but more subtle in expositional delivery: We meet Bill when Belle runs into him at the grocery store. He’s scanning the ingredient list on the back of a Cheetos bag when Belle sees him. She immediately fingers the “B” tattoo on her wrist, clearly hesitant to stop and talk, but Bill has seen her watching him now and awkward conversation ensues.
What’s the benefit of the third approach? Did it deliver everything we need to know about all three characters in one swoop? No, but the fact that it left us wanting more is half the victory. To a casual viewer, Bill is simply holding something at the grocery store. To a more alert or second-time viewer, the object Bill is holding is clearly intentional and we’re getting the first hints that for some reason Bill needs to check the ingredient list on his food purchases. Belle’s terribly-cliché “B” tattoo: is it related to Bill? Do we even know about Bo yet? Or is it simply her very inefficient way of reminding herself to stop at aisle B in the grocery store? The conversation between Bill and Belle: it’s not their dialog that tells explicitly all that’s passed between them. It’s the subtly of nuanced actors and the specifics of their awkwardness: Bill’s averted eyes when Belle looks right at him, Belle’s micro expression of panic when she sees the Cheetos bag. These are unscripted subtleties that rely on performers knowing the story and context of the world they’re in. A thousand of these small subtleties make up the clues that will form your audience’s understanding of the film. Let your audience enjoy the process of film watching as they Sherlock the story’s pieces together. Remember, your viewer is part of the story. Sure, you could just paste a list of text at the opening of a film to get the exposition out of the way, but c’mon, nobody is that lazy.
Since we’re poking fun at big franchises, I can’t help but throw just one more friendly jab. Just as exposition can be heavy handed, foreshadowing can also underrate your audience’s intelligence. Supplying excessive information about what’s about to happen in the film is again stepping on the responsibility of the audience.
So let’s say you want to tell a story about a magical snow queen with some big questions about her past and the source of her powers. You could make a movie about that. Or another option would be to write a song, right up front that lets both audience and snow queen know that she can choose to hear the magical singing from a river up north and get answers concerning her past by following it. And not only that, but she’ll also find a once-lost-but-now-found mother. In this way, audiences wouldn’t need to enjoy the entirety of your film; they could just stay for the first five minutes and get the whole plot line. I’m really not exaggerating.
Where the north wind meets the sea there’s a river full of memory. In her waters lie the answers and a path for you. She will sing to those who’ll hear, and in her song, all magic flows, but can you brave what you most fear? Can you face what the river knows? There’s a mother full of memory. Come my darling, homeward bound. When all is lost, then all is found.Elsa’s Mom
So maybe not the most complex option narratively, but the melody is admittedly beautiful, and leads us into the hauntingly catchy Dies Irae the film is known for. We may talk about stuff like that when we get into audio, but for the less-pretentious non-film nerds among us, there are certain sounds that carry a lot of baggage and mean something extra to the informed. Like the Wilhelm scream, the four note Dies Irae is an aural cue used to signify death in music. While nicely employed here, this remains my favorite Dies Irae. Apologies for the tangent. TL;DR: While Frozen 2 demonstrates narrative subtlety in its hauntingly provocative use of Dies Irae, the film’s foreshadowing is so unsubtle it’s disturbing.
Fun storytelling games, while incredibly simple, can help you exercise your storytelling skills. We’ll later discuss how “being creative” isn’t as elusive as it’s often made out to be. This game is an example of the old adage, “Creativity Craves Constraint”.
If I say “make up a story”, you may find it rather difficult to do on the spot. Let’s try another approach.
Pick a person and a profession. Give me a random place. Now pick something else rather random like a most embarrassing moment, a disease, or maybe a unique linguistic ability. It doesn’t much matter what you pick. Being asked to create a story cold is tough stuff. Being asked to develop a story about Helen of Troy doing door-to-door summer sales in Texas while afflicted with terets is fun. about Giving yourself some place to start will make it surprisingly easy to come up with an entertaining story. Combine all your “limitations” together and you’ve got fodder for something interesting.
After all that, explanation, let me give you my advice. Write what you know and don’t worry too much about all of this. So much of this was determined after analyzing many successful stories and films. It isn’t necessary to rigidly adhere to it to create a good story. Remember how much we relate to conflict and struggle. Don’t forget that the process of engaging as a viewer in story is enjoyable. It activates the same dopamine-releasing Phenylethylamine as sky diving, romance, and chocolate. It can be used to manipulate, engage, and inspire an audience. Do you enjoy reading what you’ve written?