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Lessons Corner: An Overview of Storytelling

KestrelStudiosSep 5, 2018, 12:13:29 AM

Since I am concentrating on writing the first draft of my first low/no budget indie film for the rest of September, I thought it would be a good idea to share what I've learned over the past two years about writing. Today we will begin with an overview of storytelling.

The Central 'Something'

I count myself among those who don't believe there are rules to writing. However, I do support the belief there are some approaches to writing that work far better than others. These are commonly known as principles, i.e., guidelines, of storytelling. You don't have to use them, but understanding them helps you write better stories.

It is true that all stories begin, have stuff that goes on in the middle, and then conclude in some way. It is also true that when you mix that stuff up it makes a story more difficult to follow. However, every once in a while we encounter a story that doesn't handle it this way yet manages to keep us hooked. How does it accomplish that?

Well, every story is about something, even when it's not told in a traditional way. (We're telling the story for a reason, I assume.) It can be a message, a question, a theme, or something posed merely to entertain you. It can be apparent or it can be seeded in the back of your mind; but whatever it is, a story uses that 'something' to carry you through until it's end. I think it's also important to note that the 'something' doesn't necessarily need to be resolved in the end as long as it fulfills the objective of carrying you through the story. (Though it does help to introduce that 'something' somewhere near the beginning.)

Normally, each scene in a story, regardless of medium (novel, film, oral tradition, radio, etc.) will focus on that central 'something.' When it doesn't people tend to express a degree of disappointment or frustration. You will sometimes hear people say 'that story lost its plot.' Like a story not necessarily having to resolve the 'something' at its end, a story doesn't necessarily need to follow the 'something' the entire time; comedies sometimes 'lose the plot' on purpose as a comedic device. But I'd caution you from deviating from the central 'something' unless you are doing it for a productive reason.

Story Values

When working with the central 'something', it helps to associate a thematic value with it. Think of it as a tool to articulate your central 'something.' Robert McKee, a well-regarded story teacher who also believes in principles over rules, calls this a 'value.'

"Story VALUES are the universal qualities of human experience that may shift from positive to negative, or negative to positive, from one moment to the next." - Robert McKee, Story

By values, we mean opposites, such as life/death, love/hate, success/failure, and so on. These aren't complete opposites, as you can handle them with gray areas. Nor is there a list of exact opposites, as one value can have more than one opposite value. (Love's opposite can also be indifference.) It really depends on the story you're telling, of course.

A scene comes off as strong when a protagonist overcomes an obstacle, regardless of the type of obstacle. Associating a value to it reminds you to transform the scene in some way, even if the protagonist fails to overcome that obstacle. That success or failure still adds impact to the scene.

Furthermore, your story value can have sub-values. The opposites of life and death can have sub-values of what comprises life and what comprises death. Each are still related to the central 'something' but articulate it in further depth. But remember, a story value is a tool in service of the service of the story. It doesn't produce good results to force it.

An Example: Hidden Figures (2016)

Hidden Figures is a film that regales the story of three black women who worked as human calculators for NASA during the Cold War. The story mainly deals with putting an American in space with the three female protagonists playing crucial roles. On a budget of $25 million, it destroyed expectations by reaping over $236 million in box office receipts.

I point out this film since a lot of Hollywood films recently try to force a feminist or black-acceptance narrative, often appointing roles superficially instead of factoring the experiences of those groups as a part of the story. When people initially discussed this film, they pointed it as an argument for making more films 'about black people and women' as if merely those traits would guarantee the success of the film. We know from examples like the Ghostbusters remake this doesn't guarantee box office success. But I'm pretty sure the articulation of a central 'something' is what helped this film outdo expectations.

There are two central 'somethings' for the film. In another blog we'll discuss why most stories have two central 'somethings' relating to the external and internal stories. But the first should be obvious: "Will NASA prove to the Russians and American that they can put a man into orbit?"

The second, however, is not always apparent. But I'm pretty sure the other central 'something' of the story is related to the famous Civil Rights era quote:

"I look to the day when people will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character." - Martin Luther King, Jr.

From the very first scene of the film until its resolution, the value of treating people based on their individual merit instead of the social prejudices of the time are what lead to the success of NASA. Every scene throughout the film is a constant struggle of the female protagonists to be recognized individually for what they bring to the table. When NASA does respect this value, it contributes to NASA's ultimate goal. But when it doesn't, we as the audience witness how NASA's ultimate goal suffers. But it is the struggle of the protagonists against the opposite story value that engages us as an audience.

One protagonist handles an arcane form of geometry that computers are too slow to currently handle. Though there are others who can do that special kind of geometry, none can do it as quick and accurately as her. But the prejudices of the time prevent them from seeing these traits until she is able to win them over.

Another protagonist realizes computers will eventually replace the human calculators and teaches her fellow calculators how to program. When NASA begins to realize the potential of the computers they also realize they didn't train anyone to program them. The proactive efforts of this protagonist guarantees she and her fellow human calculators will continue to have jobs at NASA. What is interesting is that because they have prejudices against her she is able to fly under the radar. Unlike the main protagonist she overcomes prejudice indirectly.

The third protagonist proves her worth by contributing to the heat shield development for the spacecraft that will put the first American into orbit. However, her story mainly deals with the struggle of getting an engineering degree in the face of segregation. Spoiler: she succeeds, but this accomplishment is earned, not handed to her.

We can see how the struggle of these protagonists articulate both central 'somethings' of the story, and how going from opposite ends of those story values produces an engaging experience for the audience. We can also see how the sub-themes of race and gender are really in service to the central theme of being treated for the content of their character and not something else. What is also nice is that we could replace those prejudices with other types of prejudice and still get a rewarding experience as long as we handles those story values well.

Closing Words

Telling a good story isn't an easy obstacle to overcome. However, there are some things we've learned since humans started telling stories to other humans that work better than others. Today, you've been introduced to the concept of the central 'something' and how to articulate it with story values. Next week we will learn how structure relates to story. Until next time!

- Easton


"Hidden Figures." Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hidden_Figures (Retrieved September 4, 2018).

Hypercube. "What is the opposite of Love?" ScienceForums.net. https://www.scienceforums.net/topic/57304-what-is-the-opposite-of-love/ (Retrieved September 4, 2018).

King, Martin L. "Martin Luther King, Kr. Quotes." BrainyQuote. https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/martin_luther_king_jr_297516 (Retrieved September 4, 2018).

McKee, Robert. Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting. New York City: Harper Collins Publishers, 1997.

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