Although we as artists may hate to admit it, all art (including storytelling) requires at least some structure. It’s as simple as the old, “you have to know the rules to break them,” theory. In the words of Jim Krueger, the former creative director for Marvel, “I don’t believe you can be creative without limitations”—there has to be a box if you want to think outside of it.
So, as writers, what is our box?
Oddly enough, I found the answer to this question in a book made specifically for filmmakers (affil.). The authors of this book, esteemed producers John Bucher and Jeremy Casper, work specifically with short films, so they’re used to limitations—but the time constraints don’t stop them from having real, quality stories in their work. Even 6-second cat Vines have stories. Almost all viral videos do: that’s what people want to see. And that’s what your readers want from you!
With the help of John and Jeremy’s book, I’m going to break down a few stories (one with many words, and one without any at all), and find out exactly what elements we, as writers, need to include in all of our pieces.
Clip #1: Lovepsych, a film by Willem Van Den Heemer
If you haven’t seen this short film yet, you should definitely go check it out. It’s only a few minutes long, but it will leave you thinking for hours!
In merely seven minutes of silent motion picture, Van Den Heemer has created a piece that exemplifies the true essentials of a good story (so I don’t want to ever hear that you can’t fit all of this into your manuscript!).
First of all, John and Jeremy argue that, “a well-told story is a tennis match—a constant pitting of positive and negative against each other.” This is essentially just another way to say that your story needs conflict, which we all already know. “One of the most crucial ingredients in all stories is conflict,” they assert; if there’s no problem, what are we even reading about? (Think Tom Sawyer—it’s boring because nothing happens!)
In Van Den Heemer’s film, the “positive” and the “negative” are clearly represented in Frances and his lover, Marceline, respectively. While it doesn’t need to be this distinguished in your work, you should be able to clearly identify both elements. Think of the most standard story: one hero, one villain. That’s the positive and the negative right there! It’s worked for centuries because that’s what people want (and you’ve got to give the people what they want!).
Additionally, John and Jeremy mention a profound insight from documentarian Ken Burns (ever heard of his iMovie effect?) that all stories need to include a 1+1=3 effect—that is, they need to have the element of surprise! (You weren’t expecting me to say that 1+1=3, were you?) This important feature keeps your audience on their toes—if you’re too predictable and cliché, your writing is just boring!
I don’t know about you, but I was pretty surprised when Marceline went in for the kill. Sure, it was heavily foreshadowed, and maybe I was just hoping for a love story, but that was totally a curveball in my eyes! This change of pace kept me interested though, and it’s what leaves the story lingering in my mind days after experiencing it. That’s what you want your story to do, too!
Finally, Lovepsych does follow the standard story arc (and yes, you need to do this, too—remember, you need to master the rules before you can break them). It includes an introduction (Marceline walking into the office), an exposition (the set up; Frances giving Marceline the note, and Marceline noticing the headline of the newspaper), a few elements of rising action (when Frances leaves the note on her car), a climax (when they are kissing after dinner), and a resolution (she stabs him and then walks away, satisfied). Even the most arbitrary stories follow this arc; it’s a good guide for writers, plus, following it makes your writing that much easier to read and comprehend!
Clip #2: The Tell-Tale Heart, a short story by Edgar Allan Poe
I know, I know—I chose two super-creepy clips to make my point, but bear with me! It’ll make sense.
This 2,000-ish word long story won’t take five minutes to read, so if you haven’t yet, be sure to do so now!
What draws readers into this timeless Poe thriller isn’t just the thought of a mad man trying to justify his actions: it is the true story that we get while he is trying to do so.
Firstly, the positive and negative are clashing throughout the entire narrative here, and there are many versions of it: the narrator v. the old man, the narrator v. the reader, the narrator v. the police, etc. The reader is drawn to these several tensions, and is able to think about them, since they are exposed to each element of the story arc, as well (albeit, the falling action is merely a single sentence, but as insists the short length of the genre).
Additionally, if, upon your first time reading this, you were not the least bit surprised at all, you may be a mad man yourself. (He put the corpse in the wall!) Clearly, Burns’ 1+1=3 is alive and well.
Finally, it’s important to note the exceptional detail in which Poe describes each scene. The fact that his story is so short means that he can’t encompass large concepts and complicated stories. Rather, he is only able to “emphasize the power of single moments,” in the words of John and Jeremy, and he does it exceptionally well; readers feel like they’re in each moment with the murderous narrator (which, of course, adds another layer of conflict to the already-complex story).
Whether our pieces have less than 100 words or over 100,000, we cannot slack on these important story elements. Surprise your readers, and give them time to think about small (but important) moments, and don’t forget to stick to the tried and true story arc. For centuries, these methods have been drawing readers in and keeping them captivated all the way until the end—so if you slack on anything in your story, don’t slack on this!
There are a whole lot more awesome tips on story-telling (and filmmaking) available in John & Jeremy’s book, Master of the Cinematic Universe. You should definitely check it out! (affil.)
Are all of these elements present in your story? What’s your biggest struggle in story-creating? Share in the comments, so we can help each other out!