Tag Archives: filmmaking

STORY TITLES, PART 3: Titles In Practice

After two articles discussing the theory behind what makes story titles great, let’s break down some real-life story titles and see what works and what doesn’t.

First, a quick refresher:

When you look at a story title (including the examples), ask yourself these four questions:

  1. Does the title convey the genre and tone?
  2. Does the title indicate a concept, central idea and/or theme?
  3. Does the title suggest a certain type of audience?
  4. Does the title imply the focus of the storytelling?

Sadly, not every title will hit all four of these points. However, if you can tweak your own until each answer becomes a resounding YES, then you may just have one stellar title under your belt.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at…

TITLES THAT KILL

Once in awhile you run across a story title that sticks to the wall so well, it’s almost impossible to peel it off! These titles hit all four points, teasing the audience with what the story has to offer and then paying off the tease in spades. Some of these even connect the concept and theme with a great double entendre.

Let’s start with a simple one:

MONSTER IN LAW

Although not the greatest movie ever made, the title is fantastic. The title is a play on words, as is common for comedy movies (think LEGALLY BLONDE), giving us the genre and tone right up front. What is the concept? A mother-in-law who is a proverbial monster. Duh! Audience? Directed toward adults who can relate to having in-laws. The focus is clearly on the relationship with the mother-in-law. And to top off the whole sundae with a nice fat cherry is the double entendre to give the title that extra bit of punch.

Another simple one, also a movie:

LOVE ACTUALLY

GENRE/TONE: Romance (could it be anything else?)
CONCEPT, ETC: Literally “love, actually” in its many forms and manifestations.
AUDIENCE: Females and romantics. If it was targeting males, the title might look like LOVE GUN or TO LOVE A WOMAN, etc.
FOCUS: A group of characters experiencing “love, actually.”

What about TV? Got you covered:

GREY’S ANATOMY

Another play on words, this time referencing the famous anatomy textbook GRAY’S ANATOMY.

GENRE/TONE: A serious medical show.
CONCEPT, ETC: A medical show about a med student named Dr. Grey.
AUDIENCE: Medical show fans with a female bias (e.g, ER for women).
FOCUS: Dr. Grey as the protagonist.

Another, albeit older, TV show:

FRIENDS

An older reference, but the title couldn’t be better.

GENRE/TONE: Light, relatable.
CONCEPT, ETC: The lives of a group of friends.
AUDIENCE: Age groups with tight circles of friends (think teenagers to young adult).
FOCUS: The group of friends.

How about something more poetic, in this case a book:

FLOWERS FOR ALGERNON

GENRE/TONE: Intellectual drama.
CONCEPT, ETC: Although we don’t know what “Flowers for Algernon” means before diving into the book, we come to understand the great significance this simple idea conveys. The protagonist watches a mouse named Algernon lose its brain functions and, knowing he will face the same end, the protagonist mourns for both the mouse and his own loss before his awareness wanes. His final wishes is to have flowers placed on Algernon’s grave.
AUDIENCE: A more sophisticated audience capable of appreciating the nuances of the material.
FOCUS: The protagonist, for whom Algernon is a long-term foreshadowing device.

And if you feel like cheating…

BATMAN, SPIDERMAN, SUPERMAN, etc.

Superhero stories are kind of a cheat because they practically name themselves. A superhero story is almost always named after the superhero or superhero group:

GENRE/TONE: Superhero (usually action/adventure)
CONCEPT, ETC.: A Superhero with these powers.
AUDIENCE: Audiences who like superheroes.
FOCUS: On that superhero.

Easy, right?

TITLES THAT DON’T (FAMOUS MISSES)

Before we proceed into more controversial territory, it’s vital to understand two points:

  1. A successful story doesn’t necessarily mean a good title.
  2. A successful title doesn’t necessarily mean a good story.

Even some of the most ubiquitously popular books and films from the past were given less than spectacular titles. In fact, some of them are pretty bad, especially for two of biggest and most successful story franchises of all time: LORD OF THE RINGS and STAR WARS.

Before you scream from the rooftops that I’m a lunatic, take a deep breath and read on. (For the record, these are my personal two favorite stories throughout all space and time, so I’m not as biased as you might think!)

STAR WARS (film, 1977)

This is a great example because not only is the title generic and cheesy, it doesn’t tell us much about the story other than there is combat in space. Is that the concept? Not really. Yes, the target audience is fairly generalized with an obvious bias toward sci-fi fans, but who is the focus of the story? We don’t know. Thankfully, the film was later (and rightfully) re-titled as A NEW HOPE. Still not a killer title, but better than the original.

Compare to…

HUNGER GAMES (book & film, 2008)

Suggesting intensity and action, the concept is also in the title, aimed at a slightly younger, mostly generalized audience with a focus is on what happens during each annual Hunger Games.

LORD OF THE RINGS (books & films, 1954+)

This is an interesting example because it illustrates so much. J.R.R Tolkien himself wanted to publish the trilogy in one big volume, but with accurate (if not plain) titles for each section: THE FIRST JOURNEY, THE RING SETS OUT, THE JOURNEY OF THE NINE COMPANIONS or THE RING GOES SOUTH, and THE WAR OF THE RING. But the editor intervened, splitting the book into three parts to form the trilogy we know today, and giving us these oddly vague titles: THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING, THE TWO TOWERS, and THE RETURN OF THE KING.

“Fellowship” accurately describes the group of individuals centered around smuggling the One Ring into Mordor, so that hits on concept and focus, possibly audience but not necessarily genre. Then we get to the Two Towers, which is a bit odd since the story is not actually about those two locations, nor are the two specific towers ever made clear since there are actually four towers mentioned in the book: Barad-dur, and Cirith Ungol, Isengard, and Minas Tirith. Then “Return” misses the mark by painting the wrong focus, indicating the book is about Aragorn and his rise to the kingship. Christian overtones aside, compare RETURN OF THE KING to any number of much better titles: THE WAR OF THE RING, THE LAST BATTLE, FRODO BAGGINS AND THE JOURNEY TO MT. DOOM. Each gives the final installment of the story a different flavor with a far more accurate indication of story focus, tone, and genre.

The series title, LORD OF THE RINGS, suggests the main antagonist, Sauron, is the storytelling focus for the entire saga. This is not the case. Something like THE ONE RING would be far more accurate, since the story does indeed follow the characters, factions, and plots surrounding this central device.

Compare to…

HARRY POTTER (books & films, 1997)

Perhaps better than any other famous franchise, the titles of the HARRY POTTER installments tell us right up front we are in for adventure and mystery, what the concept is, where the storytelling focus is, and that there is a general target audience with a bias toward younger ages. While they may not be the most creative titles ever invented, they do the job spectacularly well.

IN CONCLUSION…

This wraps our 3-part series on titles for now. In Part 1, we talked about what a story title is, how it works, and where it comes from. Then, in Part 2 we went over some helpful tips to nail your story title. Now that we’ve reviewed some famous titles that hit the mark and some that don’t, it’s time to say goodbye to story titles for awhile and move onto another subject.

Still need help? Look no further! Get in touch and let’s work it out together.

Stay tuned for our next article…coming soon!

STORY TITLES, PART 2: Helpful Tips to Nail That Story Title

Welcome to a part two of our series on story titles. In Part 1 we discussed what a title is, where it comes from, and what it should do. In part we move on to some helpful tips on how to select the right title for your story.

The reason finding the right title is such a big deal is because it tells us so much about the story: genre, concept, tone, theme, target audience, focus, and viewpoint.

Hey, wait a minute. Isn’t that practically everything?

Yup. That’s why your title needs to absolutely nail it. Even a slight change to any one of these components alters your story, and thus the title.

So we’ve created this quick checklist to follow when brainstorming titles for your creative work:

The “Do” List

  1. Explain it in a nutshell. Does the title explain the overall idea, concept or premise of the story in a nutshell? Look for inspiration in your theme.
  2. Identify the focus. Does it accurately convey the main focus of the story? If it’s about everything that happens in a certain place or time period, then that may be your title. If it follows an individual’s perspective, then make the title personal to that character or narrator.
  3. Know your audience. Does it reflect the right genre, target audience and age group? Always assume the audience already knows the genre and will expect that genre to be reflected in the story material. Also don’t forget to target the title toward the right age group. There’s a reason a slew of successful books have titles like THE TIME TRAVELER’S WIFE, THE ZOOKEEPER’S WIFE, etc. have become so popular — they know their target audience.
  4. Be clever. A clever title is a great way to catch someone’s interest. TV is the best at this: GREY’S ANATOMY and IMPASTOR are two great examples.
  5. Be succinct. In today’s mainstream market, the shorter the title, the better. There’s a reason you see a lot of one- and two-word titles in movies these days: BATTLESHIP, TMNT, GRAVITY, KILL BILL, WAR HORSE, MAD MAX: FURY ROAD (cheating a bit, but hey, it works), etc.
  6. Be specific. Never opt for something generic when you can make the title absolutely specific to the story contained within. What’s better: FANTASY ADVENTURE or FELLOWSHIP OF THE RINGS?
  7. Make it pop. Sure, I sound like a stereotypical Hollywood producer when I say this, but there’s a reason it’s a stereotype–because that’s one way to sell your story right from the cover. Remember: You aren’t selling your story so much as the idea of your story. Get our attention right away by grabbing us by the lapels rather than politely waving from across the street.

The “Do Not” List

  1. Don’t look at the plot. This is a common mistake, and an understandable one, but the reason it doesn’t usually work is because while the plot may be what the story is about on the surface, the theme is what the story is really about, so titles based on the plot tend to feel superficial and not exactly on target.
  2. Don’t make it unrelated. Although this seems obvious at first, this is another common mistake when storytellers title their creative works. Your title needs to tie into your story in some way, shape, or form.
  3. Don’t mislead the audience. Another common mistake for storytellers of all levels, it’s important to not mislead your audience in regard to tone, genre, or subject matter. This is one of the easiest ways to violate your audience’s expectations in a way that will make them hate the story, no matter how good or bad it is. An audience who buys movie tickets to see what sounds like a horror movie will be more than a little angry when it turns out to be a romantic comedy.
  4. Don’t be generic. This can’t be overstated. Every time a script or novel with a generic title like “Four People” or “Super Warrior” comes across my desk I instantly groan because my first instinct is to assume the storytelling itself is at about the same level as the titling, which is all too often the case. Compare: A MAN to I, CLAUDIUS.
  5. Don’t play it safe. Go bold. Get creative. Experiment with everything and anything. Do research if you have to, but never ever go for bland when you go for bold and interesting.
  6. Don’t limit yourself. Believe it or not, you don’t have to settle on just one title. Create a whole bag of them, or keep a few in your back pocket you can sling around depending on who you are pitching the story to. Eventually you will find a title that sticks.

Still having trouble?

You’re not alone.

Try this:

Think Like a Producer / Editor

Writers tend to be pretty bad at coming up with a title (sorry folks, but it’s true). Producers and book editors, on other hand, tend to be pretty great at it. Why? Because they think about how they can SELL the story, and they only need to know the concept, format and target audience to figure it out. So if you’re still feeling title-y challenged, try thinking like a producer or editor. Think about how they would pitch or sell the idea to someone who doesn’t know anything about writing, filmmaking, or storytelling. Forget the story (sacrilege, I know), stick to just the concept and target audience, and keep the title as short as possible, preferably only one or two words.

In theory, knowing the rest of the details about the story gives you the upper hand, since you are able to craft a better and more accurate title. Unfortunately, because of writers’ tendency toward bad titles and producers’/editors’ considerable skill at it, many stories end up with a catchy title that doesn’t quite nail the story down as accurately as it could. Admittedly, some of these titles do the job of selling the story amazingly well. The only gripe is that they somewhat miss the mark.

Sometimes it’s fairly obvious when a producer or editor steps in to sell a story with a snappier title:

  • BREAKING BAD: Is the concept really about someone raises hell (to “break bad”) against authority? Or is it about a good man who does bad things for the right reasons and soon finds himself stuck being a bad guy?
  • INVASION OF THE BODYSNATCHERS: Yes, this happens and the invaders do “snatch” bodies, but the original title, THE PUPPETMASTERS, suggests a more accurate portrayal of the intelligence and cunning behind the invaders’ tactics rather than the B-movie feel the title gives it.
  • JAWS: Both the movie and the book it’s based on share this title, and its working titles include THE STILLNESS IN THE WATER, LEVIATHAN RISING, THE JAWS OF DEATH, etc. (I DID say writers were bad at coming up with titles, right?), and is an externalized version of Henrik Ibsen’s classic, AN ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE.
  • LONE SURVIVOR: Granted, the book (and film adaptation) really is about being a “lone survivor” of a military expedition gone wrong, but could easily have been titled any number of other things.
  • METROPOLIS: It’s UTOPIA by another name, suggesting we get to see a many different walks of life within this little microcosm. Buuuuut we don’t. Still, it sells the idea spectacularly.

What do all of these have in common? Despite not being storytelling bullseyes, all were and are hip, catchy, and above all, immensely popular. (And these area only a few examples of many thousands.)

When it comes to titling your own story, get into the sales mindset and try to brainstorm the juiciest, catchiest, flashiest title you can come up with. Don’t worry, you don’t have to keep it, but it will get you thinking in the right direction. And who knows, maybe you’ll strike title gold!

UNTIL NEXT TIME…

We’ve covered a lot of ground in this article. Hopefully you’ve been able to gather enough grains of knowledge about titles to make you stories all the more appealing.

That’s it for now, and never stop writing!

(And yes, there’s going to be a Part 3: Story Titles in Practice.)

 

In the meantime, if you need help with your own story titles, don’t hesitate to reach out!

STORY TITLES, PART 1: Where Does the Title Come From?

In my profession I constantly run into writers who have a problem with story titles. Most writers and storytellers don’t know how to come with a solid title. They ask:

  • Where does a title come from?
  • What makes a good title?
  • How come some titles work while others do not?

For most, it’s a mystifying subject with little enlightenment from the experts.

Guess what?

It’s not a mystery. At least, it won’t be by the time you’ve finished reading this article.

So…

WHAT IS A TITLE?

A title is a koan, something to be meditated on, a rumination on theme, the essence of the story or project, a.k.a. your story in a nutshell. A title is the shortest possible pitch for your creative work. Think of it this way: your full manuscript is the complete version, shortened into a synopsis, then a pitch, a logline, and (at the most succinct level) the title. Therefore your title should sum up the idea of the story in a nutshell, implying genre, tone, central idea, theme, and focus.

Sounds simple, right?

Yeah, no. Nailing down what a title encompasses is the easy part. Finding the right title remains a daunting task, especially if it’s going to be perfectly fitted to your unique story.

So…

WHERE DOES THE TITLE COME FROM?

In general, the best titles come directly from the concept, premise, central idea, or theme. Often these ideas are the same, or at the very least, cross over considerably. This makes sense, since these elements of the story convey the most information about it. Your story’s genre and target audience are also important factors to keep in mind since they directly affect who will decide to experience the story, regardless of medium. Lastly, who the story is about and from whose viewpoint is also helpful to make the title immediate and personal.

In short, these four things determine where your title comes from:

  1. GENRE: implies not only the type of story, but the tone as well.
  2. CONCEPT: includes the premise, central idea and theme.
  3. AUDIENCE: determines who the story is targeted at and what age group is most appropriate.
  4. FOCUS: indicates who the story is about and who is telling it.

In that order. Why? The order of precedence indicates their importance in marketing your story. While the ideal title indicates all four points, not every title can do that…and that’s okay.

But enough about theory…

STORY TITLES IN PRACTICE

Now that we know about titles in theory, let’s poke around some real world examples to find out how they function in practice. There are copious examples here, I know, but they are highly informative and illustrate how much the title matters.

Titles Based on Genre or Tone

Horror, Action, Westerns and Comedies tend to base their titles around the genre and tone. Note how each of these titles make both obvious from the get-go:

HORROR:

  • DRACULA
  • THE EXORCIST
  • FINAL DESTINATION
  • NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD
  • POLTERGEIST
  • SAW
  • SHAUN OF THE DEAD
  • TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE

ACTION:

  • BLADE
  • DIE HARD
  • ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK
  • GLADIATOR
  • LETHAL WEAPON
  • SPEED
  • SUPERCOP
  • TERMINATOR

WESTERN:

  • BLAZING SADDLES
  • THE GUNFIGHTER
  • HIGH NOON
  • ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST
  • THE OUTLAW JOSEY WALES
  • THE TREASURE OF SIERRA MADRE
  • TRUE GRIT
  • WILD WILD WEST

COMEDY:

  • THE 40-YEAR-OLD VIRGIN
  • ACE VENTURA: PET DETECTIVE
  • BAD SANTA
  • DUCK SOUP
  • DUMB & DUMBER
  • GALAXY QUEST
  • MONSTER-IN-LAW
  • REVENGE OF THE NERDS
  • SCARY MOVIE
  • SHAUN OF THE DEAD
  • SPACEBALLS
  • SUPER TROOPERS
  • TEAM AMERICA: WORLD POLICE

Note how the horror titles tell us not only that it’s a horror story, but what type of horror (supernatural, slasher, etc.) so we know what kind of tone to expect. Action movies tend to use terse, information-packed action verbs in their titles. Compare the difference between THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN, a western, to THE SEVEN SAMURAI, a samurai action film (an Eastern “Western,” so to speak). Also note how many comedy titles are absurd, reveal the funny concept, or is a play on a well-known phrase or title from the genre it’s spoofing. We know right away if it’s going to be a spoof or a ridiculously silly story.

We can change the implied tone of the story by altering the length and tone of the title as well. A romance like ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND becomes a very different film with a title like MINDWIPE, JOEL & CLEMENTINE or THE ART OF FORGETTING, a sci-fi thriller, romcom, and introspective artistic drama, respectively.

Titles Based on Concept, Premise or Central Idea

These titles give us the concept, premise or central idea right up front, letting us know exactly what we’re in for:

  • CATCH 22
  • DJANGGO UNCHAINED
  • FAMILY GUY
  • FOUNDATION
  • A GAME OF THRONES
  • HALO
  • HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL
  • INCEPTION
  • INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE
  • THE NOTEBOOK
  • PRIDE & PREJUDICE
  • ROSEMARY’S BABY
  • THE SHINING
  • SNAKES ON A PLANE
  • TEAM AMERICA: WORLD POLICE

Many of these are simply the concept itself (in very short form, naturally). Sometimes they reveal the story’s inciting incident:

  • 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY
  • BLACK HAWK DOWN
  • A JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF EARTH
  • LOST IN SPACE
  • SNAKES ON A PLANE

Sometimes they hint at the ending (spoiler warning!):

  • THE BRASS VERDICT
  • CHILDHOOD’S END
  • KILL BILL, VOL.2
  • THERE WILL BE BLOOD

So now when someone asks you: “What’s ROSEMARY’S BABY about?” You can reply with a smart-aleck quip like: “Care to take a guess?”

Titles Based on Theme

Titles based on theme work best when the story is theme-heavy. Note how the theme is intimately tied into the concept, premise, or central idea in each of these:

  • ANIMAL FARM
  • DANGEROUS WOMEN
  • THE FOUNTAINHEAD
  • LOVE ACTUALLY
  • LOST IN TRANSLATION
  • OFFICE SPACE
  • THE ROAD
  • SAVING FISH FROM DROWNING
  • WATER FOR ELEPHANTS
  • WICKED

More rarely, the title may sum things up with a thematic sentiment:

  • ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND
  • FLOWERS FOR ALGERNON
  • LATHE OF HEAVEN
  • MY WAR GONE BY I MISS IT SO
  • ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST
  • THE RED BADGE OF COURAGE
  • SAVING FISH FROM DROWNING
  • THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS
  • WATER FOR ELEPHANTS

Note how long these titles are. That’s because they target a more cerebral, sophisticated audience.

Which brings to mind…

Titles Based on Target Audience

These titles tell us what type of person and age group is ideal for each kind of story:

  • MY CAT FROM HELL
  • THE ZOOKEEPER’S WIFE
  • HUNGER GAMES
  • HARRY POTTER AND THE… (take your pick)
  • RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD
  • WINGS OF DESIRE
  • MIDNIGHT IN PARIS
  • THE SECRET IN THEIR EYES
  • DIE HARD
  • DIRTY HARRY
  • FULL METAL JACKET
  • THE GODFATHER
  • THE ABSOLUTELY TRUE DIARY OF A PART-TIME INDIAN
  • THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT-TIME
  • CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST

Change the title and you change the target audience or age group. THE ZOOKEEPER’S WIFE targets women ages 25+, otherwise it may have just been called ZOOKEEPERS or A ZOO IN WARSAW. HUNGER GAMES aims at a younger target audience. Change the audience to a males aged 14-24 and you end up with something like BATTLE ROYALE, or THE GAMES for a slightly older age group, non-gender biased. Target girls aged 14-24 with THE GIRL FROM DISTRICT 12. Want to make it more gory? Try BLOODBATH. Sci-fi thriller? DISTRICT 12 or THE DISTRICT.

Can you guess the target audience and age group for PART-TIME INDIAN, WINGS OF DESIRE or CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST?

Titles Based on Focus or Viewpoint

These titles indicate who lies at the central focus of the story and from whose viewpoint we will experience that story. This is usually achieved by highlighting the protagonist, central character, a group of characters or even a fundamental location:

Titles centered around an individual (protagonist or central character):

  • AKIRA
  • ALCATRAZ VS THE EVIL LIBRARIANS
  • ANNA KARENINA
  • BARTON FINK
  • BEING JOHN MALKOVICH
  • BEOWULF
  • THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON
  • FORREST GUMP
  • HARRY POTTER
  • I, CLAUDIUS
  • JANE EYRE
  • MOBY DICK
  • MY NAME IS EARL
  • STEPPENWOLF
  • SULA
  • UGLY BETTY

This idea can be expanded to a family or group entity, usually multi-generational:

  • ALL MY SONS
  • BELLEFLEUR
  • DUCK DYNASTY
  • FOUNDATION
  • FRIENDS
  • SEVEN SAMURAI
  • THE THORN BIRDS
  • X-MEN

Titles based on a central location:

  • 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA
  • 90210
  • BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN
  • CHEERS
  • JURASSIC PARK
  • MELROSE PLACE
  • RED MARS
  • A TALE OF TWO CITIES
  • WUTHERING HEIGHTS

We can change the focus from one of these areas to another rather easily. A group story like FELLOWSHIP OF THE RINGS becomes an individual, point-of-view story with the title GANDALF, indicating he’s either protagonist, narrator, or the epicenter around which the story revolves. Title based on a location, such as CHEERS or INTO THE WOODS, implies that the action centers around that site and everything which occurs in it, with main plotlines more evenly distributed than if it was a single character’s story. Compare CHEERS to, say, FRASIER. Frasier is a character in both, but the central figure in only one. Can you guess which? Compare a shows an ensemble TV show like FULL HOUSE to REBA or ROSEANNE. Both are multi-camera sitcoms with an extended family living in the same house, yet the focus is clearly biased toward one specific character in REBA and ROSEANNE.

To be continued…

We’ve gone over a lot in this article, but believe it or not, it doesn’t end there. There is so much ground to cover concerning  story titles that we’re dedicating a follow-up article to explaining the rest. Stay tuned for Part 2: Helpful Tips to Nail That Story Title.

Until then…

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Top 10 Storytelling Basics

shorthand list of top 10 storytelling basics everyone needs to know from StorySci.com by James Gilmore

No matter if you are a writer, filmmaker, gamemaster, or stand-up comedian, here are the top 10 most important basic points of storytelling you need to bring your story to life.

1. Include a beginning, middle and end.

This occurs at every level. Just as a trilogy has three parts, so does an individual story have a beginning, middle and end. The same goes each and every scene within that story. How can you tell the difference between a beginning, middle and end? A beginning sets up the story. It’s a blueprint or road map to the rest of the plot. In a good story it won’t be obvious. The middle develops the story from the point of setup to the climax. It plays out the “promise of the premise” and shows how the new status quo introduced at the end of act one affects the world of the story. This takes us to the end. An ending centers around the obligatory confrontation between protagonist and antagonist. It concludes by answering all the questions raised in the story, even if the answers are new questions (aka, cliffhangers).

2. Show, don’t tell.

Instead of telling the audience that something is happening, show them by devoting screen time (or page time) to the illustration of these events. Telling (aka “summary”) is not very interesting in comparison to the audience experiencing the same thing. You don’t need to state what is going on directly. The audience will figure it out for themselves, and in so doing will create a stronger bond with the story than if you simply told the audience that it happened.

3. One word: Conflict.

Conflict is the natural result of one character’s desire intersecting an obstacle. Conflict increases proportionally to the amount that each side pushes back. It drives the story forward and keeps the audience interested. Without it, nothing in the plot would be worth mentioning because story without conflict is not story, it’s summary.

4. Make your protagonist proactive, not reactive.

The more proactive your protagonist is, the more invested in him/her your audience will be. They will want what (s)he wants. A protagonist is proactive when (s)he is the one to take charge and initiate events that advance the plot. The opposite of this is a reactive protagonist who responds to events forced on him/her by the plot. A reactive protagonist will not only make the audience feel like something is missing in your story, but they will fail to build a personal connection with the protagonist as well.

5. Have a central core to your story.

Your story ultimately needs to be about something, and that something is the central through-line (also called the “spine”) around which everything in your story is based, especially the theme. The central core brings unity and order to all the elements of your story. For example, the film Love, Actually has a central spine about love, from which it thematically branches off into different types of love. Or the novel Catch-22 whose central core explores the concept of the same name in various circumstances.

6. Know what your story is about.

It doesn’t matter if your story is based around a character, plot or theme. At some point you will need to know what your story is about—not just at its core, but at every level—in order to weave a story around it. For example, on the surface your story may be about a father-son road trip and the hilarity that ensues, but underneath that veneer it’s actually about father-son relationships and an estranged parent bonding with his troublesome child while also exploring other related thematic material, such as what it means to be male in today’s society.

7. It is better to be simple and clear than complicated and ambiguous.

Simplicity creates clear understanding in the minds of the audience. They won’t view it as overly simplistic if it smoothly and adequately conveys your story. A common mistake storytellers use is to try and tell too much without spending enough “screen time” on each segment. Set aside the big picture to work on the simple steps needed to get there. Want to see this point in action? Pick up a copy of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.

8. Say as much as possible with as little as possible.

Convey maximum information using minimal text (story) to do it. Implicit over explicit. This requires the use of subtext: whereas text is what is said, subtext is what is not said. Without subtext, your story will be dull and shallow. Some subtext occurs naturally but very often you have to work at it. For examples, a brother and sister talking about their lives at college but not talking about the recent death of their father colors the scene very differently than if they were just catching up like old friends. It also tells us their emotional state—that they aren’t ready to confront the truth about their father’s death.

9. Get in late, get out early.

Start as late as possible in your scene or story to provide both audience interest and optimal conflict, and then end the scene as soon the conflict has run its course. This doesn’t mean truncating valuable exposition or foregoing a beginning, but it does mean opening where the vital information starts. And once the scene or story has said all there is that needs to be said, get out! Don’t hang around and dawdle or you will be diluting your story’s final punch. For example, the audience doesn’t need to witness an entire 4-hour board meeting. They only need to see the handful of minutes that that count. In short: focus on where the action is happening.

10. Characters, characters, characters.

Even if you have a plot-driven story, your characters are what make a story really shine. A bland or passive protagonist makes for a boring story. Interesting and unique characters are memorable, if not timeless, even when relegated to smaller roles. Go the extra mile to give each character distinction, depth, and history. Consider writing character bios for each member of your cast and see if it gives you further insight into how to portray them.

Short Form Storytelling, Part 3: The Three Types of Compression

compression in storytelling graphic for article by Story Science written by James Gilmore

Finally we have come to part 3 of our 3-part article series on Short Form Storytelling. If you missed out on the earlier installments, be sure to read Part 1: One Story, One Idea here and Part 2: Compression, Compression, Compression.

Previously we discussed the different ways in which you can compress elements in your story to make it denser and more efficient. Now we are going to discuss the three main categories of compression and how each applies to storytelling.

Compression falls into three basic categories: (1) Structure (2) Character, and (3) Text, with Structure being the most basic of the three and Text the most involved. Within each category are five points, or ways, in which to utilize compression in that category. Before we get into the bread and butter of the discussions, here is a short sweet summary of the 15 points we will address in this article:

STRUCTURE: Events, plot points, story development.

  1. Structure aggressively by having events occur as early as possible.
  2. Aim high, go far.
  3. Get in late, get out early.
  4. Combine events to give each multiple purpose.
  5. Eliminate scenes that do not advance plot or character development, preferably until every scene contains both.

CHARACTER: Cast members, characterization, relationships and character decisions.

  1. Reduce the cast of your characters to the minimum required to tell the story.
  2. Controlling how information about the character is divulged to the audience, including when and where.
  3. Imply or illustrate characterization.
  4. Imply depth and history in relationships.
  5. Use meaningful character names.

TEXT: The action of the story, including descriptions and visuals.

  1. Remove redundant beats and information.
  2. Create higher text density by converting text into subtext.
  3. Make one element serve more than one purpose.
  4. Don’t say it, illustrate it.
  5. Cut extraneous details.

STRUCTURE COMPRESSION

Involves events, plot points, and story development. The shorter the piece the more compressed it needs to be.

How do you compress structure?

1. Structure aggressively by having events occur as early as possible.
This creates structural compression by giving you the most amount of time to develop the story instead of having the audience wait around for something to happen. The more aggressive your plotting, the more compressed your structure will be and will help you with points 2-5 (below). Inexperience storytellers often take too long to get to the plot rolling or take too long to reach the point of the story.

2. Aim high, go far.
Use an aggressive structure to develop your plot as far as possible during the course of your story, going from point A to point B with minimal chaff between the two. This allows you to get the most out of your plot by granting you the time to explore your theme and its related subthemes and variations to the fullest extent.

3. Get in late, get out early.
Enter the plot as late as possible with as much exposition and introductory story taking place “off screen” before the first actual moment of your story. Doing this creates greater subtext and grabs the audience’s attention right away instead of boring them with a mountain of setups and exposition. “Get in late, get out early” not only applies to your overall plot but your scenes as well.

4. Combine events to give each multiple purpose.
Take one event and give it multiple uses. Although one of the most basic methods of compression, young storytellers usually fail to do this. Film is a good place to observe this point in practice. For example: Johnny finds the gun under his wife’s pillow, which tells him she is hiding something from him (the gun at the very least), but also provides Johnny with a murder or self defense weapon in the future, but additionally sets up the situation to make him look like he is his wife’s murderer when he actually had nothing to do with it. Instead of giving each of these developments their own separate events with dedicated “screen time” for each, we can simply combine (compress) them into one single event with multiple uses.

5. Eliminate scenes that do not advance plot or character development, preferably until every scene contains both.
No matter how cool or interesting a scene may be, if it does not reveal character (preferably someone in the main cast) or advance the plot then it has no place in your story. Ideally, each element will do both, although this is not always possible.

CHARACTER COMPRESSION

Involves cast members, characterization, relationships and character decisions. Prose requires the least character compression while film and the stage demand the most.

How do you compress character(s)?

1. Reduce the cast of your characters to the minimum required to tell the story.
This is accomplished by moving important action and dialogue from minor characters to major ones, or by combining several characters into one or, more often than not, both (the first leading to the second). Unlike long form storytelling, in short form you do not have the time or space to handle a large cast of characters, although you do have more leeway in prose than in film or poetry. In its adaptation from book to film, The Fellowship of the Ring compresses dozens of minor characters into the main cast, making them fuller and more active in the story. Broadway Musicals are especially adept at this type of character compression, as can be seen when comparing Wicked to its original book form and Spamalot to the film on which it is based.

2. Controlling how information about the character is divulged to the audience, including when and where.
A completely uncompressed character would have everything about him/her explained right away with nothing held back. Not only is this dull but it is also an exposition-heavy block to dump on an audience at the beginning. Instead, hold back information about the character for as long as possible without depriving the audience of plot necessities. This will keep the audience interested and increase their emotional investment and the impact of revelations when they are finally made.

3. Imply or illustrate characterization.
Essentially, “show, don’t tell” (in and of itself a natural form of compression). Instead of saying Character A is an alcoholic, show him drinking. Instead of having another character comment on how much the protagonist cares for others, illustrate what the protagonist does that is caring to others. Don’t tell us the character is good at something, show us through his actions and decisions.

4. Imply depth and history in relationships.
Developing as much about a relationship as possible without having to overtly express it on the page or screen influences how your characters interact with each other. Such implications add both depth and implied history to your characters, making them seem more relatable and whole to the audience. If you haven’t made a habit out of writing character bios, now might be a good time to start because this is where they will come in handy.

5. Use meaningful character names.
Throwaway names add nothing to your story, but names which enhance the meaning of the character’s personality, background, and/or role in the story are worth more than any number of words of imagery. A name can convey a large amount of information about a character without ever having to spell it out. For example, if you were creating a mystery story, which name would convey the most information: (a) Bob Jones (b) Billy the Kid, or (c) Professor Pathfinder?

TEXT COMPRESSION

Involves the action of the story, including descriptions and visuals. Text compression squashes description, action, and visuals into a smaller space by using more efficient text than the original—e.g., less is more. This is where we get to the real meat and bones of compression.

How do you compress text?

1. Remove redundant beats and information.
Compacting information into efficient beads of story is the most basic form of compression. A beat is a subunit of a scene which represents the playing out of a single tactic by the character driving the scene. It can also be seen as a small interplay between characters about a single thing. By reducing beats that are repetitive or repeat information unnecessarily you can make your story leaner and stronger by making less say more. Master this point of compression and your story will improve tenfold.

2. Create higher text density by converting text into subtext.
Compressing text increases its density while also creating subtext. This becomes really obvious when you compare the text density of short fiction to that of a novel. Certain forms (such as poetry and film) require higher levels of text density than others (novel, tv series, etc.). Text that is compressed into subtext will make the audience read between the lines more often, giving them more to do mentally and thereby creating greater engagement. Give them too little and you are insulting their intelligence. Assume the audience is equally as intelligent as you and you will be surprised at how much they understand.

3. Make one element serve more than one purpose.
Although scenes are technically elements, this point refers specifically to elements on a smaller, more specific scale than scenes. Essentially, an element is any construct that artificially influences the story, such as events and plot points (as mentioned previously), characterizations, decisions, a chance encounter with a small character, an object or prop, something from the protagonist’s background, or even relationships (although not limited to this list by any means).

4. Don’t say it, illustrate it.
Show, don’t tell. This cannot be said enough. There is a time and a place for summary (or a montage) but for the most part don’t just tell your audience about the world of your story and its inhabitants, show them by example. Unfortunately, this issue plagues the storytelling world of professionals and amateur alike, but it is especially important for newer storytellers to learn how to show—not tell—their story.

5. Cut extraneous details.
Whereas the first point of text compression involved cutting redundant information, this point deals with cutting information that is not pertinent to the story. It may be interesting that the character writes greeting cards for a living but unless it plays into the story somehow that is required for the telling of the story then it only gets in the way and dilutes the plot and/or theme. The shorter the work the more vigilant you have to be in keeping those superfluous details out of your story.

Short Form Storytelling, Part 2: Compression, Compression, Compression

storysci.com screenshot image of screenplay about storytelling compression in part 2 of 3-article series

Welcome to Part 2 of our 3-part article series on Short Form Storytelling. You can read Part 1: One Story, One Idea here.

Just because we saved the subject of compression for last does not mean it is less important than the points discussed in Part 1. As a matter of fact, it is so important in short form storytelling that we dedicated several articles to it, because compression is vital to understanding short form.

Compression.

It’s a mysterious word packed full of meaning. So what is it?

Many writers don’t know what “compression” means in terms of storytelling. Does this make them bad storytellers? No more than not knowing how many color rods are in the human eye will make someone a terrible interior designer. But knowing about compression and how to use it will make you a better storyteller.

Compression makes your story denser by compacting more information into less space. Whereas cutting material out altogether may achieve a similar purpose, by compressing you are not only trimming fat to make your story more lean and efficient but making it denser as well. Compression creates text density through subtext by implying information that is not otherwise made explicit. The audience must read between the lines to determine what is being meant by that which is not said. Therefore:

  • Text density is essentially how much information is packed into a segment of text or screen time.
  • Low density text conveys only what is written with little need for deeper thought or examination of subtext: “He moved the chair away from the table.” Genre fiction novels (mystery, western, romance, etc.) tend to have moderate to low text density.
  • High text density implies a lot of information without having to say much at all and may be used to demonstrate deeper, unspoken subtext: “For sale: Baby shoes, never worn” (attributed to Hemingway). Literary fiction probes the human condition through moderate to high text density.
  • Short form is most effective when using moderate to high text density.

To see exactly how compression works, let’s use it in reverse on the six word short story quoted above (the one attributed to Hemingway) to decompress the dense subtext packed into that one tragic sentence. Imagine that sentence as a 10-page short story with moderate compression. Now as a 200+ page novel with low compression. Over the course of story we may get a brisk summary of their wedding day, honeymoon, emotional ups and downs of pregnancy, etc., while spending the last half of the story tracking their emotional desolation over having lost a child.

Now let’s compare:

Compression: (Ultra)
High
Moderate Low
Word
Count:
6 4,000-5,000 75,000-100,000+
Pages: <1 10 200+
Minutes
(film):
3 10 120

After all of that, which version would you say was the most effective? The six-word form uses the least text but packs more emotional impact than a single sentence in any of the other forms. That is the power of compression. Saying more with less makes the audience actively fill in the blank, creating greater audience involvement, more emotional investment and thus a more powerful impact.

So now that we’ve talked about compression, let’s list the five most common ways in which you can use it to tighten your story (in order of importance):

  • Combine several elements with a single use into a single element with multiple uses (this is the very essence of compression).
  • Remove redundant beats and information.
  • When writing scenes: start the scene as late into the action as possible, end the scene as soon as possible.
  • Reduce your cast of characters to only those who advance the story or reveal character, preferably both.
  • Imply deeper characterizations and relationships through illustration, such as using meaningful names and places.

(A more in-depth examination of these points will follow in our next article: Part 3: The Three Types of Compression.)

Three things you should know about compression:

  • Younger storytellers tend to use less compression than mature storytellers.
  • Many writers (especially young ones) dive into writing short form without understanding how it differs from long form, resulting in a bloated short story with low compression like a novel. This approach can work but it seldom results in a piece that is as effective as one with higher compression.

COMPRESSION PRACTICE

It’s easy to put information onto the page or the screen, but it’s another thing entirely to compact that information into less space and have it say twice as much (or more). An excellent way to learn compression is by studying the discipline of screenwriting, where compression reigns supreme. And of course there are also writing exercises, such as the one below, designed to help you flex your compression skills.

  1. Write a one paragraph short story, description or character bio.
  2. Now write a new version of it but condensed down to a single sentence. Try to preserve as much information from the original as possible, implicit or explicit.
  3. And finally, the hard part: Condense your sentence down to seven words or less, preserving as much information as possible from the previous two versions, most of which will now be implied through subtext rather than explicitly stated through text.

Stay tuned for Part 3 of our article series on short form storytelling where we will be examining the different methods of implementing compression in much greater detail.

10 Short Films for Cinephiles

I am a long time lover of short films. Poignant, succinct, and bite-sized, short films allow the viewer to escape into a world of emotion and fantasy for a few minutes at a time. Occasionally I find a rare gem that transcends language and culture to deliver a powerful experience, so today I want to share an eclectic selection with you. There are so many excellent short films out there that I cannot hope to share them all, so here are 10 short films every cinephile needs to see before they die:

1. The Reward (2013)

Adventure, Animation, Fantasy 
An epic bromance made as a graduation film. Read more about The Reward on io9.com or IMDB.

2. The Red Balloon (1956)

Family, Fantasy
La ballon rouge is about a Parisian boy who finds a sentient balloon that follows him. Read more about The Red Balloon on Wikipedia or IMDB.

3. La Jetée (1962)

Drama, Sci-Fi
In the aftermath of World War III a few survivors attempt to time travel back to a time before the earth was decimated. “The Jetty” is a French experimental film unfortunately I could not find a version with English subtitles. Read more about La Jetée on Wikipedia or IMDB.

4. Splitscreen: A Love Story (2011)

Romance Shot using a camera phone, this creative short wordlessly literally brings two people together. Read more about Splitscreen: A Love Story on Slate.com.

5. The Wrong Trousers (1993)

Animation, Comedy Link: A claymation short about a man and his intelligent dog who face off against a malicious bank-robbing penguin. The follower trailer hardly does the full short justice. Read more about The Wrong Trousers on Wikipedia or IMDB.

6. The Black Hole (2008)

Sci-fi A sleep-deprived office worker accidentally discovers a black hole – and then greed gets the better of him. Although the only free version of The Black Hole is a trailer, you can download the full version at Warpfilmstore.com.

7. The Chubbchubbs! (2002)

Animation, Comedy, Sci-fiAn Oscar-winning comedy short rife with sci-fi spoofs about a janitor whose dream of becoming a singer comes true. Read more about The Chubbchubbs! on Wikipedia or IMDB. here.

8. Paperman (2012)

Comedy, Romance Link: [ need to find ] An Oscar-winning short in which Disney proves that they still have some magic up their sleeves and they don’t need Pixar to make it happen. Paperman originally played in theaters at the opening of Wreck-It Ralph (2012). Read more about Paperman on Wikipedia or IMDB.

9. Election Night (1999)

Comedy An idealistic voter discovers that abstract ideas don’t always match up to reality. Read more about Election Night on Wikipedia or IMDB.

 

10. Bad Motherf*****r (2013)

Action/Adventure Although a music video, Bad Motherf*****r is a short film in its own right as well. Watch a James Bond-like hero escape from capture in a blood pumping POV sequence. Like it’s less spectacular prequel, Bad Motherf*****r was filmed using a Go Pro camera. Warning: graphic violence and language. Read more about Bad Mother*****r on Awsm.com or IMDB.