Tag Archives: stageplay

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.

 

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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.

 

Need help with compression? Storysci is here! Contact us to put your creative work back onto the road to success.

Short Form Storytelling, Part 1: One Story, One Idea

Let’s start with the obvious: What is short form storytelling?

Short form is a story condensed into a brief, compressed format.

Storytellers tend to receive the majority of their training in long form techniques so this article is devoted to preparing you for short form storytelling, specifically the short story and short film.

What is considered short form?

Short form includes such familiar formats as television (30 minute sitcoms, one-hour dramas, etc.), short stories, short films and poetry, whereas long form includes the feature-length film, novel, and epic poem. Of course there are also forms which fit somewhere in the middle, like the long story, novelette, and 70-minute film.

Although the numbers vary depending on who you ask, here are some quick and dirty guidelines to give you an idea of lengths for short and long forms:

SHORT FORM LONG FORM
Film: under 70 minutes 70+ minutes
Prose: 7,500 pages or less 7,500 pages or more
Poem: up to 2 pages 2 pages or more

Typically a short film is under 30 minutes long but they can run up to 70 minutes. For more information on word counts in prose, refer to Prose Length and Word Count.

Shorter is simpler, but harder

Short form is deceptively difficult. It’s tempting to believe that shorter means easier, and while it does make the story simpler, it actually makes the piece more difficult to perfect. Most writers are accustomed to long form storytelling because that is the easiest way to fully express their ideas. In short form you do not have the luxury to explore every nook and cranny of your idea, so you can only include that which is absolutely relevant and necessary for your story.

In fact, short form is so challenging that many famous literary authors of the 20th century believed that the short story was not only the hardest type of story to write, but also the finest mark of a writer’s ability. Many an author has spent his/her career attempting to perfect the short story. (Short film and poetry have similar stories.)

Short Form is About One Idea

The key to short form is to concentrate on one clearly defined idea and bring it to fruition. The nature of short form does not allow you to cram more than one main idea into a short story without diluting its impact and creating an ambiguous mess. You also do not have the luxury of spending long periods developing characters or fleshing out your B- and C-plots. The longer your story becomes the greater its complexity will be, making it more difficult a story to tell. So keep your story compressed and strong by staying simple and always focused on your main idea.

Only that which is necessary and relevant

Short form is a compressed storytelling format where every ingredient has to carry its own weight. Prose, visuals, events and characters must count absolutely and definitively with no room for extraneous details or events. We call this necessary action. Necessary action means that only material directly relevant to the story should be included. Each element should be lean and efficient. Where possible, make each element count for multiple uses in regards to character, plot and theme.

Why Short Form is Worth the Effort

Although the market for short form storytelling is very select, it can be one of the best ways to improve your craft and learn invaluable skills such as compression (the subject of Part 2 of this article).

A few things you will learn while using short form:

  • How to tell stories efficiently.
  • How to say more with less (by means of compression).
  • How the story creation process works from beginning to end because it takes less time to complete short formats than long ones.

In the end, you may discover a new found joy in working with short form. Not only is short form liberating in its brevity, it requires a smaller commitment than long form and will ultimately lead to a greater understanding of your craft.

Stay tuned for Part 2: Compression, Compression, Compression.

 

Want to perfect your short film, script, play or story? Contact StorySci to get professional help right away.

Powerful Rewriting Tools #1: The Laundry List

Rewriting is difficult. It’s daunting. It can be overwhelming.  And every writer has been there.

Rewriting (also called “editing”) is a different skill from writing with its own set of techniques. While the initial writing process utilizes many of your instinctual and emotional creative energies, the rewriting process taps into a separate part of your brain, making use of your logical and analytical acumen. No matter which way you approach rewriting, it is still mentally taxing and a lot of hard work.

rewriting tools the laundry list to rewrite creative fiction story scienceTo help you through this brain intensive process we are going to bring you a series of powerful rewriting tools, the first of which is called the Laundry List. The Laundry List is a “to-do” list of items that need work in your current draft, allowing you to organize and address each issue with surgical precision and without becoming lost or sidetracked.

Here’s the short version:

  1. Read the piece all the way through.
  2. Reread the piece again, this time making notes in the form of a to-do list.
  3. Rewrite your piece based on only one item at a time.
  4. Address all items on list.

Now let’s break it down:

Step back, let it sit.
You’ve just finished the colossal task of completing a draft and you are feeling on top of the world. Your head is still awhirl with the details as you enjoy a self-congratulatory pat on the back. Don’t jump into rewriting yet. Leave it alone for a few weeks, possibly a few months (3-6 months at most).

Reread it from beginning to end.
Now you can return to your draft with a fresh set of eyes. Dust off the old manuscript and reread the entire piece from beginning to end without stopping to rewrite. Allow yourself to make a few notes along the way but don’t start the actual rewriting process until you have finished your read-through. This will re-familiarize you with the material as work your way through the next step.

Make a to-do list.
Read the piece again, this time making a to-do list of every item, big or small, that needs addressed. Be sure to designate which issues are major and which of those are minor. How you organize your list is up to you, but here are a few suggestions:

  • OUTLINE: Traditional outline with smaller issues nested beneath larger parent items.
  • COLUMNS: Place issues under major headings such as character, structure, protagonist desire, etc.
  • CHRONOLOGICAL: List items in the order that they occur in your story, using some kind of notation to indicate if major or minor.

Rewrite with purpose.
Each item of your laundry list gives you a clear, reasonable goal to work toward and will keep you from becoming overwhelmed. As you tackle each issue only work on one item at a time, no matter how tempting it is to do more. It’s very easy get sidetracked and lost if you don’t stick to your goal.

Start with the big things, end with the small things.
Address major issues first. The bigger, the better. You can go smaller from there. By fixing the major issues you will probably eliminate some of the smaller points on your laundry list and save the unnecessary stress and hair loss of having to cut minor rewrites that have become irrelevant during subsequent revisions of major points. Things like dialogue polishes and punctuation, vocabulary, etc. should be saved for last.

And voila! You have just completed a thorough rewriting of your piece. It takes some work, but by diligently chipping away at your lump of raw material bit by bit until you have your very own Statue of David left in its place. So the next time you are thinking about jumping into the editorial pool start by making yourself a Laundry List and soon you will be on the road to rewriting your next masterpiece.

Until next time, bon courage and keep writing!

Violence and Story: How Much Violence Should I Put in My Story?

A question came up in a LinkedIn group not too long ago regarding ‘violence’ in one writer’s story. This writer presented a work based on his own life to a writing teacher, who responded by telling him it was “too violent.” Since the writer still felt strongly about his largely autobiographical story, he posed the question to our discussion group: “How Much Violence Should I Put Into My Story?” Today we propose to answer that question.

Here are three simple rules for using violence in your story (in order of importance):

  1. Violence Must Be Appropriate to STORY
  2. Violence Must Be Appropriate to GENRE
  3. Violence Must Be Appropriate to your INTENDED AUDIENCE

All three of these rules are interdependent and what affects one will affect others as well.

(NOTE: When we mention “amounts” of violence we are referring to both volume AND intensity.)

1. VIOLENCE AND STORY
vector illustration indicating various types of cartoon violence in storytellingAlthough violence is often considered an aesthetic value (that is, a matter of taste), it actually plays a distinctive role in your story. If the story is about gang violence among teens on the street and how terrible it is, you will have to include enough violence to communicate the ideas, meaning and thematic elements required in your story. But if you are making a fun action-adventure that is neither realistic nor gritty, then keep the violence down to a tolerable level because the only thing you gain by adding more is a higher MPAA rating.

2. VIOLENCE AND GENRE
Crime dramas, horror flicks and gritty action thrillers inherently require more violence to live up to the audience’s expectations than do other genres, like comedy or romance.

3. VIOLENCE AND YOUR INTENDED AUDIENCE
Obviously, splattering the walls with gore in an educational animated film about a group of hugging teddy bears is not appropriate to an intended audience of young children. Family-oriented films have the least violence because they are intended to be seen by a broad-spectrum audience which includes parents and children of all ages. On the other hand, if it’s a gory horror film, part of the viewer’s expectation is to see the screen painted with a certain volume of blood and guts, lest they be disappointed.

LEVELS OF VIOLENCE
The remarkable thing about violence in art is how we perceive it as consumers. The more explicit the storyteller makes the details of a violent act, the more violent it will be perceived by the audience. To decrease perceived violence, a storyteller may employ a strategy called “cutting away” in which the storyteller avoids providing explicit details by cutting (in film, or the equivalent in prose) to the reaction of an onlooker, avoiding vivid portrayal of the worst details but leaving most of it to the imagination of the audience.

Here is a basic guide to the main categories of violence employed by storytellers in books and film:

1. No Violence: No violence at all. Usually confined to children-oriented materials and programming targeted at females, such as chicklit (print) or dramas which focus on character and relationships. An excellent example of this violence level is Lost in Translation, a film by Sofia Coppola.

2. Comic Violence: The most common violence in animated and family-oriented stories. Usually bloodless and without lasting effects, violence is presented in a funny way to counteract its seriousness. Think Shrek.

3. Bloodless Violence: It’s surprising how much an absence of blood and gore can reduce the gravity of pain and death. Bloodless violence is prolific among big blockbuster films that want to appeal to a broad audience. Return of the Jedi (and all of the Star Wars films) uses virtually no blood at all.

4. Moderate Violence: The most common type of violence used in media, it has some blood but only light gore or detail, such as Lord of the Rings (movies) and The Hunger Games (book). Hunger Games keeps the perceived violence level fairly low for its intended audience (YA, “young adult”) by employing the written equivalent of “cutting away.” The 2012 film adaptation takes this a step further.

5. Realistic Violence: This can be gritty, gory, and even downright gruesome. Just about any specimen of the war genre falls into this category, such as Saving Private Ryan and We Were Soldiers.

6. Gory Violence: The most extreme violence level includes films like I Spit on Your Grave as well as a large bulk of the horror genre in both film and print. At its most extreme end there is a horror subgenre called torture porn.

IN CONCLUSION…
Use common sense in determining the appropriate level of violence for your creative work, and only that violence which serves the story, genre or intended audience. You need enough to get your point across but don’t overdo it.

The Outrageous Justification Writing Exercise

In the promised follow-up to our last article, Turn that Scene on its Head, today we will be discussing an exercise to assist in pepping up your scenes by taking an ordinary situation and making it extraordinary.

Stock photo of two businessmen boxing, a comical metaphor for an outrageous writing exercise.
Why: The golden rule of entertainment in any form is DON’T BE BORING.  Unfortunately, many writers fall into the trap of writing “safely” where their characters act and react as would be expected of a normal person under similar circumstances, resulting in the scene being both predictable and dull.  Audiences want to be surprised and entertained, not bored to death.

Purpose: To turn a predictable scene into an interesting one by altering a character’s reaction to changing circumstances.

Challenge: Take an existing scene (or write a new one) in which a character finds himself or herself in a situation that has just changed.  Consider what the normal reaction might be for a character in those circumstances and then flip things around and have him/her react in a way that is diametrically opposite.  The reaction should be outrageous and unexpected.  Next, play out the consequences of this reaction.  You will then need to write a justification for this behavior (which may or may not appear in the same scene).

RULES:

  • For purposes of this exercise, your character’s reaction should be diametrically and outrageously opposite of what is previously written or normally expected. The more outrageous, the better.
  • The exercise works best when the situation is very normal or mundane. This lends more impact to the outrageous behavior which follows. (Need a little inspiration? Notalwaysright.com is a gold mine.)

EXAMPLES:

  • An office worker is called into his boss’s office and sacked.  The former employee doesn’t cry or beg to keep his job, he rejoices.
  • A young woman has just been asked out on a date by the man of her dreams.  Her reaction?  She starts screaming bloody murder.
  • A young man discovers he’s just won the lottery jackpot and this makes him very, very angry.
  • A mother’s oldest child has just moved out to go to college.  Instead of crying her eyes out she breaks out the wine coolers and redecorates the child’s room.
  • A married man comes home to find his wife waiting for him.  She promptly demands a divorce.  The man can barely contain his joy.

ALTERNATIVE FORMS:

Challenge yourself by making the exercise more difficult:

  • Attempt to justify the character’s unexpected reaction within the scene.
  • Add a double twist by having the character enter the situation expecting one thing but instead receives the opposite.  His unexpected reaction is harder to justify but also very interesting.
  • For an even greater challenge, choose an incident which could go either way, such as a woman just discovering that she has superpowers.  Both positive and negative reactions are expected.  How will you surprise us?

Improve Your Writing with Verbs

If global successes like The Hunger Games and Harry Potter have taught us anything, it’s that the clarity of your writing is vital to successful storytelling. Clarity is achieved through solid forward action, vivid imagery free from over-indulgent qualifiers, and in particular the effective management and use of verbs, especially action verbs.

Verbs propel the action of your text forward by communicating how something is observed or achieved. They are simpler, clearer and pack more punch per word than adjectives or adverbs, which are often ambiguous and flimsy by comparison. Understanding how to use verbs can give life to your writing by transforming your dull prose into a crackling thunderbolt.

Here are three ways you can improve your writing with verbs:

(1) Replace “to be” (être) verbs with action verbs.

“To be” verbs are passive and static, serving only to transmit information as statements of fact. On the other hand, action verbs describe things that happen in a way that is both active and dynamic, engaging your audience by pulling them directly into immediacy with the text. Action verbs have the added bonus of making your writing more crisp and efficient by eliciting a very specific impression in the mind of your audience without filling your text with qualifying descriptors.

(2) Replace descriptive padding with effective verbs.

Reduce “descriptive padding” by eliminating purple prose in favor of effective verbs which communicate concrete imagery. Adjectives and adverbs are often ambiguous and overused, especially among young writers. When used as “padding” (to make things seem more interesting) these descriptives and qualifiers actually bog down the pacing of your text while diminishing its clarity, even when you think you are increasing it. Action verbs can accomplish the same task with fewer words and in simpler form. Don’t bloat your pages with hot air; fill them with qualitative prose instead.

(3) Understand how to upgrade your verbs.

Upgrading a verb takes an action and makes it more specific by increasing the amount of emotion and intent behind the action. Every time you upgrade a verb you are upgrading the intensity it communicates. Observe how a simple sentence becomes more vivid as we upgrade the verb “TAKES” to further extremes:

He TAKES the book from her hands.
He PLUCKS the book from her hands.
He SNATCHES the book from her hands.
He WRENCHES the book from her hands.
He RIPS the book from her hands.

Notice how each verb upgrade creates a newer, more intense version of the same action without lengthening the sentence or diminishing its pace.

Understanding how to use verbs—especially action verbs—to improve your writing is important to all specializations of the craft. Nouns, adjectives and adverbs are useful parts of speech but they cannot convey the same level of emotion or action as the appropriate action verb can.

Until next time, this is STORY SCIENCE signing off. We would love to hear about your favorite sentences or phrases made incredible through the use of action verbs. Be sure to post on our facebook page or contact us on twitter and share your favs!

Remember: The power of prose rests with verbs.