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Ergocinema / Screenwriting / Storytelling

What is Storytelling?

Storytelling is the reason we’re all here, our raison d’être. Everyone is confronted with it it, actively or passively, all day long. However, these days we often find this term in the corporate context, especially in Marketing and PR. Which is probably the reason why many artists seem to dislike the concept. Don’t let that be you. We should embrace this idea wholeheartedly: Storytelling is nothing less than what makes us human. Stories are our way to make sense of the world… and sharing is caring.

Theory first: Defining Story & Plot

“I like a good story well told. That is the reason I am sometimes forced to tell them myself.”

When we talk about good storytelling, we really mean a good story well told. A lot of a story’s power comes from the way in which we tell it. The telling of the story refers to the universal principle by which the storyteller reveals the story to the audience. Therefore, we always have to differentate between the Story Premise and the Story Concept.

Storytelling for Filmmakers – the Basics

The Definition of Story

“Story is metaphor for life and life is lived in time.”

Story – the building blocks

Let’s start at the beginning: The lowest common denominator of any story is change. Only when something changes, there’s a reason to tell a story in the first place. Any story consists of the same building blocks that are called Story Beats. They are quite simple and straight-forward:

Story Beats Meaning
NEED The main character’s blind spot that holds them back in life
WANT The main character’s goal that they want to reach with a burning desire
ANTAGONISTS At least one actual person who stands in the main character’s way
STRATEGY The way the main character intends to reach their want
FINALE The obligatory scene of the story that shows success or failure
REVELATION The lesson that the main character usually learns
ENDING Happy, Uplifting, Bittersweet or Sad, depending on whether they reached their Want and/or Need

From the beginning of our writing process, we should know which story we want to tell and how we want to tell it. It’s perfectly fine if these change along the way, and they most definitely will. However, it’s a huge mistake to go in blind, because we’ll definitely run into all sorts of problems.

Many writers start writing with an autobiographical situation instead of a story. They never finish their work, because they don’t know the lesson that the story is supposed to have. How could they, as they’re still caught in it? Therefore, we should always start with a powerful story that gave us an insight into life in some way. A good inspiration for simple yet effective stories are Comic Strips.

For a powerful story, we first and foremost need a powerful Want, because it creates the strongest engagement in the audience. If we know what the main character wants and they follow this goal relentlessly against all odds, then we’re glued to our seats. It doesn’t matter much what’s in the briefcase, if only all of the characters desperately want it.

Beware that we either have this kind of Want in our story or we don’t. Rarely if ever will we discover this later on in the process. If we can’t find a Want that carries a whole movie in our Story Premises, we should go back to the drawing board and come up with more ideas.

The Definition of Plot

Some writers are Panters and some are Plotters. No matter which side you lean on, to develop a great Plot, we need a Writing Model that is able to draw from the basic building blocks of our Story. The better we become as writers, the better we become at working subconsciously and consciously.

Another word for Plot is Story Structure. Maybe you’re aware of the Hero’s Journey, which is actually Mythic Structure for Writers as Chris Vogler puts it. Others, like Robert McKee, prefer to work with Dramatic Structure terms. But not every Story is an Adventure Story or a Drama. Stories can take all kinds of different shapes and forms. There are many different Movie Genres, therefore we need a model that is more adaptive.

The new Hero’s Journey Model

These are the basic building blocks for any kind of Plot, compared to the Hero’s Journey and the Dramatic Story Structure. Some of these Plot Beats should already seem familiar from the Story Beats:

Plot Beats The Hero’s Journey Dramatic Structure
BACKSTORY (Wound & World) The Ordinary World Exposition
NEED The Hero Main Character
CALL TO ACTION The Call to Adventure Inciting Incident
WANT The Journey Dramatic Question
SUPPORTERS Supernatural Aid
1ST PLOT POINT Crossing the Threshold Break into Act 2
STRATEGY Belly of the Whale
EXECUTION The Road of Trials Confrontation
DARKEST HOUR Woman as Temptress Reversal
2ND PLOT POINT Atonement with the Father Break into Act 3
3RD PLOT POINT Apotheosis
FINALE Crossing the return Threshold Climax
REVELATION Master of Two Worlds Catharsis
ENDING Freedom to live Resolution

We’re not bound to this sequence in this order, as this is a very modular and flexible approach to Storytelling. The longer a story gets, the more of these elements in different variations we’ll need to keep our audiences engaged.

In the next step, when it comes to character, conflict, theme and symbolism, there’s much more to discover if you want to write a great screenplay.

Storytelling as a Craft

“The art of storytelling is dying because the epic side of truth, wisdom, is dying.”

Storytelling is not only a method of creating narrative art, but also an art of understanding it. How do artists communicate with their audience? Are they telling a story or are they trying to subvert the Storytelling? Which narrative elements do we use and how? We can also speak of story design at this point, because Storytelling is about real, tangible techniques.

Just as film criticism is struggling nowadays, Storytelling is struggling as well. So let’s write! We learn telling stories by telling stories. Let’s try to learn from each other and improve our skills while putting out our screenplays, novels and short stories, one by one. The Writer’s journey is never truly finished.

Side note: Visual Storytelling

In the Movies, Storytelling is much more direct than in other media. Stageplay, Radioplay and Teleplay focus on Dialog (Action through language) and Games on Interaction (Action through the player). Cinema on the other hand evolved from the Silent Movie, which can only tell stories through the actions of characters. Here you’ll find more about the nature and history of the Motion Picture.

Further Reading:

  • Joseph Campbell: The Hero with a Thousand Faces
  • Chris Vogler: The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers
  • John Truby: The Anatomy of Story
  • Robert McKee: Story
  • Keith Cunningham: The Soul of Screenwriting