Storytelling 101

YOU just thought of a really interesting idea for a film. What do you do now? It’s time to turn that idea into a story.

A story starts with some sort of scenario, character, or moment you can see inside your head, and then expanding on it.

Don’t get bogged down by formatting and complex story structure just yet.

Right now all you need to do is outline the things that can happen to your characters throughout the film by making a big list of stuff that can happen. These are sometimes referred to as story beats, and listing them creates a beat sheet.

Our latest short film BACKSTAGE was a product of a writing exercise we call “Story in a Can”. We brainstormed the idea on camera and outlined the beats in the episode. I’ve put a link down below if you want to watch the birth of our latest short film.

Instead of trying to knock out a formatted script from the get-go, write your beat sheet and use this as a brainstorming session for developing the story.

Right now, it’s all just playing around with ideas so nothing has to be concrete. Remember, you can’t edit a blank page!

As an example, these are the beats for BACKSTAGE:

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So now you have your basic story elements, it’s time to write up the script, right? I’d advise against this for now.

At the moment you have a simplified template for your film, and swapping and changing the beats inside the template is a lot easier to wrap your head around than swapping and changing the beats inside a formatted script.

You currently have the ingredients to your cake on the counter. But before you mix them together, you want to measure them out. Don’t be so hasty to bake the cake if you currently have too little flour, too much sugar, and have misplaced the eggs.

There are a few simple methods you can use to make sure your film is as tasty to an audience as possible. At the end of the day, you are making this film for someone to watch and enjoy - they won’t enjoy taking a bite if it tastes horrible.

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The first thing I measure are the three main ingredients: “Character -> Conflict -> Goal”. This is a structure storytellers have been using for thousands of years, and without it, your cake might be too sweet or may not rise in the oven.

Who are they, what do they want, and who or what is stopping them? All the tools you use to create your film; the camera, lenses, the sound, the acting, the lighting, it’s all just there to give the necessary information to the audience.

In BACKSTAGE, we tried to help the audience understand The Medium using a few methods.

Firstly, his character: we are shown his pantomime-aggressive Wrestling persona in the cold open at the beginning, then we see his contrasted personality and commitment to his cause once we cut into the locker room, then when the conflict occurs, we see him rise to the occasion. He’s a character of passion, he’s heartfelt, confident, and he’s a bit weird.

His goal is to fight in the ring. This is clear because he literally says it at the beginning, his face is on all of the posters, and he’s concentrating so hard as he looks at his reflection in the mirror. Everything points towards this guy being a big deal.

What’s stopping him from fighting in the ring? The Flyswatter. The Flyswatter is the guy he is supposed to fight. If he doesn’t get this guy out of the cubicle and into the ring, he doesn’t achieve his goal.

The Flyswatter is a little bit different. We learn about his character more through empathy than anything else. We’ve all been in a situation we are pushed into and feel trapped. He is literally boxed in a cubicle, and the over-the-cubicle shot is a deliberate choice to emphasize this information to the audience.

His goal is to leave, it’s as simple as that. We know this through his negative reaction to The Medium’s tales of his past - we know this as he is quietly removing his costume throughout the scene - and we know this when he finally tells the Medium after letting it build up inside his head.

Stopping The Flyswatter from achieving his goal is shame. He is nervous, he wants to leave, but at the same time he is completely ashamed to let these people down. The clock is ticking for The Flyswatter, he is given 20 minutes, and he knows with every cue of music he can hear coming from the stage that his time is coming to an end.

At the end of the film we have resolution. The Medium gets to fight his final match, and he successfully convinces The Flyswatter to fight. The Flyswatter is courageous, he actually achieves his original goal of leaving, but that goal suddenly reveals itself to be more than just fleeing; it’s an internal struggle of anxiety which he overcomes in the most peculiar way.

Your characters, their goals, and their conflict don’t always have to be multi-layered, perfectly crafted pieces of the plot, but without these elements at all, your film may feel alien.

Film is a language, and that language derives from campfire tales and slumber party ghost stories. They all share a common tongue, and it’s up to us as filmmakers to deliver that information in an entertaining and visually-cinematic way using the tools we have available.

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Storytelling 101


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