Learning storytelling from a Sitcom writer

What is a story? How can you tell bet­ter stor­ies?

There is a wealth of know­ledge and research into story telling, story struc­ture and tech­niques for enhan­cing nar­rat­ive. The clas­sic text is The Hero with a Thou­sand Faces by Joseph Camp­bell, but this tome has been is cri­ti­cised for being dense and aca­dem­ic. Syd Field’s book Screen­play has influ­enced the writ­ing of many recent movies, but Field has been cri­ti­cised for nev­er pro­du­cing a suc­cess­ful script him­self.

If only a suc­cess­ful writer would set out clearly and access­ably the the­ory behind writ­ing a good story.

Enter Dan Har­mon the cre­at­or of the superb TV series Com­munity. He learned his craft devel­op­ing short epis­odes for the inter­net TV sta­tion Channel101. Channel101 runs a monthly screen­ing of low budget (or zero budget), five minute epis­odes. They’re often over the top, vul­gar, and hilarious. Check out (not at work!) the ridicu­lous Laser Fart, the vir­al sen­sa­tion Chad Vader, and the teen drama pas­tiche The ‘Bu.

Des­pite the sil­li­ness of the epis­odes they exhib­it a com­pel­ling writ­ing style that Har­mon attrib­utes to his under­stand­ing of storytelling. Har­mon wrote a series of art­icles to teach per­spect­ive sub­mit­ters to Channel101 how to write a well struc­tured story. The basis of these art­icles is a series of eight ele­ments that should be included in every story. The eight points are:

  1. You – Who are we? A squir­rel? The sun? A red blood cell? Amer­ica? By the end of the first 37 seconds, we’d really like to know.
  2. Need - some­thing is wrong, the world is out of bal­ance. This is the reas­on why a story is going to take place. The “you” from (1) is an alco­hol­ic. There’s a dead body on the floor. A motor­cycle gang rolls into town. Camp­bell phrases: Call to Adven­ture, Refus­al of the Call, Super­nat­ur­al Aid.
  3. Go – For (1) and (2), the “you” was in a cer­tain situ­ation, and now that situ­ation changes. A hiker heads into the woods. Pearl Harbor’s been bombed. A mafia boss enters ther­apy. Camp­bell phrase: Cross­ing of the Threshold. Syd Field phrase: Plot Point 1.
  4. Search – adapt­ing, exper­i­ment­ing, get­ting shit togeth­er, being broken down. A detect­ive ques­tions sus­pects. A cow­boy gath­ers his posse. A cheer­lead­er takes a nerd shop­ping. Camp­bell phrases: Belly of the Whale, Road of Tri­als. Chris­toph­er Vogler phrase: Friends, Enemies and Allies.
  5. Find – wheth­er it was the dir­ect, con­scious goal or not, the “need” from (2) is ful­filled. We found the prin­cess. The sus­pect gives the loc­a­tion of the meth lab. A nerd achieves pop­ular­ity. Camp­bell phrase: Meet­ing with the God­dess. Syd Field phrase: mid-point. Vogler phrase: Approach to the Inner­most Cave.
  6. Take – The hard­est part (both for the char­ac­ters and for any­one try­ing to describe it). On one hand, the price of the jour­ney. The shark eats the boat. Jesus is cru­ci­fied. The nice old man has a stroke. On the oth­er hand, a goal achieved that we nev­er even knew we had. The shark now has an oxy­gen tank in his mouth. Jesus is dead- oh, I get it, flesh doesn’t mat­ter. The nice old man had a stroke, but before he died, he wanted you to take this belt buckle. Now go win that rodeo. Camp­bell phrases: Atone­ment with the Fath­er, Death and Resur­rec­tion, Apo­theosis. Syd Field phrase: plot point 2
  7. Return – It’s not a jour­ney if you nev­er come back. The car chase. The big res­cue. Com­ing home to your girl­friend with a rose. Leap­ing off the roof as the sky­scraper explodes. Camp­bell phrases: Magic Flight, Res­cue from Without, Cross­ing of the Return Threshold.
  8. Change – The “you” from (1) is in charge of their situ­ation again, but has now become a situ­ation-changer. Life will nev­er be the same. The Death Star is blown up. The couple is in love. Dr. Bloom’s Time Belt is com­pleted. Lor­raine Bracco heads into the jungle with Sean Con­nery to “find some of those ants.” Camp­bell phrases: Mas­ter of Both Worlds, Free­dom to Live.

They sound simplist­ic. But in the art­icle Har­mon dis­sect­s well known movies and Channel101 epis­odes explain­ing how they con­form to this struc­ture.

Story Struc­ture Part 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6.

As a mem­ber of a pub­lic speak­ing organ­isa­tion I fre­quently tell stor­ies in front of an audience. Read­ing these art­icles has changed my approach to story telling. Rather than begin­ning with a blank page I plan the pro­gres­sion of my story using Harmon’s eight points as sub­head­ings, and attempt to give the cor­rect emphas­is to every point.

For more insights from Dan Har­mon you can check out his web­site or twit­ter. And I highly recom­mend his appear­ance on Marc Maron’s WTF pod­cast (bad lan­guage a plenty).