Tag Archives: story

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).

Vonnegut: Narrative Arcs and Why We Love Drama

For mil­len­nia we have told and absorbed fant­ast­ic stor­ies with simple yet strong nar­rat­ive struc­tures, and the struc­ture of these stor­ies is in con­trast to the much less errat­ic “plots” of our own lives. This dis­crep­ancy between the dra­mas present in our stor­ies and our real lives causes many of us to cre­ate unne­ces­sary and non-exist­ent dra­mas in our lives.

That’s Kurt Von­negut’s the­ory for why some people “have a need for drama”, as described by Derek Sivers who atten­ded a talk where Von­negut explained this the­ory through a series of won­der­fully simple dia­grams show­ing the nar­rat­ive arcs of some of our favour­ite stor­ies and com­par­ing them to that of a “nor­mal” life.

Von­negut also dis­cusses and describes these nar­rat­ive arcs through dia­grams in the col­lec­tions Palm Sunday and A Man Without a Coun­try. Aus­tin Kle­on excerpts the former book, where Von­negut writes that this was the top­ic of his rejec­ted Mas­ter­’s thes­is. My favour­ite arc has to be that of Cinder­ella:

Kurt Vonnegut's Narrative Arc Diagram of Cinderella

On read­ing this I was curi­ous as to:

  • why the caus­a­tion must go from the stor­ies we read to our own lives: could it not be that we cre­ated stor­ies filled with drama and nar­rat­ive struc­tures like those described in order to fill a void that the fake dra­mas we cre­ated in real life wer­en’t?
  • how this could relate to the concept of Apol­lo­ni­an and Dionysi­an. Not for long, as a quick search led me to Red­dit user Ghost­s­For­Break­fast’s thoughts on the idea (basic­ally, what I would like to say, but much clear­er).

The Basic Plots of All Stories

That there are a finite num­ber of basic plots from which all oth­er stor­ies are formed is accep­ted as fact by many lit­er­ary the­or­ists: Georges Polti, for instance, believes that there are thirty-six dra­mat­ic situ­ations, while Ron­ald Tobi­as believes there to be only twenty.

The Inter­net Pub­lic Lib­rary has com­piled togeth­er the most com­monly accep­ted lists of “basic” plots: one, three, sev­en, twenty or thirty-sev­en dif­fer­ent plots, depend­ing on which defin­i­tion you sub­scribe to.

In con­trast to the sev­en selec­ted by the IPL, there are also these addi­tion­al sev­en “basic” plots, as described by Chris­toph­er Book­er in his appro­pri­ately titled book, The Sev­en Basic Plots:

  • Over­com­ing the Mon­ster
  • Rags to Riches
  • The Quest
  • Voy­age and Return
  • Com­edy
  • Tragedy
  • Rebirth

Story Types for Speeches (and TV)

Each and every time I begin to struc­ture a speech or present­a­tion I con­sider which ‘story type’ to use (if it is suit­able at all).

Not being par­tic­u­larly well-versed in these, I recently came across a couple of use­ful resources.

First, Nick Mor­gan’s descrip­tion of the five “basic stor­ies that West­ern cul­ture has to make your speeches stronger, ‘stick­i­er’ and more instantly grasp­able”:

  • The Quest (A cut-down ver­sion of every­one’s favour­ite; The Monomyth/Hero’s Jour­ney?)
  • Stranger in a Strange Land
  • The Love Story
  • Rags to Riches
  • Revenge

Next, a large col­lec­tion of TV tropes (via xkcd, of all places). A trope? As the site says,

A cata­log of the tricks of the trade for writ­ing fic­tion […] devices and con­ven­tions that a writer can reas­on­ably rely on as being present in the audi­ence mem­bers’ minds and expect­a­tions.

Update: This hand­book of rhet­or­ic­al devices will also come in handy, surely. Carl has also pro­duced a nice sev­en-stage guide to the myth­ic adven­ture.

The Final Salute: A Touching Story

They are the troops that nobody wants to see, car­ry­ing a mes­sage that no mil­it­ary fam­ily ever wants to hear.

It begins with a knock at the door.

Final Salute is a double Pulitzer Prize win­ning art­icle (writ­ing and pho­to­graphy) from The Rocky Moun­tain News pro­fil­ing the work of Major Steve Beck – a US Mar­ine respons­ible for noti­fy­ing fam­ily mem­bers of a Mar­ine’s death. As the Pulitzer Award cited, the art­icle is a “haunt­ing, behind-the-scenes look”.

It’s long; but it’s worthy of every moment of your time no mat­ter what your stance on the numer­ous armed con­flicts cur­rently under way. It’s a dif­fi­cult read that will put a lump in your throat.

(Altern­at­ive link)