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)