Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Screenwriter Secrets of Effective Storytelling!
The Structure: Are We There Yet?

Most of us, when we tell a story, start by loading it up with details. We feel we need to build up to the interesting part by carefully setting the scene. I read plenty of feature articles across the country that do this. Stories that start with an image, as if the writer wants us to concentrate on some microscopic details that will give us a feeling for the environment.

The problem is, when we're listening to that kind of story, we're impatient for it to begin. It's amazing how little background "staging" we need, really, to get involved in a story. We don't realize that, done correctly, our engagement can be immediate. Without all those pesky details.

Take this scene. I guarantee you it's part of a movie, although you'll never see it on screen:



A TEACHER (35, female) stands at the door, waving goodbye to the children. A YOUNG GIRL (14) waves goodbye to the teacher and starts down the sidewalk, followed by a dog.


A wall separates the grand house from the dusty road. A cat sits on one of the wall posts. The girl and dog approach the wall. The cat HISSES, and the dog BARKS. The cat jumps down into the yard, and the dog squeezes through a gap in the wall, chasing the cat.

No no! I've told you a thousand times!

The girl runs to the front gate and swings it open. The front door of the mansion opens, and a severe and hawklike woman appears. The girls stops and...

I'll stop there.

I wrote the script portion above. Any idea what movie I'm talking about? Go ahead and read the beginning of the actual script:

MS -- Dorothy stoops down to Toto -- speaks to him -- then runs down road to b.g. -- Toto following --

She isn't coming yet, Toto. Did she hurt you? She tried to, didn't she? Come on - we'll go tell Uncle Henry and Auntie Em. Come on, Toto.

While the script is slightly different from the actual movie, the differences don't detract from the actual storytelling. And the names give a whole lot away. But look at the dialogue - it tells us everything we need to know. Sure, we get more information later, info that can help us put the pieces together. But while my version goes on and on, in the actual script, you're into the story in a flash. Plus you get two more characters. And in just a few minutes more, we get even more information about what happened (the technical term is "exposition"), plus we get conflicts, relationships, issues. And all before you've finished reading my version.

Try not to load down your story with excessive, irrelevant detail. See how much you can relate in as few words as possible. Make those words do double, triple, quadruple duty. Our minds are hard-wired to complete things, to close the loops, to look for patterns. Let your readers fill in the cracks themselves. Believe me, we love to do it!

And if you're interested, the next time you're watching a movie, especially a great one, pay attention to the beginning. Most movies nowadays spend very little time "setting the scene." They use a couple of establishing shots - maybe - and then boom, something happens, usually directly related to the plot.

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