What Story Is
When brainstorming ideas, you might say, let’s make a movie about the World Trade Center or a person with an unusual character quirk or an interesting event like a jigsaw puzzle contest.
These are great starting points, but they are not stories. A story is not simply a place or character. That’s because they lack a central ingredient; they are missing conflict.
Now, a conflict can be a war or some kind of natural disaster, but it also can be as simple as a guy who doesn’t have enough money to pay his rent.
Put simply, a story is what happens when a person wants something and can’t get it.
That gap between desire and reality is what propels a story forward. It’s the question that your audience wants answered: Will Luke Skywalker destroy the Death Star and save the Rebel forces? Will Matt Brody kill the shark?
- What does the subject of my story want?
- What prevents her from getting it?
- How does she respond?
Your answers should be clear and specific. If your story lacks an obstacle, something that directly prevents your charachter from achieving a goal, your story is really a profile.
Here’s the difference:
Story is a speeding train. It has movement and change. It develops over time. Where you start is different from where you end. A profile, on the other hand, is a pebble tossed into a lake. You learn more as the water ripples outward, but the center, or the person, remains essentially the same throughout.
Knowing your character and the obstacle he faces is really only the starting point, the first act, so to speak.
A really good story continues to challenge the protagonist with ever-increasing difficulty. This is called the rising action.
In a classical story arc, the shape of the rising action looks like a roller-coaster climb before the first drop. Each time a character takes an action toward achieving her goal, she is met with a new, more dire setback. This push and pull is what keeps the audience engaged.
Rising action can also be thought of as a battle between and then and but. And then the main character asks his landlord for a rent extension, but the landlord evicts him. And then the main character must move in with his mother, and so on and so on.
Finally, after much back and forth, the climax of a story is the highest point of tension. It may be a moment of life or death, but it’s always a decisive moment from which there is no turning back. Either the hero gets what she wants or she doesn’t. Either way, life will never be the same again.
Every story is its own kind of expedition, with its own set of challenges. — Ron Howard
Each story contains its own shape, its own rules. Every time you create, you start new. That’s the nature of storytelling. It’s both exhilarating and frustrating to always have a new set of problems to solve. (As David Mamet helpfully reminds us, if you temporarily find yourself unable to wiggle your way out of a dramatic problem, that’s good. That’s the feeling you want to create in your viewer, too.)
Be patient, because in the end, story trumps everything. Story beats beautiful imagery. It tops clear sound. It bests 3-D shot on a RED in 8k. People will put up with an awful lot of shortcomings if you tell them a compelling tale.
Of all your tools, story is the most important.
It’s not a popular opinion these days, but I am partial to the writing of David Mamet, in particular his small but indispensable guide On Directing Film. Also worth checking out is his Three Uses of the Knife and this series of lectures on Masterclass.
Story by Robert McKee.
If you want to go to the source, try Aristotle’s Poetics.