To make a story unforgettable, you need to find that one image that connects with the audience, that ‘Aha!’ moment. This creates the epiphany we seek in a great story — that surprise revelation or sigh of recognition. This singular image, well positioned, can elevate a story from good … to great. We call this the ‘gleaming detail’ — a term originally derived from that great nation of storytellers, the Irish — for the element that makes a story stand out.
The gleaming detail is the one thing that captures both the emotion and idea of the story in one fell swoop. A singular, elegant moment of clarity. It is a literal representation of the truth that is inherent within every story. So as you develop your story, ask yourself: what is the truth within the story that I want to tell?
Here is a classic film illustration of how the ordinary becomes extraordinary. In Steven Spielberg’s much-loved film ET (Universal Pictures, 1982), we are given a brilliant gleaming detail. The most ordinary of objects in a ten-year-old boy’s life: a bicycle.
Most of us have seen the film, and probably more than once, so you will recall how it opens with space aliens gathering specimens in a redwood forest on a remote hilltop, overlooking a US cityscape below. It is night time and the city lights shine brightly. All of a sudden, the aliens are frightened and make a hasty departure, launching their spaceship into the night sky. However, one small alien is accidentally left behind. All alone in the forest.
The next day Elliott, a ten-year-old boy, arrives in the forest on his bicycle. He is exploring, also alone. We don’t think anything about his bicycle, an ordinary, everyday object for a child. Later that day, we learn that Elliott’s father has recently left his family, and is now in Mexico with another woman. We also discover that Elliott is the younger brother of 16-year-old Michael who, along with his three friends, loves to taunt him. So Elliott is very lonely. That evening, the older boys won’t even let Elliott play their board game. They make him go outside in the dark to get their pizza. He’s afraid and, sure enough, he hears a scary noise. The noise leads him to discover ET behind their house. They both scream in fright. But then Elliott decides to create a candy trail to lead ET into his bedroom. Once safely inside, Elliott creates a cosy den for ET in his closet. The next day, Elliott tries to tell his brother and the other boys about his alien friend while sitting on his bicycle as they are getting on the school bus. Of course, they tease him unmercifully. They board the school bus laughing at him.
Thereafter, Elliott continues getting to know ET, on his own. They form a kind of mystical friendship. Finally, ET reveals to Elliott his plan to ‘phone home’ — just as the US authorities figure out his whereabouts. The balance shifts as Michael and his buddies accept that Elliott does indeed possess ‘power’. When the police cars arrive, Michael and his three friends jump on their bicycles and lead the police on a merry race through suburban backyards, even leaping off the police car roofs. They manage to get away. The bicycles win!
Once they have outwitted the police, the boys ride to the park where they discover Elliott with ET, the little alien sitting in the bicycle basket draped in a white sheet. They are awestruck. The balance has shifted: Elliott is the leader of the pack. The boys fall in behind him on their bicycles, racing through the streets in order to get to the forest in time to meet the mothership. While they are riding, a man steps out and holds a gun towards Elliott. In extreme close-up, Elliott closes his eyes in terror. Then … the ordinary becomes the extraordinary. Literally. The bicycles leave the ground and lift up high towards the mountain. What follows is one of the most magical moments in film history as the boys on their bicycles fly in front of a full moon. When they reach the forest, they land in unison, as one. There, aglow in the darkness of the forest, awaits the spaceship, poised to take off.
Elliott watches his best friend, ET, depart. He stands nobly apart from his mother, brother and sister. We know that he will never be lonely again, because someone ‘out there’ will always love him unconditionally.
The boy’s bicycle is a perfect use of an ordinary object that becomes extraordinary. This singular act of the bikes crossing the moon represents the full emotional arc of Elliott’s transformation into a self-reliant young man. His coming of age.
Stories provide the context to understand the awakening of transformation. The call to conscience, the blooming of the soul into maturity. This experience is at its most powerful when it occurs at the cusp of an era, a transitional turning point in a person’s life, or in current events, as we experience the world change before our very eyes.
Bobette Buster is a screenwriter, documentary producer, lecturer, and story consultant. She grew up in Kentucky, a region renowned for its great storytellers. As a student she produced an oral history of the area that is now archived at the Kentucky Museum. She then moved on to Hollywood to learn the business of script development, and now writes, produces and lectures at the major studios including Disney, Pixar and Twentieth Century Fox, and in top film programs all over the globe.