A Story is Not a Story Unless
You Have Something to Say
S Story is not PLOT, Character or Setting. Those are element IN
a story. Story is a message, a point an idea or belief. It is
something that the author is trying to communicate to their
audience. If you do not have anything to say, then don’t bother
with a story.
S More importantly, the best stories are the ones where the
author ACTUALLY BELIEVES what it is they are sharing with
the audience. The TRUTH they are trying to reveal to others. IF
the author does not BELIEVE what it is that they are
communicating, the story will feel false, and ultimately fall flat.
The MEANING or IDEA behind any good story is called the Premise. The
Premise is the guiding principle, the thing that needs to be explored
throughout, comparing, contrasting, poking and prodding and ultimately
searching and tearing off any falsehood leaving only the BARE NAKED
TRUTH. The premise could also be a question the storyteller is asking the
audience. Akira Kurosawa asked a question is his stories; “Why are
people not kinder to one another?”
Every man dies but not every man really lives.
There was a king who died of grief.
True love conquers even death.
There is no place like home.
The 3 Rules of Story!
Most Important Rules in Storytelling:
S Orient the Viewer
S Advance the Plot
S Orient the Viewer
S Introduces a character an activity or a puzzle. Used
literally to HOOK the audience into watching the story.
S The story is broken into 3 acts. Act one is considered the
Set Up. It sets up the major elements of the
story, primarily the characters, their world they live in and
what is happening. It should be immediate. Typically 10
minutes of a feature film.
S The Plot is what is HAPPENEING in the story. It is NOT
what the story is about.
S Act 1 Introduces the Plot. It does not reveal ALL the
information, just enough to get the story in motion.
S The Protagonist is typically introduced in their
world, doing every day normal things. We need to learn
about their normal life, enough to identify with them.
Typically the PLOT is THURST upon them and they
initially reject any call to action. They, like the rest of the
audience, never want to upset the norm.
S This is where the story happens. Again, we don’t see the
entire setting, but enough to allow the audience to be
oriented to the world the story happens in. The
Protagonist’s inner character can be revealed by a good
S The Catalyst is an event in the story that LAUNCHES the
story into motion, regardless if the Protagonist is ready
for it or not. A decision is made, and it forces a decision
by the Protagonist. Regardless the story is forced
S The 1st Turning Point needs to do these things; take the
audience in an unexpected direction and raise the over
all stakes of the protagonist. Stakes could be loss of
security, like a job or a home. It could be any kind of
change the character fears. In an action movie it could be
personal survival. The 1st Turning Point also launches the
story into Act 2.
The second and largest Act in the Three Act Structure is typically divided
into two sections. The first half usually is the Protagonist trying to maintain
the Normal World. They do everything in their power to avoid ANY major
change. This typically causes more problems and pushes them deeper
and deeper into danger and chaos.
The second section, after the Mid Point Scene, finds the Protagonist in
UNCHARTED territory. They are forced to do things they have never
done, take risks with higher and higher stakes and find themselves with
only one possible choice, the one they have been avoiding their entire
Act 2 typically introduces new characters. It also allows for the subplots to
add dimension to the story allowing the character to become more
relatable and more likable.
Rule: The helpers can HELP but they should NEVER solve the major
problem the Protagonist has. That must and should only be done by the
S Conflict is the major driving force of every story. The
conflict MUST be CLEAR and CONCRETE. It must also
be VISULIZED. There are 5 sources of conflict. A good
story will utilize ALL 5 but there will be ONE central
CONFLICT GENERATOR. If that source is removed the
entire story falls apart.
Man Vs. Man
S This is the most common form of conflict. It puts two
human beings at odds with one another, mainly with two
Mutually Exclusive Goals. Like a Football game, there
cannot be two winners. Only one can succeed. This
conflict must be brought to it’s highest point before it can
be resolved, if it is the main source of the conflict in the
Man Vs. Nature
S This puts the Protagonist at odds with the natural
environment. They are in an unfamiliar place, one that
they need to adapt too to survive. It can also put them at
odds with the creatures and people who are already in
balance with the natural surroundings. A story revolving
around a natural disaster or one where the character is
plunged into an environment they are not familiar with is
typical. This conflict must be driven to its maximum
height before resolution if it is the main source of conflict
in the story.
Man Vs. Time
S Time is constantly moving forward and is a great way to
drive your story forward. This conflict places a specific
time on a major event that the character is trying with all
their might to avoid or prevent. You must try to AVOID the
CLICHÉ of the ticking clock. Be creative. Remove all
clocks from your story and find another way to show the
audience time. Again if this is the central source of
conflict it must not be resolved until the LAST POSSIBLE
Man Vs. Himself
S This is a difficult source of conflict for our visual medium of film.
ALL of the conflict is internal, happening INSIDE the MIND of
the Protagonist them selves. THEY are the source of their
OWN CONFLICT! Any time conflict is presented to the
character it is because of something they did, said, or failed to
do. This conflict MUST be EXTERNALIZED and VISUALIZED
for the audience to SEE it. Everyone has self doubts, but this
conflict is much more than that. Megalomania, and other
mental disorders may be the cause. Phobias and other fears
may be the cause. Regardless ONLY the Protagonist can
OVERCOME the problem and resolve the conflict. If this is the
main source of the conflict in your story it must not be resolved
until it reaches the maximum height!
Man Vs. God
(or Cosmic Conflict)
S Like Man Vs. Himself this conflict appears to be INTERNAL.
God typically does not manifest in the Protagonists vision to be
confronted directly. The conflict comes from the fact that the
Protagonist is not in a peaceful relationship with their creator.
This unbalance in their life leads to disharmony and in in a
good story, chaos and disorder in all aspects of their lives. This
type of conflict may also be used when the character is dealing
with a force of unimaginable power. Like in many fantasy or
Horror films this force is unseen or uses clever disguises to
hide its presence from all but the protagonist causing chaos in
their lives. Again if this is the main cause of conflict in the story
it must not be resolved until it has reached its maximum height.
S The Antagonist in the story is really a tool used to VISUALIZE
conflict for the audience. Sometimes it is a character that is
actually causing the conflict, or a character that is antagonistic
because the Protagonist is out of balance with one or all of the
conflicts listed above. Whatever it is it should be used to
REVEAL THNGS ABOUT the protagonist. The Main job of the
Antagonist, and any supporting character for that matter, is to
get the Protagonist into a place or state of mind that they must
discover something about themselves. This ideally will also
force the audience to discover something about them selves as
they witness the unraveling of the tale. In some cases they are
the opposite of the Protagonist, a reflection of what they could
be like if they make the wrong choices. Or they represent a
faceless, uncaring, unstoppable thing that comes from the
deepest nightmares of the Protagonist’s mind. Whatever the
case, they must be INTERESTING.
S Every story needs twists and turns. As soon as the
Audience can PREDICT what happens next, they get
board. SIMPLE reversals can be just that, twists in the
plot and the direction of the story. However STORY is
also about EMOTION. A GOOD REVERSAL is one that
changes the EMOTIONAL Direction of the story as well.
Character’s and the audience’s MOOD changes as the
Protagonist goes through the emotional rollercoaster of
the story. Jubilation becomes humiliation, Anger
becomes deep passion, and so on, keeping the audience
entertained and thrilled through out the story.
S Barriers are just that, obstacles put in the Protagonists
way to prevent them from the FAST and EASY ROAD. If
the story can be resolved by calling the police, disconnect
the phone. If the monster can be stopped by running it
over, loose the car keys. What ever it is it should drive
the Protagonist to the hardest, most dangerous, least
likely to succeed option that they have been avoiding all
S The Complication is TYPICALLY TIED to the
PROTAGONIST. The Complication is some kind of
problem that ONLY the protagonist has and ONLY the
Protagonist can overcome. For example, fear of the
water, fear of heights, lacking a needed skill or anything
that might prevent them from solving their problems.
Complications are a great way to raise the stakes during
the Climax of the story and throughout the second act.
One of my favorite complications is John McClane’s lack
of Shoes in Die Hard.
The Mid Point Scene
S The Mid Point Scene is a crucial and important part in
any story. The Protagonist is thrown into a world that is
new and foreign and dangerous territory. The setting in
most cases literally changes. In Jaws Brody leaves the
island and is on the ocean for the rest of the film. The
Mid Point must also achieve these things; the stakes
must be raised HIGHER and the story must YET AGAIN
take the audience in a direction the DID NOT EXPECT.
Sometimes a new Helper Character is introduced to help
navigate the strange new world and reveal more about
Between the Mid Point and the
nd Turning Point
S Typically the second half of the 2nd Act is and ever
increasing path of danger. Each one worse than the
other, each close call closer and closer. The Protagonist
is being lead further and further out onto the branch as it
is slowly being cut behind them.
S Here again the story will utilize the Reversal, Barrier and
Complication to ratchet the conflict higher and higher until
the story reached the 2nd Turning Point.
S The Second Turning Point puts the Protagonist at the
point of NO RETURN. The Stakes are raised even higher
almost to the point of Climax and the Protagonist is
typically stripped of any helpers. All their friends are gone
or dead, their trusty weapon is out of reach and all they
have left is what they have not yet discovered inside
themselves. The story has yet again shifted in a direction
the audience DID NOT EXPECT and the Climax is
S All of the EMOTION and CONFLICT of the story have
been brought to the HIGHEST possible point. The climax
will lead to the RESOLUTION of the story and the conflict
will be OVER. The Climax should be a balance od
surprise and satisfaction for the audience, avoiding at all
cost the deus ex machina or god out of the machine.
The audience must never feel cheated! The Protagonist’s
success or failure must be wholly their own. This is where
they discover that thing deep down inside themselves
that they did not know was there and pull it out to face
their greatest challenge. Only this type of Climax is
worthy of a story. Then and only then can there be
S The resolution is the shortest part of the story, used only
to tie up loose ends or PAY OFF B Plot foreshadowing.
The audience is tired; the story is over, say what is only
necessary and fade to black.
Creating the Characters
Stories are ABOUT people even if the person is a talking dog. Stories are
used as lessons for life a sort of owner’s manual. The reason people get
into a story is mostly because of a character that is INTERESTING and
RELATABLE. You must have both. If the audience cannot RELATE to a
character they will not CARE when something happens to them.
Some characters are Archetypes based on millennia of characters real
and fictitious. But all characters should be human even if they are a talking
dog. The Audience MUST ALWAYS be in mind when creating a good
Protagonist or Antagonist. The story teller themselves MUST LOVE these
characters, care for them and ultimately be willing to do the most terrible
things imaginable to them for the sake of the story.
Think of all the memorable characters in your life, real or not and ask
yourself what makes them INTERESTING and RELATABLE. Once you
know that then you can go down the path of creating your own.
Plant and Payoff
S The Plant and Payoff is one of the most important tool in
story. It prevents the deus ex machina and it allows for
SUSPENSE to happen. Here is the HARD RULE, break
this one and your just flat out wrong.
S What ever is planted MUST be paid off. What ever is
Paid off MUST be planted. For example; if there is a
shotgun hanging over the fireplace, it MUST go OFF
before the story is over. Otherwise it is NOT needed!
Take it out!
S Suspense is NOT surprise. Surprise is a bomb suddenly going
off and then the audience has a few seconds of shock.
Suspense is different. Suspense is SHOWING the audience
that a bomb is about to go off in five minutes, then having the
Protagonist talk about Baseball. The audience is squirming in
their seats, as the bomb gets closer and closer to going off.
The Protagonist does nothing but continues with the pointless
discussion. The scene builds and builds until the audience is
literally yelling at the screen, “GET OUT OF THERE!” but the
Protagonist can not here them. Then BOOM!
S HOWEVER, NO ONE MUST GET HURT! If you actually hurt
the protagonist the audience will be VERY angry with you. You
must take them in a direction they did not suspect and it must
S A motif is a reoccurring image, rhythm or sound that
helps deepen and dimensionalize the premise of the
story. It could be music, or sounds from the setting or
even a prop that is used in various ways throughout the
B Plots / Characters
S B Plots or Subplots are used to REVEAL things about the
Protagonist that the audience would not be witness too in the Main
Plot. For instance, a B Plot may include a love interest for the
Protagonist. This allows the audience to see a side of the
character that they would not normally see while he confronts the
evil monster attacking the castle. B Plots also allow for
SUSPENSE. B Characters can be engaged on a separate
adventure and unleash even more obstacles in the Protagonists
path. B characters are more interesting if they are or seem to be
more powerful, experienced and wiser then the Protagonist. If the
strongest and the wisest people in the Protagonist world cannot
over come the obstacle, how is it possible for the Protagonist to do
S In essence these plots and characters should enhance the story
by STRICTLY sticking to the three rules of Storytelling; Orienting
the viewer, Advancing the Plot and Revealing