Sustaining a Story Idea: Part 1
So one night at a Barnes & Noble I leafed through this Will Eisner paperback. You know, Eisner, the guy who helped define sequential narrative. In a single page he had this awfully simple definition of storytelling, illustrated in little dialog bubbles. It went like this:
Caveman: Tell me...Ol' Storyteller, where do stories come from?
Storyteller: Well, have you got something you want to tell someone?
Caveman: Yeah...a couple of things I'd like to tell. But, how?
Storyteller: Well, now...decide if you want to tell it as a joke or an adventure story. Invent a problem to illustrate the point!
Storyteller: Next you solve the problem, which will give you the ending. That, m'boy, is storytelling!
This is what storytelling is, plain and true. I'm no authority to give vindication; but Eisner's telling is so straight-as-an-arrow, it penetrates pretension and arrives at some kind of holistic truth. A story is a problem. The ending is the solution. Got it? In the abstract, even an unsolved, downbeat ending is a solution in the requirements of the story, if not the dilemma. The bad guy gets away and the bomb goes off, but the story still ends.
If you dislike your story idea, you either have a problem nobody cares about, or you haven't the foggiest of how to fix it.
This is about writing, of any kind. Not just screenplay.
Some of you may be nodding your heads, "Of course that's what a story is!" But we all need to be reminded. The disease called Writer's Block is a cancer of thought: the story, when left unchecked, gorges itself into a tumor. Writers have the bad habit of treating their ideas as reflections of their expectations: they focus so anally on what their their story should be, that they don't allow their stories to simply be. The best ideas arrive naturally; as natural, perhaps, as the inclination to solve a nagging problem. Call it the two o'clock revelation. Call it the ego. Or, as Stephen King calls it, call it Pow! Pow is what happens when two polarized ideas collide to form one super magnet of a story. POW! Just like that. One idea is the neutron, the other is the charge. One is the vinegar, the other is the baking soda. Got it? The best way to go about this formula is to use ideas that contradict. They naturally incite conflict, which naturally makes the writer become Mr. Fix-It, and viola! You got your ending. Pow!
Lets take a step back. When is an idea not a story? Well, when it lacks a defining or unifying action. Some people confuse descriptions for stories. "My story is about a blind guy who lives alone." Interesting. But that, sir, is not a story. No doubt it could make a cool skit or an experimental character study; but a story for the sake of beginning-middle-and-end it surly is not.
A story is what happens. Don't worry about how it happens. That's plot. The first ingredient of a story, or at least an idea of a story, is what happens. Call it the problem, the inciting incident, whatever you like. Something just needs to happen that affects the outcome of the story, even if you have yet to arrive at the outcome. The thing that happens will interfere or impede directly with what the protagonist wants or needs to achieve. Discern the difference between an unclear background action (protagonist sees a car accident...perhaps has direct relevance to the story) and a foreground action (protagonist causes the accident...incites the story without a doubt).
Little tweaks in the thinking process, like the one in the above paragraph, can help to overcome writer's block. It may sound like redundant tripe, riddled with clichés, but this isn't in the interest of Hollywood formula. It's human nature. What may seem like a cliché can in fact turn out to be plain common sense. Just remember, a story is a problem.
More on this in the later posts.
The above video is nothing but problem (Sean needs help with a story). That's because it's split into three parts; this is essentially the first act, and so there's really nothing but exposition. The next episode will move it into the second act, which is solving the problem (Peter acts as mentor). It will touch a lot more on sustaining a story idea. And the third episode will simply tie everything up nice and neat (Sean discovers what he wanted).
And to anyone concerned, this is the format for part of the episodes from now on. This one's a little wobbly, like a newborn fawn trying not to fall. There will be more elaborate ones like this, which liberally touch on abstract ideas, alongside the more directly informational types. We wanna spice it up a little.