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Story

Okay, you’re almost there. So now what makes your idea a story? The easy answer: a beginning, middle and an end. Maybe these function as a premise, a conflict and a resolution. There are probably characters who exist in a certain time and place. From there, the story can take almost any shape, size or format. Some writers like to start from an outline of the main scenes and emotional arcs – you know, the famous cork board with index cards. Others prefer a more free flowing approach. But what makes a story good? That’s a little trickier. The debate started with Plato and Aristotle and, per the internet, still rages to this day. However, most everyone agrees that good stories come from people who are passionate and hardworking. Sure, maybe your favorite storytellers like to make it look like they don’t give a damn and conjured up their magic using only a bottle of whiskey and a notepad. But it’s not true. And without a story, your media project is at best a piece of video art…or at worst, simply a bad video.



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You’ve got the what, why and how. Obviously, that just leaves who, where and when. Who are the characters in the story? Where is your story set? And when does it take place? Again, maybe these seem like easy questions to answer. You don’t even have to answer them in this order. But taking a few things into consideration can make your life less difficult down the road.

TOPICS COVERED IN “WHO, WHERE, WHEN”:

  • CHARACTERS
  • SETTING
  • TIME PERIOD

So if you’re here, chances are you’re interested in storytelling through a visual medium. This means film, television or the web. Maybe you’ve heard of transmedia too, but think it’s just a term for trendy communications majors. Even if transmedia is a marketing buzzword, it’s also an opportunity to expand your story in ways you probably haven’t even considered.

TOPICS COVERED IN “MEDIUM”:

  • FILM
  • TELEVISION
  • WEB
  • TRANSMEDIA

Whether you’ve decided on film, TV or the web for your project, you probably will write something: a script, an outline, a treatment, character biographies or maybe just some notes for your extremely talented cast and crew. Here are your main options.

TOPICS COVERED IN “FORMAT”:

  • SCREENPLAY
  • OUTLINE VS. TREATMENT
  • IMPROV AND EXPERIMENTAL FORMATS

Well, if all you cared about was a simple message, you could just come out and say it in a few sentences. Obviously, you want to do more than that. So how does what you want to say relate to your story and its characters? The main conflict could, and probably should, relate to the themes you want to explore with your project. Maybe a character’s actions or quirks reflect the statement you’re trying to make. A story also allows you to examine issues from multiple perspectives.

TOPICS COVERED IN “THEMES”:

  • MAIN THEMES
  • SUB-THEMES
  • MOTIFS

By now, you’re probably well aware of the basic structure of any story to the point of nausea. Beginning, middle and end. Great, now one more time, repeat after me: beginning, middle and end. However, there are different ways to lay out these structural elements and move the story from the beginning to the end. As Jean-Luc Godard famously stated, “I agree that a film should have a beginning, a middle and an end, but not necessarily in that order.”

TOPICS COVERED IN “STRUCTURE”:

  • CHARACTER DRIVEN
  • PLOT DRIVEN
  • NON-LINEAR

Resources

Article

Fiction vs. Nonfiction

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Article

Stanley Kubrick: Thoughts on Narrative

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Star Wars Beat Sheet – Part One

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Writers on the Web: Interview with Amy Berg, TV Writer and Creator of “Caper”

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Ben Sinclair & Katja Blichfeld

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Interview with Creator of Hit Web Series Wallflowers

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Book

Adventures in the Screen Trade

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Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting

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More on Story

Once you’ve settled on what you’re going to say, the next step is figuring out how to tell your story. In the old days of media, this choice was pretty simple. You worked in film or you worked in TV, but either way you answered to guys in suits who smoked cigars. If you think your project is a studio feature or network series, then the path hasn’t changed all that much, except now the people giving you “notes” wear designer jeans and prefer vapes. However, there are options with fewer barriers to entry. Micro-budget features are one possibility. Is your story something that can be filmed on smartphone cameras at easily available locations? Online media also offers simpler production and distribution models. Maybe your project is a natural web series, broken down into short chapters that fit the webisode format. Or could you even revise your elaborate movie or television series to fit a web format? Every platform has its advantages and disadvantages, but for the storyteller, this means more opportunities.

This one might seem obvious. Either your story is true or it isn’t. However, the choice between fiction and non-fiction boils down to the way you tell your story. True stories can be adapted into fiction – think about all those bio-pics that flood movie theaters around Oscar season. Fictional stories can also present themselves as true, loosely drawn from actual events or through the use of documentary formats. Non-fiction stories can also feature fictional elements, such as reenactments, or even question the idea of truth itself. There are also the more practical questions of production. Say you’re fictionalizing a true story: do you have the life rights to all the individuals involved, not to mention permission from the persons who may have written on them? Even if you change the names to protect the innocent, this can still cause problems. If any part of your totally original idea resembles a copyrighted work, expect your project to spend some time in legal purgatory. Non-fiction stories generally have fewer costs, but that doesn’t always translate to less problems. Make yourself familiar with the ins and outs of fair use, copyright and clearance needs. Although your story may be completely true and honest, there are also still issues of libel and defamation when it rubs people the wrong way.

Can you tell your story in six seconds, or do you need two hours? Maybe your story requires even more than that – a three-part, six-hour limited series, 13 hour-long episodes or 24 half-hour shows spanning across multiples seasons, or a collage of web shorts, comic strips and social media pages that tie together across different platforms. Figuring out the length of your story will help you choose the right format. And even then, you may want to consider all your options. Maybe your 90-minute feature film would have more emotional impact as a 45-minute story broken into chapters. Traditional film and television had trouble with stories that didn’t conform to the standard lengths (generally 90-120 minutes for film, or 30-60 minutes over a number of pre-determined episodes for TV). However, the web has popularized short form content as a legitimate way to tell stories. So if that feature film idea doesn’t seem to sustain itself for 100 minutes, don’t necessarily think of it as a failure, but as a chance to experiment.

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