ONCE UPON A DREAM
Guidelines for creating a good story in movies
Abstract:Storytelling is something we know since our childhood. Nowadays we are accompanied by stories in our daily life without noticing them. Stories are in movies, in advertisements or in brands. But very often we do not realize that a story is there. I focus on two research questions: 1) how to create a good story and 2) does a perfect story really exist? I explored the questions in the context of storytelling in movies and short animation clips, and identified typical stories from which I summarized guidelines for storytelling. These guidelines can help people write their own stories.
Storytelling is everywhere. Teachers use stories to teach their students something new. Companies use it to make customers buy, comedians to make the audience laugh and politicians to assure humans. (Improvement Pill, 2017) A story can entertain the viewer, make their life more comfortable or a little bit funny. Humans can not avoid stories, they are everywhere and enrich the daily life. But storytelling is more then telling a story, it is the process of an idea and how to bring this little idea to live. To write a good story is difficult and needs a lot of training.
- What is storytelling?
Storytelling is the activity of sharing a story with other people. Furthermore, it is not only to share the story, it is also to create the story. It is the act of creating something special from an idea. To build the characters and the whole setting just from one flash of brain. Storytelling is a skill every human can learn, and has to learn like other skills too. Very often people underestimate the power of a good story. They forget that a good story can make us buy things or help to forget our own problems. A good story can make us laugh or cry. It gives us emotions and the feeling that we need to know more about this world.
„Storytelling is the basis for almost everything in our society, and the way we interact, build, communicate, live and dream all derives from it.“ (Westenberg, 2017)
1.2 Perception of stories
We are all humans and as a human we all have a different kind of perception. The author can not tell you which genre you have to like and vice versa. The storyteller cannot force the audience to like the story. But the author can follow some rules which make storytelling a little bit easier.
In a few words, when the storytelling is good the viewer will identify with the story. But how is it possible that the viewer identifies with the story? First of all good stories are simple. Even if the story does not seem simple on the surface, it is. For example, take Disney’s movie „The Lion King“ It is about a little boy who lost his father in the childhood and has to grow-up by himself. A simple story that looks like much more.
How does a story affect life? Most people look at stories as fiction. But stories are more then just fiction. Stories can pass on facts and it always depends on how the writer actually uses it. But in most cases stories are created to entertain people. To make them love or cry. To scare people or to show them their deepest wishes. A good storyteller can entertain the audience and tell the truth at the same time. Storytelling can be used to give some information about a topic or to think in a critical way wrapped in a fictional world. Storytelling is a small rate between truth and fiction. (McKee, 2010)
1.3 The beginning, the plot and the end
Dramaturgy is one of the most important aspects of storytelling. Without it a story is not a real story. It helps the audience to follow along. Without dramaturgy the structure is missing and the viewer might have problems to understand the message and follow the story. To make it easier for the audience to understand the story it is important that the events are linear. Of course a story can have exceptions like flashbacks but it is important to just use things like these when it’s really necessary and makes sense. Otherwise it might be very difficult for the audience to follow the dramaturgy and they might lose interest.The story needs a structure. There are a lot of different ways, how the author can structure the story and there are much more ways to break these rules of structure. But to put it in a nutshell we have a beginning, a plot and an end.
„Start with a person and his challenge, and intensify humans interest by adding descriptions of time, place and people with their emotions.“ (Lavenda, 2013)
The beginning, also known as exposition is to give the audience background information about the characters and the settings. So the main characters get introduced at the first few scenes. It depends on the author how he or she will introduce the characters. The easiest way is to show the character in their typical surroundings. This could be for example their workplace, school or home.It is important that this part is not too long, otherwise the story loses their tension. In jargon there is one phrase to describe this – better kiss then kill. Kiss is the acronym for „keep it short and simple“ and kill for „keep it long and lengthy“. This means, a good storyteller makes the background relabel in a few sequences.
„If you can tell something in ten seconds, don’t use a minute. If you can tell something in 5 seconds, don’t use ten.“ (Olivares, 2016)
The next step is the inciting action. This means that the story is put into motion or in other words – something is happening. Until now it has been just background information. But now the entire plot starts to evolve. It is time for the rising action. It is this part of the story where the audience should know that something is happening but still has no idea what that could be. This is the event that leads up to the midpoint.Generally we can say, that „each scene should push the story forward.“ (Ackermann, 2018) This means that the main characters should have a motivation or conflict to focus on.
The conflict should be more then just a misunderstanding. The conflict has to be important for the character, something which they really want and have a favour for. Or something which seems impossible to reach. Because the character needs motivation to work for the conflict.There are two different kinds of conflict. The internal, meaning the protagonist did something to get into the conflict, and the external, in this case the problem comes from outside. (Older, 1018)
The climax is the most intense and exciting point of the story and of course very important. It is the turning point of the story. It is this event that changes the conflict into a resolution. So it creates a change in the character and this change is necessary for the whole story. Otherwise the main character does not change their point of view and without changing the mind there is no resolution for the conflict.From the climax the character will come to the falling action. This means that the character successfully changed and the event to lead the resolution can begin. It is that part of a movie where the audience recognizes that the story is near an end.
The last point is the real resolution. It is when all loose ends are tied up, so it is the calm after the storm. Everything happened what had to happen and in the best way the character has changed so that there is nothing between the character and the wonderful happy end. (Clair, 2017)
1.4 The Point
A story has a point. It does not matter if it is a lesson or something else. Important is, that the story has a point. Something the audience can take from the story. The easiest way to transmit this point is to let the character tell the story. (Simon, 2009) The key to a good point is to start the story easy. It is always possible to add more and more details to the story but if the story is too long or too complicated it is very hard to delete the right details so that it still has the same point and makes sense.
A story is driven by the personality of the protagonist. So it is necessary to give the protagonist feelings and real emotions. […] The character should be more then just a good or bad person. They should have some background and talents and real emotions. A good character surprises the audience and is human. (Screenwriting, 2018) To be human means to have emotions. Emotions are like breathing, it is something normal for us to have and so should it be with the feelings of the characters as well.
To summarize this, a good story is emotional and the audience has to feel the emotion. (Textbroker, 2018) With a good story the author gives the audience something to remember and to repeat to others. To make people think is the key to success. With the emotion the story stands or falls. To give the story the right emotion is very important because the audience will have the emotion the author will give them. (Giermaier, 2018)
„A story describes what happened. A good story helps you to see what happened. And a great story helps you to feel what happened.“ (Davis, 2018)
1.6 Why is storytelling important?
The human brain works with reactions not with facts. This means that it is easier for a person to remember feelings then complicated facts. A good storyteller can work with these reactions and feelings. (Ljubic, 2015) Storytelling is not only important in movies or short-clips. It is also an important skill for communication design or selling a brand. Because emotions make humans buy and breeds a familiarity contempt to a brand. In movies good stories are easy to remember. A human can remember the emotion they got while watching a film. But if there was nothing, it was not a good story for the audience and the movie will instantly be forgotten. So a good story activates the audience to think about the story. It is necessary to make them interested, that they want to know more about the topic. (Textbroker, 2018)
„Tell Stories to get people’s attention, to involve them emotionally and help them remember the content you’re trying to convey.“ (Davis, 2018)
There are many different kinds of stories and also different definitions of genres. To understand how a genre works is important to understand why it is necessary to have a genre. The answer of this question is so simple that many storyteller forget it quite often. One of the main secrets of a good storyteller is that they know their audience. Without knowing the audience it is not possible to write the story for the right person. To write the story for the wrong person means that the audience is not interested in this topic and will be bored, which means that the audience remembers the film as a poor movie. And no storyteller wants this. But it is also important for the storyteller to know what type of movie they will write because knowing the genre means that the author know in which way the story could end, what the main massage could be etc.. (Snyder, 2005)
2.1 Short Stories
Especially for short-stories storytelling is an important topic. In this chapter a short overview about the main genres in short-stories as teached in a workshop by Prof. Thomas Grünert, a teacher from the Mediadesign Hochschule in Munich, is given. The types of genres are summarized in Table 1.
Table 1 Genres
|The Sketch||· The story is mostly about a normal situation or conflict with an absurd way to find a solution.|
|The Illustration||· This kind of genre is used to show a poem or a musical text in a visual way.|
|On the Crossroad||· In stories like this the audience can see the main character, who has to make a great decision.|
|The unexpected adventure||· An ordinary daily life will transform in an extreme adventure.|
|The Parable||· This kind of story is used to teach someone and to transmit information or feelings. The main character is often a metaphor for something.|
A mind-map is a good way to get a short overview about any topic. Just write down what you think is important. It is to grapple with the topic and in the best way to find new ways-of-thinking and get better results.
Figure 1 is an example for a mind-map. In the middle is the question or in this case the two main questions. It could be any topic which is important for the essay. The next step is to find a “solution” or better say, to write everything down. It is not important how useful this keywords are because the reason of a mind-map is to see the opportunities and to understand the topic better.
Doing the right research is important and to make a lot of notes makes this work easier. Of course the storyteller should use their own fantasy but a few real facts are anyway needed to make the story human and relatable. Generally is recommended not only to use internet references, also books are a good reference and very often they are more trustful. So if the author has the possibility to read books about a topic which might be interesting for the story, they should do it. If not, an internet reference is better then nothing. But in this case the author should be careful and use just trustful ones.
This is the same way the research for this paper was made. The First steps were to made some notes and thinking about, what is important for the paper. Second to read a lot of books, articles and blogs to get the answers to the main questions. To categorize the outcomes during the research and also to some it up makes it easier to write the paper later.
Also a good point is to start with something knowing. Because on the one hand, it is easier for the author and on the other hand, how should a person be able to write something which they do not know? As told, it is important to know the own story and the audience. If the author knows the audience they can work with shared experiences to capture them. Because an audience will see something which they know as well. (Chan, 2013) And how to know as much as possible? Right, with doing a lot of research.
2.3 Movie Analysis
After a long time of research I made my own guidelines for the movie analysis. These guidelines are no rules they are just a few important questions to find out if a movie is good or not. As explained earlier a good movie does not mean, that it corresponds the personal taste, it just means, that the movie has a lot of the main important aspects.
Learning from other movies is very important. But the effect of learning is better if the person knows a lot about storytelling and can analyse the movies properly. The analysis is specialized on short animation movies, which everyone can find on the internet.
To test the movie analysis a survey with a few test participants was made. From the 15 people, five are from the movie branch, so they have the same background knowledge and the other ten were random people who like to go to the cinema and watch movies. The research yielded that for 12 of 15 people (80 %) it was very easy to find out which one was a good example for storytelling and which one was not. Every test taker got the same movie analysis paper, as you can see in figure 2 and the same movie. But this does not mean that the principles can be used like a sample because for this more studies are necessary. So the movie analysis with the participants is not finished yet.The most difficult question for the test takers was, as suspected, question number two. Because sometimes the people do not know what a climax is and how to use it correctly.
During the research time one thing was repeated mostly, the audience needs to be entertained very quickly. If the beginning scene is not a good one, the movie will be not very interesting. The whole story is standing or falling with the first scenes of the movie. So it is needed to invest a lot of time in these and also take feedback from other people about the first few scenes.
Another thing is that everybody is talking about emotion and that it is necessary to make the protagonist likeable for the audience. It is very important to give the character a personality and to avoid stereotypes. The audience should have the feeling to be emotionally involved in the story and without a different kind of emotion this is not possible because otherwise the story does not feel real. So it is also fundamental to surprise the audience otherwise the story will get boring. And how can a storyteller do this? There is just one – to know the audience is the key. A story can be as good as it is possible but if it is for the wrong audience it is no more a good story because nobody will want to watch it.
3.1 Movie Analysis Results
While watching movies, making some notes is a good way to learn from them. The author should ask himself, what inspires them in other movies. It is helpful to write down what other people said, so that they can remember it in a few weeks too. And it is also important to test some ideas out. The storyteller really need to understand the own story because there should be no open questions. (Ahrens, 2013) Because of this fact it is very important to analyse a lot of movies and to watch them carefully otherwise it is not as easy to remember some inspirations or dislikes and it becomes harder to make it better.
One example for short-story-clips will be given to clarify this point.
“Runaway” – by Susan Yung, Emily Buchanan & Esther Parobek
The short story can be found on Youtube (https://www.youtube.com/
watch?v=P7k2MkVYLDE). The story is about an old fridge which has a problem with his door – the door will not close anymore. I do not want to spoil the clip so I do not say more about the story and come to the result of my analysis.
Table 2 Moive-Analysis
|Beginning | Plot | End||· The story started with the introduction of the setting and the main characters.
· Plot (also change) is this point where the fridge runs away.
· The solution (When they come back together) is the end.
|Up’s and Down’s||· Both main characters have their up’s and down’s. First down is for the fridge, when he saw the prospect with the new one and from the owner when he saw that the fried runs away. Up is for both the happy end.|
|Background information||· Background information is given in the beginning. The relation between the main characters is shown and also the place, where the story plays.|
|Genre||· The Sketch|
|Unique||· The happy relationship between the main characters
· Funny story idea
|Massage?||· That not only a person can be important for a human. Also necessary things like a fridge are important for us. Furthermore it is a massage that it is not always needful to something new, when you can repair it.|
To clarify the movie-analysis in this part the Table 2 will be described in more details.
First the storyteller started with the introduction of the main characters (the fridge and the owner) and the setting. In a few seconds the audience can see how important the fridge for the owner is and see the relationship between them. Furthermore the story is a good example for the „no language“ chapter, because the story works without a voice, just a few sound effects and music.In a funny way the author shows us how bad the feeling is to not have place in once life. They play with the feeling, that nearly every human knows – how it is to feel dispensable. So they made the fridge likeable and work with the emotions of the audience.There is a beginning with a good introduction, in the middle we have the change (the fridge runs away) and at the end we have a solution and a happy end. This example shows that it is possible to write a good story, with a clear structure and character introduction even if the movie just lasts for a few minutes.The special, or better say unique thing in this story is the relationship between the person and the fridge. It shows that not only humans can be important for a someone. Also some material things which we really need in our life, like the fridge – a new fridge would be expensive and it is not necessary to put everything away just because it is broken. The main massage is about friendship and loyalty but as well as a critic about the throwaway society we live in.
Existing literature focuses mainly on traditional short-movies which are associated with the storytelling that were described in this paper. While this part is crucial to a guide for storytelling it also has limitations. Especially within the existing literature. Because the storyteller of today faces completely new challenges. With new forms or expression like Instagram (short-movies with a maximum of 10 or 50 seconds) or YouTube and Vimeo coming up and gaining more and more importance in our society. Each and everyone is forced to explore on their own how to tell a good and convincing story with those limitations. There is only little to almost no existing literature for this field. Generally speaking, good guidelines for storytelling apply also to these everchanging forms of new short-movies but there can be limitations. Therefore the contemporary storyteller needs to alter the guidelines for their own use and pick what they find relevant for their main of use. Although there is still a lot open my guidelines are a good base for ever storyteller.
There are plenty of principles for a good story. This paper only focuesd on a few of them. During the paper the audience got an overview about this topic and the main rules of storytelling. Some of these guidelines will help to create a good story but there is still one question open: Does a perfect story really exist?
The answer might be yes and no. If a storyteller follows all the principles it is possible to wirte a really good story but a good story does not mean that the story is perfect. It depends on the eye of the audience if the story is perfect or not. And every human have a different taste, what might be a perfect story for one person can be a bad one for the other person.
So yes, a perfect story can exist but not for everyone. Like explained, it depends on the audience and it is easier to wirte a good story then a perfect one. Because a perfect story means that everything is good in the story, that nothing is foreseeable and this for everyone in this world.
A perfect story is more then just follwing a few principles, it is to create something new, something unique and then to have the luck that it is perfect, for one person or more. But this means that there is nothing wrong with the story.
I really would like to thank my test takers for their help. Especially because they did not have a lot of time to make my analysis and did this very impulsive. So thank you for the good job. Another thank goes to my anonymous background help who watched all the movies with me and motivated me to obey my own principles.
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