Learning storytelling from the movies

I’m a big fan of movies — sci-fi, action-adventure, fantasy, rom-com, comedy — even the kids movies and series like Ice Age, and Toy Story. I have a decent sized blue-ray and DVD library and it’s fun to watch those great movies over and over again. But besides the entertainment value of movies, if you are a fiction writer there’s a lot you can learn from studying them in terms of storytelling techniques.

Of course, the movies are a different medium to writing fiction. But they are both about storytelling and evoking an emotional response in the reader/audience. That isn’t to say you shouldn’t read extensively and study the works of master wordsmiths. As a writer you need to perfect your writing skills. But if you’re going to study story, then there is no better place to start than the movies, and in particular the block-busters.

Just consider the amount of investment that goes into a movie these days ($50-$200 million), or into a franchise like Star Wars, Pirates of Caribbean or Indiana Jones that can be measured over time in billions. They have access to best script writers, directors, actors and legions of movie technicians. It’s not surprising movies that they are an ideal source for analysing quality storytelling.

The movie industry has also evolved a whole ‘science’ and language around story telling structure with different gurus professing their own different methodologies. The simplest methodology, the Three Act Structure, dates back to Plato. But there are also four, five and six act or stage structures, eight to twelve sequence structures, 21-24 hero goal sequences, Harmon’s Story Circle and of course the classic Hero’s Journey.

I’ve covered many of these structures in earlier blogs. They may sound complex, but there is a considerable amount of overlap between them, particularly around the major turning points of a story. The main differences are usually around emphasis.

Should you as a writer study these structures? That’s for you to decide. There are plenty of successful writers that don’t. But I find them fascinating. That’s just me.

Analysing movie stories is not difficult. All you need to do is break down a story into manageable narrative chunks and identify the main plot points. But if you are interested in taking it further it’s best to start with the simple Three Act structure.

The Three Act Structure breaks down the story into three simple stages:

  1. Act 1 is all about the ‘setup’ of the story. It shows the main character in his ordinary world and reveals something about their character. Act one also introduces the big problem or opportunity that the main character will have to face over the course of the story. This moment is the “call to action” (also called the inciting incident, catalyst, and disturbance). In Star Wars New Hope it is when Luke and Obi Wan gets the message from Leia, “Help me Obi Wan…” Act 1 usually ends with a major turning point – an event that will drive the main character into action. In Star Wars New Hope, it was when Luke returns home to find his aunt and uncle slaughtered. At that point he has no choice but to follow Obi Wan to take the R2D2 and plans for the Death Star to the rebels.
  2. Act 2 is all about ‘conflict’ and ‘tension’. It’s where the guts of the story lie. It starts with confrontation and escalates over the course of the act to reach a crisis point at the end of the act– the second major turning point. There is also often a major ‘reveal’ at the Mid Point. In Luke’s case, it was when he discovers that Princess Leia is scheduled for termination. Now he has a new goal to rescue her.
  3. Act 3 is all about the desperate fight back to the final climax and resolution of the story. In Star Wars New Hope the climax is obvious — Luke relies on the force to target and destroy the Death Star.

But movies illustrate a lot more than just a series of plot points. They reveal a universal story pattern: the hero/heroine wants something badly and pursues a goal, problems escalate to a crisis point. From there the hero must choose to give up or carry on. And a new energy drives our hero on until he/she eventually reaches a climax and resolution. In the process the hero/heroine learns something important about themselves. Most stories, except tragedies, follow this kind of pattern.

The question to ask, however, is not so much ‘what happens’ in the movie, but ‘how does the movie make the audience invest so much emotion into the hero’s/heroine’s quest’. And that is the real magic of movies, and the lesson we can learn about storytelling.

It comes down to a number of elements:

  • A hero/heroine that we can empathise with. They don’t have to be ‘nice’. In fact, many heroes and heroines are deeply flawed, but that makes them more human and relatable.
  • High stakes. The story should be about something important — life or death in a real or figurative sense. No one wants to hear about a story that doesn’t matter to the hero/heroine.
  • Tension. Stories are about our emotional hopes and fears for the main character. Will they get what they desire? Each story key moment should be potentially fateful, or at least that is what we should be led to believe. Hitchcock was a master of suspense and tension and would tease his audience with false expectations. Many thrillers have a tension filled scene where the hero is at the “mercy of the villain”. But it’s not just thrillers that use tension. All movies manipulate tension. For example, in a love story one of the lovers may walk away believing their partner has betrayed them where they have not. The tension is created by misbeliefs or sometimes the deceit of others. There are many ways to create tension the most obvious one being for other characters to frustrate the goals of the main character. It’s basically what drama is all about.
  • An emotionally satisfying, but unpredictable ending. It’s hard to have an ending that is totally unpredictable and emotionally satisfying, but if some element of the ending is unpredictable then it is more likely to work and meet the needs of the audience.

Besides these elements there are other less obvious techniques we can lean from the movies. It may take seven or more hours to read a book, but most movies other than the block buster epics are timed for 110-120 minutes. In terms of the screenplay that would be 110-120 pages (broadly a page a minute). This means there is no room for superfluous fluff. Every minute and every second counts and any action that doesn’t further the plot or reveal character will end up on the cutting room floor. There are two techniques that movies use:

  • Jumping forward in time. For example, in a detective movie you may find the detective finds a clue, and next the movie cuts to the villain’s lair with the detectives breaking down the door. Or the hero may be travelling from New York to Rome. We see a plane taking off, and next the hero is in bar in Rome. As you can see the boring travel bit is simply cut out.
  • Cutting dialogue to a bare minimum. Good script writers are masters of dialogue. As writers we can learn from studying their technique.

So as writer, do you simply sit back and enjoy the emotional journey a movie brings, or do you think, that was clever how did the movie evoke that emotional response? I confess I sometimes look at my watch when I identify a major turning point. And guess what? The first turning point is about broadly 25% through the movie, the mid point is (yes you guessed it) roughly 50% through the movie, and the end of Act 2 is roughly at the 75% point. As novelist’s we don’t need to follow the same pattern. But the movies are successful for a reason — they follow a universal pattern that maybe ingrained into our human DNA. If our story isn’t working, one cause might be because we have ignored that universal pattern. Then again it might not be working for a host of other reasons. As a writer, do you enjoy analysing movie stories or do you simply sit back and enjoy them?

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