Filmmaking: The Elements of Writing that Make a Story Great
By: Domonique Cox-Salberg
We live in a time where anyone has the opportunity to make a movie. Our fortune comes from the increase in sophisticated technological advancements, accessibility, and affordable equipment more than ever before. However, just because we can do something does not mean its going to be a guaranteed success. Cool or trendy equipment will not promise a compelling story that will be remembered for decades to come, or even make an impact now: Well-written stories do. Thus, for filmmakers to tell great stories, here is an illuminating article showing the foundations of a captivating story and how creators can unlock their unique perspectives in the most effective way possible.
Quick jump to the following sections:
- Identify the Essence & Most Inspiring Element
- Crafting Your Characters World
- Story & Plot
- Drama & Conflict
- Subtext & Context
The Art of Great Storytelling
Unlike the technicality of filmmaking that is ever-changing to where we can now tell more complex visual stories, good storytelling, on the other hand, will always remain the same. Collectively audiences can agree on this basic fact: people want to attend a movie and be rewarded with a compelling story and authentic characters who make them feel something.
Identify the Essence & Most Inspiring Element
Therefore, wherever a good idea comes from it has to be developed for it to become great. Most people would agree that the movies they enjoy tend to be exciting, well-paced, and complex. Distinct from the first two traits, complexity is the only one driven by story ideas and the others, execution. The interesting thing about this magic trio in storytelling is that viewers will mistake a complex story for being a good one but not the others. When in reality its not the complexity of the story but rather strong simple goals with characters that may be complex. That is what we really love, dynamic personalities. Writers can accomplish this by finding the strongest story goals and the right characters to pursue those goals and explore those ideas. So whatever your idea might be, writers should ask themselves a series of questions to fully flesh out their story.
What do you want to tell a story about, and what is the essence of that idea? How someone gets there is up to them depending on their process. What element of your idea really moves you and excites you? Is there a particular scene in your mind where the sounds, smell, or taste bring you a vivid feeling of joy or sadness that you just have to write about? If so, then that is what you should focus on developing. If the idea began as an image or event, where would the scene take place in the film, and what would come before or after it?
Is the story formed around an issue, and how will your character’s journey illuminate that issue? Are there any challenges that come with your story? Do you risk alienating your audience because of how your character highlights a point of view, and are their logistical challenges that come with it? What initiates our character journey? A great way to find out is by putting our protagonist through the worst scenario possible and basing them on their internal struggle.
Crafting Your Characters World
What is the world like that your character inhabits? Is it fantasy, sci-fi, or in the past or present, and what are the rules of existence for the character? Or the world’s setting and culture, and the primary events that are to occur? What wound does the hero need to heal to be successful, and from that, what kind of transformation will they experience? Any moral challenges they face in the beginning and the end? After these questions are answered and developed, there will be a deeper understanding of who the lead is and their motivation and goals. Therefore, the conflicts and actions reveal a possible plotline, while the leads revelations and changes give us the theme, emotional foundation, and story direction. If your answer to these questions is ambiguous or vague, keep working at it.
Story & Plot
Once you have successfully and confidently developed what makes your character complex, what drives them, and how they got there, story and plot need to be worked out. Story is everything that will contribute to building the narrative composition: story structure, characters, subtext dialogue, and plot, among other aspects. As for plot, it is what the story is about and the events the characters journey through.
However, when it comes to plot, there is one thing writers should avoid doing that has become popular in modern films: being all plot and low on character, turning into a shallow film. For a film to have the potential to be great, the creator must understand how vital plot is to story and how plot and character go hand-in-hand. Just as motivation and subtext are treated with care and respect, the plot should be the same. What creators can do to fix this plot dilemma is to view the plot as the result of your characters’ motivations, decisions, and actions. Do this, and the plot will have a better chance at moving “organically” forward based on realistic motivations.
Drama & Conflict
The very heart of any interesting, exciting story: Drama and conflict. No conflict, no drama! When its done right, characters will be in confrontation with each other as a result of different objectives. When these opposites clash, the audience experience is their conflict, drawing them into the story. Familiar sources of conflict we are used to seeing are; man vs. man/himself/nature/society/supernatural/technology/destiny/God.
Subtext & Context
The subtext is the underlying core themes and emotional foundations of a story. Never overly expressed, subtext can be implied in the text through the suggestion of technical and artistic choices. Components of context can be used to express subtext, but also, never overtly. Context is what covers the who, what, where, when, and how within a story. When both are done well, stories can be rich, thrilling, and nothing short of captivating.