It’s true that, when the chips are down, it’s the story that counts. Who doesn’t love a great story? People will forgive terrible writing, cardboard characters (only just), and leaden dialogue provided the tale that’s told is sensational. Just look at authors like Dan Brown and Jeffrey Archer. Their prose would trouble a teenager, their characters are leaden and clichéd. And yet their novels sell in the zillions. If your story is good enough, it trumps everything else.
Remember, it’s the story that counts.
When you see people coming out of the cinema, raving about having seen a great film, what are they saying? For instance, are they praising the great sets? The wonderful camera work? The wonderful costumes? No. I’m guessing it was the story they loved.
Take a look at this lively YouTube video from Cineflix.
Don’t watch this video if you’re worried about spoilers. It contains plot points and ‘twists in the tale’ from ten Hollywood movies. Even so, a story is a story, whether it’s a film or a novel.
I always think that watching (or writing) a story is like taking a journey. Along the way, we encounter various forks in the road where the writer has to make a decision. For example: what does the protagonist do when the gang members confront him? Does he walk away or does he fight? If he walks away, do they follow him? And so on.
I’ve often found inspiration when watching a movie or reading a book, wondering what would have happened if the writer had made another decision. What if The secret of great storytelling (well, one of them) is to take the most unexpected route you can think of. I’m pretty sure it was Elmore Leonard who said that.
Most people who finish a film or a novel will have enjoyed it – or not – based on what happens in the story. Surprise endings can turn a so-so tale into a blockbuster.
Great Story Techniques
Writing is never easy. The screenwriters who came up with the stories featured in the video are at the top of their game. It’s not just the twist that’s the stroke of genius. From the beginning of Act I to the climax of Act III, the entire story is symmetrical. But how did they do it?
When you come right down to it, keeping the basic story simple is a great way to start. A writer builds a frame onto which she can hang the ‘decorations’ that could make or break the story. Provided you know exactly what happens at the beginning and at the end, you can join up the dots. Like Elmore Leonard, bestselling author James Patterson tries to do the opposite of what is expected.
For example, the protagonist the arrival of a cop with a gun ‘saves’ the protagonist. But who is to say the cop is really there to help? Supposing he’s one of the bad guys, or maybe he thinks the bad guys are the good guys? That could be a lot more satisfying that just having a cop arrive with a gun and save the day.
Remember, in storytelling the unexpected is usually best.