When a Story Isn’t a Story

This might seem surprising, but when it comes to stories, there’s a simple, yet common reason your screenplay / novel / short story / film / documentary ultimately fails — it wasn’t a story.

Don’t just take it from me. “Not a story” is number one on a list of filmmaking mistakes in this post at Raindance’s blog:

One of the most common failings with films submitted to the festival is that they lack structure; if there’s no story, people won’t watch it.

This is the same for documentaries; the best documentaries have a strong and engaging story with a beginning, middle and end.

That last line is key: stories always have a beginning, middle and end. You might be thinking, well, duh. But this isn’t as easy to accomplish as you might think. Even stories with the trappings of structure, stories that have actual beginnings, middles and ends, can mess themselves up if the person in control isn’t careful.

For example, I recently saw a new play in development that wasn’t nearly as good as it could’ve been because the writer sacrificed the story in favor of things writers tend to love, like back story (notice how we call it “back story,” and not “story” — that should be a tipoff that something is amiss). He’d bogged the narrative down with many soliloquies that were little more than extended character sketches and exposition. Rarely, if ever, did the speeches illuminate story events. The characters spent most of the time talking not just about events that happened off stage, but events that happened  in the past, out of story time. It was maddening. Every soliloquy stopped story in process, obscuring it under layers of cruft. Forty minutes in and I was still wondering when the actual story would start.

Not long before that, I saw yet another new play that suffered similar problems. There were no soliloquies, but the writer didn’t seem to know what was pushing the narrative through the story structure (hint: it’s always conflict). The result was  a story that never lived up to its potential, a story that never became a story but rather a series of loosely connected events culminating in a very bizarre ending. The thing is, if the writer had taken the time to figure out what was driving the story, she could’ve really pulled the all those disconnected scenes into something great. The bones were there, they just weren’t working together.

Here are some bits of advice to help make sure your story is a story, and not something else:

  1. Know where you’re going. At least, before you begin writing, have a general idea of what will happen to start the story (the beginning), how the characters will work toward resolving the problem introduced in the beginning (the middle), and how the problem introduced in the beginning and develops over the middle will be resolved (the end).
  2. Things like back story and exposition almost always do little more than serve the writer’s ego. You’ve done a lot of work on these characters and know everything about them, so you want the audience to know it too. But really — no one cares but you. If it doesn’t advance the plot, it’s hurting the story. If it doesn’t help us get closer to the end, we don’t need to know.
  3. The key is in conflict. It’s what drives the story from beginning to middle, from middle to end. If there’s no conflict, or conflict isn’t the primary purpose of each scene, you’ll have a much more difficult time pulling together any kind of structure at all.

For more on writing and storytelling, take a look at these posts.