I recently caused a minor fracas by suggesting that screenwriters aren’t “writers,” per se, but rather “storytellers,” and that if you want to become a successful screenwriter, your focus should be on telling stories rather than writing. I’m afraid that some of you took me a little too literally and assumed I meant that there’s no actual “writing” involved in screenwriting.
Writing is, of course, an essential part of telling any story on the page. If I write, “Jason, bloodied and wheezing, stumbles through the airplane wreckage, blinded by the smoke,” that’s a hell of a lot more descriptive and exciting than “Jason walks through what remains of the airplane.” To that end, writing is essential. It’s our job to pull a reader into our universe, and how we weave words together to create images and moments is a large part of what makes that process successful.
However, here’s the rub. Unless you’ve created an interesting enough situation to write about in the first place, it won’t matter how well you’ve described that moment, because we’re already bored. And that’s what I mean by “storytelling.” One must create a series of compelling dramatic situations that pull a reader in for the writing itself to matter.
So to help clarify this, here is how I define writing and storytelling and how they relate to screenwriting. Because this is my own theory, I’m not saying these are universal definitions, only definitions to help explain the points I’m making in the article.
Writing – When I refer to “writing,” I mean the way in which everything in the story is described, the way in which the picture is painted. While important, you can give me the greatest description ever of a character, the greatest description ever of that character’s house, the greatest description ever of the way he goes about his nightly routine, and the greatest description ever of a car chase he gets into later…and I can still be bored out of my mind because you haven’t preceded any of these things with a story I care about.
Storytelling – “Storytelling,” on the other hand, is the inclusion of goals and mysteries that create enough conflict, drama, and suspense to pull an audience in and make them care about what they’re watching. For example, that immaculately described car chase above is boring unless, say, the character driving has 10 minutes left to get across town and save his daughter, with the cops, the mob, and the government trying to stop him.
So how does one “tell a story?” What’s the secret to storytelling? Well, I feel storytelling can be broken down into a couple of simple components. The first is G.O.C. (Goals, obstacles and conflict). In most stories, you have a character goal – a hero who’s trying to achieve something. In order to make their pursuit interesting, you must throw obstacles at them, things that get in the way of them achieving their goal. Naturally, because obstacles prevent our hero from doing what he wants, conflict emerges, and conflict is what leads to entertainment, since it’s always interesting to see how the conflict will be resolved. If a character wants something and gets it without having to work for it, there’s a good chance your story (or at least that part of your story) is boring. John McClane’s goal is to save his wife, but the terrorists in the building provide obstacles to doing so, which creates conflict.
The other major component of storytelling is mystery. If you don’t start with a character who has a goal, you should be working to create a mystery. “Lost” built an entire show around this. From the “Others” to the “Hatch” to the “numbers entry.” We kept watching that show because we wanted answers to those mysteries. Note, however, that mysteries always eventually lead to character goals, since sooner or later a character will be tasked with figuring out that mystery (their goal). “The Ring” is a good example. A mystery is created with this video tape which kills people in 7 days. Naomi Watts’ character, then, has the goal of finding out the origins of the tape, and seeing if she can stop it from killing people.
A writer’s mastery of these two components, the goal and the mystery, are often what defines him/her as a good storyteller and determines whether their screenplays will be any good.
What I often run into on the amateur level is the opposite. I read tons of scripts where writers put all their efforts into immaculately describing their worlds, their characters, their scenes, and everything involved in painting the picture for the reader, but without any conflict or drama or suspense. It’s the kind of stuff that makes you go, “This person is a great writer!!” But in the end, there’s no immediate goal, there’s no compelling mystery. So it’s just boring shit happening. Really well described boring shit happening, but boring shit happening nonetheless. I know a lot of writers send their scripts out and get this recurring note back: “We loved the writing but the script wasn’t for us.” It confuses the hell out of the writer. “If the writing is great,” they ask, “Why the hell wouldn’t the script be for them??” It’s because your story is boring as hell! There’s not enough storytelling!
What you must do to prevent this is make sure you’re storytelling on three different levels: on the concept level, the sequence level, and the scene level. What I mean by this is that your overall concept must have a story built into it, each sequence in your script must have a story built into it, and your scenes themselves must have stories built into them. The second you’re not telling a story on one of these three levels, you’re just writing. You’re describing shit or recounting shit or laying out shit. You’re not storytelling. Let’s take a closer look at these three levels using the film, “Aliens,” as an example.
CONCEPT LEVEL – The concept of Aliens has a great story behind it. There’s a mystery: A remote base on a faraway planet has gone silent and they suspect that there may be aliens involved. This mystery leads to a goal. Ripley and a team of Marines must go in and figure out what’s happened, possibly having to wipe out the aliens. An intriguing setup for a story.
SEQUENCE LEVEL – Having a strong overall story concept is great, but you need to find a way to keep that concept interesting for 120 pages. If the characters in Aliens just go in and kill the aliens, your story is over within 30 pages. This is where sequences come in – 10-20 page chunks that have their own little stories going on. These sequences are going to have their own goals and their own mysteries. In other words, you must be telling stories within these 15 page segments. For example, the first goal is to get into the base and find out what happened. They get in there, find out everyone’s gone, and discover some traces of a battle. In the next sequence, the aliens attack, and the goal is for Ripley to get to the soldiers and save them. The next sequence introduces a new goal – figure out what to do about this. They decide to go back up to the ship and nuke the place. Except when the ship comes down to get them, it’s sabotaged by the aliens, leaving them there. — The point to remember is: with each sequence, introduce new goals and new mysteries to keep the story entertaining. If you’re not doing that, you’re just writing.
SCENE LEVEL – Storytelling at the scene level is where I can tell whether I’m dealing with a pro or an amateur. Good writers work to make every scene have some sort of mystery or goal driving it. There’s a situation that needs to be resolved by the end of the scene, and the scene isn’t over until that happens. Again, we’re talking about the same tools here. Goals and mysteries. The goal could be as simple as “making sure the area is secure,” which is what the Marines’ initial job is when they go into the base. Or the mystery can be as simple as “what happened here?” which is what drives the following scene – the characters trying to put the pieces of what happened together through the clues they find.
Each of these levels of your screenplay should be telling compelling stories or we’re going to get bored. I run into really interesting story concepts all the time that turn into boring screenplays because the writer doesn’t know how to tell stories on the sequence or scene level. It’s like they figure, “I came up with a cool idea for the movie. I’m finished.” NO! You have to come up with a cool idea for every sequence! Every scene! Think of each of those as MINI-MOVIES, all of which have to be just as compelling as the overall idea. Because I’ll tell you this: if you write three boring scenes in a row in a screenplay, you’re done! The reader’s officially given up on you. Try to tell a story every time you walk into a scene.
There are obviously smaller tools you can use to enhance your storytelling as well. You can throw unexpected twists in there, suspense, dramatic irony, a character’s inner journey. But if you’re a beginner/intermediate, focus on the basics first. Goals and mysteries. Goals and mysteries. Always remember: No matter how good of a writer you are, how strong your prose is or how well you can describe a scene, unless you’ve set up a story where we give a shit about the characters in that place, it won’t matter. Screenwriting is not a writing contest. It’s a storytelling contest. The sooner you realize that, the faster you’ll succeed in this business. I PROMISE YOU THAT.