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“I’ve got this great story…”

March 21st, 2010

I hear it ALL the time.

“I’ve got this great story! It’d make a perfect movie!” I get this a lot, so I follow up with a few questions.

“What’s it about?”

“Well, there’s this guy, and he lives near Washington D.C….” I’ll usually stop the storyteller there.

“You’re describing the main character. What is the story?” Good storytellers have a response. Less-skilled storytellers tend to look stunned.

I’ll continue: “What happens?”

“Well, the guy drives this cool car, and he gets chased by thugs.” Unless I raise an eyebrow, the speaker usually continues. “But he gets away so he can meet up with this hot girl…”

About this time I begin to zone out. Not because of the banality of the story – but because, in fact, there is no story. There are descriptions of aspects of a script, like setting, tone and even character, but there’s really nothing in terms of plot or story. (OK, I’ll allow the car chase and hot girl count half toward plot, but that’s only because the storyteller picked two popular plot devices.) Without a story, the storyteller is really just pushing air – air as thin as the idea he didn’t think through.

There are lots of great story ideas. Think of them as concepts – what is the ‘concept’ of your tale? Man versus nature? The erosion of morality? Chipmunks in space? (OK, maybe this doesn’t count in the ‘great’ category, but it does combine two popular plot elements… Detecting a theme?) Once you’ve come up with a conceptual framework, adhering to story limitations is a lot easier. Think of it as drawing-up plans before building a house. Without them, details could be missed that would weaken (or destroy) the entire structure. If your concept is ‘Crooked Senator seeks redemption,’ you’ve gone a long way toward explaining why he lives in Washington, why he drives a cool car and why he gets the hot girl…

There have been movies without stories… certainly. But they usually lack something else: audiences. If you want to entertain, illuminate, educate or even provoke anger, the best way to do it is with a story that contains a writer’s ‘building blocks of life:’ a beginning, a middle and an ending.


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