OK. So in the first post in this story development process, we discussed the story seed. For the short film I am going to make, the seed arrived, strangely enough, with my mother’s funeral. It was a sad day, and yet at the same time, it was a joyous celebration of her life. The question that inspired my story was something like this: How can a funeral, so definitive of death and driven by the most extreme depth of sadness, also be so joyous and positive?
When you get an idea, how can you tell if it is likely to make a good story?
What do you do next?
When we get an idea, we need to know if it will ‘translate’ into a good story. this translation is a skill you can learn. It involves questioning the premise to see if it contains what we need: namely, a character ‘journey’ and a pervasive knowledge gap or gaps that will define the story’s ability to engage and intrigue.
A character journey is a story experience for the character which demonstrates, to us in the audience, through the actions and behaviours of a character one or more of the following:
Life understanding. Some sagely reflection that ‘life is like that’. Or ‘this is how a person should lead their life’. See for example, the short film The Maker.
A problem. And the character’s attempts to solve it. Any cop drama or mystery story is in this space, of course.
A world thrown out of balance, or a human error and attempts to rectify (that succeed or fail). See for example, the short film The Jigsaw.
A lesson. Usually a life lesson or some form of moral understanding from the characters’ actions and behaviours. More straightforward teaching/learning, such as a documentary, say, The Story of Medicine, still fills a knowledge gap and is still therefore a story. Really, though, we are looking for a lesson learned through dramatic action and the outcome or consequences of that action. Bible stories are a good example of life lessons in a moral context. It is the consequences of decisions made under pressure that truly drive a story.
A Moral Argument. Almost all stories embody a moral argument. If you can clearly state the morality addressed by your character journey, you are very strongly empowered to deliver a strong story. The film Juno (2007) is a fine example of a story with a moral argument at its core. I look more deeply at this topic in my blog post Morality in Stories.
Character growth. A character’s values or fortunes or quality of life changes significantly across the course of their experiences as a result of the actions and decisions they take. The outcomes of their actions cause change and growth and learning. This is often a function of one of the other categories. See for example, this 90-second trailer from the Disney film Frozen. The characters journey from lost and alone in a winter wilderness to becoming friends. Most of the finest stories of all time have a character change their fortunes – for better or for worse – as a result of the actions they take under pressure.
These categories will almost certainly overlap into each other. And do not forget that in all the above categories, the audience is doing the learning. The character may or may not succeed, and may or may not learn a lesson. Their tragic failure to learn will still show an audience what they should have done, so feel free to have characters fail!
To find these kinds of dynamics, you must interrogate your idea. So the questioning begins -what if? what if? what if? Then what, then what? Keep flexible. Keep changing your viewpoint and possibilities, however ridiculous. Nothing is off the table at this point. Let your imagination fly. We are looking for characters and their actions to jump out. Look to trap your characters into tough decisions – a dilemma or choice of evils. Look for those decisions to show us consequences.
From my inspiration for Alfie, how can I deliver the sadness of death, but shoot it through with the joy and positivity that emerges from the grieving process? Aha! The grieving process. That’s a journey. A character is grieving. And their life has been thrown out of balance by death. And a story that shows how to approach death and how to grieve is a good life lesson. This is all very promising. So my story will be a character arc from the depths of despair, but through grief, and recognising that they were fortunate to know the deceased, or through learning something from that death, they find a form of happiness or – ideally – they undergo character growth. This will need to be demonstrated; perhaps they use the death to help other people. Along the lines of ‘Jesus died to save us all’. A story example like this is I Am Legend, in which Dr. Robert Neville discovers an antidote to a disease that is wiping out humanity. However, ultimately, he has to give his own life to save the world.
I’m not sure my story will go that far, but we will see. Because the story is defined by death and grief it is most likely that the character journey will depict a positive arc. An arc from death and grief to further tragedy would be perfectly valid, although I’m not sure I want to go there! Anyway, we will see! Note carefully that it is often the possibilities we find most repellent that are the most compelling and gripping direction for your story to take… They repel because they have power. If you make yourself uncomfortable that could well be where the true power of your story lies, so keep your mind open and investigate all avenues.
Excellent! So we have our basic premise. Mine will be a story about a person grieving a death. They will journey from lost, alone, bereft and devastated to some form of renewal; of hope, of benefit for others, and in doing so, will demonstrate to us in the audience how one should look after oneself through the process and ritual of grieving.
Next up, this needs to be presented in the form of a knowledge gap or set of gaps. Watch this space for more, or sign up here to be sure of receiving all the updates.
More soon! David