Telling a story is mostly about cause and effect. Something happens at the start of your story to trigger a change of action in the main character. A cause followed by an effect. From that point, you generally want each subsequent cause to be the actions and decisions of the main character and the effects to become the highs and lows of the story. Even the highs must bring more challenges to your character until the very end, where the cause is that final action which brings together everything the main character has learned or realised and the effect is total victory (or failure, if you’re going downbeat).
In each story beat, the cause and effect must be absolutely clear.
I recently play Obduction from the makers of Myst. A beautiful game with an incredible atmosphere and some great puzzles too. Puzzles, like stories, depend on cause and effect. You try something and watch for the effect. It’s like science. Each time you fail, you watch the effect and see if you can figure out what you can change to get you to a positive outcome.
Cause and effect in Obduction was not always clear. One part jumped out at me and got me thinking about story. There was a box with numbers and lights and characters on it. I played around with it and lit more lights but I didn’t know what the goal was. Later, I revisited the area and found that the box was somewhere else and was on its side. Why? I don’t know. At this point, I had a code and I was pretty sure I could input it on the box so I did. When I did, the box fell to a lower level. Why? I don’t know. Down at the lower level, I played with it but couldn’t seem to get it to do anything.
I couldn’t reconcile the cause and effect. Why had it moved in the first place? Why did it fall when I put in the code? What did that achieve? Once I had finished the game, I looked it up and it turns out that the answer is that it didn’t do anything for me. There was a lack of cause and effect in a game based around puzzles, which depend on a clarity in cause and effect. As it happens, the other area I felt the game fell down on was in the story resolution which was lacking clarity. That too was lacking a sense of cause and effect. It was at this point I felt that game devs could really do with a pass from a linear form script editor.
Don’t get me wrong – it’s a lovely game and you should give it a go, especially if you enjoyed any of the Myst games. But it helps illustrate an important story point.
When something happens in a story, especially when it’s an unexpected plot turn or twist, you have to have a clear sense of the cause and effect. This is how you give your plot weight. It’s not satisfying when a random element is thrown into your story or if the audience doesn’t understand why a particular thing happened. But if suddenly something strikes that makes life much harder for your main character and, as it does, the audience realises that this was a direct result of a choice the main character made, thinking it would make their life easier, then that has impact. That comes with a punch. That’s how you build the highs and the lows. Main character has a problem. They take action (cause) thinking they will get themselves out of that problem (Yay! A HIGH!) but then it makes their life SO MUCH WORSE (LOOOOOOW!).
That’s exciting. For it to work, the cause and the effect and how they are locked in to one another must be crystal clear.
Story problems need solutions. If your story doesn’t have a strong line running through it, or it wanders, or it doesn’t lead to a satisfying conclusion then you are going to have to fix that. As part of the normal process, you’ll have to look at your story and be willing to make significant amendments – that’s normal. Some stories have more problems than others but you can be sure that there will be story problems to solve somewhere in your process.
But here’s the thing: story problems usually require more than story solutions. In fact, looking for story solutions may be the wrong thing altogether.
Really? How can that be? Stay with me here! What I have found over the years of writing and, more importantly, in evaluating stories and script editing (because it can be easier to see things in the work of others) is that story problems usually need character solutions.
For one thing, it is often problems with the characters that lead to the perception of a story problem in the first place. They might be acting out of character and so a section just doesn’t feel true. Or there might be better actions that a particular character would take. A moment that should have a punch might have none because we don’t get why it matters to our characters. Or a section might just be dying because the characters in it don’t spark off each other. But even if the problem isn’t directly a character problem, when you go into the plot and the story and start moving things around then, invariably, you’ll introduce one of these problems. Funnelling characters into places to serve the plot or fix the plot can lead to a disconnect between character and story.
You have to go back to the characters.
You have to ask character questions. How can you amend your characters to put them on a new path that will, in turn, strengthen your story? If these characters aren’t yet fully defined, you actually have an advantage – you can completely rewrite the characters, improving the overall dynamic between them. If they are already locked down as characters, then what you might need to do is to change who is with who in the scenes or introduce a new element very early on that can put your main characters on a slightly different path or give them different information – something that will amend the choices those characters will make when you get to the difficult areas in your story.
When you get that right, your characters are driving your story and that’s exactly the way it should be. Always go back to your characters because story problems usually need character solutions.
It can be very interesting to study stories that made it to screen (or indeed bookshelves) for reasons beyond just the story itself. What I mean by that is, for example, Star Wars Episode 1. A new writer pitching that script would have had it torn to shreds and a bunch of other writers would have been brought in make it fit with more traditional story expectations. The weight of Star Wars and Lucas meant that didn’t happen so we were presented with a sort of ‘what if?’ scenario: what if you can study a story before all the usual conventions get applied?
It isn’t all that often we get a huge movie that allows us to study why other movies stick to certain story conventions.
Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them is one of them. A beautiful looking movie. But I think nobody but Rowling (or Lucas or the Wachowskis in their day) would have been allowed to put this story to screen. That makes it very interesting to study. Before you object, I don’t mean to disparage the movie by the Ep1 comparison. You see, we’re so used to story ‘formula’ that veering away from that isn’t always a bad thing in itself. It is just a different story. One we can learn from.
So in a movie and stories in general, I think three questions are really important:
1) What’s it about?
2) What is the climax?
3) Who is the main character?
Obvious questions, right? The trick is that each one should relate to the other. While the answers to 2 and 3 are very clear in Fantastic Beasts, they aren’t all that related to each other. The main character doesn’t act in the climax beyond a few words that don’t really influence the outcome. The outcome is taken away from the main character, who wasn’t even all that aware of the events leading to that climax until just before it. I have a feeling many would struggle to come to a consensus on what the answer to 1 is. Is it the title? If so, the climax didn’t relate to the main story. Was it the story being teased throughout that then became the climax? If so, the main character wasn’t a part of it. I have seen that part referred to in reviews as the ‘subplot’ and yet that’s the big climax of the movie.
Story convention tells us that the main character should drive the story. The story should be about something that presents a goal for that main character, an obstacle to overcome or a quest of some sort, ideally an area for growth. The climax should be that character’s and that story’s ultimate showdown, where they bring everything they have earned or learned to overcome the final challenge and achieve their goal (or not if it’s a sad story although we’ll still expect growth).
This works whether its a true life story of a broken person overcoming an addiction, a huge ridiculous sci-fi story to save the universe or a little preschool story about a bunny learning to tie their shoelaces. It is what keeps your story moving forward, gives it focus and brings it all together at the end for a satisfying conclusion.
So what happens when we don’t get that? Well, we can see that right here. Fortunately for Fantastic Beasts, it presents an incredible spectacle with a bunch of very entertaining scenes and characters. My daughter loved it and that’s what counts. I will often make the argument that, if a script or book has you turning that next page eagerly, it’s working. But I have to wonder if there was any tension at the climax? Whether many people were truly invested beyond just enjoying the spectacle? Or, if people were truly invested, whether it would have been possible to heighten that. That’s a hugely important thing in story. You have give someone reasons to really care by the time we get to the end of your story. That doesn’t just affect the feeling we have while watching it – it affects what I call the aftertaste of a story.
Ever enjoy the experience of a story but then you forget afterwards what it was about? Or you start picking holes in it yourself? Or you liked it but never really want to see it again? That’s the aftertaste. The moment to moment experience can drive us through a story in an exciting way (Star Trek Into Darkness). But without coherence and strength and earning each emotional beat, you can be left with a hollow aftertaste and a feeling that it never really made a lot of sense (Star Trek Into Darkness). The aftertaste is important.
So it is possible to tell stories any way you like. You can ignore story conventions altogether and never learn about them. Or better, you can learn them and choose to discard them. But unless you’re Rowling or Lucas a decade or so ago or the Wachowskis around the same time, you will have a much harder time getting your story out there for people. You might think, but Rowling did it and it worked. It did. That’s true. But no story is perfect (maybe Alien) so perhaps consider how the film could have been with that same spectacle, that same world of wonder and magic, that same entertaining cast but with a story driven by and for that main character, leading to a climax where everything for him was on the line and he was the only one who could achieve the final aim.
The great thing about learning about story conventions and getting to a point where you truly understand them and they become a part of your work is that they give you the choice. You can use them to make your story better. You are not a slave to them. They are your tools to help you tell your story even better. And when you read a book or see a film that doesn’t use these tools, for whatever reason and whatever outcome great or not, study it. Think about the different things you could have added or taken away from that story in an attempt to improve it.
I’m not saying you’ll do better than Rowling. But you will learn from it.
I love structure and find it an incredibly useful tool. But it comes with its own built-in pitfalls and here is one of them: if you plot your story to a specific structure from the very beginning, there is a danger that you will funnel your characters down unbelievable paths in order to get them to hit certain beats.
If your story target is too clear even before you have a sense of what is happening, what the characters are doing and why, you start to herd your characters in ways that restrict the storytelling. And in the process, often making the characters behave in ways they shouldn’t.
It is an all too common story problem that characters do things to serve the needs of the writer rather than serving their own needs. It happens so easily. I know because I have been guilty of it myself. I have a great idea for a scene but, to get there, I have to push characters in ways that don’t quite fit who they are or what they should want. And because it is all too easy, you have to be very wary of anything that invites that risk into your work methods.
Nailing down your structure before having a sense of your characters and story can do just that.
My advice is: know your premise. Know your characters. Know your starting point. Then let your characters take you where they should go. Let your mind wander in and out of the scenes, each character playing it the way they naturally should without you worrying about the end point of that scene. Make notes on all of that stuff until you have enough to build a story. And THEN sort out your structure.
That way, your characters are living, acting and reacting. It isn’t just an exercise in herding.
I remember when directing animated shows that I would sometimes see characters moving around for no reason while other characters talked. Some animators have a need to fill the space. They’re thinking they can’t just let the character stand there and blink, can they?!
Yep, you can. And you can go further. Every now and again, I would make the listening (or watching) character the focal point of the scene. And again, even when they are the focus, we just need to see them taking it in. The expression is important. Lots of movement isn’t.
As my friend Simon Crane and I would say: animation is not about making your characters move, it is about making them think.
This applies well beyond animation. Seeing characters take in a moment can have more emotion, more drama and more comedy. Remember The Office? Gareth (or Dwight) would do or say something ridiculous. Where did the camera spend most of its time? Watching Tim’s reaction. Or Jim’s, depending on which version you’re watching. Comedy can come from someone doing something funny. But better comedy can be seeing a character watching or listening to someone doing something funny.
When we write scripts, we’re often into the back and forth of lines. Character says A, next character says B and so on. We can get so caught up in what they say that we can miss what might be more important: what they hear. Or what they understand. Some actors are known for trying to reduce their lines in order to give them more time to listen and to react. Because it’s like animation – it’s not about making your characters say stuff, it’s about making them think. And making them feel.
So when you’re thinking about your scenes, playing them out in your mind and writing them down, think about the reactions. No, not the outbursts. Just those little moments of listening, of taking it all in. Of thinking and feeling. That’s where your character is. That’s where the drama is, the comedy or the heart of your scene. Let your characters listen.
Watching Shia LaBeouf watching his movies a few weeks ago got me thinking about narrative and just how simple it can be.
I watched him sit for a while. Sitting… sitting… sitting. Pretty dull, right? But I found myself wondering when he gets up to go to the toilet. I mean, he must have done that, right? And while I watched, he started to get up. He’s going! Look! He stood and… twist in the tale, he was just letting someone by. It was a little moment of excitement in something incredibly mundane and it had an unexpected outcome.
Later, he looked wrecked. I could see he was tired. Would I get to see him fall asleep? His eyelids got heavy. Almost… almost… and then he shook it off. Still awake. I found myself watching for a bizarre amount of time to see if he would fall asleep. And I felt a genuine satisfaction when it finally happened.
It reminded of a webcam about a decade ago that was fixed on a dog basket. When you logged in, the dog might be there. Or might not be there. The real excitement was catching the moment when it happened – when the dog got into the basket or left the basket. Seeing that dog get into its basket was a more rare and precious thing than watching Iron Man beat the heck out some bad guy for some reason he probably caused yet again.
Narrative comes in many forms. Expectations and outcomes can make a story. The little surprises, the anticipation and then catching a moment. The stakes only need be as high as the tone you set. And whatever about visual spectacle, we can relate to the little things.
And this is why a YouTuber finding some diamond in Minecraft can be more exciting to kids than your carefully crafted cartoon that took seven drafts and months of production to get right.
I’m off at the Cartoon Forum this week, preparing to present Millie and Mr Fluff on Friday morning (see the image above). But while I’m away, here is a thought on taking a story to screen:
Hit those key story points hard. Really hard.
As a writer, I would tell you that everything in a script is important. But as a director/producer/editor/consultant/casual viewer I can tell you that not everything is equally important.
In a short television story, there are likely around three absolutely essential story points. These are points that, if a kid missed, the story would cease to have any impact. So in a very generic yet common and perfectly valid example, the key points might be these:
1 – Character has a problem.
2 – Character through some action or event realises there is a solution.
3 – Character fixes problem.
Now there are other parts that will help this story. If I saw a script that was just this, I would recommend that we need to see some failed attempts in there too. But when it comes down to it, if you remove one of these three points you’ve got a major problem. Remove number 1 and your audience doesn’t know what the aim is and so the other points have no impact. Remove 2 and the end will feel nonsensical, pointless or too easy. Remove 3 and your whole resolution is gone.
But when you write a script or your writer hands in the script, there is going to be a lot more in it than just these three things. We hope for lovely character moments, jokes, ups and downs. And they’re all in there together. Rarely does a writer put the absolutely essential points in CAPS (probably would be frowned upon but actually I think there would be some merit to the idea) so it is now up to the rest of the team, director et al, to tell that story in the best way possible. If that team just goes through a script and gives everything equal importance, it could just end up being a bunch of stuff that happens and the key points could be missed. That doesn’t make it a bad script – the script hands you the elements but the storytelling work never ends there, nor should it.
You have got to make absolutely certain that the story will be clear and have maximum effect on the audience. For that to happen, you have to hit those key story points hard. They are essential. They take priority and so, by definition, everything else becomes secondary. So in boarding, animatics, recording, animation, always make certain that those points get the space, timing and emphasis they need. Your episode depends on it.
The universe tends towards chaos. Low entropy to high entropy. But consciousness seems to tend towards order. We take chaos and put a form to it. We build homes, buildings, society, guidelines, rules. Even on a personal level, we search for purpose, stability. And yet we seem to come from chaos and have these chaotic urges and tendencies still within us. Maybe that’s just the fabric of the universe.
So life is so often an attempt to put order to chaos. To the chaos of the universe and the chaos of ourselves. Life is an order/chaos struggle.
We see that in the stories we tell. The very nature of story is about overcoming obstacles. The struggle against adversity and the struggle to master a situation once seen as beyond our control. When we as an audience identify with that struggle, when we really buy into the needs of the characters, we connect. But here’s the thing – it isn’t just about the story as a whole. This is right down to scene level. Right down to individual movements. They all tell a story. And it’s a story about putting order to chaos.
Even down to getting our legs going the right way. We take it for granted. But have you seen children go through that slow process of learning to walk? Or even a young baby trying to pick something up? The level of mastery required just for us just to touch our nose is incredible.
Order on chaos. That’s life. And animation is life.
In animation, we aim to create life. And it is a medium for control freaks. Think about it – you get an actor and you get a bunch of different takes and you can guide them and hope to pull them towards what you’re looking for but, really, every take is a unique moment and once it’s gone, it’s gone. In animation, you can shift an eyebrow up one millimetre, you can hold a smile for three frames longer. You have complete control. You have order. And you need order.
But if you want it to feel alive, really alive, we need to feel that chaos trying to break through. The order shouldn’t come so easily. It’s a struggle.
And the struggle we feel in animation shouldn’t be the animator wrestling with software and losing. It should be the struggle of life. The inconsistencies, the little failures, the quirks, the differences that come with every unique moment in time. Every moment should be a story in itself.
Bring order to your animation. But never so much that you lose the life.