The Sixth Element of StoryComplications Ensue
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Wednesday, October 06, 2010

As I have taught you, Grasshopper, there are five elements of story:

a. a character we care about
b. who has an opportunity, problem or goal
c. who faces obstacles and/or an antagonist
d. who stands to win something (stakes)
e. but can lose something he cherishes (jeopardy).

It is possible for a story or screenplay or movie or episode to fail even with these five elements, but it is almost certain it will fail if a, b, c or (d or e) are not working right.

But there is a sixth element of any story, and it is as crucial as all the others:

who is the story being told to?

In TV, what network or channel you are aiming for is the crucial question. You can have the most awesome serial drama in the world, and CBS will probably reject it. On the other hand if you take your episodic procedural cop show to HBO, they will stare at you in bewilderment.

It's an important question for the movies, too. A movie can find its own ad hoc audience if it's marketed right, but some stories are hard to market because it's not clear what the audience would be. We had a horror comedy that took place on the set of a lifestyle home improvement show. The script was funny, but who was going to watch the movie? Horror comedy fans aren't interested in lifestyle shows. Reality show fans aren't particularly interested in horror comedy.

The five elements of story must be of interest to an audience.

The five elements of story aren't for just movies, they're for novels, short stories, videogame stories, and for that matter, stories told round a campfire. And the question of the audience is crucial for any of these.

My unsellable literary historical fantasy novel about Morgan le Fay found a publisher once I repositioned it as a Young Adult novel.

While I'm at it, I might consider adding a seventh element of story, and that is the medium: how are you getting your story across? The story must be appropriate for its medium. Movies are not good at telling internal stories.

They are also not particularly good at showing the passage of a lot of time (though there are movies that make a good effort). If you have a character at 5, and 10, and 15, and 20, you need a bunch of different actors. And no age makeup can give an actor sunken cheeks.

Movies struggle to show the great sweep of events involving many people, unless all those people are in the same place at once. A movie will struggle to show "the people becoming disillusioned with their government." A movie can show a handful of people becoming disillusioned with the government.

TV is good at showing what happens to a small family of people in a single place. It's not that good where the cast of characters keeps changing, or the venue keeps changing.

Novels can handle most anything, but if a lot of things are going "boom," your story probably wants to be a movie.

TL;DR: Story is character; opportunity/problem/goal; obstacles/antagonist; stakes; jeopardy. But also: who are you telling this to? And how?



The best article you've written in a long time, hands down! I like it.

By Blogger JamaicanInToronto, at 10:11 PM  

Hey Alex, this is one of the best things I have read in years. You just stripped it all away and probably saved me five years...
with respect, Dannis (Mohan's buddy/The Bridge)

By Blogger Dannis, at 12:54 AM  

This is just what I needed to read this morning. Thank you!

By Blogger JennieD, at 9:04 AM  

Please don't start writing TL;DR.

If they didn't read, screw 'em!

By Blogger David, at 2:40 PM  

It kind of feels like you just put it all down in a single page there. Nice!

By Blogger Unknown, at 12:26 PM  

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