Where is the story? What is it really? This is an existential question, but I think the answer will help us better understand how to approach crafting a well told story.
We might think of story as some concrete thing, a sequence of events with conflicts and characters that tangibly define a story. Books, movies, plays, graphic novels, video games, etc. all “contain” stories. But a movie is really just a sequence of images and sounds. A book is merely words printed on a page. Where is the story?
Where do stories come from? Where are they born? We might see a friend walk up with a black eye and we ask, “What happened to you?!” and then get a story. Actually, we will get a recounting of events from a subjective point of view with singular perspective and emotion. We will find out what happened, but it is the nature of storytelling to impart on our audience some remnant of what it was like to be there, the experience.
“Getting the story” leaves out an important component: the recounting. The source of this recounting is the collection of memories, images, actions, reactions, conflicts, expectations, emotions, and ideas focused around an experience. And this recounting seeks validation, an audience to bare witness to the experience. Stories are not simply information, they need to be experiences in and of themselves. And as an experience, a story forms in the mind of the audience through the medium of storytelling. This is narrative, stories formed in the mind of an audience, creating an immediate experience.
How we tell a story orchestrates the order in which we “recount” the events of the story. Along with the audience’s emotional reaction, this information describing one moment to the next defines plot. We might only think of plot as a skeletal structure to the storytelling, an outline or a formula. But plotting in the true sense is the design of how, and in what order, each piece of narrative information is deposited in the audience’s mind, one piece at a time.
We must manage the audience’s attention through visual language and various narrative strategies to manipulate what the audience wants to know going forward. Then to tell a story well, we have to prioritize their attention on the information that connects one moment to the next. This connection is most often action driven, a moment to moment understanding of the causal structure of the story. The foundation of this structure is conflict. A character wants something and takes action to attain it. The reaction or consequence to that action presents opposition, forcing the character to take a new action and the causal cycle continues.
The cinema is a very immersive medium. The giant image, surround sound, and darkened theater is designed to engulf the audience, maximizing the sensory input of the film. The story begins to form in the audience’s mind as soon as the first piece of narrative information is delivered: possibly music to set an emotional tone, an establishing shot to set where and when the story takes place, or a character to set the conflict in motion. I discuss in more detail managing attention and narrative strategies in other posts.
What the audience experiences as a whole upon watching a film becomes story. When asked to recount the story, not only are they communicating the events of the story, but their experience of it. If the storytelling loses the audience’s attention, due to an unintended gap in the cause-effect relationship of the plot for example, the audience comes out of “the story” and their experience is compromised. And once they’re out, they’re likely to miss more narrative information, further confusing or frustrating their experience.