Thoughts from writer Donald Miller and other great story researchers
Why are stories important to us? Simply put – because humans translate real life events into stories – it is completely natural. Maybe you’re sharing something about: a trip to another country, surviving kidney stones, getting a speeding ticket, surviving a family reunion, or proposing to the love of your life … We all naturally speak about our lives in the form of stories. But, it is important to realize, that when we share these stories, it is the highlights we remember, that we typically share. It is these details, these snapshots of life, that shape our story, our experience.
Several stories we hear, read or experience are more than entertainment; in many ways, they reflect human life in characters, situations, and conflicts. Storytelling allows humans to share ideas with each other.
From a film criticism standpoint, by walking through the character’s experiences on screen (or in a script) we are able to recognize and empathize with the ideas and/or concepts, or feelings shared through the story. Examples: Stories that deal with a father and son reunion after years of being estranged; forgiveness for being wronged; rediscovering a lost love; moving on after a major relationship breakup; experiencing the birth of a first child; returning home after years of fighting a war; celebrating an athletic championship; overcoming a battle with a deadly disease, or characters exploring what God has called them to do in this world – these are just some of the storylines than can connect people with society, with culture, with humanity.
Everyone has experienced a story somewhere that speaks to them, and everyone also has their very own story to tell. We must be willing to explore the stories within ourselves and those around us if we want to understand others.
Writers must find ways to create (or explore) those stories that can connect with humanity. When we truly engage in these experiences with the characters – we can come to feel their emotions (empathy), experience their conflicts, and become the characters themselves – that is, if we allow ourselves to become fully engaged with the story.
The concept of story helps the audience to set a moral compass. When we’re watching a story we need to ask ourselves, “How would I react if I experienced that same crisis or conflict in the story?” It allows each of us to see what side of right or wrong we are pulling for.
What goes into a good story?
- Every good story needs a protagonist (or group protagonists). These are the character(s) that drive the story.
- The protagonist needs some type of ambition (or an objective or a goal).
- The protagonist must have conflict or crisis to overcome (in the form of a situation or characters).
- The “inciting incident” is a key to launching a story into action. It is the one thing that changes the direction of the story; it puts the character into motion; it is the thing that takes the character onto the journey. Here are some examples in film:
- For many, a good story needs to have a resolution. Most people want the happy Hollywood ending, but that isn’t always the case in real life. Resolution doesn’t always mean that the character overcomes the conflict. Sometimes the conflict overcomes the character, but that IS a resolution, whether we like it or not.
Example: SPOILER ALERT HERE: In the movie “Friday Night Lights” – A Texas High School Football team makes it to the state championship; time is running out, and they have one last play from the 1 yard line to score; they run the play and get stopped at the goal line; they lose the game, and the end credits roll. This is a true story. The next year, the team would go on to the state championship again, and this time, they won it. But there was more conflict, and there were more challenges in the season they almost won –that’s the story that got told on film. That’s the story that was more compelling.
Another great example of (physical) conflict overcoming character can be seen in the first “Rocky” film. An inexperienced professional boxer takes on the reigning world champion, and loses the battle of the ring. What about the host of horror films where evil ends up winning over good in the end? So, yes, not all movies (stories) have to have the happy ending. Sometimes the conflict wins.
Winning or losing doesn’t really matter –but it is about how the protagonist stands up to the crisis or the conflict that really matters.
How to understand the essence of any Story (ask these questions):
- Who are these characters?
- What do they want? (Their goal or ambition)
- How do they go about getting to their goal? (The journey)
- What stands in their way? This is the “crisis or conflict.” These are The forces of antagonism. This will shape the protagonist. The richness of the character will be defined by the antagonist(s) (the conflict). Remember the conflicts in the way of the goal and the character can come in the form of society, nature, other characters, technology, the supernatural, self, the unknown, etc.
- What are the consequences of either reaching or not reaching the goal? How will the story be resolved? This is climax and resolution.
What is the Story Question?
The heart of any story offers some form of question that will offer the audience an expectation of an answer. Every story should have a defined “story question.” This question should dominate the entire story. Remember, There should always be a story question for a film. Always. Sometimes there are several questions, but there is usually one main driving question that the key scenes of a script of film connect.
- Will Hawkeye keep the Monroe sisters safe from harm in “Last of the Mohicans”?
- Will Dorthy and her friends find the Wizard in “The Wizard of Oz”?
- Will Dr. Frankenstein’s creation become his downfall in “Frankenstein”?
- Will Shrek rescue the princess in “Shrek.”?
- Will Thanos gain control of the Infinity Gauntlet in Avengers: Infinity War?
The story question is what engages the audience. This is why we care about the story. Each important scene should have some connection to the story question.
Story Arc (3 Acts)
- Act I – In the Beginning you introduce the reader to the setting, the characters, and the situation (conflict) they find themselves. You also set up the goal. Plot Point 1 (the inciting incident) is a situation that drives the main character from their “normal” life towards something different; this is a situation that is in complete conflict with their daily living, or expectations.
Great stories often begin at Plot Point 1, thrusting the main character right into the thick of things.
- Act 2 – In the middle, the story develops through a series of complications and obstacles, each leading to a mini crisis. Though each of these crisis situations may be temporarily resolved, the story leads inevitably to an ultimate crisis—the Climax. As the story progresses, there is rising and falling of tension with each crisis, but an overall rising tension as we approach the climax. “The resolution” of the Climax is Plot Point 2.
- Act 3 – In the End, the climax and the loose ends of the story are (usually) resolved during the Denouement. Tension rapidly dissipates because it’s nearly impossible to sustain a reader’s interest very long after the climax. Strong writers (and filmmakers) are able to finish the story and get out. Some writers (and even film directors) have a difficult time wrapping the story.
Final thoughts about Story
- Story Has Form; it has structure; it reminds us of life – that’s why we can relate to the narrative.
- Stories entertain us.
- Stories can enchant us.
- Stories can give us an escape from reality.
- Stories help us testify to a truth. They help us fit our own experiences into a form worthy of understanding.
- Stories can enrage us, engage us, and motivate us to take action.
- Stories empower us.
- Stories help us empathize with the world around us.
- Stories enlighten us, challenge us and make us think.
- Stories can change culture and impact lives (message stories, stories with morals or life stories for example). Stories offer universal life lessons.
Manning Notes – film, and story: “Film Criticism: Gardner-Webb University” (2020).
Donald Miller, “A Million Miles in a Thousand Years” (2009).
Donald Miller, “Into the Elements” DVD (2012)
Robert McKee, “Story” (2006)
Blake Snyder, “Save the Cat” (2005)
Boggs, J. M., & Jackson, K. (2008). The art of watching films: A guide to film analysis. Menlo Park, CA: Benjamin/Cummings Pub. 7th edition
Brown, L. A. (2018). How Films Tell Stories: The Narratology of Cinema. New York, NY: Amazon Digital Services LLC.
Buckland, W. (2010). Understand film studies. London: Teach Yourself.
Null, C. (2005). Five stars!: How to become a film critic, the world’s greatest job. San Francisco, CA: Sutro Press.
Stoller, B. M. (2003). Filmmaking for dummies. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley Pub.
Winokur, M., & Holsinger, B. W. (2001). The complete idiot’s guide to movies, flicks, and film. Indianapolis, IN: Alpha Books.