Nothing says “I get it!” like seeing it done, and done well, at a professional level.
It’s impossible to turn pro at anything – and make no mistake, writing stories for publication is at the top of this list – without watching and appreciating proven professionals at work.
Writers need to understand everything about every story we read or see. About what makes them work, or not. This is more important, in fact, than actually applying butt to chair and writing for ourselves.
Because practice is only productive when done in context to principles and physics. When it comes to storytelling, growth is always informed, never inevitable.
Good stories are a collision of architecture and art, a collusion between sensibility and intention.
There’s a new movie out that illustrates this brilliantly. I recommend you see it, and soon.
Not so much because it illustrates the four-part story structure I write about here – it certainly does, but there are clearer structural models out there – but rather, because it’s one of the best examples of how a writer leverages more subtle and evolved principles of storytelling to get this tale under your skin.
The movie is 127 Hours, the true story of hiker Aron Ralston’s ordeal when he was trapped – his arm was pinned – by a falling rock while in the middle of nowhere. Which is known as Utah.
He remained stuck, alone with his terror and confusion and the weighing of options – live or die – for 127 hours.
And then, with all other options exhausted, he cut off his own arm and walked away.
The story isn’t about what happened. Everybody in the theater already knows what happened.
The story is about the journey he took during those 127 hours.
Watch and recognize. Look for those subtle and evolved storytelling skills that make this otherwise linear story work. The astute writer will see the empowering essences that will, when applied to virtually any story, turn it into something special.
And I’m about to tell you what they are.
One is what I call the Six Core Competencies – concept, character, theme, structure, scene execution and writing voice.
Master these and you’re in the game. Be weak in any one of them – any one – and you’ll be among the millions who can write like a poet but can’t seem to ever sell anything.
But beyond those six core competencies, know this: you can’t win the game – write something that stands a chance of being published – until you layer the other realm of writing physics, skillfully-rendered, on top of them.
And that’s what this movie shows you, as well as any I’ve seen lately.
But you have to know what to look for. It’s an essence, delivered only through skill and intention, broken down into two pieces that become a sum that vastly exceeds the parts themselves.
The Two Magic Pills of Storytelling
Observe a stand-up comic sometime. Notice how the appeal, the laughs, rarely come from a punch line. They come from the storytelling. You’ve heard people at parties command the room simply by the way they hold court on a given topic without a punch line of any kind on the horizon.
When you combine that “journey experience” with character appeal, then you’ve got it.
If the storyteller isn’t appealing, if you’re not engaged and rooting for them along the way, then even the best story falls on deaf ears. Because those ears are paying more attention to another tape of their own creation. Rather than buying in, they’re fighting it off.
That’s the twofold trick of storytelling:
– take the reader/viewer on a vicarious ride, to somewhere or in some way that they’ve never experienced, or wouldn’t dare experience, and make them feel every moment of it…
– … and make us root for the person actually having that experience in your story. Make us be them. Envy them or empathize with them. Make us feel what they feel.
This is why Aron Ralston didn’t get to play himself, and why the screenplay, which he didn’t write, is deeper and richer than the true story from the book, which he did write. James Franco is no doubt more appealing and likeable than Aron Ralston, or at least a better actor by a mile, and the movie is more illuminating and dramatically poignant than the nightmare itself.
It’s that simple. Fiction and the tools and conventions it uses trump reality every time, even when the reality exceeds our capacity to comprehend. Especially then.
This is why love stories almost always work on some level, and why they so often fail in real life. Because we’re all into falling in love. And because it’s so hard, we are drawn toward stories that deliver that experience on a level we seek, have lost, or can never attain.
It’s why crappy reality shows like The Bachelor and Survivor work. Not because of any meaningful outcome hanging in the balance, but because of the vicarious experience – a journey – they deliver.
That’s precisely what director Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionare) and actor James Franco do for us in 127 Hours.
And it’s why both will almost certainly be up for Oscars.
The ending isn’t the juice of this movie. It’s a payoff of a different sort.
No, the juice of this story is about what it takes to make a man arrive at the moment at which he decides to do the unthinkable in order to survive. It’s about the human experience – vicarious as you’ve ever been through – of getting there with Franco over the course of those dark 127 hours of immobility and self-reflection.
It’s about a character that we root for, relate to, and empathize with. Not because he’s perfect, but because he is, for two hours, us.
Sure, the first plot point jumps off the screen at you – the rock falls on the guy at about the 20 to 25 percentile mark, right on time. Everything before that moment was a set-up for it – classic Part 1 structure for your learning pleasure.
Watch and learn on that level, too.
But after that you forget all about structure and get lost in those two other realms of effective storytelling: the vicarious ride, and your empathy and hope for the character.
We all wait on pins and needles for the moment when the arm comes off.
Not because of some morbid fascination – which perhaps you began with when you bought your popcorn – but rather, because it is the emergence of the protagonist’s heroism, the victory of courage over certain death, the weighing of cost against benefit.
It is a moment you feel more than you believed you could. Not because of the pain and horror of it, but because of the freedom and victory of it.
You have to see it to feel it.
You have to take Aron Ralston’s journey with him for this to work. Which is something the writers of this film (Boyle and Simon Beaufoy, based on Ralston’s book), understand.
To tell the story sequentially and linearly wouldn’t have worked. That would have been an hour-long docudrama on the National Geographic cable channel. No, to make this thing cinematic, to make it a story that is garnering five star reviews across the board, it required the artful storytelling sensibilities of a writer.
And as a writer yourself, someone who is in hot pursuit of your mastery over the six core competencies, this film will show you what comes next: the artful layering of vicarious experience in glorious context to an immersion and alignment with heroic, courageous character.
Six core competencies, frosted with two artful essences. That’s all it takes. Even when everybody in the room knows how it will end. Even when it’s true.
It worked for Titanic, and it works even better in 127 Hours.
And it’ll work for you, too, once you know it… see it… understand it… practice it… master it… and then put it on the page.
If you’d like to learn more about what publishers are looking for, over and above those core competencies, click here.