The Need for Storytelling

We need look no further than the number of television channels—to say nothing of the number of hours that television broadcasts news stories, sports stories, nonfiction stories, and fiction stories, stories of all lengths—to realize the number of stories available to the public every day. Add the number of films, newspapers and magazines, and oral stories (from jokes to anecdotes to elaborate tales, from gossip to reportage, from free association to analytic interpretation), and it is evident we are all telling stories. There are stories on every level, from casual to the most meaningful. It’s not so much that we hunger for any one kind of story but rather that we need a full range of stories. Human experience functions on a wide band, from superficial to deeply meaningful, and storytelling reflects that human experience.

Why do we need stories? We need them to help us make sense of our world, both the past and the present so we can make our way to a future.

But there are other reasons stories have been important, beyond the need to understand, and one is the need of the teller to communicate. Whether in pantomime or Elizabethan tragedy, storytellers want to communicate with others. The cave painter and the short-film director may have different means, but both want to use their medium to bind artist and audience together for that instant or that half-hour of the storytelling experience. For that time, storyteller and audience become a community, with all the historical implications of the relationship between artist and audience.

Another reason for storytelling is the education of the community. Many cultures have used storytelling to educate, particularly about the ethics of living in the society. The passing on of tradition and ethics has been a central focus of storytelling, from the fairy tale to the fable to the documentary film. Finally, storytelling provides a legitimate access route to the world of our dreams and our fears; it provides an outlet for both of these types of psychic experiences. The goal of the story is to incorporate these dimensions of life into consciousness. Dreams and fears are important elements of storytelling.

Storytelling Strategies

Although screen stories have unique qualities particular to film, screen stories for both short and long films often share characteristics with other kinds of storytelling. In this chapter, we will discuss those general qualities and suggest links to other forms of storytelling, forms that provide the first and best source of material for short films.

Story Qualities

All stories must engage the curiosity of an audience, whether that audience be one or a thousand. The storyteller must build on that curiosity, inviting our involvement in a character’s situation, and finally allow the viewer to identify with the character and the situation.

To hold the audience and move it through the story, a variety of devices are used. Some are operating principles; others are artificial techniques. But no matter what device is used, the goal is the same—to move the audience from curiosity to a more emotional state. If the story works, the results can range from amusement to tragedy. In each case, it is the storytelling qualities that transcend the medium and hold the audience’s attention.

These story qualities can be broken down into two groups: character qualities, and plot qualities. The primary character quality of a story is that we have to identify with the main character if we are to be engaged with the story. We have to become concerned with his or her dilemma, and we have to care about the outcome.

In order to identify with the characters, we have to know who they are and how they’ve arrived at the point where we join the story. A main character may be active or passive, young or old, male or female. These qualities should be specific and appropriate to the story; it is no use telling a story about a passive Olympic athlete, because the drive to become an Olympic athlete requires, by definition, a forceful rather than passive character. Specificity about culture, family, and career is also helpful in creating a person we recognize.

What are the person’s goals? What are his or her hopes, dreams, fears? Any or all of these details can also help create a recognizable character. That recognition is the first step toward identification—if we recognize the character and his or her situation, we will begin to connect with the character.

As much as our identification with the main character relies on our recognizing and caring about the character, that identification can be equally influenced by the role of the antagonist. The antagonist can be a mountain, a desert, or a raging storm; it can be an angry father, an overprotective mother, or an unjust boss. Often the most interesting antagonist of all can be one’s self: our own flaws (fear, greed, anger, passivity) can play the role of the enemy.

As we have observed, the more forceful the antagonist in a story, the greater the struggle of the protagonist. If the goal of the story is to portray heroic behavior, the role of the antagonist can be crucial. If the goal is more to portray realism and complexity in the protagonist’s actions, here too the character of the antagonist is critical.

It is notable that the characters of the protagonist and antagonist are frequently opposites, often in appearance as well as behavior. This polarity of protagonist and antagonist is the most overt use of opposites in storytelling. Polarized characteristics are also used with characters other than protagonists or antagonists, and to good effect. The greater the number of polarities in the story, the greater the conflict and the resulting interest to the reader, listener, or viewer. Polarity is an extremely useful storytelling device.

Plot qualities are closely related to character, but because they involve events outside of character, they can be considered separately. A good example of this notion is the role of conflict in storytelling: the more powerful the barriers that stand in the way of the character achieving his or her goal, the more compelling the plot. If the character faces no barriers in achieving his or her goal, there is no story. This is the nature and the role of conflict in storytelling—to provide barriers to the characters and their goals.

What if the character does not have a goal? This will pose a problem for developing a conflict. What if the character’s goal is unrealistic? The storyteller may focus on the conflict inherent in discovering that the goal is unattainable. In both examples, the linkage of conflict to character is intentional. Plot cannot stand alone, outside of character, without the story suffering because of it. Character, plot, and conflict are intricately related to one another. One dimension of conflict is how much a character wants to achieve his or her goal. Does the character want, desire, or need to achieve this goal? The greater the desire of the character, the greater the potential for conflict. The parallel with regard to the plot is also true: the more powerful the resistance, whether through the antagonist or other forces, the greater the conflict potential. Remember that barriers to the character’s goal may be external (a place, another person) or internal. What is most important to the story is that the viewers or readers understand that the barriers are the source of conflict for the character. From the most simple fable, such as “The Tortoise and the Hare,” to a complex short story, such as Hemingway’s “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” the sources of conflict are clear to the readers, and as the story progresses they become clear to the protagonist.

Whether the character succeeds in the conflict, as in “The Tortoise and the Hare,” or fails, as in “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” it is the struggle to overcome the barriers that is the fabric of the story. In each case, the motivation of the protagonist to triumph over conflict seems primal, and that desire fuels our identification and understanding. Good stories tend to have a powerful conflict associated with a character we understand and whose desire fuels the story.

The first notable characteristic of a good story is that it presents an interesting interpretation of a situation that, on one level, we have seen before. A specific example will illustrate this. We are all familiar with the experience of the first day of school; the situation conjures up all kinds of associations for each person. Building on our familiarity with this situation, we can make it more interesting and arouse curiosity by introducing a new factor—the age of the new student. What if the new student in the local high school is 40 years old, and he is joining a class full of 14-year-olds? The key here is that there is comfort for the viewer or reader in known situations—birthdays, weddings, funerals, and first days of school. The good storyteller uses our knowledge of the situation and whets our appetite for the story by introducing a new element.

Another factor in the plot is that point at which the storyteller chooses to join the story. It is crucial that the writer joins the story at a point where the dramatic possibilities can be maximized. The goal of the storyteller is to energize the tale, and the point of entry is critical in accomplishing this goal. For example, we join Ambrose Bierce’s short story “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” at the point when a civilian has been caught trespassing on a bridge held by Union soldiers during the Civil War.1 Will the unfortunate Southerner die for his transgression, or escape to safety? This question forms the substance of the story that unfolds.

At the beginning of Raymond Carver’s short story “Cathedral,” a blind man, who has recently lost his wife, plans to visit an old friend and her husband.2 The issue is whether the friend’s rocky marriage can bear a visitation from a sightless rival. The main character is the husband in the problematic relationship. The announcement of the visit is the point at which we join the story.

Good storytellers will find a point to join a story that will serve to generate tension and attract attention. If we do not join the story at such a point, not only is dramatic opportunity lost, but the chance to harness the audience’s curiosity will be lost, too. We will, in effect, be waiting for the story to begin. To summarize, an interesting situation, a strong entry point, and enough conflict are necessary to start the story.

Plot Strategies

In order to carry us through the story, the storyteller relies on two plot strategies—surprise (or reversal), and a rising level of action in the course of the plot. Surprise is critical, because if we are maintained on a steady diet of what we expect, we become bored and leave the story. Part of the storyteller’s task is to keep us from getting bored: to maintain, use, and stimulate our curiosity about the story.

Surprise may be found in an unexpected plot twist or an unexpected behavior on the part of the character. In either case, the reversal or surprise upsets our expectations; it maintains and builds upon our curiosity. Think about your favorite film or fairy tale. How often in the course of the film or the fairy tale are you surprised by the course of events? Just as we both suffer through and enjoy a roller coaster ride, we enjoy a similar pattern of plot movement in a script.

A notable difference between the roller coaster ride and a story, however, is that in the scenes, there tends to be a pattern of rising action rather than the peaks and valleys of a carnival ride. That rising action means that the surprises in the plot become more intense as we move through the story. Only through this progression of greater surprises can the story move toward a climax.

Just as every joke has a punch line, every story has a climax. The climax is the payoff, the point at which the character’s efforts against all odds are successful (or unsuccessful, in some cases). The climax is the high point of the script, and for many storytellers the very reason for their writing, telling, or filming it. Without a rising level of action, this culmination would not be a climax but merely another event in the story. Consequently, the action in the climactic scene tends to have an all-or-nothing quality. It is the scene in which the stakes are highest for the main character.

Every good short script also has a sense of resolution. Too often the climax is mistaken for the resolution: the resolution is the aftermath of the climax. The resolution brings us back to an even state after having experienced a growing feeling of intensity. The resolution in terms of the plot is the very end of the plot.

Realism Versus Fantasy

A general decision made by every storyteller, one that will affect how powerfully the audience engages the story, is the choice of realism or fantasy as the storytelling mode. Good stories can be realistic or fantastic, but the choice will affect how the storyteller utilizes character and plot, among other things. If a story is realistic, the detailing of the plot and of character has to be convincing and recognizable. If, on the other hand, the choice is fantasy, the characterizations will be more representational or metaphorical. Realistic characterization is complex, believable, recognizable; in a fantasy, characters may represent a class, gender, or race. In other words, a character may be used as a metaphor for a purpose that serves the story, in this case a fantasy. Consequently, the level of detail will tend to be less. Plot, on the other hand, will become that much more important, because the character in a fantasy is not as easy to identify with as a realistic character would be. Therefore, the plot needs to involve the viewer more actively than the character alone can.

The choice between realism and fantasy will help the storyteller determine how to employ the other storytelling elements; devices such as surprises and twists and turns of plot are even more important in fantasy. The narrative devices are the writer’s tools. In choosing a realist approach, the author opts for character devices; in fantasy, he or she opts for plot-oriented devices. Realistic story forms, such as melodrama, rely on identification with the character. They succeed or fail depending on the effectiveness of that identification. Fantasy is usually effective around a “moral” or a fantastic journey. In fantasy, plot is more crucial than identification with the character.

Sources for Storytelling

Whether your goal is a contemporary story, a story specific to a culture, or a more universal story, there are many sources of inspiration, information, or insight for you to draw from.

Many writers and teachers of writing believe that the best source is your own experience. Our feeling is that your experience is only one of many sources. Should you choose your own experience for a story, the detailing of the story is clearly less problematic. The problem writers face with their own experience is their loyalty to the memory of that experience—simply retelling something as it happened to you is not storytelling. The personal intensity the writer felt must be shaped using storytelling devices to make the memory more dramatically viable.

Author John Updike skillfully uses personal memories and observations in the Rabbit series to tell a story about a man trying to understand his life as events and other people take control of it. He uses real concerns and real observations he has had, and applies them to a fictional character, in writing that shows this technique at its finest. To tell a good story—one that will engage the reader—the author’s loyalty should be to the veracity of observation rather than to a detailed and literal reliving, in writing, of the experience. Writers like Updike use observation to comment on themselves and their readers rather than to indulge in, relive, or purge themselves of a memory or experience. This is the creative response to experience and observation.

Writers can be more personal than Updike (like Clark Blaise), or they can be less personal, as Frederick Forsythe tends to be. Our advice is that personal experience is an excellent source of material, but that considerations of narrative and audience should mediate between the totally subjective and objectified. The goal should always be to create an accessible, engaging story. The personal can often be self-indulgent or sophomoric, whereas a story, based on personal experience, that tries to engage the audience more fully, leaves the audience as witnesses instead of participants.

There are many other sources of stories beyond personal recollection, the most obvious being the daily newspapers. In this chapter, we will illustrate other sources that can be used as the basis for excellent film or video stories.

The Periodical Article as a Source

In February 1992, two years after reunification, the following story was reported from the former East Germany.3 The recently opened Stasi (secret police) files had revealed that a 30-year-old woman who had been involved in a human rights demonstration in the mid-1980s had for the next six years been under observation—and that the spy who had reported her activities throughout this time was her husband. She filed for divorce. Her husband stated in an interview that if the Communists had remained in control, he would have continued to spy on her.

Here is a marital relationship, which, in an ideal world, we might expect to function to protect husband and wife from the problems and challenges of society—in this case a Communist regime in East Germany. This expectation proves to be wrong, since the husband represented the intrusive government and spied on his wife, whose activities defied the government’s philosophy and policy. What we might expect to be the most cherished haven from Communism and government, the family unit, was therefore no protection for the individual. The implication is that there is no protection for the individual.

Although there is sufficient story potential here for a longer film, there are also a number of ways the story can be developed for a short one. The following is one suggestion for a short film script.

There are many points where it would be effective to join this story. We suggest that the drama is least interesting after the public discovery of the husband as a spy. What remains at that point is only resolution—what will happen to the marriage and to the wife and the husband (does he get his comeuppance?). We suggest that the presence of the state is important but needn’t be elaborated. We also suggest that the story concentrate on the two characters in the marriage. A critical choice will be which character should be the main character. If it is to be the wife, the script should focus on the danger of her activities and her expectation that the haven from the danger is her marriage. In this version, she needn’t find out that he is a spy, but we in the audience will gradually discover it and realize that she will suffer, without understanding why, for her activities.

On the other hand, if the husband is the main character, we want the story to focus on why a man has to betray his family for the state. Here he may be his own antagonist. The story line should focus not only on his betrayal but also on an understanding of his character.

We should confine the story to a very simple situation—let us say, the day of a human rights march. Let’s assume that the woman is our main character. We needn’t see the march itself but can confine the film to the preparations for the march and the aftermath. The scenes should clarify the relationship by highlighting the sense of trust on the part of the wife, and the planning and preparation of a report on the part of the husband. The government-controlled media—state radio, television, and newspapers— should be omnipresent. It may be necessary to embody the state in another character—a neighbor, for example. If the person who represents the state is too far from home—at work, for example—we would dilute the sense of an immediate threat of spies at and near home. The closer the spies, the more intense the story will be.

We can distract the audience from the true nature of the neighbor by making the neighbor an attractive woman. The initial impression should be that the husband is having an affair, rather than reporting to another spy. This way, when we do discover that they are both spies, the surprise and shock will be that much greater. In this political climate, spying, not sex, is practiced by the husband and neighbor as the highest form of leisure and pleasure!

It would be useful if the wife suspects the husband of an affair and if the climax of the film involves her accusation and his admission of an affair with the neighbor. But we in the audience will know that the truth is more sinister. She accepts the affair, and the marriage—and the spying—go on. The story can only grow more suspenseful because of her husband’s activities.

This short film will have much in the way of conflict between wife and husband/neighbor/state, but the situation will be simple, no more than “a day in the life” of the characters. When the wife chooses to accept her husband’s story of infidelity, we begin to understand that the real danger to the individual is not infidelity but rather the state. Her choice implies much about priorities and life in 1985 East Germany.

The approach we have taken in developing a magazine article into a short-film outline can be applied to any other source. We move now to a simpler source, the joke.

The Joke

Jokes or anecdotes can readily be the source of a short film, since they have a character, a narrative, and a climax. The writer need only add another character or two and provide a resolution, so that the audience will not be left in an unresolved state regarding the fate of the main character. The following joke will provide a constructive example.

Mark Twain tells the story of trying to get rid of the wreck of an old umbrella. First, he threw it in the ash can, but someone recognized it as his and returned it. Then he dropped it down a deep well, but someone repairing the well saw the umbrella and returned it. He tried several other methods, but always the umbrella came back. “Finally,” says Mark Twain, “I lent it to a friend, and I never saw it again.”4

Not only does this particular joke have a simple narrative, a conflict, and a main character, but it also has interesting opportunities for sound—not dialogue, but rather the use of creative sound effects and music. Indeed, it is possible to envision this script entirely without dialogue. It also has the virtues of visual action and of personal interaction that can be easily understood visually. A short script version should include some action that illustrates why the character needed the umbrella in the first place.

We recommend a time frame of a few hours, beginning with the character preparing to leave the house. His wife reminds him to take the umbrella, because rain is forecast. The character is already resentful. Of course his wife is right, but he doesn’t like to be wrong.

He leaves home with a specific errand—to purchase particular foods for dinner. His wife has provided him with a list. He proceeds to the food store but is caught in a terrible downpour. A gust of wind ruins his umbrella just before he reaches the food store. He carries in the ruined umbrella and proceeds to shop. When he’s finished, the clouds haven’t quite blown over, so he keeps the umbrella. After he has walked about a block, the sun bursts out, and he makes his first attempt to discard the umbrella.

What follows are his three attempts to get rid of the umbrella. Twice he leaves the umbrella in an ash can, and twice a good citizen runs after him with it, first an adult and then a young boy.

Carrying the groceries and now the broken umbrella, he continues on. He drops the umbrella down a well near his home and goes home thinking no more of it. No sooner has he unpacked the groceries than a workman who had been in the well knocks on his door and returns the umbrella. Now he is more than irked. He wants to destroy this ruined umbrella. He can’t put it in the garbage; the garbage man will no doubt return the precious object. He can’t share the problem with his wife; she will not understand. Then it comes to him. He puts the umbrella back in the closet.

The next day it is raining heavily. He takes the broken umbrella and a functional one and goes out for a walk in the rain. He sees his friend Don, who is getting wet rushing to the grocery store, list in hand. Our main character displays the spare umbrella under his arm, basking in his dryness from the working umbrella. Naturally, Don asks if he can borrow an umbrella from him. The main character agrees and saunters back home. Don struggles with the broken umbrella. A subtitle tells us that the main character never sees the broken umbrella again.

The Idiom

An idiom can provide an excellent starting point for a short story, since the idiom provides a character as well as an editorial position on that character. It also implies a narrative.

For our example, let’s use the idiom “fall guy.” According to a slang dictionary, the etymology of “fall guy” is as follows: “By one account, the original fall guy was a wrestler who deliberately ‘took a fall’—as commercial (‘exhibition’) wrestlers are still doing. Well, maybe. In British criminal slang ‘fall’ has meant ‘be arrested’ since the 1880s (it derives from a much earlier figurative sense, a descent from moral elevation, as in Adam’s fall).” A fall guy, then, is someone paid or framed to “fall” for a crime; as Sam Spade explains it to the Fat Man at the end of The Maltese Falcon, “He’s not a fall guy unless he’s a cinch to take the fall.”5 The modern fall guy takes the blame, or “carries the can,” for someone else’s misconduct or blunder.

The premise here is that our main character is going to be a scapegoat. Why and how he becomes one is the thrust of the narrative of this particular short film. We have to choose a person and a situation—but not necessarily a situation that will telegraph the fate of the main character to the audience. Perhaps the most critical task here is to create a situation that will make the outcome (that the character will become the fall guy) logical and that will create a character with whose plight we can empathize.

Our story will be a fantasy about an IRS bureaucrat who decides that he has had enough of saying no to the taxpayer, and that from now on he will say yes. He is the man in charge of income tax refunds. When the IRS communicates to the Treasury Department that it needs more money for refunds, the Treasury official replies that the Treasury had been about to ask the IRS for money (of course, the Internal Revenue Service essentially collects money for the Treasury). The official at the Treasury, also a bureaucrat, will not be able to report to his superior that he has the necessary money; the Treasury bureaucrat’s mission is not accomplished. Will he be the fall guy for the IRS? The story can unfold in a few ways, but in any case, the bureaucrat at the Treasury should be the fall guy. Clearly, the bureaucrat at the IRS is someone we all want to succeed.

This bureaucratic fantasy should focus on the fall guy at the Treasury, and we should on one level feel satisfaction at the fact that we can identify with and appreciate the prospect of greater refunds. In this story, the protagonist’s fate fulfills the audience’s fantasy—to get a refund—and, consequently, the audience will accept not only the premise but also the fate of the fall guy.

The Anecdote

An anecdote, whether told by a friend or picked up in a newspaper, can be an excellent starting point for a screen story. The following is an example of such an anecdote.

Desmond Tutu is the Anglican bishop of Johannesburg, South Africa. With a smile and some sly wit, he is able to make important points with a minimum of bitterness, which is perhaps why he was awarded the 1984 Nobel Peace Prize. He demonstrated this skill in a recent speech in New York City, where he stated, “When the missionaries first came to Africa they had the Bible and we had the land. They said ‘Let us pray!’ We closed our eyes. When we opened them, the tables had been turned: we had the Bible and they had the land!”6

This particular anecdote does not have much narrative or a main character, the way our earlier source material did. It does, however contain a powerful irony: the subjugation, under the name of religion, of indigenous people. This is not a unique story, since it could easily be used to describe the early incursions of Western European powers into North and South America. In a sense, it is one of the major patterns of colonialism.

Our challenge as writers is to use this powerful fact and metaphor and make it the spine of a short film story. Our approach can be realistic, dramatized, or animated. For the sake of providing an example of a different type from those used earlier, we will approach this anecdote with the goal of creating a story suitable for animation.

In order to focus on the concept of a moment of prayer turning into subjugation, we need to decide on a narrative and a character. We also need to make the point that at a certain time, blacks owned the land and were in power in South Africa. If possible, we should avoid the horrible cliché of traders giving gifts to the natives in exchange for property; to evoke Manhattan being purchased for a handful of trinkets can undermine the originality of our approach.

We suggest a story focusing on the meaning of prayer, in particular a specific prayer with meaning across different cultural groups and various historical periods. We can choose from prayers thanking the deity for the harvest or for the birth of a child, prayers for a death, or prayers asking or inviting the deity to provide. In our story approach, we will focus on prayers for a bountiful harvest. This will unify the story around prayer. It will also allow us to spotlight the land, the need to feed the local population, and the power structure in the area.

We will focus on a tribe, with a king and a shaman. The characters are black. In our story, a king shows his son how to lead his people to a bountiful harvest. The king will speak of the need for rain, for peace with one’s neighbors, and for sons and daughters to reap the harvest. Each scene focuses on an aspect of this prayer—for rain, for peace, for sons and daughters. Each scene ends with success, and in it the point should be made that the son in each scene is the king in the next. In this way, continuity over time suggests success and, implicitly, ownership. In the last three scenes, white men are present, first as observers, then as traders. In the final scene, there is a white priest who leads the prayer for the harvest. The king closes his eyes as instructed, and when he opens his eyes, the men and women in the field are white; he and his children stand by and watch in wonder. Then a white man offers the king a tool. He does not accept it. The man offers it again. The priest sternly looks on. The king accepts the tool and is told where to work, and as he moves into the background, the foreground fills with white priests and soldiers and their sons and daughters. The king and his people recede into the background, and our film script ends.


1. Ambrose Bierce, “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” in Ernest J. Hopkins, ed., The Complete Short Stories of Ambrose Bierce (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1984).

2. Raymond Carver, “Cathedral,” in Shannon Ravennel, ed., The Best Short Stories of the Eighties (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1990).

3. “Stasi Files Now Open,” Time, 3 February 1992, 33.

4. Quoted in E. W. Johnson, ed., A Treasury of Humor (New York: Ivy Books, 1989), 202.

5. Quoted in R. Clairborne, Loose Cannons and Red Herrings (New York: Ballantine, 1988).

6. Quoted in Johnson, A Treasury of Humor, 144.

7. Joanna Cole, ed., Best Loved Folktales of the World (New York: Doubleday, 1982); Jake Zipes, ed., Spells of Enchantment (New York: Penguin Books, 1991); and Pinhas Sadeh, Jewish Folktales (New York: Bantam Doubleday, 1989).

8. “The Pied Piper,” in Cole, Best Loved Folktales of the World, 228–231.

9. Charles Perrault, Perrault’s Fairy Tales (New York: Dover, 1988).

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