by Khailynn Baker
You can’t be a great storyteller if you are unable to analyze how stories are formed and be original in your own story. The knowledge of how a story is constructed and the creative freedom to follow your own rules are a writer’s most powerful advantages when attempting to write fiction. Now I’m no expert, but I’ve learned the hard way how a good concept for a story can lead to nowhere if you forget the structure and altogether lose focus on what message or purpose you were trying to convey through characters and the sequencing of events. My purpose for this writing is to explain what I believe is the way fictional short stories and movies are crafted—the patterns I notice. What some successful groups do to tell a powerful story, and why originality, imagination, analyzation, and writing knowledge matters.
So what makes up a story? The basic structure is: it has a beginning, a middle, and an end. It sounds simple, and you can find this set-up in both fiction and nonfiction narratives, but I’m more familiar with fiction, so I’ll focus on this genre. In the beginning, the main characters need to be introduced and the conflict should be introduced soon after. It’s not a good idea to wait on doing this since I notice that stalling will occur, making the plot slowly progress. For film and television this is disliked because they have to adhere to a shorter time slot for the sake of not going on too long. In fiction novels and books, the concern for delaying introducing conflict is that audiences will not want to continue reading the book out of boredom. For the middle section of a story, characters are supposed to go through trial and error to solve their problem. Before a resolution is made, there needs to be a climax, an intense moment where the characters are desperate to find a solution before a terrible consequence occurs. The end is where the resolution comes. At this point, characters have come out of the conflict having changed from how they were in the beginning of the story. Without a change to the character or the situation, it leaves viewers feeling empty or disappointed because the progression of the story did not lead to anything substantial occurring. Knowing the structure is important because the audience’s reaction depends on the writer’s ability to get their attention and entertain them.
What makes up a story figuratively? Before thinking about how to construct a story for short stories, novels, or movies, a person generates creative ideas they received naturally in their minds, and this is called “imagination.” Imagination can be relied on to build a non-existent world, construct characters, and make up concepts. Personally, I’ve always had a wild imagination, and while the downside is that I tend to be goofier than any human should be, a plus is that I don’t have to piggyback off of concepts that others came up with. To make sure there is no misunderstanding, I must iterate that no idea is truly only mine because I thought it up in my head. A billion other folks have definitely thought up the same imaginary character archetype I did and whatever you see around you will work its way into the subconscious thought, which can be brought out through imagination. But the thing is, imagination kickstarts an idea, and it’s up to the writer to use careful research on the subject matter they’re writing about to properly utilize imagination in their writing.
In conjunction with imagination the term “originality” is expected to come next. The reason for this is that a creator of anything aims to change something or add something new to the artistic medium they use. For a fiction writer, the need to be original is drawn from their imaginations and what ideas they come up. It’s hard to accept that nearly everything has probably been done before, but the point of using your imagination and cleaning it up with research is to essentially gain originality—at least in presentation. One example of a distinctive story teller is Quentin Tarantino. Tarantino doesn’t direct movies the way most directors and creators would. In fact, I’m sure that most people wouldn’t be able to name the director for most movies they’ve watched (even if it’s their favorite!). However, sometimes a director has their own style of presenting scenes that is iconic, and this is what makes Tarantino a successful, original, creative director. He may have a random scene meant to break up tension, despite the timing being unusual or he’ll have a quick shot of violent acts being done, only to follow up with a laid-back scene of peace. His method to writing and presenting can break certain rules that audiences and directors are used to seeing, but Tarantino has a large following. Why? He is a smart creator who has his own vision and has reinvented the way stories can be told.
So, can this writing knowledge be used to write a story even if you’re not experienced or an expert? Well, at the age of 7 I was in the habit of creating imaginary characters and writing their adventures. The earliest story I wrote, “Heart and Star” was about two contestants in a never-ending reality TV show who would do competitive challenges to win a makeover for their bedrooms. Star was a rude, egotistical girl who cheated in every challenge she did, and Heart was a sweet, happy-go-lucky girl who always let Star have a fair chance to win. In the end, Star would create an overly convoluted plan to thwart Heart’s progress, but Star would get physically hurt by her own contraptions, thus disqualifying herself. If this sounds intriguing enough to want to read about it, then I have successfully convinced you that you don’t need to be an expert on these things to execute a good idea for a story. However, imagination, originality, and the writing knowledge is what will sell this idea to people if it were made into a story.
When young, it is the easy to understand the structure of a story and come up with original characters and concept, which is why some children get interested at an early age. However, the trouble will come to a child when they have to explain or understand the main point or purpose behind the story. For example, whenever I went to the movies with my friends or family and expressed my confusion, they would shrug it off basically saying, “It doesn’t matter what the point was. I had fun watching it, so it was a good movie.” But not being able to explain why you like a movie makes it difficult to trust what makes the story good. Deeming things “good” or “bad” is subjective, but in the case of writing, I believe there is a set pattern of strategies professionals use to make powerful stories people always enjoy. For example, Pixar Animation is a company that produces films that are known to rely on the one strategy of storytelling: conflicting character dynamics (usually between two characters). One of Pixar’s films, Monsters Inc., is about a monster named Sullivan working at a company where monsters scare children so that their scream energy can power the monster world, but besides scaring, monsters are told to not touch humans or else they will be exposed to toxins. Sullivan eventually meets a little girl who escapes from her room in the human world and joins him in the monster world.
Originally I believed the movie’s message was “Don’t judge a book by its cover” because Sullivan learns that she isn’t toxic and that scaring human children is wrong because they are innocent. While this is one interpretation that is not incorrect, there are more layers to this movie that the writers intended to hit viewers subtly. If you analyze the movie in depth, the main theme is about challenging authority. Sullivan disobeys the word of his boss, friends, and co-workers to protect the human child, and he is nearly killed for it. A side theme that is brought up is morality vs. the all for one, one for all principle; it is explored in a way for children to be able to understand—Sullivan disobeys his boss because the life of an innocent child is at stake. The experts behind Monsters Inc. communicate these symbolic themes through their writing without being too blatant, e.g. Sullivan slowly adjusting to the child’s presence, escorting her to the bathroom and being overly protective of her when she disappears. He treats Boo as a person because he recognizes that she is not a danger or treat, and he chooses to sacrifice the company’s main energy source for the sake of one child’s life and happiness. They already knew what they were trying to convey to the audience before writing, and they anticipated that audiences would connect with the situations since it was made to appeal to their intended audience’s morality. Being able to analyze all these ideas and themes makes this movie seem very powerful, possibly more powerful than it really is, but by doing this thorough breakdown of a well done story, I’ve gathered more intelligence into what successful people do to tell great stories.
Now as an adult, I have learned some of this knowledge through taking creative writing classes in high school, and experimenting through my public writing online on sites like Fan fiction, Inkitt, and on my Tumblr blog where I review artwork and published stories. Out of all the sites, I chose Fan Fiction to see what little progress I made in becoming a better storyteller. Fan Fiction is an informal place to write that allows people to experiment with already established media and use it to produce their own fan-made works. It has become a bit of a joke for the internet savvy, but it is no secret that users on the Fanfiction site are fairly young and often write stories where they’ll create their own original character and write them in a romantic relationship with a fictional character that happens to be incredibly frustrating to read about. These writers will write paragraphs detailing their character’s appearance, outfit, and attraction to others, and they don’t always care about telling a story so much as they just want to write romantic fantasy scenarios involving their original characters. So it is easy to imagine there are a lot of disgusting, disturbing narratives told.
As a test, I created a story that deconstructs all the typical tropes that you find in badly written fan fiction. I wrote my character without going into much detail on their appearance or background, I introduced the conflict early and made the focus on the adventure my character is forced into, and I didn’t write a love interest for them. It was never meant to be taken seriously, but I gained a following just by doing these things, and now they have repeatedly asked for more of my story. I’m not sure if I’ll continue since I’m in school to learn how to write creative fiction proficiently, but I feel a small confidence in my skill thanks to taking advice like in this paper. Many of these things have been said before by professionals and amateurs in fiction writing, and I don’t want to limit myself to these rules every time I write because the writing process for creative work is difficult enough as it is. Sometimes people want to reinvent the way stories can be told by going against some of these rules. Some professionals are unable to analyze works of fiction, but they make great work. Some novel writers don’t want to go into the conflict immediately because they are trying to shock the readers by the how anti-climactic the book begins or they want to establish characters more before introducing conflict. Doing these things doesn’t make you a bad writer and some writers who do this are successful. Really, the best thing to do to become an expert storyteller is trust that knowing the structure, using your imagination, identifying themes that resonate with people, and standing out with your presentation can make you a great writer.
Monsters, Inc. Directed by Pete Docter, Lee Unkrich, and David Silverman. Pixar Animation, 2001.