Now let’s cheat:
Chronological Order is no longer mandatory. It doesn’t matter if the story is linear or nonlinear. A story can begin anywhere. Audiences expect to be plunged into the story.
- Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction has an out of order beginning/middle/end. Reservoir Dogs, intentionally forgoes showing the whole crux of the reason why the film happens by not showing the robbery. We hear from the characters what happened which casts doubt on everyone and allows the audience to piece the story together in a rewarding fashion.
- For Star Wars, George Lucas took his epic story and broke it into three episodes which each had their own beginning/middle/end.
- Christopher Nolan’s Memento had a reverse beginning middle end. Which in itself was a beginning/middle/end.
It doesn’t have to be nonlinear to be interesting. Star Wars is linear in each episode and over the whole original series. The point is to realize how much audiences can handle and use this to the best advantage of the story.
Scope as I said, in talking about format, has to do with the size of your idea. Budget might play a role in this, as well as a multitude of other factors. The rise of the contained thriller and found footage sub-genres are prime examples of scope.
Contained thrillers, such as Panic Room, spend a majority of their time in a single location, this can limit the scope of the story.
Found footage, such as Paranormal Activity, generally limit their scope as the genre is dependent on the found footage camera telling the story.
But you can compare found footage films Blair Witch and Cloverfield to see the range in scope is not restricted to genre and budget isn’t the only factor to a story’s scope.
However, look at some larger budget examples. Examine the scope of:
- Die Hard — a man in a building with terrorists, cops and reporters outside.
- Die Hard 2: Die Harder — airplane with innocent passengers, airplane with captive, airport terminals, control towers, runways, under ground tunnels, secret baddie hide out, snowmobile chases, etc.
- Die Hard: With a Vengeance. — New York City, boats, subway, cars, trucks, bombs, gold, guns, always moving, huge chase scenes, helicopters…seriously, huge scope.
Scope may also be dependent on the number of storylines. The Die Hard franchise increases the number of storylines with each film.
- Die Hard — a plethora of characters but they’re all involved in the same storyline.
- Die Hard 2: Die Harder — the bad guys want to free the general, the general wants to get control of the plane, John McClane wants to save Holly and get the bad guys, Holly wants to save the people on the plane, the people in the tower want to save the people on the plane, the reporter in the airport wants a story.
- Die Hard: With a Vengeance — the bad guys want to torture John McClane by having him run all over the city solving dangerous puzzles, the kids in the school might die, John McClane needs Zeus to help, Zeus wants to live, the cops want to stop the terrorists, Zeus wants to stop the terrorists, the bad guys want the gold, etc.
There is no right or wrong answer on scope. The idea is to have the appropriate scope for the project.
Double up. If your story has a small enough scope and runtime — the personal goal is the overarching goal. It’s infrequently reversed as it’s generally important to say why the story matters.
Concentrate. All the considerations in the earlier section on format proved story can be concentrated. Many times this is done by using either a voice-over or a direct to camera breaking of the fourth wall. Sometimes they use title cards or superimpose to more rapidly express information.
It might simply be not asking questions. Groundhog Day is a film that doesn’t ever answer why he’s waking up with everything restarted, because they don’t ask. So the audience doesn’t ask.
Most of the time it’s about not telling all of the story. Whether you’re writing a feature film or a two minute short, what you’re not doing is writing a novel. Or a series of novels. So everything that’s in the story needs to serve a purpose, and with a web series or short film everything needs to serve multiple purposes.
At a certain point you can’t hack the story down to it’s bones, you need to leave room, but the art of writing is knowing the bones from atmosphere. Atmosphere doesn’t have to be extended shots of trees, it’s simple touches that bring more life to your story.
Don’t be afraid to be mysterious but make it pay off. Why do you think Lost kept it’s audience for so long? Or why was Jaws so scary? There was a lot of mystery. But for every mystery there had better be a masterful payoff. And only knowing where you’re going is going to make that work.
Mysteries don’t have to be obvious questions. They can be scenes left out, such as the robbery in Reservoir Dogs. Events characters refer to, such as the tension between John and Holly in Die Hard. Some times the best mysteries are the ones you’re not aware are questions. But the audience should ask themsleves questions that make them want to stay — they’re not confused, they’re intrigued.
Let the audience add up two plus two. They’ll love you forever. — Ernst Lubitsch
I don’t sit and ask what the overarching motivation is in order to figure out the character arc. It works, don’t get me wrong, but I’ve internalized a lot of this process by now. So in thinking about a story, planning it, I understand and work toward all of these items so the story will have direction, purpose, be cohesive and…entertain.