I have had an epic relationship with Star Wars starting when I came to this country from a land far far away. In the last few weeks, my sons and I have been binge-watching the movies. We started at Episode I (a fact I am sure I will get a HEAP of criticism for…we can discuss my reasoning for that at some point), and we are about to watch Return of The Jedi tomorrow. They are obsessed and have been asking so many questions, my favorite of which has been: is Darth Vader a good guy or a bad guy?
So, I get to have discussions about the duality of human nature with an eight-year-old and a six-year-old. We get to talk about anger and how it blinds us. We get to talk about bravery and innovation in the face of imminent doom. We get to talk about family and connection. All from movies with robots, funny creatures, and swords that light up.
The complexity, detail, and endless surprises and connections that we come to when watching these stories come to life are not accidental. Great stories never are.
Storytelling is like architecture. There are fundamental rules that must be followed to have a sturdy structure in place before the complexities, details, and artistic flair of a building can wow a potential dweller.
Think about where you live. Now, think about where a distant relative lives. The physical structures of your homes, apartments, or condos all have essential elements: foundation, electrical, plumbing, roof, etc. And yet where you live and where your distant relative lives will vastly differ in floor plans, color schemes, appliances, flooring, lighting, and interior design.
Yes, I know that speaking about fundamentals is not…ahem…fun. But if you commission an architect to build you a home without considering foundation, electrical, etc. you are going to have quite a mess on your hands.
So, before we discuss how to really get into the nitty-gritty, hidden easter-egg, multi-layered approach to details of a story, we first get to talk about where to start.
There are countless storytelling structures and formulas out there that can serve for you to outline the sequence of events. My favorite is the 5S Structure. It goes like this:
Setting: A long time ago in a galaxy far far away.
Struggle: An unqualified farmboy gets called to adventure through tragedy and old family history.
Snap: Farmboy loses his mentor at the hands of an evil dictator.
Shift: Farmboy turned pilot, joins the resistance to fight against tyranny and evil.
Success: Farmboy pilot destroys the evil dictator’s new weapon and home base with an impossible missile attack.
UGH. If you got grossed out reading that, I got grossed out writing it. Reducing Star Wars, Episode IV to that simple outline makes me want to puke a little bit. But, keep in mind that Start Wars was successful because it had structure from the start, following Joseph Campell’s Hero’s Journey.
Andrew Stanton states in his Ted Talk that “Stories aren’t widgets. They’re not exact.” You can’t formula yourself into a compelling story, but you must use a formula to begin one.
If you are anything like me, you are thinking UGGGH I hate being tied down to a structure and an outline. I will never be boxed in!
First of all, only Siths talk in absolutes, and hate leads to the dark side, so let’s be mindful of our feelings here. Second, you can have your Roasted Porg and eat it, too.
Think of storytelling formulas and structures like a calculator. You get to do alllllll the messy, deep work, and your calculator is there to double-check you got your math right. When I am working on a complicated story, I just write. Freestyle, a stream of consciousness, over the top, whatever comes to mind. After I have walked away from my writing for a bit, I double-check it to the formula:
Does my story have a clear time and location? Does it have a central conflict? Does it have identifiable characters? Does it have a clear path in struggle and in success? If I had to tell my story in five sentences (5S structure), would my audience be able to understand the plot, even if they are not impressed by it?
This helps me stay focused and on a clear path. And once I have that clear path, that’s when I can start adding the special effects, hidden gems, and easter eggs only true fans notice.
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