Be an efficient storyteller

The problem with stories nowadays…

If you want to know what my main problem has been with just about every tv show and movie I’ve seen of late, just watch this video:

If I could sum up just about every advice I’d ever want to give to storytellers, including myself, it would be: BE EFFICIENT.

But what does it mean to be an efficient story?  With every scene – every moment – of your story, ask yourself:

  1. Does it advance the plot?
  2. Does it develop the characters?
  3. Does it build the world?
  4. Is it entertaining in its own right?

THE most efficient, best scenes will accomplish all 4 goals at once.  They will advance the plot while developing the characters, and do a little world-building while being entertaining.  If you want an example, part of what makes the original Star Wars a masterpiece is that almost every frame of the film is accomplishing all 4 goals at once (emphasis on “almost“).

Does this mean every scene HAS to accomplish all 4?  No.  That’s impossible.  Sometimes you’ll just have to have a connective moment which can only fulfill one of those.  The point is that as a writer, you should look at the story and see if you have single-goal scenes that can be combined.  Or is there any scene that can have more added to it? When you have an exposition dump, can you add character reactions?  When moving characters and pieces into place, can you use the opportunity to explore the world?

Also remember that scene lengths should be proportional to your goals.  The hero giving a bit of food or candy to a child only does a bit of character development, but it only takes a few seconds of screentime, so audiences accept it.  So when you have single-goal scenes, try to trim them down as much as you.

The reason I put the goals in the order they are listed is that when you attempt to accomplish one, you’ll often find yourself fulfilling the ones below it. (the exception is that #1 & 2 are kind of fluid)  For example, often to advance the plot, you’ll have to develop the characters.  The characters’ moving the plot will develop the world, and all of this usually ends up entertaining the audience.  The problem with many modern stories is that they seem to have moved the 4th goal of entertainment into position #1, which is a recipe for failure.  This is my biggest issue with Zack Snyder’s films in that they’re often very entertaining visually, while not bothering much with the other 3 goals.  For another example, consider the first Star Wars prequel (Phantom Menace).  What does the podrace in it accomplish or aim to accomplish besides being entertaining?  In Star Wars: Rogue One, what does the scene on Eadu (the rainy planet) accomplish?

Another important tip I find with efficiency is: can you utilize anything already present in the story without adding something new?  This is a sign I look for in first drafts because I see it in mine all the time.  We storytellers get so focused on getting to the next point in the plot, we toss in whatever is need to get there.  This usually ends up causing the story to feel inorganic and artificial.  Especially when you take a step back and realize there was a perfectly valid solution already existing in the story. (see: so much of the TV show Supernatural’s 8-11th season – I’ve ranted about that for several thousand words)  For example, in SW7 (the Force Awakens) after the fight against the Tie Fighters, Finn & Rey in the Millennium Falcon are picked up by Han Solo.  Why?  Because we’re told it has a very distinct engine profile that shows up easily on scanners – which then fails to explain why they fly it to infiltrate the enemy base.  See that?  A plot point introduced to force along the plot which then runs afoul of later plot developments.  All they had to do was say that Han Solo had been searching for the Falcon and his latest efforts led him to Jakku.

Or to use a metaphor about a sequel I was working on: Some characters were stuck on a desert island with a safe.  They wanted to get into the safe but the key to opening it was locked inside said safe.  Of course as the author I could go back in time and introduce a second key somewhere, or give one of the characters a lock-picking ability but 1) I needed these characters to take time to get in, either one of these wouldn’t allow me to stall them for more than a day and 2) I really wanted to see if there was a solution present so I forbid myself from just inventing one.  Eventually, an answer did come to me, and it was one so unconventional it should be convincing to the audience that the characters didn’t reach it right away either.  The solution also gave some great opportunities for characters and world building.

So if I had any single advice for modern storytellers it would be: be efficient.  When you finish your story, take a step back and look at the whole.  Ask yourself the 4 questions with every scene.  See if there’s solutions to plot challenges already in the story.  Try it for awhile, and see if your stories don’t improve.

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2 thoughts on “Be an efficient storyteller

  1. Also remember that scene lengths should be proportional to your goals. The hero giving a bit of food or candy to a child only does a bit of character development, but it only takes a few seconds of screentime, so audiences accept it. So when you have single-goal scenes, try to trim them down as much as you.

    It also makes a good background action if two characters have to be doing an info-dump, or even just talking.

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