When constructing a story for the small or big screen, you will benefit by rummaging through the screenwriter’s toolbox. Even though writing fiction is very different from scripting a documentary, some of the devices used in dramatic storytelling seem relevant for non-fiction stories.

Anette Olsen
Script writer, webfilm producer in Safran Film and journalist based in Denmark. Former editor of DOX Magazine (2001-02 and 2004-05).

Everybody likes a good story.

Stories are the furnishings of life, without them our lives would be empty. We’re insatiable consumers of stories, be it invented dramas, documentary slices-of-life stories, novels, a chat on the Internet or a story told over dinner.

There is an appetite for stories, maybe because they are a source of inspiration and a means of bringing order into chaos and insight into life. The need for a story is not necessarily motivated by a need to escape from reality or be entertained. As Robert McKee, the American screenwriting “guru”, puts it, “Story isn’t a flight from reality but a vehicle that carries us in our search for reality, our best effort to make sense out of the anarchy of existence.” And as such, storytelling is serious business.

But what is a good story ? Obviously something worth telling that the world wants to hear (a rather subjective point of view, though). News journalism operates on the notion of “importance”. If this criterion were combined with creative quality and included in TV-programming policies, chances are we would get better TV and better stories.

A good story grabs my attention, it moves me, evokes emotion, broadens my horizons. But a good story is not enough. It needs to be told well. A well-told story has the right selection of material and blends all the elements into a harmonious whole. It’s a few moments that tell everything.

This is where the art of screenwriting comes in. A good script can make a good (or bad) film, but a bad script can’t make a good film. In other words, storytelling requires inventiveness and workmanship.

In fiction one works with imagination; everything is possible, anything can happen – you can actually play God (which is a thrilling feeling). In this respect fiction material is pliable, the writer is in full control of characters and events. Documentary material on the other hand is uncontrollable for obvious reasons. The characters exist; there’s a reality to deal with. You can’t plan reality, but you can treat and shape it creatively and structure your story.

Story design

What is the story about? A banal but absolutely necessary question that one should be able to express in a few sentences on the back of a business card (as the advice says). Another question is what is the story really about? There’s always more to it than the “surface” story; there’s a theme or what some call premise or “spine”. The spine of the story is the red thread that holds everything together and creates a sense of unity. So, protect your spine and cut out everything that is irrelevant and does not enhance the story or the theme. That’s the “what-it’s-really-about” concept.

Different elements make up the story’s design: conflict, characters, events, actions, scenes, settings, etc. The most important element of dramatic screenwriting is conflict. Conflict is the “soul of screenwriting”. Conflict is the energy that propels the story in an often linearly linked progression of cause and effect. There is simply no story without conflict. Nobody cares to see a fiction film about a happy family leading a happy life without problems. It is unwatchable: no tension, no conflict, no drama! Happiness in itself is not a story, but how to find happiness could be (and may be the most often told story).

Entire chapters of screenwriting books are devoted to character building. Characters convey emotions effectively (because we can identify with them), and perhaps this explains the modern preference for character-borne stories.

Susanna Edwards

Sunshadow, a documentary directed by Susanna Edwards about a Spanish female matador, is an example of a character-borne story with many fictional elements. Christina Sanchez, the heroine, fights a battle, not only physically against the bull in the arena, but also internally by trying to overcome her repugnance against actually killing the animal. All this plus the fact that she is a woman in a man’s world makes the film a great story filled with drama, conflict, strong characters, emotion and insight into a specific world.

Building a story is a question of selection and composition and of finding a coherent and dynamic structure for the story. What to include, what to exclude, how to ‘plot’ it. To plot means to navigate through the territory of the story. It is important to distinguish between story and plot, the story being “what it is about” or the meaning underlying the action, while the plot is the way the story evolves through actions and events in time. In an Aristotelian sense, plot is understood as the arrangement of incidents; it is the “soul of tragedy”. Events must be selected, composed and designed in time, and in this respect all films are plotted.

Screenwriting is a creative process that lets you shape and focus the story at an early stage, to get a grasp on what the story is about, to feel where the film is heading and therefore worthwhile.


© EDN/ModernTimes (previously published in DOX Magazine).
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