3 Crucial Tips for Cinematic Authors

Okay guys, so our last FMX 2016 article covered some specific tips to consider when creating characters for your films. Now we’re going to look at some general story creation advice that you should keep in mind from conception to final product. Ready? Here comes some more lightning quick tips expanded on from advice given by FMX speaker Christopher Lockhart in his lecture Could Your Story be a Movie?:

Make the conflict life or death for your protagonist

So rule number one in story creation is: there has to be a conflict. That’s pretty clear, because if there were no conflict, no struggles or challenges for your characters to overcome, you really wouldn’t be telling a story, but more like an amusing anecdote. However, you can’t simply tack on any type of conflict to create a successful story. It must be something that is viewed by your character as a “life or death” situation. Now, obviously, this doesn’t have to be taken literally – to have your character’s life on the line is one of the more extreme conflict situation examples – but the situation has to be taken seriously by your protagonist, it has to be something that she feels will rock her world to the foundation if she can’t overcome it. Let’s look at a few examples:
In Arthur Christmas (spoiler alert!) the conflict arises when Arthur decides to take it upon himself to get a forgotten gift to a little girl on christmas eve. Our protagonist is consumed by a passion to see this mistake set right, and it means everything to him to make sure that every single child has a present from Santa under the tree on Christmas morning. The other elves (and Clauses) see the problem as trivial, and really, it is… but not to Arthur. It’s life or death to him, and that’s what makes our film as charming and exciting as it is.
In Shrek (again, spoiler alert… but who hasn’t seen Shrek?) he goes on a journey to rescue a princess to try and get his swamp back (this is the first conflict) and then ends up falling in love with Fiona and crashes the wedding to get her back (that is the second conflict). Both are life and death to him – both consume his world (of course, the second trumps the first, as he risks losing his home for a chance at love). If Shrek didn’t take getting his land back seriously or if he didn’t charge into the cathedral with such vehemence, the story would have fallen flatter than a scrap of cardboard.
The main point here is simply: Story is drama and drama is conflict. It is the key to your whole film and if it’s not taken seriously by the author and the characters, it leaves the audience with essentially nothing to hold on to.

Have a cause and effect for each story element

Nothing irks me more when watching a film or reading a book than when a solution, conflict, or new world rule seems to come out of midair. You can probably think back to a moment where you were pleasantly (or mediocrely perhaps) enjoying a story when Wham! something just came out of nowhere that left you screaming (at your screen) “What? But that doesn’t make any sense!” And if you controlled the urge to throw your book or television out of the window and continued to stick with the story until the end (unless it was a rare twist that somehow came seamlessly together by the conclusion) you were probably left with a feeling of annoyance, being cheated out of what could have otherwise been a great experience. Of course, there are many factors that could leave one feeling let down at the end of a film, but this one is truly a literary sin. Absolutely no story element should just come out of the blue. There can be surprises and twists that are revealed in a way that doesn’t explain them until a later point in time, but they must be grounded in the already established world rules. That is, the author needs to know exactly why and how such twists can come about and the audience must be given a satisfactory answer to their inevitable questions – or else be left with a mystery that fits to the tone of the film. There should be an established chain of cause and effect for every story element. For a story to flow, this chain is necessary. Disjointed elements will only take the audience (or reader) out of the story experience and leave them with an aura of frustration instead of that satisfied “wow”, “awesome”, “ahhhhh” feeling most good storytellers strive for. So, when you’re writing your script, book, whatever… constantly ask yourself, “Does this fit with my story? How can I introduce this? Okay, I need this event to happen, but what could cause it?” and you’ll end up with a much more intact product at the end.
Sidenote: if you don’t yet know exactly what could bring about certain key elements in your story or what the full consequences of such an element might be, that’s okay. Don’t give up. It’s just part of the process and you will get there. Just make sure that finding the full cause and effect a goal you keep in sight, and never brush it off or try to take a shortcut with the answers.

Cinematic action is always external action

When you’re writing for the cinema or television, you have to keep in mind how you show your character’s intentions and deliver the action. Film is principally a visual media. Most of what is conveyed on the screen is done so through close ups, wide angle shots, or the actors’ interaction with the camera. That is why it is important that the action depicted always be external to some extent. We talked about internal conflict in our previous article, about how a character’s conflict can come from within even their own heads, but how do you show that? If one were to write a book rather than a film script, for example, it would be quite easy to fill the pages with descriptive words of feelings, inner monologues, a decision making process, and so forth. None of this fits into a film – at least not in this way as internal action. Everything must be conveyed externally – with a meaningful look to the camera, the small ticks and details in body language, or meaningful dialogue. A decision, for example, is not an external action… yet.

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If you have a character deciding something, you have to bring it out externally. This may sound obvious, but think about it, how will you give the audience clues as to what the protagonist is contemplating at this crucial moment and how can you make sure that it is understandable for everyone who doesn’t have intimate knowledge of the character? This is a simple point, but if not taken seriously, it can land your film in some real trouble.
A side note from Ferdinand: Ed Hooks has said that (and I’m paraphrasing here) emotion leads to action. It is our emotions behind our decisions that drive our actions. The easiest way to get action started is to put strong emotion behind it, because thoughts alone do not cause much cinematic action. So, to turn that internal action and into external action, fuel it with emotional energy.

Alright, there you have it: Three more FMX inspired tips. We hope you found them helpful and inspiring. And there’s more where that came from! Next up: Story Development. We hope you stick with us and come back for more. Thank you for liking, sharing, commenting, and subscribing. Peace out, Islanders!

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