The Lost Art of Telling Long Stories
Have you ever wondered why we’re hard-wired for stories?
We evolved to think that way. Human beings are prediction machines. Our minds like predictability, and have ever since we first developed movement. Yes, that long ago. Predictability is important for movement – understanding where things are located. It’s one theory for why we developed robust senses: so we could predictably navigate our physical environment.
Simply put, we predicted in our minds what would happen when we moved. We predicted where the saber-toothed tigers were hiding. We predicted our interactions with other people in the tribe. Fast-forward to today, and when we expose people to a well-defined story, they’re predicting what happens next. A great narrative propels the audience into the future. The audience projects themselves into the story as the hero. It allows the audience to experience a situation through their imagination.
I think you can predict what’s next. Ways to more effectively tell a longer story.
Designing a Propulsive Narrative
In life, one thing happens, then another. In well-told stories, one thing happens because of another. Think of it as a Rube Goldberg machine. It’s causal. They’re interdependent. It’s propulsive.
Or we lose the audience.
Trey Parker has a simple formula that he explains in Comedy Central’s documentary “Six Days to Air.” And to paraphrase, weak stories can be described in the following way: This happens, and then this happens and then this happens. He suggests you go back into your story and every time the word “and” appears, replace it with the word “but” or “therefore.”
Voilà! Your story transforms into a propulsive narrative. This happens, therefore this happens, but then this happens. Whenever you replace the word “and” with “but” or “therefore,” it leads to a better story. The audience will more clearly see the causality between events (therefore) and how the reversals (but) work against the protagonist. This generates both predictability and tension in your narrative. The yin and yang of these two forces work together to create propulsive narratives.
Who Doesn’t Love a Mystery?
When things are stressful in life, that’s frustrating. A little bit of stress in a story, however, manifests itself as tension – a key component of a propulsive narrative. It causes audiences to cycle through an array of possibilities, eventually bringing them to the question, What happens next?
The more things the audience can put together in their heads, the more they’ll like the story. The audience wants to take part. They can’t resist. You never want to confuse the audience, but adding a tantalizing mystery is a great way to add tension and keep them “in the story.”
Use a vague pronoun reference in dialogue. For example, have one character ask another, “What are we going to do about her?” The audience will ask themselves, Who is “her”?
Use the word “it” in dialogue. For example, have one character ask, “Did you do it?” And another character answers, “Yes.” The audience will ask themselves, What is “it”?
When the audience knows someone is lying, they will ask themselves, Why did they lie?
When two characters whisper a secret between each other, the audience will ask themselves, What’s the secret?
When a seemingly innocuous piece of information is revealed and a character reacts in an inappropriate way – crying, for example – the audience will ask themselves, What made them cry?
When a character does something inappropriate for the circumstances, the audience will ask a question like, Why did he start the meeting by pouring gasoline all over the conference room?
Oh, There Is a Plan
Tell the audience the plan or the next steps. Start checking off the tasks, and then move to another storyline that’s not part of the plan. The audience will secretly want to get back to the main storyline. You’ve lit a fuse. The audience wants to see the explosion. Don’t stay away from the main storyline for too long, or you’ll create frustration instead of tension.
Don’t tell the audience the whole plan.
In the middle of the movie “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” Indiana Jones is asked what they should do next. He explains, “I don’t know, I’m making this up as I go.” That line begs the audience to guess what they would do if they were Indiana Jones.
Another example is when the protagonist must attack an overwhelming opponent and someone explains that there’s no way to win this fight. But the hero insinuates that they have a trick or two up their sleeve. Now the audience wants to try and guess what those tricks might be.
Perspective Is Everything
It’s nice to have the audience a little ahead of the protagonist – and then throw them behind the protagonist. And then get them a little ahead again. Changing these perspectives leads to tension and empathy.
When you have the protagonist and the audience learning facts at the same time, this builds tension and curiosity about the outcome. The audience will empathize with the protagonist as they learn along with them – projecting the audience into the story.
By giving the audience more information than the protagonist about a problem or situation they will soon face, we again build tension and empathy for the protagonist.
When the protagonist is a little ahead of the audience, it creates tension and causes the audience to ask themselves, How do they know that?
When you announce that a well-drawn character has an agenda, and then announce that a different well-drawn character has a conflicting agenda, the audience will salivate for the scene when these two meet. Draw well-defined characters in conflict with other characters. Make everyone’s agenda clear to the audience. Then pull the string and get out of the way. The copy writes itself.
And we’ll conclude with ways to fix longer stories that run into trouble.
Guideposts and Seeing Eye Dogs
Look for places to insert lines of dialogue or clues that tell the audience a character needs to go do something or go see someone – for example, a meeting. Audiences always want to know where the story is going. Elements like this are critical to longer storytelling. They’re like guideposts for the audience. As with everything, don’t overdo it. We need guideposts, not Seeing Eye dogs. And be sure when the character arrives at the meeting, the scene plays out expectantly. If the character doesn’t show up at all, even better. Now you’ve created tension.
This Is Getting Complicated
Weak stories stall out when the protagonist takes tepid actions again and again. You need progressive complication to remain interesting. Never repeat the magnitude of actions; raise the stakes each time the situation peaks into a crisis or punch line. The actions must become progressively more difficult.
The Messy Middle
Longer stories typically bog down in the middle – the second act. Experiment with the following techniques to keep people from abandoning you in the middle of the story.
Re-anchor the situation with a single line that reminds the audience of the goals and the stakes.
Have the protagonist announce a new promise or a vow that leads to more trouble.
Create a new competition between characters with differing views of the world.
Set a clock that adds pressure and tension to the situation.
Introduce a broomstick to change the protagonist’s goals. Remember in The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy’s goal was to meet The Great Oz. He won’t grant her an audience until she brings back the witch’s broomstick. This creates a whole new goal, right about at the midpoint of the story.
Bring in a new character that raises the stakes or recklessly moves forward, dragging the protagonist with them.
Increase the tempo and pacing by adding an action-packed, visual sequence or a chase scene.
Make the protagonist act completely the opposite of how they would normally act.
Switch the point of view. Show the audience another character with skin in the game – maybe the villain.
Heighten the tension with a betrayal. Even better, the protagonist betrays themselves or their goals by making a deal with the devil.
Pull the protagonist away from the people they love.
Force the protagonist to make bad choices.
Burn the ships, so they don’t have a path back home.
Add a false ending. The audience thinks it’s the end, but it’s not. The protagonist made a decision and acted, but it’s the wrong decision. They now know what the right decision is, but it’s way harder and more painful.
Storytelling is predicated on attention. Audiences only pay attention to longer stories when you’ve offered them something of value, something that’s worth their attention. Confuse them or bore them and you’ve become unworthy of their attention.
There’s an art to telling long stories. And a growing market for those skills.
Mike Johnston is a production executive and advertising creative in Seattle. He is available for freelance consulting, writing and directing. Contact Mike
To read some longer stories about the creative process, may we suggest "Laughable Ways to Lose Creative Battles."