Watch any commercial and you can see a mini-story being told. First there’s a problem. Second, there’s a solution. Third, there’s a satisfying conclusion. In a detergent commercial, a woman might be complaining that her kids and husband get so much grime in their clothes that she can’t get them out with normal detergent. Then with a new type of detergent, it gets her clothes cleaner and whiter. As a result, her kids and husband are happy with her. A simple story, but many commercials tell a story because stories grab our attention.
Watch music videos and you’ll see the same story telling structure hidden in the background. While the song plays, music videos often show a character with a problem. One famous music video is called “Legs” from ZZTop. If you watch this music video, you can see that a woman is being brow beaten by strangers and co-workers. Suddenly a trio of gorgeous women show up to turn her from a frumpy woman into a gorgeous one. Now as a beautiful woman, this formerly frumpy character goes back to the places where people humiliated her and gets her revenge on them. Then she drives away happy.
When thinking of your own screenplay, define its basic story structure. What’s the main problem? In “Home Alone,” the hero didn’t feel important. In “Groundhog Day,” the hero was arrogant and needed to learn humility. In “Avatar,” the hero was paralyzed and needed to literally get back on his feet again. Identifying the main problem is the purpose of Act I.
In Act II, the focus is on showing how the hero is trying to resolve his or her problem. In a detergent commercial, the hero is learning to use a new detergent to solve a problem. In a music video like ZZTop’s “Legs,” the hero is learning to become a powerful and beautiful woman. In “Home Alone,” the hero learns to survive on his own. In “Groundhog Day,” the hero learns to face his problem of eternally repeating the same day over and over by accepting his fate and making the best of it by making other people happy. In “Avatar,” the hero learns to control an avatar body and learn from the alien natives how to really live.
In Act III, the problem gets resolved in a way that both the hero and the audience can emotionally experience. That last point is the crucial one because we’ve all seen bad movies where the hero seems changed but the audience doesn’t feel emotionally moved one bit. Watch a bad movie like “The Net” with Sandra Bullock where she plays a computer hacker who solves her problem by bashing the villain in the head with a fire extinguisher. That solves her problem, but from an audience’s point of view, we don’t feel emotionally satisfied because her solution wasn’t set up earlier and didn’t force her to change emotionally to learn to deal with her fatal character flaw in the beginning. She could have just bashed the villain in the head with a fire extinguisher three seconds into the movie and the result would have been the same.
So when you conclude your story, you must make sure it shows that the hero has changed. During Act II, we see the hero changing and we emotionally need to experience that change as well. In “Terminator 2,” we see the hero (the good Terminator) change as he gradually learns why humans cry and the value of a human life. Each change seems minor in itself, but each change reinforces the fact that he’s learning and changing. Even the simple act of finding the car keys on the sun visor shows that he learned.
Story endings are most satisfying when we see that the hero had a problem and learned to overcome it in the end. In commercials and music videos, stories end rather quickly, but the ending must still be satisfying. The next time you watch a commercial or music video, look for the story hidden behind the message. You’ll see that many commercials and music videos rely on story telling to make the overall message more compelling even if the audience doesn’t know that they’re really watching a story.