Stories are never direct. In a romantic comedy, boy meets girl, but it never ends that way. Instead the basic formula is boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy finally gets girl. The less direct you are in telling your story, the more interesting it becomes.
Imagine if in “Star Wars” if Darth Vader learned the location of the rebel base in the first minute and then blew it up. The story would be over. Instead, Darth Vader has an initial goal and he overcomes numerous obstacles to achieve his goal of finding the rebel base. First, he has to capture Princess Leia. Then he tries to get her to talk and reveal the rebel base location. Finally he lets her escape and uses a tracking device on the Millennium Falcon to find the rebel base.
In “Little Miss Sunshine,” a little girl wants to compete in the Little Miss Sunshine beauty pageant. Her family drives her there and encounters all sorts of obstacles along the way from their van nearly breaking down to the grandfather dying along the way. Finally after overcoming all these obstacles do they finally get to the beauty pageant.
All stories are told with a goal in mind, and then something happens. That something that happens rarely is good, which forces the hero to find a way around that problem. The basic storytelling formula looks like this:
- A goal
- Something happens
- The character finds a way to overcome the new problem
- Goal achieved
In “Star Wars,” this formula looks like this:
- Darth Vader wants to find the rebel base
- Princess Leia manages to slip the Death Star plans off her starship
- Darth Vader fails to find the rebel base by torturing her
- Darth Vader finds the rebel base with a tracking device
Not only does your whole story follow this structure, but each Act and even individual scenes follow this structure. In “Back to the Future,” Marty needs to drive the DeLorean at a wire at the exact instant lightning strikes the clock tower. The structure of this scene looks like this:
- Marty drives towards the wire
- A tree falls, disconnecting the wire
- Doc tries to connect the wires again but it’s too short
- Doc slides down the wire and connects them just in time
Tell your story, and then introduce something happening that throws the goal out of whack. Yet your characters still need to continue pursuing their original goal because it’s important to them.
If your story is too direct, it’s boring. Throw a curveball at your characters, make something happen. The most exciting part of any story is knowing what the characters are trying to achieve and seeing them overcome multiple problems until they achieve that goal.
In another scene from “Back to the Future,” Marty tries to convince Doc that he’s from the future:
- Marty tells Doc he’s from the future
- Doc doesn’t believe him and laughs when Marty says the president is the actor, Ronald Reagan
- Marty tries to explain more from the future, but Doc slams the door in his face
- Marty tells Doc how he got the bump on his head by dreaming up the flux capacitor crucial for time travel and Doc suddenly realizes Marty’s telling the truth
Storytelling is never linear in the same way that a roller coaster doesn’t just take you on a flat ride in circles. Instead, a roller coaster takes you on highs and lows, and that’s what makes roller coasters, and storytelling (done properly) exciting.