Here’s the biggest mistake writers make when telling a story. They think a story should focus on a hero overcoming a problem in pursuit of a goal. Wrong. The real purpose of a story is to grab and hold someone’s attention from start to finish.
If you can’t grab and hold someone’s attention, it doesn’t matter what your story is about because nobody will care. Story telling isn’t about giving information but about withholding information, which raises questions. The more questions a story poses, the more answers people want resolved. Waiting for answers to unresolved questions is what holds people’s attention.
One of the best ways to create questions in the audience’s mind is to introduce conflict. As long as the outcome of this conflict remains in doubt, people will pay attention because they want to see what will happen next.
Conflict can involve two characters physically punching and hitting each other on top of a speeding train (such as in “Mission Impossible: Dead Reckoning Part One”). On a less physical level, conflict can be as simple as one character trying to convince another character that eating ice cream will make her fat so she shouldn’t eat it (“Little Miss Sunshine”).
Whether visual conflict involves physical fighting or verbal persuasion, conflict of any kind grabs and holds our attention because we want to know who will win in the end.
The First Level of Story Telling
Visual conflict represents the first level of story telling. When we see a young girl fleeing in terror from a maniac wielding a chainsaw, that grabs our attention. When we see a soldier trying to reach a wounded comrade while bullets fly through the air and strike the ground near his feet, that grabs our attention. When we see two teams competing in the championship game with only seconds left to go, that grabs our attention.
However, most stories must go beyond this simplistic visual conflict because the only way to keep an audience’s attention with visual conflict is to add more and bigger visual conflict. Think of a bad horror movie that shows an endless parade of helpless victims getting slaughtered in different ways. Since nobody wants to see the same scene again, visual conflict can only keep our attention through variety and intensity.
One moment the serial killer stabs someone with a knife, then in the next moment the serial killer strangles someone with their bare hands. Now the killings must increase in intensity (get more gruesome) to maintain our attention. Although each action must be different, mindless repetition with minor variation can still get tiresome after a while.
When stories rely solely on visual conflict to maintain interest, it’s always a race between increasing variety and intensity before the audience’s patience wears out.
To see how this first level of story telling that relies solely on visual conflict work, study Frank R. Stockton’s short story, “The Lady or the Tiger?” This story involves a man forced to choose between two doors where one door hides a man-eating tiger and another door hides a beautiful woman who the man can immediately marry.
The catch is that this man is actually in love with a princess who knows what’s behind each door. To make matters worse, this princess despises the woman behind the door who stands to marry the man who the princess loves.
Before choosing a door to open, the man looks to the princess, who points to the door on the right. Now the question is what door did the princess send her lover to open, the one containing the tiger or the one containing the other woman?
Notice the main appeal of this story revolves around the unique dilemma between two doors and less on getting to know the man as a character. Because of their brevity, simple visual conflict doesn’t have time to flesh out characters as anything more than two-dimensional figures.
Besides short stories, look at arcade games and casual video games. Arcade games, such as Space Invaders, provides simple action that grows in variety and intensity until the player eventually loses.
Casual games work the same way in offering simplistic but appealing action to enjoy such as Bejeweled or Candy Crush. With both arcade and casual video games, the visual conflict relies on variety and intensity to hold attention for short periods of time.
The Second Level of Story Telling
Longer stories cannot rely on visual conflict alone to hold someone’s attention. That’s why the second level of story telling focuses on creating a hero for people to cheer for and support. A hero doesn’t necessarily represent the audience. Instead, a hero represents a likable character who the audience cares about. Because they care about the hero, they want the hero to win. That makes the visual conflict longer and meaningful.
Think of every James Bond movie ever made. People admire and respect James Bond for his debonair behavior in mingling comfortably with the rich and powerful in exotic locations from the casinos of Monte Carlo to the ski lodges of the Swiss Alps. Even though James Bond’s fights with numerous enemies may seem repetitive, they hold our attention because they keep moving us closer to the ultimate goal, which is to save the world by defeating a villain.
James Bond represents a fantasy figure than a real person. Despite this, when the hero gets hurt, we empathize. When the hero falls in love, we swoon with joy as well. When the hero triumphs over tremendous odds, we share in their joy and victory
Having a hero to cheer and support gives a story greater depth because through the hero, we can safely experience new worlds, interact with different people, overcome unusual challenges, and fight intimidating villains for (usually) a good cause.
Novels, movies, and more immersive video games let us escape into a world where magic exists or steam engines power computing engines to create an advanced civilization in the Victorian era. More importantly, this fantasy world gives us a specific goal to achieve. While dodging wild animals or exploring ancient archeological sites might be interesting in themselves, a hero pursuing a goal creates a story so all visual conflict becomes meaningful.
In both the video game and the movie, the hero of Lara Croft in “Tomb Raider” gives us a reason to overcome multiple obstacles. Ultimately, we can tell longer, more engaging stories because we care about the hero and the final unresolved question that explains whether the hero will reach their initial goal or not.
The Third Level of Story Telling
James Bond, Lara Croft, Indiana Jones, Nathan Drake, and other larger than life heroes may inspire us, but they remain largely the same person they were in the beginning as they are at the end, even after achieving their sought after goal.
In the third level of story telling, we don’t just have visual conflict and a hero, but we also have a hero who changes emotionally as a result of achieving (or failing to achieve) a goal. In simple stories, the hero is more of a figurehead than a human being. In third level story telling, the hero is a human being with fears, hopes, dreams, and emotions just like us.
Even better, heroes in third level story telling suffer through doubt, fear, anger, and despair just like we do. By seeing our own emotions highlighted and magnified in a story, we can emotionally bond with a hero and their story.
In “Die Hard,” we aren’t just following John McClane as he tries to stop an army of terrorists from taking over a Los Angeles skyscraper. We get to experience his hope in getting back with his wife, see his frustration when he finally reunites with her again, feel his fear as he escapes from the terrorists seizing the hostages, and revel in his cleverness as he outwits the terrorists until he finally kills them all and gets back with his wife for good.
The story isn’t engaging because of a hero facing impossible odds, but because the hero changed emotionally into a better person in the end. He started out arrogant in the beginning and finally realized his arrogance is what broke him up with his wife in the first place. That change is what raises a story beyond just the superficial thrill of beating up multiple terrorists.
A second level story is like a romance novel where a woman falls in love with a prince and lives happily ever after. A third level story is like “Legally Blonde” where a woman thinks she can only be complete if she has a man, but eventually learns she can become a strong, independent woman and still fall in love with a man.
While we might admire characters like James Bond or Lara Croft, we feel emotionally closer to someone who can change emotionally and become a better person through their choices in pursuit of a goal.
“Star Wars” wasn’t just interesting because Luke Skywalker blew up the Death Star, but because he learned to trust the Force and change from a shy farm boy to a confident hero of the galaxy. “Rocky” isn’t just about an underdog boxer given a chance to contend for the heavyweight championship of the world, but it’s really about one man struggling to prove to himself (and the rest of the world) that he’s not a bum after all.
A hero alone can only create a stereotypical story like a sheriff protecting a town in a Western or a woman finding love in a Harlequin romance. A hero who changes is more like Katniss Everdeen in “The Hunger Games”, who learns to love and care for others while also fighting for her life.
If you’re writing a novel, screenplay, or video game, you need a hero, but your story will feel more meaningful if your hero experiences emotional change in the process as well.
The Fourth Level of Story Telling
The first level of story telling focuses on mere physical action to be interesting. The second level of story telling adds a hero to root for. The third level of story telling makes that hero emotionally vulnerable so they change by learning a lesson through their pursuit of a goal. In the fourth level of story telling, the hero changes and that also changes the audience.
Think of the most impactful stories you’ve ever experienced and it’s not just because they had interesting physical action like a stereotypical horror or action-thriller movie. The most impactful stories are those that change a hero and alter the audience’s perception of themselves in the world afterwards.
That’s why people willingly watch great movies over and over again. They already know what happens. What they want to relive are the emotions that come from seeing the story inspire us to live a fuller life.
Stories achieve this impact on the audience by adding a unique twist that further pulls us into the story and its theme. “The Shawshank Redemption” wasn’t just about an innocent man struggling to escape a prison. It was really about an innocent man escaping from prison and then giving hope to his friend to escape prison too. Seeing the hero’s friend gain the courage to leave prison inspires us to change our lives for the better too.
“Barbie” isn’t just a movie about a toy doll (first level story telling), but about a doll who changes emotionally to realize she needs to be aware of how her actions affect others and how she can define her own life to be whoever she wants to be.
The video game “BioShock” isn’t just about a hero finding an underwater utopian that has fallen apart, but about a hero learning about his true nature. Because of BioShock’s plot twists, players ultimately question what it means to have free will as we realize our actions in the game were designed to give us the illusion of freedom. When we realize we may not actually have free will, that sudden revelation hits us on another emotional level.
The video game “Journey” lets us pursue a goal while meeting random people who travel with us and become our friends. We now get to experience the joys of friendships and the pain of leaving our friends, even if we never know their name. Because video games let us decide what to do, fourth level story telling shapes our experience based on our choices and actions in playing the game.
If you’re writing a story, you can emphasize interesting action. If you want to create a more compelling story, you need a hero to pursue a goal. To go one step further, your hero needs to pursue a goal and learn a lesson by changing because of this pursuit. Finally to create a timeless story, you need a hero who changes while pursuing a goal, which inspires the audience to change their lives for the better too.
For a short story, arcade game, or casual video game, a story just need interesting physical action that increases in variety and intensity. For a novel, screenplay, or video game that demands more engagement, a story needs a hero we can follow like Nathan Drake in “Uncharted” or Lara Croft in “Tomb Raider”.
To create more memorable stories, a hero should change emotionally as a result of their choices. If you want to create a story that resonates with audiences now and in the future, strive for a hero who changes into a better person but also shows an audience how and why they should change as well.
When a story gives an audience hope for a better life, you’re not just creating a story for sheer entertainment; you’re crafting a story to touch people emotionally and alter their lives forever.
So what type of story do you want to write?