Our culture is desperate for storytellers. On a weekly basis we watch movies, television and any number of streaming media because we are in search of a story. I watch at least 2 movies a week. If I let myself, I could make a habit of watching something every night. However, I do not believe we were only created to listen or watch other people's stories. While we are a movie-consuming nation, we can learn some narrative skills from the TV screen. Since movie directors and screen writers use expert storytelling techniques to entertain Americans, if we are intentional, we can learn these to craft our own stories. We need to make the transition from "story consumer" to "storyteller" to fulfill that desire to share ourselves with others and entertain those around us simultaneously.
If we wanted to study storytelling through film, we might start with one of Hollywood's most accomplished directors, such as Steven Spielberg. Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan” tells an intricate story about the horrors of war and if we are intentional in how we watch this film, we can see how Spielberg intricately crafted this story. We might say to ourselves "I think I am ready to take on some of Spielberg's techniques to mimic in my own storytelling style."
While we might enjoy movies with complex content and intricate techniques, we might want to start with some of the basics before telling our own stories. I am going to the structure of "Full House"as a basic technique in storytelling not because I think it lays out a story structure that easily translates to stories that can be told over the dinner table or with a group of friends. If you are writing a long short story or a novel, you might want to start with Spielberg, but for a conversational story to be told among friends, starting with "Full House." Not that I am an expert communicator, but I don't believe many Americans in 2015 understand the basics of storytelling. That's why I'm starting with Danny Tanner, not because I'm trying to reach a 7th grade audience.
As an English teacher, I am able to teach storytelling methods every semester when my students write a personal narrative. A personal narrative starts out "One day..." and proceeds to tell of an event that happened in a limited amount of time, which for my students is a 24 hour period. The kind of storytelling I teach my students does not start: "I was born in 1983..." It is (for some reason) easy to ramble when telling a story, so having them write a 4-5 page narrative of one specific day helps students be realistic and focused with what they've chosen.
Context, conflict and resolution are essential for telling a story. These are the non-negotiable parts of story. A student’s story could be depressing, funny, melancholy, shocking, deeply reflective or surprising. Their story could be "epic" or "everyday." All of these types of stories can work if they use these three elements. This set structure is effective for beginner storytellers. For a long time I thought stories was completely spontaneous and should not be restricted by some kind of structure. This is partially true, but over the years I've seen how much structure can help a writer connect with an audience. If I am not connecting with my audience, then the story isn’t helping anyone. That makes people want to watch TV.
When I teach the personal narrative I use "Full House" as a reference for how these three elements are used to connect with an audience. "Full House" is easy to dismiss because it is a feel good sit-com. Perhaps it did simplify complicated issues, at times, but it was successful in connecting with an audience. I have found that if a person can use these three elements in their writing or oral storytelling, then it helps everyone. Here are three essential parts of telling a story and how "Full House" uses those to connect with their audience.
Step 1: Context (Setting and Characterization)
This step seems to be the hardest step of all for myself. Why? Because when I tell a story, I want to get to the exciting moment, my meaning or my main point. So I often just skip the context and start with the conflict and get to the resolution as fast as possible because I want to hurry up the process. The problem with this-----is that my reader will not fully feel the meaning of what I am talking about because they aren't sure about the setting or the people I am talking about. The setting and the characters (the people around me) help give the conflict and resolution impact and meaning.
Slow down and make yourself describe the place you were at in your story. Let the audience also travel there with you and know where you are taking them.
If the context for my story is "One time I was at my grandmother's house in 1997 for Thanksgiving," it is a good start, but this sentence does not indicate what kind of house my grandmother has. If my grandmother's house in Key West, Florida, we would be at the beach. If my grandmother's house is in Asheville, NC, we would be in the mountains. These are two different climates and cultures. Explain to us what that house looks like and who is there and what is happening. The same goes for the people in the story. Who is at your grandmother's house on Thanksgiving in 1997? Your cousins and close family members are there. What do they look like? What are their personalities like? What do you and your cousins do on Thanksgiving in 1997? We don’t know your friends or family, so give us a picture of what they are like.
How does "Full House" establish a context? Television shows are intentional about doing this. The opening credits to a TV show like “Full House" gives you an idea of where this story going to happen. For the opening credits we see an overhead helicopter shot of San Francisco. It shows the entire city to let us know where we are at. We are not in the rural areas of Wyoming. We are in urban California. Then the camera zooms into the family riding in a red convertible riding across the Golden Gate Bridge. Next we see each character's real name come across the screen, we see Jesse and Danny doing things (related to their profession, personality or hobbies) that help us understand who they are. After the opening credits (and a commercial break), we zoom into the outside shot of the slim townhouse where the family of 3 brothers who are raising 3 girls. Does it really matter if we know that uncle Jesse's real name is John Stamos? I think it is more for quick characterization.
TV shows use the "opening credits" as a way for creating characterization and context-------so we see that we are watching three men raise three girls in San Francisco.
I went to undergrad with a hard-working writer named Jason Mott. His novel was published and he has made a career from writing. (I think he is the only person I know who is actually making a living as a writer.) I saw him about a year ago at a friend's house and cornered him for advice on how to teach writing since he teaches part-time at UNCW in the creative writing department. I asked "When you teach at UNCW, what is the one common problem you see in student writing?" He said that students often do not give enough characterization because they are so eager to get "the point" or more exciting parts of a story. He said they can be in a rush to get to the conflict. And this is at the graduate level,at UNCW, which has one of the top creative writing programs in the country. If the experienced graduate students struggle with it then------most everyone needs to keep establishing a context in mind when writing (or telling) their story.
When I tell a story, I want audience to listen to me. I am afraid my audience will get distracted, so I often rush the point. But in reality, the opposite seems to be true------if you can wait and answer simple questions at the beginning of the story (What year is it? What does Florida look like in November? What are you cousins like? Are are your cousins like you? Or completely different? What kind of person were you in high school?)------the point of the story will be more clear and effective.
Step 2: Conflict/ Climax
Many stories are enjoyable because an audience empathizes with a particular problem the protagonist is experiencing. Audiences are attracted to stories where they hear about someone struggling to overcome a problem. To hear of someone else struggling distracts and audience from their own problems. For that hour (if it is a movie), you can forget about your worries and sympathize with their main character as they attempt to fix their problem.
Yet if the conflict or climax is introduced too quickly, it can ruin the story. This would be, at the earliest, 1/3 through the story. I always like to tell my students that in a sit-com that the conflict is introduced about 7 minutes into a 25 minute sit-com. This makes it possible for the main character to attempt to solve the problem.
The idea of "something has gone wrong------ we must find out how to fix it," is the basis of storytelling. Writer Donald Miller explains that every story needs "hard times." Stories need a conflict to see how the protagonist reacts to that particular challenge. Miller explains the conflict is sometimes called a "negative turn" and what makes stories attractive is the audience's interest of how the protagonist reacts to a negative turns. Will they make the right choice? Will they try to solve their problem? The protagonist who keeps fighting and pushes back against the "negative turn" can make his or her story into a comedy. In contrast, Miller says, "The protagonist who gives into the negative turn settles for tragedy."
Let me give an example of a fictionalized conflict of a Full House episode. This was never an episode, but from my memory this would characterize a typical "Full House" conflict: Everyone knows that DJ and Kimmy are best friends. Early in the episode we would see both girls establishing their friendship. However, in my fictional conflict, Kimmy and DJ are at school and they meet a new guy name Josh in their math class. As we see Kimmy and DJ are in the same class as Josh and they both enjoy being around him. Both teenage girls become infatuated with Josh. Yet DJ and Kimmy begin to realize they both like him and want to date him. This is a problem. Since DJ is the protagonist, she is potentially going to have to make a choice. She begins to realize she may have to sacrifice her friendship with Kimmy in order to date Josh. Is it worth it?
What we can learn from this, is that in the middle of the story, that there is a period of time when DJ is uncertain about what she wants to do. Stories are better when they show the main character struggling to overcome or decide about their conflict. In reality, making choices require time and thinking. This will also shape DJ's character as she tries to decide what to do. Of course, we can say to ourselves "This is such a small choice of a teenage girl." It may seem like a small choice, but our everyday lives often many small moral choices that have consequences. Is it small? Yes, but we all probably brood over such choices daily.
Movies and TV shows have two disadvantages related to conflict. The first problem with a show like "Full House" is that often times we only get to see the exterior of characters. We do not see the interior thoughts and impressions of DJ about the situation. We can see the facial expressions of DJ perhaps looking perplexed, but only through dialogue can we truly hear the attempt to solve the inner turmoil. The advantage of a short story or a novel is that we can see the interior of characters, which is very difficult to do through in film or television.
A second disadvantage that a sit-com like “Full House” has is that it must resolve DJ’s conflict in a matter of about 10-15 minutes. In real life, a relational conflict between you and your best friend could take multiple conversations. This would typically be called “the struggle” of the protagonist. It gives the impression that complex relationship issues and problems presented can be overcome very quickly. Even within a 2 hour movie “the struggle” aspect of the story must be quickly resolved in a 3 minute montage for the sake of the audience. This is understandable, but a novel is a bit more realistic in painting a picture of “struggle.”
Step 3: Resolution/Reflection
This is when the protagonist figures out a way to solve a problem or proceed in their story. Most of the time, an audience is captured by the idea of a person attempting to overcome their struggle. In today’s age, we are skeptical of too “perfect” of a resolution because we may feel we are being manipulated to believe all complexity is solved and we can all sleep well at night. However, the advantage for the non-fiction writer of the personal narrative is that (unless he or she is lying) the story can end with a true ending. We might doubt “Full House” because most conflicts in each episode is resolved quickly. Yet even if the story doesn’t have a perfect resolution, the audience can be inspired by what the protagonist has learned and come to a realization of what happened.
How would DJ reconcile this situation? DJ goes to talk to her uncle Jesse. DJ is searching for an answer. She's decided she needs advice. Since she's not interested in letting her dad into her teenage romantic life, so she casually asks Uncle Jesse about the choice. Uncle Jesse clearly is more relevant in answering to DJ’s romantic problems. Should she be a loyal friend and turn down Josh, the new guy? Or can she still be Kimmy's friend and also date Josh? After she asks him, Jesse tells her that friendship is important and she wants to be careful not to sacrifice a good friendship. Friendship is sometimes more important than romance. He asks her a question about loyalty and then DJ has to decide herself, whether it is worth the sacrifice.
At end the story, DJ tells Kimmy to date Josh and remains single is able to keep all her friends. She finds out in the end, that maybe staying friends with both Josh and Kimmy is the better choice and not as dramatic as being in a relationship. The show ends with DJ happy with her choice. The point of all this is not to push you to tell stories about small relationship choices, but to create tension for whatever story you are telling. Some TV tension is manufactured for the sake of manipulation to keep the viewer watching. However, much of life is charged with this kind of anxiety and nervousness because we don't know what is going to happen next.
In a TV show like "Full House" this cycle of characterization, conflict and resolution needs to work efficiently since many sit-coms only had 25 minutes to find a resolution by the end of the show. But aren’t our stories similar? When we tell stories with other people----are we not competing for people’s attention from other distractions? If we are at the dinner table or talking to friends at lunch----we often need to establish our story quickly so others might understand us. Next time you watch anything on television, pay attention to the details of how the producers/writers/directors make the show. It will help you in your own storytelling skills.
If you are reading my blog, there is a good chance I know you personally. So next time I see you, I would love to hear you tell a carefully crafted story about what happened to you at work last week or something that happened to you in high school in 2002.