A few nights ago, as I was drifting off to sleep, I started watching the first season of the hit show Orange is the New Black from Emmy-award winning producer Jenji Kohan. As the credits began to roll, I heard the opening song (“I’ll Take You There,” by the Staple Sisters), and then something unusual happened.
I was glued to the screen. For hours.
When I was done watching (my internet connection abruptly died, or I would have binge watched all night), I started thinking: How does Kohan tell such a compelling story?
The answer, I quickly realized, is pretty straightforward: it comes down to a few simple rules.
To help you tell your own stories as well as Kohan, here are “3 Storytelling Rules to Follow.” Keep these in mind when developing your own stories and you may have the Emmy committee calling you before you know it.
1. Start with a big opening. I’ve mentioned this point in previous posts, but it bares repeating again. The audience has a short attention span, which means that it’s the job of the storyteller to draw the audience in right away. The easiest way to do this is to raise questions in the opening of the story. In the first scene of Orange is the New Black, for example, we see a series of shots of people bathing, followed by a shot of two women caressing in a warm shower. The camera then abruptly cuts to a scene of the protagonist, a pretty young blonde woman, shivering under a prison shower while another woman yells at her to finish. Gripping and a bit confusing, right? Start your story with a splash (sorry!) and your audience will follow you wherever you go.
2. Make sure every scene serves a purpose. Each scene in your story should serve a purpose. There are a number of different functions for scenes: demonstrating the setting, showing character, establishing the problem, showing the stakes, developing tension, heightening conflict, and providing comic/dramatic relief. The best scenes do at least one of these things, if not more. The more layered the scenes, the richer the story will become.
3. Deliver on what you promise. A good story is a promise: in exchange for the audience’s attention, you (the storyteller) promise to answer the following question: How does the main character resolve the central problem he/she confronts in the story? If the opening of a story raises questions and sets the audience’s expectations about what’s going to happen (see #1), the ending should answer these same questions. In Orange is the New Black, for example, the opening raises the questions: Why is the main character in prison? How did she get there? And what happens to her in the shower? We find out all of these things in the course of the pilot (SPOILER ALERT: smuggling drugs, turned herself in, and not getting clean). By the end of the episode, the audience feels satisfied because the questions have been answered and new, more nuanced questions have been raised for the next episode. That’s why audiences keep tuning in season after season and year after year.