Storytelling is the New Black

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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.

What A Character! 3 More Tips on Creating Great Characters

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Better Call Saul

As followers of this blog know, I’ve written extensively about Breaking Bad, the Emmy award-winning show on AMC that wrapped its final season a few weeks ago.  But I’m not here to praise the expert storytelling (ten Emmy awards), the suspenseful scenes (too many to name) or even the superb direction (Vince Gilligan is among the best in the business).

I’m here to talk about Saul Goodman.

Saul, played by the multi-talented Bob Odenkirk, is one of the funniest and fully developed secondary characters on television.  After watching him for five seasons, I’ve fallen in love with Saul’s flagrant scheming and naked opportunism.  But what exactly makes Saul so memorable?

It all comes down to character choices.

To help you tell stories with characters as colorful and rich as Saul, here are “3 More Tips on Creating Great Characters.”  Follow these tips and you may have a spinoff show in your future.

1. Simplify Your Descriptions.  In real life, people are complex.  Unfortunately, when you tell a story, you only have a limited time to showcase secondary characters, so make your descriptions count.  To do this, simply answer the question:  Does the description paint a picture of the character for the audience? If the answer is no, make sure to add the necessary visuals to make the description pop out to a listener or reader.

2. Use Metaphors and Analogies.  In some instances, it can difficult to reduce whole characters to simple descriptions.  This is where the right metaphor or analogy can help.  For example, maybe your brother-in-law is a police officer with a buzz cut who sings songs from Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” in public places (go with it).  One possible analogy is that your brother-in-law is like the child of Joe Friday and Lady Gaga.  Another possible metaphor is that he’s a mix of the Hardy Boys and Fallout Boy.  The key to finding the right metaphor or analogy for a character is to identify the unusual or prominent thing about the character and then offer a truthful comparison.   Even if the analogy doesn’t get a huge laugh, it will at least resonate with the audience.  Just remember: analogies should be used to augment descriptions, not to replace them.

3.  Serve The Plot.  Once you’ve boiled down your characterizations and/or added an analogy, the final step in the process is to make sure that your character descriptions serve the story’s plot.  For example, if you mention that your father used to shoot rabbits at the beginning of the story, the audience is expecting a reference to either guns or rabbits somewhere later in the story.  If you don’t deliver on this promise, they’ll begin to wonder why you chose the original description.  Once again, deliver what you promise!  The upside of doing this is that it’s also an easy way to inject humor into your stories.

Feeling better about your characters?

Put a Stake In It: 5 Tips for Building Tension in Your Stories

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CarrieIn preparation for Halloween last week, I started watching clips of Carrie, the Academy Award-winning horror film by Brian De Palma.  In the movie, Carrie does all sorts of paranormal and frightening things.  But after a few minutes, I started to wonder: What makes the scenes, and the story as a whole, so engaging?

The answer turns out to be really simple: lots of tension.

To help you keep your audience on the edge of their seats, here are “5 Tips for Building Tension in Your Stories.”  You may not win an Academy Award, but you’ll at least never have to watch someone nod off again.

1. Foreshadow Future Events.  Building tension starts shortly after your opening.  Once the audience understands the basics of the story (characters, setting and problem), begin building tension by foreshadowing elements of the story that you intend to address later on.  The easiest way to do this is to introduce a powerful image – in Carrie, it’s a broken mirror – that offers a clue about the events to come.  If your audience suspects that something is awry (i.e. a girl breaks a mirror with her mind), they’ll keep watching.

2. Subvert Expectations.  In order to keep your audience engaged throughout the story, you have to undermine the audience’s expectations and keep them guessing about what’s going to happen next.  Here’s a hypothetical scene: a man and a woman are flirting in the elevator of an apartment building.  The man eventually asks for the woman’s phone number, but the woman refuses.  The man presses her for her number and then all of a sudden a snake comes slithering out of the woman’s shirt.  The man screams and runs from the elevator as soon as the doors open.  Unexpected, right?  All great scenes raise questions about the characters and the situation.

3. Add Comic Relief.  As a storyteller, you can only build so much tension into the narrative before your audience needs a release.  The easiest way to do this in stories is to introduce a secondary character who offers insight into the struggle.  Consider the earlier example of the snake.  Maybe in the next scene of the story we see the woman walking out of the apartment building when a snake slithers out of one of her pant legs.  The doorman sees this happen, but instead of screaming and calling the police, he pulls out a live mouse and proceeds to feed the snake.   Entertaining, right?  Good comic relief can momentarily distract the audience while also reassuring them that the storyteller understands the absurdity or tragedy of the narrative.

4. Introduce Non-Visual Elements.  Powerful images aren’t the only way to keep your audience engaged.  Sound, smell and touch can be just as evocative (think about theme song from “Jaws”).  In Carrie, the sound of locking doors seals the fate of all the students inside while also making the audience curious about what’s going to happen next.  The challenge for storytellers is that most stories operate inside a visual medium (even oral stories “paint a picture” for the listener).  One way to get around this is to use analogies or metaphors.  A good analogy will do wonders.

5. End with the Unexpected.  In all stories, the job of the storyteller is to leave a lasting impression with the audience at the end of the story.  The way to do this is often to introduce a new image or offer a final piece of comic relief.  At the end of Carrie, the audience sees a hand reaching out from beyond the grave to grab Sue, the sole teenage survivor.  The image is chilling and reminds the audience that even though the central problem (Carrie’s revenge) may be resolved, there are other problems that will outlive the story.

Pretty tense, right?