I asked my friend, Eric Stirpe, a screenwriter and filmmaker living in Los Angeles — and a super awesome illustrator — to share advice he can give us digital media folk on telling a great story.
What makes a compelling story?
In my experience, the three most important elements in making a compelling story are A) a relatable protagonist (more on that in a sec) who has [B)] a clearly defined and emotionally-driven goal or goals as well as C) interesting situations and circumstances separating them from that goal. If we like our protagonist and understand what he/she wants, then we will root for them and want to watch the story unfold.
What are common mistakes people make in storytelling?
In moviemaking these days, one of the most common mistakes I see is the belief that you MUST stick to the three act structure, or the Hero’s Journey or the Save The Cat structure or some other book of story development. Knowing these structures and techniques is all well and good, (In fact, it’s downright recommended to deal with executives) but it should be remembered that they are just tools and not the end all be all. In the last 3 years, I have seen dozens of (usually big-budget) movies destroyed by trying too hard to adhere to some structure or another. Storytelling is not some science or logic puzzle – it’s just about telling a good story!
Another trap that’s really easy to fall into in storytelling is getting too ‘claustrophobic’: after months of working on the same story, you start to get bored. You start to get antsy. You start feeling like your whole story is stale and boring and you begin changing things just to make it different. Before too long you’ve chucked out everything that was good in the first place!
One reminder I always give myself is this: Remember why you like your story. Just because you’re bored of something after 6 months of it doesn’t mean it’s boring – that’s just part of the process!
Another easy mistake to make in storytelling is doing things because they’re ‘cool’ instead of because it makes the story better. It’s the syndrome that comes from someone saying “Wouldn’t it be cool if…?”
If you ever find yourself adding a moment or a character or a scene or anything because “Wouldn’t it be cool if…”, make sure to assess it and ask yourself “Is this really necessary?” Because, yes, it would be cool to have a car chase through the flea market, but why a car chase? Why the flea market? If you can find a way to relate the car chase to the rest of the story (and most importantly, the protagonist’s goal), then go right ahead! But if you’re just doing it because you think it would be cool.. well, it might not be the right fit for this movie!
Which leads me to my next point…
Don’t be afraid to cut scenes, characters or other elements! I know that you love that character. I know that you love that scene. But if it doesn’t seem like it’s working, maybe it’s not right for this movie. I can think of a half-dozen times that I’ve tried to keep a character in a story because I love writing him, but ultimately he holds the story back. Sometimes you just need to put a character on the shelf and wait until you find the right project.
What makes a character relatable?
Ahhh character relatability, that’s a funny and tricky subject.
Relatability is, as it says right in the word, how much you can relate to any given character. Now, this doesn’t mean that a relatable character is EXACTLY like someone in your audience. That’d be boring! For a character to be relatable, it needs one simple thing: A goal driven by a strong emotion or connection to another character.
It doesn’t matter if your character is a space pirate; if his goal is motivated by his love for his father or his desire to prove himself to the universe, your audience will be able to relate to him. Sure, they may not know what it’s like to be a space pirate or fly through the vacuum, but they’ll be able to relate to having a father or having someone they’re insecure around.
If you can find the emotional reasons driving your protagonist, the relatability will come from there. Oftentimes, the strongest characters are driven by strong central emotions: The desire to succeed, a thirst for adventure, a quest for knowledge, the belief that love will triumph over all, revenge…
If you can find an emotional drive (commonly called your character’s “engine”) that resonates with you it will do wonders for the relatability of your character.
A graduate of the USC School of Cinematic Arts, Eric Stirpe is a screenwriter and filmmaker originally from Rhode Island now living and working in Los Angeles. By day, Eric works on the story team at Divide Nine Animation, where they are working on their first animated feature. Eric is also just finishing his first live-action screenplay, a comedy about a radio station in 1950s Canada, which is being produced by The Ben Proudfoot Co. and should go into production later this year.