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Sep 15

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What is That Story About? Finding Focus on Screen and Page

I get the idea that quite a few writers — and a whole lot of movie producers — don’t know what their story is about.  Or maybe they think they do, but they have it wrong.  They mistake the premise for the story.  I expect this sort of confusion from six-year-olds, but writers and producers should have a better idea of storytelling, especially when they have multi-million-dollar budgets at stake.  Not to mention careers.

Test Yourself — What are These About?

OK, let’s see what a few stories are about, shall we?  Here are some well-known ones, and maybe some that aren’t so well-known, and some likely answers that someone might give if asked.

 E.T.: The Extraterrestrial

“It’s about a lovable alien that gets stranded on Earth and encounters a family of children who help him contact his own people and arrange a rescue.”

Harry Potter

“It’s about an evil wizard who  wants to conquer the magical world and make slaves of muggles.”

To Kill a Mockingbird

“It’s about a black man who is unfairly accused of rape and the chain of complications that arise from it.”

Steven King’s It

“It’s about a monster living in the sewers, which manifests itself as an evil clown, luring children to their deaths.”

Cassidy Jones and the Secret Formula

“It’s about a young girl who gets super powers and helps track down a man who kidnapped a famous scientist.”

Kick Ass

(I’m thinking of the film here; I’ve never read the comics)

“It’s about a teenage boy who turns into a superhero and helps stop the reign of a drug kingpin.”

The Assessment

I hope these are not your answers, because I would have to grade you poorly.  My assessment of these answers is, in order:

Wrong!

Wrong!

Wrong!

Wrong!

Wrong!

Wrong!

Let’s Try Again

Here are the answers I might have given.  I hope you can find it in your heart to agree.

E.T.: The Extraterrestrial

E.T. and Elliot

E.T. and Elliot

“It’s about a young boy who has buried his heart because of his father’s abandonment and learns to feel again through an emotional connection with a lovable alien.”

Harry Potter

“It’s about a a group of friends whose courage, loyalty, love, and relationships are all tested when they are confronted with a terrible evil.”

To Kill a Mockingbird

“It is the coming-of-age story about a young girl who discovers and learns to understand and resist the injustices in the world.”

Steven King’s It

“It’s about a group of adults who get back together and return to the town where they grew up to confront the fears that terrorized them as children.”

Cassidy Jones and the Secret Formula

“It’s about a young girl who gets super powers and learns to balance her new abilities with the person she truly is.”

Kick Ass

“It’s about a teenage boy who learns to separate his dreams from reality when a dangerous idea gets him in over his head.”

The Consequences

And that is where people go wrong.   Stories are never about aliens, or kidnappers, or evil wizards, or subterranean demons.  They are never about drug cartels, or racism, or invasions, or ghosts.  Those are simply the premises in which the story develops, that give them substance, and provide an environment for them to grow.

Mistaking the premise or setting for the story has led to a lot of atrocities.  In the blind scramble to capitalize on the phenomenal success of E.T.: The Extraterrestrial, the movie industry rushed to market with an entire infestation of poorly conceived apes, developed under the misunderstanding that the film they were aping was about a stranded alien befriending a young boy.  One of those abortions that comes to mind is Mac and Me, which wasn’t completely horrible, it ranks two stars on IMDB.

They overlooked the fact that stories are about people: their relationships, their development, their failures, their triumphs, their fears, their loves, and their hopes.  We care about and identify with people.  We don’t care so much for formula stories, even clever ones, and we certainly can’t identify with a plot.

If you start with a story idea and plug people in as part of the setting, as a means to give flesh to what you thought was a record-setting story, you will end up with Mac and Me.  If you start with the characters, know them as real people, and see how they interact with that record-setting story idea, you’ll get E.T.: The Extraterrestrial.

Never lose sight of what stories are about.

Of course, in the process of learning how to write, a process that seems never to end, I have made that very mistake.  A long time ago, I had what I thought was a brilliant idea: sort of an extraterrestrial inter-species Romeo and Juliet.  The characters were pretty much just part of the setting, and the story sucked.  Big time.  I hope I’ve learned something since then.

Have any of you made that mistake?

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