by John Bucher (@johnkbucher)
Everyone has a story. In the business of storytelling, we often spend a great deal of time teasing out stories from people’s lives, historical moments, and universally relatable situations. But, have you ever given any thought to what stories should never be told? Are there any stories that are just off limits? Some of the best stories push boundaries and press the edges of our conscious reality, so where is the line? How can we identify a problematic premise before we even begin to put words on a page?
Here are three stories that you should stop writing before you even get started.
THE STORY WITH THE HEAVY-HANDED AGENDA
There’s an old saying that originated in the Golden Age of Hollywood – if you have a message, call Western Union. Of course, messages aren’t sent via telegram anymore, but the sentiment is one that Hollywood is still sensitive to. Since creators first began to recognize the immense power films had over audiences, people have been using them to advance philosophies, sell products, and persuade opinion.
The tricky aspect of all this is that a well-told story should have a definite world view. Storytellers need to have an opinion about the universe and the way things should be. The balance is found in the subtlety of the art form. Films are better at asking questions than providing answers. We can introduce difficult issues or themes into our stories without being prescriptive as to how characters must deal with them. Being descriptive about the truths that underpin these situations is a better goal to strive for. Allowing an audience to make their own discovery in the process is part of the journey in a great story. Life is full of gray matters. If our stories can’t reflect this, they will feel less than authentic. Calvary, Brooklyn, and Sicario all presented important cultural issues and stories without agendas or being too heavy-handed.
THE STORY THAT ISN’T THEMATICALLY OR EMOTIONALLY TRUE
Similar to films with a heavy-handed agenda, no one really sets out to create these sorts of stories. Often a personal experience that leads us to our own agenda can blind us to the fact that we are telling a story that is thematically or emotionally untrue.
“Hard work always pays off.” Simple anecdotal ideas like this can seem like a good theme to tackle in a story. Many times, this phrase does hold true. However, many times it does not. Some people work very hard for years and never see many fruits for the labors. Ask most screenwriters. The more accurate statement or theme may be that hard work pays off in ways that don’t always include financial or traditional successes, even if sometimes it does. In a story playing out around this theme, it may be important to show a character for who hard work does not pay off, in a traditional way, as well as a character for who it does.
Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, Steve Jobs, and Whiplash all avoid easy themes and emotions that aren’t always authentic for more difficult characters and stories that are both thematically and emotionally true.
THE STORY THAT DOESN’T RESPECT THE AUDIENCE
Just about all of us struggle with being lazy in some area or another. Our current media culture often makes it easy for audiences to be lazy as well. But as this “golden age” of television has proved, there exists an army of people who do not want to be spoon fed when it comes to their stories. Spoon feeding an audience can take on many forms. It may involve over-simplifying a complex issue, demonizing a character with a multifaceted worldview or any number of methods that involve subtle forms of treating the audience like they are stupid. This can be a very tempting opportunity for even the savviest storyteller when they have a point they are trying to drive home or a complicated issue to tease out in a very short amount of time. Great writers learn to be efficient with their words, descriptions, and scenes, especially when writing for the screen. But being aware of when you’ve crossed the line into melodrama or over-simplification is essential.
Overcoming a disease as nuanced as alcoholism in a five-minute story or even a two hour-story isn’t usually believable. It’s disrespectful to audience members who have fought with this issue personally, as well as those who have been impacted by it. A key component of a good character arc is that a character actually be capable of change. A character cannot just wake up one morning and decide not to be schizophrenic. If your protagonist battles this condition, it might be wiser to make your story about one small goal the character is able to accomplish in their journey as opposed to overcoming something as massive as mental illness. Even audiences who have never wrestled with such issues will smell something fishy in these stories. We tend to recognize truth when we see it. Those of us who have experienced certain truths will insist that storytellers shy away from truths they have only heard rumor of. Philomena, Short Term 12, and Silver Linings Playbook all found audiences by refusing to spoon feed them. We would do well to learn from the risks and brave approaches each of those films took.
John Bucher is a writer, speaker, and story consultant based out of Los Angeles. He is the author of several books including The Inside Out Story and the upcoming Secrets of Short Visual Storytelling. He has written for entities ranging from HBO to International Ambassadors. He teaches at The LA Film Studies Center and has conducted story seminars on five continents. He can be reached on Twitter @johnkbucher and through his blog, welcometothesideshow.org.