by John Bucher (@johnkbucher)
Imagine the perfect story. Many of us dream of a story that features a motivated protagonist with a strong external goal, an equally compelling antagonist with a convincing moral argument, and dialogue rich with subtext and nuance. Envision all those ideal qualities contained within a single, beautiful, glass vase. Now, imagine dropping that story vase on the floor and watching it shatter into thousands of tiny shards.
The narrative shards that cover the ground before you may just hold the secret to creating powerful stories when your task is not as easily defined as crafting a feature screenplay. Many writers get asked to work on projects that fall outside the clean lines of scriptwriting for film and television, and knowing how to take the narrative shards of a good story and use them to craft a mosaic in any medium can be a lifesaver when we are called on to create characters, punch up dialogue, or create story elements for video games, interactive media, supplementary content, or any other place where writers may be asked to step in and lend assistance.
Case in point: Brian Lynch was hired to write Minions after he did a great job writing the script for the Minions ride for Universal parks.
Here are five ways to use narrative shards when working outside the boundaries of traditional screenwriting.
1. Character Shards
At the end of the day, story is all about character. Any concept will work for a few moments onscreen, but without the help of a compelling character, even the best concept is all but dead. Leaning into archetypal characters gives the audience a shortcut for understanding who a character is in a given scenario without much work on the part of the writer to set the character up. Wise old sages are archetypes used on stories from Star Wars to Moana. Faithful friends show up in stories from The Lord of the Rings to The Hangover. Archetypes work for characters in every medium.
2. Ironic Shards
Most every story benefits from creating multiple series of setups and payoffs. Those payoffs are even stronger when they are supported with some irony. The old adage of giving the audience what they are familiar with, just a little differently, holds true whether working on stories inside or outside of traditional mediums. Offering audiences a clue that a twist may be coming can lure the problem-solving areas of the brain into further engagement with the story. Primal Fear uses irony at the end of the story, while Venom uses it at the beginning of the second act. Irony can be effective anywhere it’s placed.
3. Symbolic Shards
Audiences love meaning just below the surface of any story or narrative-driven scenario. Using seemingly insignificant objects and endowing them with meaning can touch the heart of an audience like few things do. Most writers are familiar with the symbolism of the sled in Citizen Kane, but are you familiar with the symbolic shard of the red coat in Schindler’s List? It’s a bold creative choice that’s worth investigating.
4. Inciting Shards
Every story needs a moment that propels the characters into action towards goals. We typically see this moment as the one where the story really starts. Some call it the inciting incident, others the catalyst, but this moment where the normal world of the narrative is suddenly changed is effective even when the script you are working on doesn’t have three acts or any of the other expected tropes of screenwriting. Teddy accidentally burns down the retail store that he was about to become owner of in Night School, making the rest of his narrative journey possible. Having a moment that turns the world of the characters (or the audience) upside down can keep the attention of viewers focused on where things are going and how they might resolve.
5. Motivational Shards
Understanding why we should care about what a writer is telling us to care about is not only helpful, but often necessary. Watching Jennifer Garner kick ass in Peppermint is a good time without any context, but knowing she is doling out revenge on those that killed her husband and child makes the experience twice as sweet. Even without a stirring backstory, a simple understanding of motivation can help transform a ho-hum narrative scenario into a thrill ride.
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 Master of the Cinematic Universe: The Secret Code to Writing in the New World of Media. He has written for entities ranging from HBO to U.S. 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 site, tellingabetterstory.com.