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Does Your Story Have Wings?

January 31, 2012 | Comments: 0 | Views: 151

Some animals fly, others run. Then there are those who leap, jump, walk or crawl. And finally there are those that don't do anything at all. No matter how much you push them, they won't budge as much as an inch. - They are the sponges and even a thousand years' worth of rewrites cannot move them from the rock from which they originated.

Not all stories take off. From their initial conception, some are doomed to stagnate. As a screenwriting teacher with many years of experience, I see this all the time. A student falls madly in love with an idea for a story that cannot fly because it has no wings. It breaks my heart every time.

That's why I spend so much time teaching them about Dramatic Potential. - Because if the writer doesn't get the story off on the right foot from the very initial stages, chances are that he will give birth to a stillborn water baby of the sponge variety...

It is so important to apply the right dramatic ingredients to the idea BEFORE you dedicate months of work trying to flesh the story out, only to discover that it may never fly, because you failed to lay the foundation for dramatic potential.

Many of the screenwriters and producers with whom I have worked, spend a lot of resources testing an idea for dramatic potential before they as much as consider working on it. It's all about making sure that the right ingredients are in the bowl and that they combine into an explosive mix, before you even begin writing anything.

Seen this way, the craft of storytelling is much like the art of casting a movie. Any honest movie director will tell you that casting the right actors is half the directing job. Stephen Frears once told me that as soon as he cast the parts for Dangerous Liaisons all he had to do was "just sit back and watch."

In short, dramatic potential is two things: the ingredients and what they do when they are mixed together. I'll get back to the ingredients in a little while because they are, believe it or not, the easier part. It's the mixing and how the ingredients react when they combine that is the tricky part. In short, dramatic potential is when you are left wanting to know the outcome of the story after hearing only what the ingredients are.

Shopping list: One box of matches. One can of gasoline. One ticket to the annual Children's Festival. What do you think is gonna happen? To put it another way: If you can tell how the story is going to end after knowing the ingredients, then you lose interest.

GUEST LIST TO A PARTY: Harry: local vicar Katie: young woman, very much in love John: young man, equally in love His family. Her family. Setting: a church.

Have you guessed what is going to happen in this scene?

If you have, then the setup doesn't work.

And If I can guess how your story is going to turn out by hearing your ingredients, then your story doesn't work either.

The pitch must leave you asking questions. It must create a curiosity, demanding to know where and how this story will end. Fortunately for you, the writer, the ingredients are always the same 5 things in a dramatic narrative.

1) The Character.

2) His problem.

3) What he must do to overcome it.

4) His limitations

5) Opposition.

For instance, E.T is the story of a young boy named Elliot.(1)

His problem is that his only friend, an alien, cannot stay on earth. (2)

In order to overcome this problem, Elliot must help him get home. (3)

All this must be accomplished in spite of the fact that he's only 10 years old, is running out of time and can tell no one about it.(4)

This he must do even though NASA is on the trail of the alien and they are closing in fast. (5)

Do you see how this pitch leaves the audience hanging? We don't know what will happen and we are dying to find out. Will Elliot make it? Will the alien die? Will NASA get to them? And what will happen if they do? - That is what Dramatic Potential is; all the ingredients make us ask questions. This is a perfectly balanced pitch. Change one element and it will cease to become interesting.

5 elements may seem like a lot to think about, but it really all comes down to 2 questions:

a) The character's problems and how important they are.

b) What are the probabilities that he will overcome them?

And now the bottom-line.

"Any story's dramatic potential relies on how well the writer can make the character's problem necessary to solve and yet improbable to overcome."

In essence, writing effective dramatic ideas is all about making the characters probability of success seem as improbable as possible. It is only when a hero's task is absolutely vital and his chances to succeed are slim, that the audience wants to see how it turns out.

Listen to this failed pitch: A detective must solve a murder case.

Are you intrigued? Do you want to see how it turns out? I can't believe that you are because nothing in that pitch makes you question whether he will succeed or not. It might be probable that he does and it might not be. You don't know. And that's why you don't care. If you had known the importance, the necessity and the improbability of it, then the pitch might have had some potential.

For instance; what if a dangerous, child killer is on the loose? Now, the hero's task is important. Now, there is an eminent reason to solve the case so that the killer will be caught. But that's not all. In order for the story to have dramatic potential, it must also be improbable for our hero to succeed in his task. And as you remember, improbability is contained within the last two dramatic elements:

4) What are his limitations

5) What is working against him?

So, maybe the detective discovers that the killer is a famous politician or the chief of police, himself. That would be a powerful adversary. Better still, it could be someone that knows, loves and wants to protect. That would put him in a dilemma. Maybe the detective has a mentally challenged, adult son. The evidence point towards him and if discovered, he will be executed. (This, of course, necessitates that the story take place before 1989, when it was declared unconstitutional) Then there are the limitations. There are numerous kinds of limitations that apply to stories. Far too many to mention here; but I will mention a few here.

For one, there could be a Time Lock at work: The killer has threatened to strike again within the next 24 hours. Now, the detective only has that much time to discover his identity. Or maybe the detective has been suspended because of bad behavior. He now has to work outside of, or even against the police to solve it.

There are many options. Most of them are trite but that's not my point. My point is that you will have to work them out yourself. As long as you make it improbable for the characters to succeed, and as long as you make that improbability part of your setup, (your 1. Act or better still, within your first 10 pages) - it will work.

If you want to see a textbook example of a movie in which the setup has zero dramatic potential, then check out "On Deadly Ground" a Steven Seagal flick from 1994.

In the opening, a mountainous forest has caught fire. Fire engineers try everything they know to put it out - to no avail. They drop like flies. The military is brought in and with them, huge water cannons, helicopters and what not. But even with water enough to fill the Grand Canyon, they can't seem to extinguish the blazing flames. Seagal is brought in. He takes one look, unbuttons his shirt, goes directly into the fire and puts it all out in one swift move.

And that's just the setup.. Now, the real story can begin: There's been a minor oil leak in the ocean and who else but our hero is brought in to fix it? Do you think he can handle it? Are you consumed with suspense? Tossing and turning over whether he will fail or succeed?

Not really. The probability of him handling that task is about a 150 percent already. And so you have guessed the ending of the movie no more than 3 minutes into it. Well done.

So let's look at E.T., element by element, from that perspective.

DRAMATIC COMPONENT ONE: E.T is the story of a young boy named Elliot MECHANICS: The fact that he is a young boy makes it much more unlikely that he will succeed against NASA.

DRAMATIC COMPONENT TWO: His problem is that his only friend, an alien, cannot stay on earth.

MECHANICS: This is his Necessity. It is what's at stake. The alien will die if Elliot fails to bring him home.

DRAMATIC COMPONENT THREE: In order to overcome this problem, Elliot must help him get home.

MECHANICS: That's his goal. His project.

DRAMATIC COMPONENT FOUR: All this must be accomplished in spite of the fact that he's only 10 years old, is running out of time and can't tell anyone about it.

MECHANICS: Everything here makes it improbable; The Time Lock, his age and the fact that he can't tell anyone.

DRAMATIC COMPONENT FIVE: This, he must do even though NASA is on the trail of the alien and they are closing in fast.

MECHANICS: This is what makes it improbable. NASA is a huge, well equipped and armed organization; the boy is just a piss-ant. It's one of the oldest Improbability factor used by writers: large monster against tiny ant.

So, in closing, I won't keep you in suspense anymore. If you somehow haven't seen E.T. yet and find the dramatic potential intriguing, meaning that you are curious about the outcome of the story, I will reveal the ending to you right now: Yes, E.T. does end up flying. However, the real question is, does your story fly too?

Your silent writing partner

Dan Hoffmann

Source: EzineArticles
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