There are many nuances to storytelling and like so many Facebook relationship statuses; it can be complicated, but we’re not going there. In this post we’re sticking to the basics, plot, character, and theme.
The plot is simply what happens in the story or the events of the story. To keep your audience engaged from a plot standpoint make sure each event in the story happens as a result of the preceding event.
An easy way to think of this is to use the “But & Therefore” principle from the creators of Southpark. If in telling your story you find yourself saying “This happens and then this happens” it means your story’s events have no connection. Instead make sure each event leads to the next with the words “but” or “therefore” rather than “and then”.
Plot is usually the first thing we think of when telling a story BUT it is extremely hard for a plot to make sense, be effective or be engaging without character. (see how insanely clever I was there with using “but” after explaining it?).
Character is the most important part of storytelling because everything stems from character. Character might not be the first thing you think of, for example I believe the first thought for the TV show Lost was something like: a bunch of people crash on an island, but the island doesn’t follow the laws of nature. Therefore getting off the island requires the people to solve mysteries.
In that summary, we get a good idea of the show (if I’ve done my job right), but when we actually watch the show the way characters go about getting off the island causes the plot to move forward in certain ways. More importantly, over the course of any story (Lost included), the audience will become less engaged in the plot and more engaged in the character and who they are. Even if they stay engaged in the plot (which we want them to), a large reason why is because they’ve become more invested in the character.
Why? You ask. Because whether we realize it or not the most interesting thing to people is people. It’s why you can watch a movie about a character so different from you but still be completely rooting for that character. In fact, if you look at your favorite movie, you probably want to be the main character in the movie, not necessarily do what they do, but BE who they are: resilient, strong, someone who doesn’t give up etc.
Quick note to really bring this home. Think of your significant other; you probably have an extremely memorable story about how you met (plot), but you love them because who they are (character) and that story of how you met wouldn’t even be a story if they weren’t in it.
So, we know that our character is super important and of course we need a plot because things have to happen in the story, but how do we create both the plot and the character (assuming we don’t already have an idea in mind)? Theme of course.
The theme is what your story is about from an abstract point of view. Themes are things like love, overcoming adversity (e.g. an underdog story), even day-in-the-life. This is the feeling of the story. In a movie and anything visual, this is where all the lighting and camera angles come in.
Theme is super important for every story but especially so for long form storytelling like a TV or web series. It is so important because it is the through line that connects all aspects of the story.
Going back to Lost, the theme is mystery. So each of the characters are mysterious. More simply put, they all have skeletons in their closet and in some cases their own feelings are a mystery to them.
If you already have an idea about your plot, for example a dirt biker trying to win a championship, you can then use the theme to create the character and fill in the rest of the plot.
For that example let’s say it’s an underdog story: Our hero loves dirt biking because her dad was obsessed with it, but because of him being obsessed he doesn’t have the money to help her enter competitions etc, therefore she has to work long hours, therefore she has a small amount of time to practice and attend races, but she’s extremely talented because she’s been on a dirt bike her whole life, but the big competition is dominated by males therefore she gets sponsorship, but the sponsor makes it all about her being a girl but she just wants to race therefore she doesn’t show up to photo shoots etc. You get the idea.
I’m really just scratching the surface here, so I will have many more posts on storytelling especially around specific purposes, structure etc.