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What is a good story?

Updated: Jul 2


Sideways (2004) dir. Alexander Payne | One of my favourite films.

As an aspiring screenwriter & filmmaker, all I want to do is tell a good story. But what even is a story, let alone a good one?


If you're smart, you'll let common sense and a little bit of intuition guide you. If you're like me, you'll go on a lofty philosophical chase for an intangible goose, and ultimately resort to a blogging as a means of defluffing your noggin.


We all have a basic understanding of story as something assembled out of characters, premise, and plot. But the best stories are surely greater than the sum of these parts.


Story is not enough.


There's nothing innately enjoyable or valuable about story. The idea of plot doesn't tickle us in the right spot. There's unlikely to be anything enjoyable, for example, in a 90 minute exploration of a guy overcoming his own laziness to shave his back in time for the summer season, no matter how well plotted it is.


There are films that we can't sit through, and there are films we could happily stick on every Sunday afternoon. So when screenwriting gurus and marketing executives declare that what an audience really wants is story, I don't think that goes far enough in explaining what makes great films great.


Story isn't the drug, it's the needle.


Film is simply our storytelling medium of choice. Duh. But I posit that story is simply a structured experience, a set of conditions, a vessel, that delivers the content we're really interested in. And the things that interest us in film are the same things that interest us in our daily lives.


Gossip. Scandal. Outrage. Beauty. Dirty secrets. Heroism. The marvels of future technology. Being in on the joke. Being welcomed to the inner circle. Drawing back the curtain. Villainy. Going on an adventure with your best friend. The thrill of competition. Alien landscapes. The limits of human endurance. Love. And that old philosophical favourite, "How should we live?"


These are fascinations we all share, and they have nothing nothing to do with film or story. But we turn to our favourite films to explore these experiences.


Great storytelling, by structuring the audience's journey, can give people the thrill of being at the centre of a huge scandal, of finally seeing what's behind the curtain, of discovering uncharted territory, of seeing what life is like on the other side of the law, of falling in love with the princess.


The conventions of storytelling, like protagonists, antagonists, plot and reversal, have no value in themselves. They're just the pieces we need to capture the human experience on screen, and create a rich and satisfying 60-90 minute experience for an audience.


Very good. So what?


What I'm trying to get at it this. Good films take a deep interest in this strange, beautiful, and terrifying world around us. And they use effective storytelling to share these authentic experiences with us. It doesn't really matter what the people on screen are feeling, it just matters what the audience is feeling.


Bad films, in contrast, can fail in two ways. Firstly, they can fail to use the medium well enough to shape an effective journey for the audience. This is when you know there's a good idea in there somewhere, but it's poorly executed. You were never really welcomed into the story.


Obi-Wan Kenobi (2022) dir. Deborah Chow | Are we supposed to be biting our nails here?

Secondly, and I think more commonly these days (here's looking at you, Obi-Wan Kenobi) they can fail because there is no substance. Logic and human nature are abondoned in the pursuit of emotional spectacle and a contrived plot.


Weak characters blubber and gush in the hope that the audience will somehow find this moving. They behave illogically or like incompetent children in order to manufacture drama. Obstacles are overcome without any resistance whatsoever in order to arrive at a predetermined story beat. Brash music tells us what we should be feeling and when. Everyone acts vaguely grumpy and suspicious to hide a plot that makes no sense.


Because when you're not writing about anything, when you're too preoccupied with making a film, this is all you can do. It can even look and sound like good filmmaking on the surface, which is why so many terrible movies make great trailers. It's almost like they think that a film's merit is derived from how film-like it is.


But ultimately, this kind of filmmaking leaves us empty at best. It fundamentally misunderstands why we turn to the movies in the first place. It's just a sack of cheap tricks and wax fruit. It's just bad writing.


What does this mean for filmmakers?


Whenever you're developing an idea or struggling to get a story moving, stop, look out the window, and think about what interests you deeply. When's the last time you were truly fascinated? Or terrified? Nostalgic? In love? And when you've found something real, it's your job as a storyteller to examine those feelings










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