We should be pretty good at stories. After all, we've been hearing them since before we were born.
Stories have been around for thousands of years, and they have changed surprising little over the ages.
We're exposed to stories every day. And yet, amazingly, I receive scripts all the time in which the basics of storytelling have been overlooked or ignored.
Think about it: we're saturated with stories, inundated with them throughout our lives, but when we come to write our own stories we can MISS OUT SOME OF THE MOST VITAL BITS.
And then we wonder why our script doesn't work.
One of the most familiar mistakes made by writers is also one of the most basic. They forget to make sure that they actually have a story.
For a story to happen you need three things:
1) A Character
2) An Objective
3) An Obstacle
Couldn't be simpler, really. Godard said all he needed to make a movie was a girl and a gun. Chaplin felt that all he needed was a park, a pretty girl and a policeman. All any of us actually need is a Character, an Objective and an Obstacle.
Surprisingly, I get to read a great many scripts in which at least one of these three elements is missing. So there isn't a story.
Can you imagine how difficult it is to write a decent screenplay when you don't actually have a story? Uurrrgghhh - !
Never, never, never try to write a script without having first made sure that you actually do have a story. In other words, that you have a CHARACTER, an OBJECTIVE and an OBSTACLE.
Your CHARACTER is probably going to be your 'hero' or protagonist (it's from a Greek word meaning 'first contestant'). This means that the story will be their story.
Your character must have an OBJECTIVE. He, she or it must want something. And there must be something or someone who stands in the way, forming the OBSTACLE to the hero's achieving his/her/its desire.
Here's a game I play with writing students. Everyone writes at the top of a sheet of paper: 'THE STORY IS ABOUT A ...' Then everyone invents a CHARACTER. Five or six words should be plenty to describe an individual. Fold the top of the page over so that the CHARACTER is not revealed and pass it on.
The next person writes: 'WHO WANTS ...' and then invents a goal, desire or OBJECTIVE. Again, five or six words should do it. Fold over and pass on.
The next player completes the sentence. The sentence will end with the words 'BUT ----- STANDS IN THE WAY.' Those dashes represent the OBSTACLE. Make up a good one (no limit on words this time). Fold over and pass on.
Now open the sheets of paper out and read them. You should various versions of something that runs a bit like this:
'THE STORY IS ABOUT AN AGORAPHOBIC HAIRDRESSER FROM BRIGHTON WHO WANTS TO RUN THE NEW YORK MARATHON BUT A PLAGUE OF LOCUSTS STANDS IN THE WAY.'
I don't know about you but I'd probably pay to see that one. It sounds interesting. It's got a CHARACTER, an OBJECTIVE and an OBSTACLE. It has, in other words, a 'hook'.
One thing I often notice, certainly with British writers, is that we don't make our heroes pro-active. They don't tend to want things. Rather, they tend not to want things. They don't want to lose their child. They don't want the building to collapse. They're trying to avoid losing their job.
Always make your character's objective a positive one. Always express it in positive terms.
And always create the biggest obstacles you can. That's what creates the tension, the struggle. The narrative will follow your hero as he/she/it fights to overcome the obstacles in order to achieve their objective. Big obstacles make for big stories.
But without one of the magic three - Character, Objective, Obstacle - you won't have a story at all. For there to be a story, you absolutely must have a recognisable central character (for the audience to identify with), a declared objective (so that the audience will cheer them on) and a daunting obstacle (which creates the suspense, the 'struggle' of the story).
If you have all three, you've got a story.
If you haven't, forget it.