From Screen to Book: What films can tell us about story-telling

Kathleen Jones

It's Easter Sunday and if the weather isn't cooperating with the holiday weekend then you're probably curled up in front of your television or computer watching a movie or on the sofa reading a book. Films in particular are a good way of keeping the younger members of the family amused on a rainy day. Everyone knows that films usually have a compelling storyline - particularly children’s films. Not surprising, as they have to keep those itchy little bottoms firmly on a seat in front of the screen.

Recently Pixar revealed a few secrets about their formula. It’s a list of 22 rules for storytelling, which you can look at by clicking on this link. One of the items, a plot blue-print,  has become known as The Story Spine, which consists of a number of steps.

Once upon a time there was . . . Every day . . . One day . . . Because of that . . . Because of that . . . Until finally . . .  And ever since that day . . .

It’s the age-old fairy tale formula, the essence of Story, and because it is so fundamental - tapping into all those bedtime stories we heard as children - it puts us pleasurably into our comfort zone.  We listen.

Put simply it works like this:

Once upon a time - set the story in time and space. Tell the reader Who, Where and What.
Every Day - what is life like for your protagonists at this moment? How do they relate to the place they're in and the other characters in the story.
One day - this is where the plot really explodes.  Something Happens to throw it all out of kilter. A letter arrives.  A stranger knocks on the door.  The protagonist meets someone.
Because of that - even more things happen.  And more and more  as the plot becomes more complicated.
Until finally - there is a resolution/solution.
And ever since that day - what has changed for the characters?  How have their daily lives been affected by the events of the story?  What might the future look like?

This formula has gone from traditional story-telling to the screen and is now being fed back to us in a refined form. New media can teach the old book a lot about its craft. The screen image is more economical than pages of words and the way it tells stories is often innovative.  And not just film - television has a lot to say too.  Anyone writing for television serials has to know how to write good narrative hooks to make the viewer turn on for the next episode.  And they have to know about Jeopardy.

New Technology versus the Old:-

Jeopardy is an essential animal to have in your story or novel.  It keeps the reader turning the pages, the viewer switching on for their next fix. Television soap writers know all about it, but it’s rarely mentioned in creative writing manuals.   Jeopardy is what’s at stake for your characters at any given moment, from the very first glimpse of their daily lives, to the ultimate choices they’re forced to make. It’s also the main motivating element in the ‘because of that’ stages of the story spine - because each progression puts the character further into jeopardy.

In her novel, Wideacre, Philippa Gregory has her arrogant young heroine set a mantrap for a lover who is getting above his station. Having done this, the heroine waits nervously, and with some dread, for news of his death. However, the trap is found blood-stained and empty and the man and his mother have disappeared without trace.  The man now knows that the heroine tried to kill him, and he is on the loose. The heroine, having thought she was in control, is now in danger.

Jeopardy often depends on who knows what and who doesn't.  Sometimes it's the reader who knows things that the main protagonist doesn't.  This is a powerful narrative tool. The following is an example of a plot built on jeopardy, an ordinary situation that can be turned into a tense conflict. Imagine a typical family - husband, wife and two teenage children.

Wife has credit card debts she's ashamed to tell her husband about.  She's thinking of borrowing money from a dodgy loan company to pay them off. We, the readers, know that the husband is the kind of man who will feel that his trust has been utterly betrayed - not by the fact of her debts, but by the fact that she couldn't tell him about them.

Husband's jeopardy is that the firm he works for isn't doing well and he's in danger of being made redundant. He's someone for whom Position and Status matter a great deal. He's concealing his worries from his family.

Daughter is seeing a boy she knows her parents won't approve of (for good reasons) and pretends she's going out with a girl friend.  Completely infatuated with him, she's in danger of risking her whole future for this boy.

Her brother is secretly planning to go to South America to work with street children rather than go to University to read Economics and Philosophy.  His parents don't know about his plans and believe his part time job and fanatical saving routine are directed towards University.

The siblings have guessed each other's secrets and there's a certain amount of emotional blackmail going on between them.  The wife's best friend, who finds the husband very attractive, has also discovered the wife's secret debts and is thinking about how to turn this knowledge to her own advantage. On screen or on the page - there will definitely be trouble ahead!

Kathleen Jones is a biographer, poet and novelist published both traditionally and independently.  She is currently RLF Fellow in the creative writing dept. of Lancaster University.

Visit her website
She blogs at 'A Writer's Life'
Follow her on Twitter  @kathyferber
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JO said…
We can learn so much about storytelling from film - I often think through a film in the say way I reflect on a novel - looking at POV, pace, beginnings and endings, the use of setting etc.
Susan Price said…
Terrific post, Kathleen. That 'story-spine' is similar to what I teach in school workshops - except I break it down even further. I can vouch for the fact that it works!
Mari Biella said…
Great post, Kathleen. Your plot built on jeopardy sounds like it has real promise!
glitter noir said…
Beautifully done. 'Who knows what and who doesn't' has become a key point I'm exploring in my new book. That and 'Who doesn't know something they should know--and why?'
Lee said…
John Yorke's Into the Woods
Susan Price said…
I'll see you Into The Woods, and raise you Seven Basic Plots, Booker.
Kathleen Jones said…
Thanks for your comments everyone - just come back from a lovely day out on a lake in Italy - strong wind, temp about 8 degrees, but the wine was good and there was snow on the mountains!
Lee, I didn't know about John Yorke's book, but will look it up now.
Susan, yes, I've found the Seven Basic Plots quite interesting - particularly the section on the psychology of story-telling.
Reb - your new book sounds really interesting.
Mari - I'm not going to use this plot, though it is copyright to me, but I use it a lot in workshops - it's amazing how many different stories you can get from one scenario!
JO - you are so right about films - they've taught me a lot, particularly for short stories.
Now I'm off to bed, with a full moon rising behind the hills and the promise of a fine day tomorrow in the clear sky. Still perishing cold though!
And then there's Robert McKee's 'Story' which for many years was the screen writer's bible. Published in 1999 - a doorstop of a book, but very useful for dipping into.I never got the length of doing one of his expensive and challenging courses, but people who did told me that they got a lot out of them. And Aristotle who kind of did it first!
Lydia Bennet said…
Top post! great break-down. I've often thought, and said on here I think, that publishers too could learn a lot from films - although films are usually trailed as 'romcom' or 'action thriller' or 'art house' they do in fact often cross or mix genres, in a way trad publishers so often say the reader can't deal with - they deal with it every day on TV and in movies.
Kathleen Jones said…
Good point Lydia Bennet!
Haven't read Robert McKee's book Catherine, but he had a formidable reputation!
Lee said…
Susan (or anyone, of course), how helpful do you actually find the Booker tome to be? I've been thinking of reading it but have been put off by 1) its length; 2) its ostensibly prescriptive -- some say dismissive -- and exclusively Jungian approach; and 3) the way Booker essentially ignores at least half a century of other work in narratology. Perhaps I'm just put off by the idea of a single Grand Theory of Story.

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