Developing A Cinematic Story

Developing A Cinematic StoryIndependent filmmakers are known to dive into projects without fully developing their story. Some come up with a cool scene idea and toss together a film to facilitate what’s in their mind’s eye for that 2-3 minute segment. The words that flow from their lips two years later is something like, “It didn’t quite turn out the way I pictured.”

The reason is elementary: Film is an argument, and the scene didn’t attempt to address anything worth arguing about.

The first place I’d check out, if given a new time machine, would be that large room where the Constitution of the United States was argued. I can imagine a group of passionate men fueled by their ideals on freedom of speech and religion, and the increasing weight of taxation without representation. It was a venue of the greatest arguments in the history of our country.

Great films cover both sides of an argument. The development process determines how the filmmaker will visualize the argument and lead the audience from a general understanding of the topic to his perspective. But most independent filmmakers can’t tell you what their film argues, which gives insights into why their film will fail at the box office.

A couple months ago, I watched an independent film that will fail during its release this summer because the story’s argument wasn’t explored with the audience, but rather was covered over by 22 unrelated messages. In fact, the argument was so underdeveloped that it took me the first 45 minutes of the film to determine who the main character was and his goal.

Here are a few guidelines that I’d like to suggest to new filmmakers for their consideration during the development phase of their motion picture:

  1. Determine what your film will argue.
  2. List all key points of the argument from every vantage point or perspective.
  3. Determine what view you’d like the audience to hold when leaving the theater.
  4. Select the strongest or most widely-held opposing argument for your antagonist.
  5. Create an 8-step flowchart that moves a person from an opposing viewpoint to your perspective, starting with their belief and ending with yours.
  6. Brainstorm a character that can best move the audience from the start box to the end box of the flowchart in a way that leads the audience to embrace his process.
  7. Based on the above, write a premise that can drive the action or movement of the film.

A simple way to develop a premise is to use an outline similar to the following:

[Title] is a [genre] about a [hero] who, after [big beat that happens to hero], wants to [hero’s desire] by [hero’s plan], which becomes increasingly difficult because of [obstacles/complications].

This quick formula will get your story launched in your mind’s eye and help you to immediately see if the story can be further developed. Here is a sample using The Fugitive that I tweaked for readability.

The Fugitive is a thriller about an innocent doctor who, after being sentenced to life in prison for killing his wife, escapes to find the real murderer, which becomes increasingly difficult with a determined Marshall hot on his trail.

Once you have your argument and premise, the next step is to determine how to weave the two ideas into a compelling story. The throughline will drive the audience’s interest, and the visual depiction of the argument will alter their perception of culture and their future life choices—that is, if the story is well crafted.

A well-designed argument that takes a person from a common view to your perspective is entertaining and can help audiences make culturally significant life changes. Since the motion picture is an argument, it’s easy to see why films have driven our culture for over a hundred years.

Our rich history of cinema suggests that filmmakers must learn how to properly develop their stories for the silver screen. To help encourage filmmakers move in that direction, I’m going to pull together some steps worth sharing in future blogs.

Copyright © 2018 by CJ Powers

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Story — Endow Experience with Meaning

CFD81E31-5644-4EE4-A744-32C46B021CC0Persuading a person to your perspective is ascribed to two forms of communication: argument and story. Film is considered both an argument and story. Yet, many independent filmmakers never try to argue their point to a mass audience or share a story that’s saturated in experience and meaning. They simply want to create something cool, which adds to society’s noise.

The number of independent films, both short and feature, hit its peak and started to decline last year. The main reason for the drop was due to filmmakers leaving the industry. Many cited their inability to “break in” to Hollywood, as the reason for exit. When asked what changed perspective or infused meaning they had hoped to give their audience, none were able to answer. Their response suggested they had all been a part of the noise.

One filmmaker stated strongly that he didn’t make his film to persuade the masses, but instead created it to encourage like-minded people that agreed with his philosophies and ideas. He was asked a follow up question, “What meaning did you attach to the character’s experience for the edification of the audience?” His response was, “I had lots of lessons in the film.”

Having talked to thousands of independent filmmakers, I can tell you that a person who says they’ve put lots of messages in a film, has failed to provide the audience one clear understandable message. The film becomes a conglomerate of noise.

Story is a gift that allows us to turn meaningless activities into art filled with purpose. Without purpose, the artistry of a story fails to appear. It’s only when a single purpose or vision is conformed by artistry that a memorable story survives the test of time. When watching great story, audiences catch and embrace the meaning as their own, much like watching a good friend work through a crisis to success.

If you felt the need to label the outcome, we would call it a testimonial of the main character. After the hero overcomes his greatest obstacle, he is able to testify to his success. He lived through the painful process and not only landed on his feet, but also demonstrated to the audience a solution they can implement in their lives as well.

In other words, stories that stand the test of time are those that show a main character who attaches meaning to his or her experience. It is also a story that is easily shared with the masses because of its universal appeal. Whenever meaning is attached to a character’s activities, the story is of great interest to all viewers.

One benefit of losing filmmakers who don’t endow their experiential stories with meaning is the reduction of noise in the market. The less noise producing filmmakers, the easier it is for audiences to find the filmmaker who produces great stories.

Copyright © 2016 by CJ Powers