Short Film Structure: Story Models

When I was at uni and I told a friend and fellow student that I wanted to be a writer, his eyes lit up.

‘I have the perfect book for you,’ he said. It wasn’t until a few months later when we were at his house shooting a short film, that he thrust it into my hands.

‘This is the bible of writing. Read it. You’ll thank me later.’

The book was written by Linda Aronson and titled ‘Screenwriting Updated: New and Conventional Ways of Writing for the Screen’. I’m going to be honest, I was not enthused by the thought of recreationally reading what was essentially a textbook. I was in my second year of uni and non-fiction wasn’t exactly the most exciting genre for me – especially when I had Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings instead. But I stuck with it. And I read it.

And I loved it.

It was the first book I’d read about writing and it was easy to read, very informative with great examples of films I’d actually seen. A lot of the things I read and learnt from Aronson’s book I still think about now. I met her last year at the London Screenwriters’ Festival and her presence was a huge factor in mejustifying the price of the ticket – although now having been to last year’s one, I can’t recommend it enough.

One of the notes that I have scribbled down in my notebook still is a nugget I found within the pages of that book.

Look at existing story models from a different point of view than the protagonist.

Think ‘Romeo and Juliet’ from the point of view of Lady Capulet. ‘Cinderella’ from the point of view of an ugly stepsister.

I think this is a great point to think about when coming up with ideas for short films.

A new spin on an old theme.

Is what it essentially means. I unintentionally stumbled across this last week when I sent out a Tweet as I was eating my lunch in the park, bookless and notebookless.

It was based on something I was actually watching. I couldn’t decide if Pigeon 1 was flirting or trying to intimidate Pigeon 2. I figured it was funnier if he was trying to flirt, so that’s what I Tweeted. As an impulse, I added the hashtag before I posted it as I thought it might be a nice punchline for the story.

Ten minutes later, I decided to send out another, following the style of the hashtag.

I was surprised to note that my first Tweet had gotten a few replies, people amused by the observation. I figured it would be fun to see where it could go and I had nothing else to do whilst I was enjoying the sun in the park, so I continued.

By adopting a familiar story model of a cheating husband so evident in soaps, the audience (my followers) were aware of where it was going and how it might end. An easily recognisable narrative strand with a new spin on it.
However, my lunch hour was wrapping up, so I needed to figure a way to end it. I planted a little foreshadowing.
By blending the foreshadowing with believable character behaviour (pigeons will linger around for food, after all), the audience may not have even noticed it was there.

By reminding the audience that the story actually is about a pack of birds, the humour of the situation is slightly heightened – the drama heightens the comedy. And it gives me a natural end to the story.

I got a startlingly positive response out of it, so I decided to blog about it and use it as an example of a new spin on an existing story model. This is a series of tweets, but there’s no reason that this thought process can’t be applied to writing short films. Or films in general, come to that.
Think about the stories you like most. Then think about what the story ‘model’ is. There are several classic examples – many are listed in Aronson’s book – but off the top of my head there are Star Crossed Lovers (Romeo and Juliet), Underdog Triumph (Cinderella, Rocky), The Quest (Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings); there are differing models for differing authors. Think about the key plot and character points of your story and see how you might be able to twist it into something new.
After all, who’d have thought that Twitter would find pigeons’ love lives so interesting?
Links:

London Screenwriters’ Festival

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