A guest post by Brian McDonald
Ever since Quentin Tarantino’s film Pulp Fiction was released, people have talked in awe about how that film and others have played with traditional notions of story structure. That film tells its story out of sequence and is therefore innovative, or so the reasoning goes. This is a mistake. Telling stories out of sequence is actually as traditional as it gets.
The idea that story structure is ruled by linear chronology is a common error. As I have often written, and told students, one must look at how stories are told in real life. One must study stories not in their written form, or some other medium like TV or films, but in their natural habitat.
Real-life storytelling, person-to-person, is the parent form of every other form of storytelling. In this ancient and most-used form of storytelling is contained every structural element of story.
Since stories are all around us all the time, if you can train yourself to pay attention to everyday speech, you will learn more than I—or any book, blog, or teacher—could ever tell you about storytelling.So, let’s look at stories in their natural habitat to see how we are not married to linear chronology in stories and why.
Someone might tell you a story like this:
STORYTELLER: So, I go into work this morning – traffic was crazy so I was about five or six minutes late. I grab some coffee from the break-room. Someone had brought donuts so I grabbed one and everyone in the office started talking about their long weekend and what they did. We did that for about 10, 15 minutes until I noticed the time and mentioned that we should get back to work. Someone was in the middle of a story, so they all stayed in the break-room and I headed back to my office. On the way my supervisor stops me and tells me that I’m fired for too much socializing.
That is one way someone might tell you a story, but it isn’t very likely. Why? It’s a little boring. Why? Because the listener has no idea why they are listening. Most of us are natural storytellers and understand that power of structure and the manipulation of chronology. Most of us know to start with the most interesting part of the story to cue people in to why they are listening.
TYPICAL STORYTELLER: I got fired today! So, I go into work this morning – traffic was crazy so I was about five or six minutes late. I grab some coffee from the break-room. Someone had brought donuts so I grabbed one and everyone in the office started talking about their long weekend and what they did. We did that for about 10, 15 minutes then I noticed the time and mentioned that we should get back to work. Someone was in the middle of a story, so they all stayed in the break-room and I headed back to my office. On the way my supervisor stops me and tells me that I’m fired for too much socializing.
See how this small change impacts the story? Putting the point up front works to engage one’s audience; that sometimes means hopping to the end of the timeline. “I got fired today” is the end of the story. It’s what everything is leading to. But notice how your brain barely notices this time shift. It’s because it is a natural way for us to tell stories and not anyone’s invention or construct.
We all know people who tell stories the way I did in the first example and those people make us very impatient because as listeners we are straining to ascertain just which details of their stories are germane.
The myth is that Hollywood invented story structure. They did not—they capitalized on it. Structure is not about adhering to page counts or putting the story events in a predetermined order, but rather understanding what order of events is most effective for the story one happens to be telling.
My advice—listen to people talk. Listen to people tell stories when they don’t even know that they are doing it. If the story is engaging, chances are they are instinctively using sound structural principles. You can learn all the “rules” of storytelling by listening to people. All you have to do is take the time.
This post was first published at Invisible Ink. Reproduced with permission.
Brian McDonald is the author of Invisible Ink, The Golden Theme and Ink Spots. He is also a sought after instructor and consultant who has taught story structure seminars at Pixar, Disney Feature Animation and Lucasfilm’s ILM. Here he shares his advice on the natural way to tell stories. He can be followed on Twitter.