Monday, June 17, 2013

Revelation, Story, and Plot in a Script for a Short Film

by Bill Johnson


I teach that a story creates movement and the movement transports an audience. This dynamic holds whether the story is a novel, screenplay, play, short story, or short script.
The language used to talk about stories often conveys movement: story arc, hero’s journey, plot points.

Stories that fail to establish they are moving toward some point appear, well, pointless. The longer a story goes without establishing a clear sense of purpose, the more likely readers will feel a story is not going anywhere.

But, in a short film script (under ten pages), there’s an almost exception to this basic rule. A well-written short script can build to a single, powerful revelation that doesn’t depend so much on character arc or journey or plot or meaning, but on quickly building to that final, intriquing twist.

An example of a story with a great twist is An Occurence at Owl Creek Bridge, written by Ambrose Bierce.  The short story is set during the Civil War. A young man is to be hung, but the rope breaks and he escapes. Just as he reaches home and his young wife, he hears a snap and we realize he imagined that escape, and his life just ended with his being hung.

Even if you haven’t read this story, you’ve seen this revelation used in movies (Jacob’s Ladder, The Jacket, The Sixth Sense).

These kind of stories are also called O’Henry’s, named after an author who wrote short stories with an artful twist.

But I said this is an ‘almost’ exception. Almost because these stories need to be well-written to work (stumbling over awkward, obscure language can detail the quick movement to the twist). The bigger exception is, what happens when stories with twist endings are competing against a story with structure?

I write ten minute plays. Years ago, I wrote a ten minute play called The Baggage Handler, about a couple checking in their baggage for their next lives together. It was a play that asked audiences to put themselves into that situation.

When the play was done as part of a festival in New York, I went back to attend. Since this was just a few years after 911, just about all the other plays had the same twist/revelation, that the characters involved were dealing with the aftermath of 911. My play had a revelation, but also characters with clearly defined goals and a plot. My play won the festival because the other plays with the same revelation divided the votes.

Bringing this back to FilmLab, several scripts were written to build to a single clever revelation. Those stories competed against each other.

If you’re going to write a short script, are you hitting the basics? Does your script have a beginning, middle, and end, start on page one, has a main character who wants something? Minor characters who each have a purpose that impacts what the main character wants and also defines them? A landscape that interacts with the characters?

Being clever is great, but creating a short script with a great twist AND a powerful story, that’s a winning combination.

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To read some of my longer reviews of popular movies, visit my website or check out my writing workbook, A Story is a Promise, available on Amazon Kindle. Or, find me on Google+ and tell me what you think.