By the time you’ve figured out your conflicts, reactions and tactics you probably have your events in some kind of order. This is where you want to see if it is creating the experience for your audience that you want. Sometimes you have all of the elements for a story but it still isn’t entertaining. Often this is because the story is laid out and the audience can see what is coming. It makes it boring. We already know how it will end.
What engages an audience and keeps it engaged is carefully laid out narrative questions. Narrative questions set up curiosity, intrigue or suspense in the mind of your audience. Some questions you will answer immediately—they are setups. For example in Defective Detective the first thing we see is an apartment building when a light in one window is on. Immediately your audience is wondering—who’s in the apartment? And then we can show them. Other times, when answers to the questions are given too quickly the audience loses interest. So the key to good storytelling is to make the audience wait. But it is also important to determine what it is waiting for.
In any story, your audience will be located in one of three places:
1. With the character. The audience learns as the character learns. This creates suspense. Neither knows exactly what will happen.
2. Ahead of the character. The audience knows more than the character. This creates tension and drama. Think of the classic horror film where the audience is screaming at the character, “Don’t open the door!” This location of the audience can also sometimes create humor—usually when the character is inept or clueless to the real situation that is going on around him.
3. Behind the character. The character knows more than the audience. This creates intrigue and curiosity and those lead to surprise.
For example, when we looked at the rising conflicts in Defective Detective, we only looked at the conflicts that the detective was facing. This could be the story and all that we see. If that were the case, the audience would be located with the detective and completely believe that his neighbor is in peril. The story is a drama.
If we go this route, the audience will be asking if the detective will get there in time and if the neighbor will be saved. After all that suspense, is the ending satisfying or will it fall flat? Will the detective learn his lesson?
Is there more information that the audience needs to know that will make the story more entertaining? When we add the additional story of the neighbor, we now place the audience ahead of the character. The question that engages the audience through the story is: What will happen when the two meet? The audience knows the old woman is safe so each time we raise the conflict we create humor by his reaction instead of drama. And the ending works better because he finally knows what we know. Geller and Lewis take this one step further in an epilogue to the story. While the detective and old woman eat soup, we pull out to discover two things: the old woman is in control, and that her apartment is nearly the only apartment where a crime is not being committed. The detective is not so inept after all. This unexpected epilogue puts the audience behind the character and the story giving it a moment of discovery.
Image Above: Defective Detective by Avner Geller and Stevie Lewis, Ringling College of Art and Design
The order of the events in your story determines where your audience is located and how it moves through the story.
In feature films, where the audience is located varies through the different events of the story. In the short the audience is usually only in one place. Think about where you want it to be.
The audience will think and feel something at every event in your story. What it is thinking and feeling is called the external monologue. This can be the same—or in opposition to—what the character is thinking and feeling—the internal monologue. By writing exactly what you want your audience to think and feel through the events of your story, you can pinpoint, construct, and evaluate your narrative questions and edit the order of your events to guide (or move) your audience through the story, what you want it to know, where you want it to be and how you want it to feel.
Thankfully, there are a few standard story structures against which you can put your events to help find the most entertaining and engaging journey for your audience. Often—not always—the structure you want relates to the lesson you want your character and audience to learn.
Excerpt from Ideas for the Animated Short, 2e by Karen Sullivan et al. © 2013 Focal Press an imprint of Taylor and Francis Group. All Rights Reserved.