Plant, Nurture, and Release

September 6, 2009

Cotton freshly-picked from the plant is not nearly as useful to us as cotton that has been formed into threads. As a thread, it has tensile strength and can then be interwoven with other threads to form fabric. Similarly…

A story thread packs more punch than a story event

To create a story thread, I consider how a story character or other element will be more emotionally engaging or satisfying to the audience if I structured it the way you structure a story: in three acts. Here’s that three-act structure in a nutshell:

  • The first act introduces
  • The second act develops
  • The third act releases

Similarly, take any single story element and give it a similar structure: introduce it into the story, nurture it by interweaving it into the plotline, and then deliver it. Pay it out. Release it. Resolve it. That’s a story thread with tensile strength.

Simple example:

Let’s say you’ve got a story about (Act I) a timid, abused woman who finally decides (Act II) to stand up for herself. But the harder she tries, the harder it seems to get. Finally, she summons all her willpower and creativity to (Act III) launch one last desperate attempt to change her destiny. In a climatic face-to-face moment with her abusive husband where, for the first time, she has the power, the woman slaps him in the face before walking away, victorious.

We are as surprised as he is by that slap — a powerful dramatic event. But rather than make it a standalone event, here’s how you could pump up the drama by making it part of a Physical Abuse story thread:

  1. SETUP: In the first act, we see the husband slap the woman. It catches us by surprise. We see more physical abuse, and we become more alarmed or frustrated when she just takes it.
  2. NURTURE: Now, when she decides to do something about it (launching Act II) we are both excited for her and a little scared, too. As the story develops, we think she’s making some headway but then she gets slapped around by the man again, maybe even more abusively, which makes us more afraid for her and angry at him.
  3. PAYOFF: Finally, when her last great effort to win over the abusive man succeeds, we are not simply surprised when the victory moment is punctuated as she slaps him; we are enthralled and cheering for her.

In this story about a woman learning how to stand up for herself, the drama is much more intense if we interweave the abusiveness into the developing storyline. By having her get slapped early in the story, we establish abusiveness as the status quo. Because we are not comfortable with that state, we are totally on board when she finally decides to do something about it. And because we have seen how vicious the husband can be, we respect the tremendous risk she is putting herself in by going against her husband. This creates tremendous tension for us as we empathize with her, hoping that we could be so brave while also knowing how much we don’t like being slapped, which keeps happening to her.

Good stuff… dramaturgically speaking.

It then becomes great dramaturgical stuff when, after all of this terrible abuse, the husband finally gets what he’s got coming to him, as punctuated by that great reversal when she slaps him. It allows us to feel what she feels: vindicated. In fact, when she slaps him, the act becomes a symbol, proving that she has finally overcome her timidity. That’s why I like to plan out and carefully deploy story threads, because…

Surprise is nice but suspense is tense

And intensity is the heart and soul of drama — that heart-wrenching tension between what is happening and what we want to happen.

Something that I recall Oscar award-winning director-screenwriter Milos Forman mentioning more than once in his class at USC’s school of Cinema is that, while surprise is a nice tool in the screenwriter’s toolbox, it cannot compare to the power of suspense. When we know that something is going to happen and we don’t want it to but we are powerless to stop it (that’s suspense), we are considerably more emotionally invested in the drama than when we are surprised by an unexpected event.

And that’s why I dig threads. 🙂 A writer can ensure that the influencing and influenced story elements enrich the story and grip the heart and mind of the viewer (or reader) if they give the element a life, not just a moment; if they set it up, nurture it, and then release it into the protagonist’s world, giving the element its big dramatic moment – the payoff.

That’s the power of the story thread.