Raymond Chandler wrote great mystery novels like The Big Sleep and Farewell, My Lovely. He also wrote screenplays like “Double Indemnity” and “Strangers on a Train”. Chandler once said, “If you’re telling your story to someone and noticing that you’re losing their interest, just have one of your characters walk in with a gun.”
How do we tell compelling stories that will keep our audience engaged through the beginning, middle and end?
Two ways: you tell well-structured stories with clear “through-lines”; and you resonate with the universal truths of the stories to take your audience on an emotional journey with you.
You’ll sustain the audience’s engagement when there is a “through-line” to the story. The through-line is a dramatic handrail for the audience to hold while they’re going on a parallel kinesthetic, mental, and emotional journey of discovery with you. A simple and elegant way to discover the through-line is to use a lens into your story called “The Story Molecule.”
The Story Molecule is a dramatic cursor that runs through every beat of your story. It suggests that there are three levels to every story: the outer story or action plot; the emotional network story, or web of characters; and the inner story, what the main character learns, or the theme.
You create a through-line by dramatically asking a central question on each of these three levels at the beginning of your story, suspend the answers in the middle of your story, and dramatically answer the questions at the end. The basic building blocks of every story are the questions or conflicts that get raised in the beginning, are suspended in the middle and are answered in the end – conflict, suspense and resolution.
In “Shakespeare in Love” the outer plot question is whether Shakespeare will successfully write and stage his play; the emotional network question asks whether he’ll be together with Viola in the end; and the inner question ask whether he will be able to find inspiration from within. These questions are dramatically raised in the beginning and answered in the end: yes, Will Shakespeare successfully stages his play; no, he won’t be together with Viola; but yes, he will “carry her with him” and be inspired from within.
You will also tell your stories better when you resonate with the archetypal themes of your story, as dramatically expressed by your characters and deeply felt by your audience. This is where you can experience the parallel change and transformation with your characters that ultimately the audience will experience – if you have the courage to face your fears that come up when you’re developing your story.
This may be an analogous fear of confrontation that resulted in the inability to take risks and to reach out to others; it may be a fear of abandonment that has resulted in difficulties with commitments; it may be a fear of survival that has resulted in scarcity consciousness; or it may be a fear of losing control that has resulted in obsessive worry and depression.
Your universal fears connect you to your audience. But this doesn’t mean you have to go into therapy before you continue. The key is to write from these fears because what you’re feeling is what your characters are feeling and what the audience will feel. This creates the resonance for change and transformation.
Change begins with an inner shift of self-perception: from feeling victimized by your fears to being inspired by your fears. This inner shift of self-perception reveals the deeper meaning of your story, and reveals the causal factors of why you needed to tell this story in the first place.
This is when the telling is telling.
What are your favorite stories to tell from your childhood? Do these stories organically have a beginning, middle and end? What are the universal themes?