Three Secrets of Great Storytelling

by Jill Chamberlain

We asked screenwriter and story doctor, Jill Chamberlain, the secrets of great stories. Take it away, Jill!

If you find yourself blocked and can't figure out what to write next, the problem may lie not in the scene you're stuck on but in your story as a whole.

Take a look at these three secrets of great storytelling, and see if they help you reimagine your story in a fresh light. With a few tweaks, you can usually manipulate your tale to work within these three frameworks. Then, your story should be rock solid, and hopefully you'll never find yourself at a loss for words again

1. Every story is a version of "be careful what you wish for."

At the beginning of a screenplay, usually within the first 10 pages, the protagonist is introduced, and we find out what the protagonist wants. Later, the protagonist will get exactly what she wanted–it may not be the thing she wanted the most–but she will get something she wanted in those first 10 pages. Then, pretty soon after that, the protagonist's life will begin to resemble the old maxim "be careful what you wish for."

In The Wizard of Oz Dorothy wishes she could go somewhere over the rainbow because she thinks that there she'd escape her problems. Does she get her wish? Yes–but it turns out to be a scary place, and instead of taking away her problems, it compounds them.

In Tootsie Michael Dorsey, the out-of-work actor played by Dustin Hoffman, desperately wants an acting job. Does he get his wish? Yes–but the acting job is that of a female character on a soap opera, so he has to disguise himself as a woman all the time. Eventually this creates so many problems in his life that he risks his entire acting career to try to get out of his contract.

In Juno, the title character wishes she knew if she was pregnant. Does she get her wish? Yes–and the answer is yes, she's preggers. The rest of the movie is about her dealing with the consequences of this knowledge.

In some films "be careful what you wish for" is more apparent than in others. Often it requires some verbal dexterity to create just the right wording of the wish so that it's the one that is fulfilled. But deep down, it's always there.

2. Your protagonist's flaw is secretly what your story is about.

In life, we all have strengths and weaknesses. Well-developed fictional characters should have both, too. And your protagonist should have one weakness in particular–one specific personal flaw–which she is going to have to come up against before the end of your story.

The protagonist's flaw isn't something like a mustache or a Southern accent that you can tack onto your script as an afterthought. The protagonist's flaw is the story. This flaw and how your protagonist deals with it is actually what your story is secretly about.

You could say that The Wizard of Oz is about a Kansas farm girl whom wakes up in a magic land and, to get back home, she has to follows a path through scary places so she can talk to a wizard she's told can help her. But it turns out that she alone has the power to bring herself home, which she does by proclaiming "there's no place like home." That's the plot.

But what The Wizard of Oz is really about is a girl who yearns to be someplace else so she can escape her troubles. When she wakes up in a land far away, she finds she has all new problems that are even scarier than the ones she was trying to escape. When she finally is able to return home, she proclaims that she'll never look for excitement further than her own backyard, because somewhere new won't take away your problems; it'll just make them worse. That's the story.

When you think about it, so very many movie plots revolve around a physical journey. It's a great metaphor to use. Because, at the heart of it, every great story is an emotional journey. If you don't give your protagonist a real flaw to tackle, she'll literally have no place to go.

3. Don't put Tootsie in a chicken suit.

Stories are not one-size-fits-all. Your protagonist's journey should be specific to that character and her flaw. If you can easily remove your current protagonist from your story and replace her with a different character, say, your protagonist's best friend, and nobody would notice the difference, then your story is not specific to your protagonist. You have what we call at The Screenplay Workshop "Tootsie in the Chicken Suit" syndrome.

Let's say that instead of having to convince everyone he's a woman, Michael Dorsey in Tootsie has to wear a head-to-toe chicken costume. Instead of getting the part of a woman, he got the part of "Mr. Chicken," a kook who always wears a chicken suit for some reason. Now, let's say the producers want to keep the identity of Mr. Chicken top secret, and so Michael has to come to work and leave work in his Mr. Chicken costume, and he can never reveal to his costars or anyone whom he really is. Everything else about the plot of Tootsie we're going to leave exactly the same: Michael falls for his costar; Michael's character on the soap opera becomes a big hit, etc., etc.

Men dressing as women are funny; chicken costumes are funny. The rest of the plot is the same. So why wouldn't "Tootsie in the Chicken Suit" be as good a story? Why wouldn't it ultimately work?

The problem is that a chicken suit is arbitrary; it has nothing to do with the character Michael Dorsey. In the film Michael Dorsey is a guy who sleeps around and has no respect for women. Making him have to be a woman is a perfect test of Michael and his flaw, and it's exactly what makes it such a satisfying story.

A story isn't a bunch random events dumped onto characters. A story should be specific to its characters and their flaws. Don't put Michael in the chicken suit! Make sure you put your characters on journeys that are designed to test them as individuals and their specific flaws.

Jill Chamberlain is a screenwriter, story consultant and script doctor whose stories have been seen in theaters across the U.S. She's currently Director of The Screenplay Workshop, an acclaimed program where concrete, tangible writing techniques are taught by professional screenwriters in classes in groups, online and one-on-one.