Architecting a Story for the Market

Taming the lions

How many ways are there to create a story?

There might just be as many ways to write a story as there are stories. It starts with a blank piece of paper, an idea, and imagination. And then... the unwinding of the story routinely leads to failure. A lot can go wrong in the process of writing a story, and you waste hundreds of hours. When you want others to enjoy the story, and make money on it, you want to stack the odds in your favor.

Some have said that there are only around 36 possible plots. So are all stories the same? No. Stories are about the human condition. Human nature doesn't really change very much, but the opportunities and situations change majorly over time. For example, a thief in ancient history could sneak into a place under cover of darkness and steal a fortune. A thief today can masquerade over the Internet and steal a fortune. Within that basic concept, writers can go in a thousand different directions. Avoiding the trite and making the story fresh and original is what it's all about.

A very apropo metaphor for the story writing process - the writing for the market process - is to be an architect. Think of your story as a building you are designing. Most buildings are functionally just a bunch of empty boxes put together to form a building for some purpose, such as a beauty shop, a hospital, a government office, a house.... A story is a lot of things put together to tell a story... drama, action, western, horror, comedy....

We use stylings to tell us what a building is for. Barber shops often have a rotating barber pole in front. Movie theaters have a marquis at the entrance with names of movies on them. Hospitals have big red signs saying, "Emergency." Parking garages have a big "Park" sign in front of them with an arrow pointing to an entrance ramp. Each building has a façade that tells us what we need to know.

In movies, we often use the façade, which we call a motif, to tell us the genre and set the mood. A western may start with a shot of a horse standing on a dirt street and tied to a hitching post, and the noise of a saloon rolling through the swinging doors into the street. We know from the setting and the sound, it's a western. If people are getting tossed into the street, and there is some shooting, and the tone of voice is light and no one gets hurt, we know it's a comedy. If people are getting hurt and we hear from the serious tone in people's voices that they are serious, we know it's a drama.

If a cowboy gets up and shoots three people over his shoulder without looking, we know it's a farce - a just for fun comedy that is a spoof on westerns. If instead a chase scene ensues in which someone jumps from horse to horse, fights three men and wins, and he escapes from a very difficult spot with strength and wits, we know it is an action movie. You can usually tell just from early appearances what kind of movie you are watching.

Next page: Making choices.

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Making choices

Styling doesn't stop with the motif. In a building, the architect will often carry through with a theme that is evident from outside. Perhaps it's a Victorian theme, or Early American, or brick, or rustic. There might be stately columns outside, and they may be Greek or Roman, or they might be rustic hewn 6 x 6 posts. Inside there might be rough hewn lumber. There might be ornate scrolling and engraving on the woodwork. There might be the trophy head of a deer hanging on the wall, or Rembrandt prints, or family photos. There might be contemporary furniture, or Queen Anne, or modern with a lot of metal and glass. These stylings don't really affect the functionality of the rooms, but they please the inhabitants, guests, and customers.

In a story, styling includes the settings and how the dramatic action is presented. In 17th. Century England and the US, people might have handled their serious disputes with swords, a pistol duel, or through pugilism (rules restrained boxing - a fist fight). Today they might use martial arts, a knife, a gun, or an attorney, and end up in jail. They might even use their words. With accomplished stunt-martial artists like Jackie Chan, Jet Li, or Jason Statham in the starring role, the writer would probably try to use their words first, then put a world of hurt on them. What is going to entertain the audience?

Choosing what is going to entertain the audience is not easy. Gun play has become almost blasé in recent history. No one can hit their target. It goes on forever trying to make an impact, with lead being hurled ad nauseam. Does it have any real impact? Is there another way to present action conflict that is more interesting? The shrewd writer/producer will make different choices and architect his story in a more interesting way - he'll get the better audience.

Styling may very well start with your vision. You might say, "You know, I just think a lot of these Old West heroes never wanted to fight - it was just something they learned, and I want to show that they were trapped into it by their jobs." Of course, the audience who hears your idea may think you are onto a good story, but your vision stinks, and then you have to re-architect. You restyle it as a comedy with a reluctant and bungling hero.

Next page: Architecting as writer/producer.

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Architecting as writer/producer

People want certain things in their buildings. Restrooms, kitchens, gold plating.... The architect knows what people like, and says, "You're going to love this." He can arrange the rooms in any number of patterns. He can make the kitchen long or compact, but still convenient. He can throw in an amazing waterfall in the foyer, with lots of blooming plants in brilliant colors that will knock their sox off. With his skill and creativity, he can not only deliver on what they want, he can dazzle his audience.

The screenwriter does the same thing. He knows the basic form: The audience likes to know all the characters early, and usually by 30 minutes know the plotline, the dramatic tension should build, and then have a satisfying resolution. But he also knows people love romance, high stakes, mystery, suspense, fear, and comedy, surprises, plot twists, and the mystifying human condition.

All of these elements, and more, can be brought into a drama, comedy, or action movie, and arranged however you want them. "Oh, you're going to love this, this lowly martial arts guy, who can't speak the language, sees this beautiful woman and immediately falls in love, and she kind of likes him, but they are worlds apart. He finagles himself into this high stakes game where he can win this woman of his dreams, if he can only face his fear of heights, but he has to figure out who is stalking him - her father's men maybe - and every time he has to climb on the top of the building we worry that the stalker will knock him off. And it is so hilarious because this accomplished martial arts guy keeps jumping at shadows and stumbling around like an idiot, and in the end we find out it actually was his own shadow stalking him because of this experimenter's shadow light project."

You have to stay true to yourself. In the overlapping set of stories that interest you, and the set that interests an audience, are the movies that you can make. And then you get to architect it all.

Stories start with an idea, and maybe a vision. You create some characters that you think will work well with that idea - people who have clashing interests that will create conflict. You create them with personalities, and real advantages and disadvantages. You create a setting. You bring these people together and start throwing them into situations, and they basically write the story for you.

Your job as writer is design. You design the characters. You design the settings. You design the conflicts (character motivations). You design the situations they get into (plot). Then each time one character does something, the other character reacts, and then the first character reacts.... As a story architect you design a captivating group of characters, settings, and plot, throw in some style, and let the characters unwind the story (character driven).

Have you produced a good independent movie or short? Get more attention for your shorts on Rent your movie on for more profit.

- Dorian

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Movie names that are mentioned are not given reference citations. This is because numerous studios are involved in production, and they then assign distribution rights to multiple distributors, and these rights can be sold to other distributors. For production and distribution information on any movie mentioned, consult the Internet Movie Database, or other authoritative listing.

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