If I'm going to talk a little bit about writing, I should probably begin with something simple: defining what I think about story.
Story is not just stuff that happens. That's plot. Plot should be a by product of story.
Story is a series of dramatic moments that occur in an attempt to resolve dissonance to consonance.
Generally story begins when something is put into dissonance. This means that something is "wrong" or out of balance.
Moments of dissonance enter our lives everyday. Let's say you get a bill that you can't pay. That's dissonance. It has to be resolved. If you get a bill and you can pay it, but you don't want to - that's not really a dilemma. A dilemma happens where the two forces are equally strong.
You need to make sure that your audience cares about the dilemma. How do you make them care? Paraphrasing my friend Douglas Griffin "People like people who want things. Because we want things, so we understand them."
Let's say our college student is getting this bill, but he can't pay it because he has to work all the time on his studies because he wants a better life for himself and his family who is depending on him and this is his only shot. But if he works too much, he'll never finish his studies and he'll fail out of school. He has a dilemma. He wants something.
In world of music - composers use dissonance into consonance constantly because just like in writing - dissonance holds an audience's attention and then they are rewarded with the consonance. Wagner's entire Tristan Und Isolde spends about 3 hours building up to it's final resolve. Pop songs will alternate dissonance with consonance continually. If you play a C, F, G on the piano... I bet before you walk away from that keyboard, you'll really want to play C, E, G. It feels resolved. Just like music alternate through out the song - great drama oscillates. The scenes oscillate, the moments oscillate.
All of the arts correlate. There is dissonance vs. consonance in photography and design- but I'm keeping these short - so we'll leave it at this. Basically - audiences will wait for consonance for a period of time.
In order to continue to keep the audience's attention a series of these dilemmas are strung together until he can finally resolve the primary dilemma which started the movie.
To sum it up: When you're thinking about your story - the first thing you might want to think about is what does your character want and what is stopping him or her from getting it. If you start from there, the rest of your choices can help support this element which is the spine of your structure.
If you start from a neat idea for a world or a neat image or a neat technology - you'd better very quickly find in that story something or someone who needs something and something that is stopping it.
If you're stuck - begin with the problem first. The bill. Then figure out for whom this bill would create a true dilemma by stopping them from their path to something they want.
Try to think of a non-experimental movie that doesn't center around someone wanting something by the first third and getting it (or not getting it) by the last third.
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