Chris HuntleyJuly 30′s coffee chat at LA Shorts Fest featured guest speaker Chris Huntley of Write Brothers, Inc (makers of Movie Magic Screenwriter and Dramatica software for writers). Chris is the  co-creator of the Dramatica guide, an acclaimed theory of story writing and the basis of the popular Writer’s DreamKit and Dramatica Pro software.  He regularly teaches workshops and classes on story structure and development. His main focus was story development, identifying story problems and the ways to solve them.

The first topic discussed was exposition and how to keep that brief in short films. In a short film, it is not possible to have a character go into full detail on their history, their problems, their feelings. Chris advised not using voice over to do this, it is always better to show through action than through voice or the writer can have another character’s dialog help reveal something about the main character’s past. Voice over works best if you add to what the audience is seeing not replacing what the audience is seeing. The other good use of voice over is if you want to create irony by using voice over as a way to counterpoint the action. His example of a great use of voice over is the film AMELIE. Writing a scene where the character is onscreen telling the audience what happened rather than showing the action is an example of a poor use of voice over. The audience will be more interested in watching what happens in a scene than just listening to someone tell them what happened.

With regard to road trip or journey stories, Chris advised to make sure that film is about the traveling. When the story stays too long in a certain location, the story stalls and interest is lost. An example of this happening is the film UP.  The story starts off being about the house moving to a certain location, it was a road trip story. When the house arrived, around 1/3 of the way through the film, the road trip element stalled and the story turned into something else. In essence, UP was a film with 2 different stories. It had to reboot after the house arrived and it is difficult to have a successful reboot in the middle of a story. When interest is lost, it is very difficult to bring it back.  A road trip story has to have a definite time line ending in mind. The audience has to know that when a definite destination is reached, the story is over. Otherwise, the story wanders aimlessly and the audience will not stay with it.

Ensemble films such as LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE  have a road trip element in them that worked because the travel was integral to the story and the audience knew when the story would end, when they reached the beauty pageant. The character reveals and action happened in the confines of the traveling. In an ensemble picture, the writer must identify what is the core issue contained within the characters and how they relate to each other around this core issue.

Structurally, a story needs acts. The first element of a story is a problem the main character has that he can’t see although others around him do see it. The acts are the tearing down of the blinders of the main character so that he has the capacity to see the problem and solve it. If the character does not grow throughout the story, there is no story.  All of the energy of the story is lost if the main character does not eventually gain the capacity to solve his problem. If there is no one around to help point out the problem, the supporting or impact characters, there also is no story. The impact character’s job is to serve as an irritant to the main character. The impact offers an alternative way of seeing the problem and solving it so that the main character cannot continue to ignore it. This character is not the antagonist. The antagonist is the mirror image of the protagonist, the character on the opposite side of the protagonist.

Four elements of the story (the 4 through lines) are the big picture (the story), the main character (the I perspective), the impact character (the you perspective) and  the antagonist (the they perspective). The main character is the person through whose eyes the audience sees the action. This is not necessarily the protagonist. An example of explaining the four elements was the film TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD. The big picture is the trial and the main character is Scout, the person through whose eyes the audience sees the story. The protagonist is Atticus Finch and antagonist is Bob Ewell. The metaphor used to explain the elements of the story was imagine 4 ships floating on the ocean. You can describe them and where they came from, but it is when they come in line with each other that the story begins. From that point on, the story must move forward and there can only be one conclusion the story can ultimately come to. If there is not only one conclusion, there are pieces missing from the story. The audience will know that there are pieces missing, even if they don’t know what they are, when there is not one clear conclusion. The twists and turns on the way to the clear conclusion make it exciting, but they all have to serve to coming to the one conclusion.

The conversation moved to films with multiple stories going on like in BABEL or CRASH. These are films with a series of short stories incorporated together, usually with each story impacting the others. Each of these stories could have been a short film on their own and they must have the same conventions of a self contained story, the 4 through lines. But putting them together means that one story could not exist without the others impacting it.

Chris advised with short films, the writer must choose between breadth or depth, but not both. Economy of storytelling is of the essence in short film and it cannot be successfully achieved unless the writer chooses a wide story with shallow character development or deep character development with a narrow story.

All of the writers in attendance seemed to enjoy their time with Chris. He regularly holds seminars at various film and video conventions as well as having a Dramatica users group that meets every second Tuesday in Burbank. For more information on his future workshops, please consult his website www.chrishuntley.com.

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