Roll Sound, Camera and Action… In typical screenwriting lingo, the hero “saves the cat” in the midst of a highly dramatic situation, against all odds, thus winning the hearts of the heroine, her family, her neighbors, her postman and last but not least the entire audience. This exercise of creating drama on screen is conducted in order to keep the audience on the edge and more importantly empathize with their hero, rooting for him even after having seen the film. The power of cinema created primarily by the filmmaker, writer and the rest of their team is what persuades the audiences to savor a film. But more prominently, it is the craft of good screenwriting that drives good storytelling on screen, and in turn influences and pulls in audiences as a chain reaction no matter what. Human beings are social creatures and therefore have a huge appetite for stories. Cinema is a highly influential medium to satisfy the craving for good stories. The creators of cinema virtually hypnotise the audience with a spellbinding story and transport them into a make belief realm via audio-visual stimulation.
So what happens when the film viewers don’t feel satisfied by the story being depicted on screen? The film crashes like an airplane whose engines have given way in midair. In other words, the “save the cat” phenomenon has not been put to good use. There is no story to rescue the audiences’ expectations. Moviegoers are usually passionate about movies, and in India they almost border between passion and fetish. Literally spoon-fed with sophisticated tales from the scriptures like the Ramayana and Mahabharata, the Indian Audience cannot be absolutely taken for a ride. They deserve respect for their intelligence and sensibilities. But more importantly, they deserve respect for their hard earned money spent on going to the cinema. Not to mention the soaring cost of movie tickets.
Audiences of the contemporary world are developing, becoming increasingly intelligent and equally restless by the day. There are two very important factors contributing to the evolution of film audiences. One is the lack of attention span of the average viewer in this day and age. The other is the lack of idle time due to the varied number of other entertainment platforms outside of film (such as TV, Internet, video pods, virtual TV, video games). Thanks to the information overload, the speed of modern life is approximately 2.3 words per second or around 100,000 million words a day. Add to that computer images, games videos etc which takes the information bombardment to the equivalent of 34 gigabytes a day. Similarly the audiences have sampled humungous measure of storytelling over the last hundred years. Therefore it is imperative today more than ever before that audience paying to see a film get to see their hero “save the cat” in a distinctly satisfying fashion both literally and also as implied earlier. But who is the contemporary hero? Some macho box-office superstar or a sexy starlet?
Today’s Hero is Content, also known as “The Story.” The Story is the Prime Protagonist, carrying the film on its burly shoulders. So when you hear people coming out of a cinema still confused by the storyline or wondering what the filmmaker was trying to communicate, you can simply tell them that nobody “saved the cat.” There was no Story.
So how do you define a good story?
Story is the juxtaposition of characters vis a vis physical events articulately designed to provoke a definite emotional response in addition to an entertaining experience. In fact the mark of a master is in their ability to selectively depict moments from the lives of their characters, ensuring their audiences are fully absorbed in what’s going on. A story has a definite beginning middle and end but not necessarily in the same order. A distinguished storyline has to challenge the audiences’ imagination and maintain intrigue at all times. As Samuel Goldwyn said “We want a story that starts out as an earthquake and works its way to a climax”.
A screen-story has a central theme or an idea which acts as a guiding light and navigates its characters to a fulfilling climax. A rewarding climax is the one that the audience somewhat expected yet was dished out to them in the most unexpected fashion. Story provokes personal fantasies and hidden desires in its audiences. This further triggers sensations of transformation. Likewise an eloquent storyline lays the foundation to both artistic and commercial enterprise in the making.
Story though largely fictional, is still inspired by life and reality. Thus a fine story has to be credible yet fascinating. Having said that, story does not have to literally mirror realism. In fact it has to be a dramatic imitation and poetic retelling of various relatable and universal elements of life. A screen story typically is subjective therefore often a writer gets credit for stuff he didn’t even intend to.
Apart from being a very popular medium of entertainment, a Screen-Story humour, heals and instills hope. A great story not only tickles your feelings but also enriches you from within; it opens the doors to your inner thoughts. The experience of a great cinematic narrative silences your mind… Period.
But what makes a story so contagious?
Story is chiefly the prodigy of three creative elements: Inspiration, Imagination & Deliberation. A good Story is firstly structured. Structure secures the story emotionally, technically and logically from varied vantage points. This also clarifies the myth that a great plot always makes for a great story. A great plot can only partially lend to a great story, however there are many other facets such as emotional values, moral values, dramatic value, entertainment value, substance value, spectacle value, cultural value, information value, novelty value, etc. These need to be scrupulously organized in order to deliver an extremely engaging experience. Steven Spielberg the master of engaging the audience under his spell comments “People have forgotten how to tell a story. Stories don’t have middle or an end anymore. They usually have a beginning that never stops beginning”.
‘The Story’ is crafted with various dynamics of content and communication. A Good story doesn’t shape up by accident but is created with a thoughtful design. As a metaphor, a story can be compared to a gastronomic delicacy. A recipe for a dish usually consists of many ingredients in different proportions. In spite of all the ingredients only the right proportion can make a delicacy either likeable or redundant. Likewise in a story it is the correct concoction of the tastefully selected values that determine the impact of the story and can propel a negative or a positive response with the discerning audience.
A meaty narrative when projected on screen successfully transcends the watcher into an unreal world. As script-guru Robert McKee states in his book ‘Story’ – “The Gift of Story is the opportunity to live lives beyond our own, to desire and struggle in a myriad of worlds and times, at all the various depths of our being”. No wonder this is the very belief that many of our very own extraordinary Indian filmmakers have exhibited in their movies time and again: from Raj Kapoor to Rajkumar Hirani, from Manmohan Desai to Mani Ratnam, from Guru Dutt to Goldie Anand…
Amrish Shah is the Screenwriter of the forthcoming sequel Don 2 and Creative Producer on International Docu-Drama on ‘Mother Teresa’ showcased at Cannes with 15 years of expertise in Films and TV.