Quick and Simple Story: The Ingredients, Part 1

I am so stoked!  This month I'm returning to Atlanta to help my friends at Cogito Creative compete in the 48 Hour Film Project 2017.  I absolutely love these guys, and it's always a joy to create together.  This year I'm reprising my role from 2012 as DP.  So between now and then I'll be doing some camera and lighting tests to prepare.

Today we met on Google Hangouts where we recounted problems common to this event.  These guys are veterans of the 48HFP.  Having participated every year since 2010, they know what to expect.  One chief pain area is finishing the script on time.  This wasn't a factor when I last participated.  That year we shot a music video for an existing band with an existing song.  How these usually work is the teams receive a genre and three elements (prop, character, & line of dialogue) to include with only a few hours to write the script.  It's basically a catalyst for pounding Red Bulls and yanking your hair out.

I've grown a lot as a storyteller these past five years, and I know this is an area where I can really help.  From my experience, it's invaluable to have a solid understanding of what a story is in order to tell one as fast as possible and knowing it'll work.  (I really hope I'm not jinxing us with this post...)  I'm not a fan of reinventing the wheel, especially when time is extremely limited and stress can be high.  So to prepare for that moment, we reviewed the makeup of a story and why some work better than others.  I thought it'd be great to pass those nuggets on to help you with your next film competition or client project.  The following is what I believe a story is along with the four necessary ingredients.


The chronicling of challenging situations a character must face and overcome in order to get what they want or discover what they need.


  1. Structure.  If your story lacks structure, it's not a story.  It may be a character study, or a meme, but it's not a story.  Just like for image composition, storytelling follows it's own rule of thirds.
    1. Act 1 (0-25%) - The beginning hook
    2. Act 2 (25-75%) - Middle build
    3. Act 3 (75-100%) - Ending payoff
  2. Change.  The structure of storytelling is a rhythm of change.  Change drives the action.  If nothing changes, nothing happened.  And likewise, if everything that happened is positive and happy, the audience will be bored.  Change is often displayed in contrast, or a shift of polarity.  If a scene starts at a positive it should end at a negative, and vice-versa.
  3. Conflict.  Conflict is the factor behind the change.  The conflict of each situation forces the character to make decisions and to take action, whether for good or evil.  Conflict is the source of tension and drama.  Conflict makes the audience empathize and care.  Just remember the three E's of conflict:
    1. External
    2. Emotional
    3. Existential
  4. Relationship. Relationships are essential for meaning and identity.  We can't know what something is or who we are unless we have context and contrast.  And that's what relationships provide.  A story's conflict occurs within the hero's three spheres of relationship.
    1. Hero and environment
    2. Hero and other characters
    3. Hero and himself

There you have it!  A brief overview of story.  Later this month when our team's racing to build the story, keeping these ingredients in mind will ensure that we make a stronger story faster.

This is part 1 of a 2 part series.  Now that we have our ingredients, the second article will be our recipe, which is a tool to assist in quickly outlining and planning our story.