Story Making: Thoughts and Exercises

This post looks at working with story, providing exercises and context for storytelling, and indicating texts that may be of use to you in the development of your projects.  There are a million different ways at looking at story and story creation.  This is just one way to approach it.  Please feel free to disagree with me and use the comment section to advance any other approaches you advocate.

The aim of the Understanding Cinema project is to build the core skills of a film maker in the participants.

Last year’s theme was Mise en Scene, this year the skill being looked at is The Long Take.

Running under all of these subjects is the core skill of telling interesting stories that people want to see.

Having a series of very fine shots, beautifully framed and creatively executed is one thing, but to really grab an audience you need to give them more.

Story inspires how a film looks, how an actor choses to interpret their character, how a director choses to show us what they want us to see – or not to see, on screen.

A solid story will hook your audience in to your film.  It gives them a reason to keep watching, apart from the aesthetic beauty of what you’ve realised.

Working with story can be one of the most rewarding aspects of any project you do.

Working on a story on your own can be an exciting, nourishing experience.

Working on a story as a group can also be a fantastic experience.
If you manage to create a story as a group, whether as a class or as a group outside of school time, the investment that each of your participants has in the project will increase significantly.  They will want to see their story brought to life.

Favourite Stories & Films

One way to start working with story craft is to ask your participants about their favourite films and stories.

Ask them why they like the story so much?  What does it say to them?  Do they identify with it?  Does it take them away in their imagination?  Does it remind them of their own life?  Does it reflect something that they’d like to do?

Once you’ve got their answers, start to draw common threads out of them.

Break it down in to:   What sort of stories interest us & why?

You can then use their answers to start to structure ideas for your own work, if you so wished.

Ask them how you could use the core elements that they’ve identified to make a story of their own.

Be as fantastical as you can.  Be adventurous.  Poke and prod them in to making imaginative leaps.

The further you go with your ideas the more you can scale them back to something subtle and real, that contains the elements of what you want to look at.

The Problem of Story Telling

Stories need problems.  If there’s no problem in a story, there’s unlikely to be much of interest in there for an audience.  To illustrate this, just take a story you know and straighten it out to see how dull it becomes:

A girl goes to a castle and marries a handsome prince. – Beauty and the Beast.

An apprentice knight takes over his father’s role in the governance and administration of a vast empire ensuring the well being of all – Star Wars episodes IV-VI.

Boy meets girl.  They hey fall in love and live happily ever after.   – Much Ado About Nothing

Without knotty problems story becomes flat and dull.

Add the fact that the handsome prince is a hideous beast in to the story of Beauty and the Beast and you’re starting to get somewhere interesting.

Withhold the information about the apprentice knight not knowing who his father is, throw in that he’s fighting for good against the evil of the Empire, blow up a planet, introduce a mystic religion and you’re heading to a vast fortune with incredible marketing opportunities.

If the boy and girl cant stand each other and will do anything to make the other seem ridiculous or get the upper hand over them- but yet they’re totally compelled towards each other, then you’re in to very interesting story telling.

Stories shouldn’t be straight lines.  They should appear to be a straight line and then suddenly twist and turn in ways that leave you breathless and hooked on what will happen next.  If your audience knows what’s going to happen next you still have some work to do, unless that’s what you specifically want to happen.

One approach to creating stories is to take straightforward situations and add problems to them.
One simple example:

A character wants to catch a bus at 8.30AM, but their alarm doesn’t go off and they wake up at 08.20.  What do they do?  What else can go wrong on their journey?  Do they leave something vital to their everyday existence behind in the house by accident, only to go back to get it, and discover they’ve locked the keys in the house?

Of course if you’re working with a story the problems have to stop at a certain point and solutions have to be sought, otherwise you’re just in a world of never ending problems.  And that is too close to reality for the purposes of fiction.

Slow Reveal & Organic Storytelling 

The slow reveal of information is a vital story telling technique.

Just think about all the wonderful stories that feature a reveal at the end that twist you understanding of a story.

If the core information of films such as The Ususal Suspects or Momento had been revealed at the start of the films they would be very dull indeed.

Revealing information at just the right moment is a considerable skill.  If you do it too early it flattens the story out and an audience will lose interest.  If you do it too late on it you run the risk of losing your audience’s attention.

Information has to be revealed at the right moment for the story, because of all the elements you’ve put in to play.  It’s an approach to story that you could term “organic”.  Organic stories are ones where you feel the choice that the storyteller has made is justified because of the world they’ve established leads up to that release of information at that time.  It just feels right.  There’s nothing incongruous or totally off the wall about it.

(Although there is definitely a place for incongruous story telling too, just look at the alien spaceship sequence in the Life of Brian.  The incongruity of someone falling from a tall tower in to an alien space ship in biblical times is so silly as to be remarkable. )

An organically crafted story will allow you to pursue options as a film maker or theatre maker that will make your film, or play, hold together in subtle ways, reinforcing the fabric of the world that you’re creating, making it all the more compelling for your audience.


The majority of stories that you will be creating in the course of this project will feature characters.

Ask your group what a character is.

What function does a character serve in story telling?

There are many, many ways to answer this question.

Characters can be people or objects that we follow through a story.

A character can be an individual, but it can also be a house, a mysterious box, a landscape, anything that has a figuring on the passage of the story.

The way that our mind is set up we’ll make characters out of anything.  We’ll follow the plight of a plastic bag in the wind as it blows around a courtyard.  We’ll empathise with a leaf as it falls from the tree.

In terms of human characters, what do they do in story?

Do they stay the same all the way through, or do they change?

Does their world around them change because of them?

Characters have wants and needs that govern them.
How they go about achieving those wants and needs, and how they batter in to the needs of others help to create dynamic stories.

Because we’re humans we tend to follow humans in stories quite closely.
We know when something is unreal or forced, and because of that characters are difficult to do well.
One thing to think about is, what is the minimum amount of information we need to know about a character for them to seem real to us?

How can you show them with one small thing in action that helps draw them as real for us?

Film and theatre are visual mediums.  Show.  Don’t tell:  Stop talking at me – show me!

Take, for instance the character of Niles, in the TV show Frasier.   We know so much about him by just the simplest of his actions:

Now that’s obviously a fantastical and silly piece with a nice bit of verbal set up, but it contains everything we’ve talked about so far.  The story of the piece is riddled with problems, but they are problems that have come as a result of the character being true to who they are.

Organic storytelling happens in response to characters being true to their intention and who they are, driving the story forward.

Story Creation In Groups

There are a plethora of exercises that allow you to create stories from scratch.

One of my favourites comes from Keith Johnstone’s book Impro.

It’s called One Word Story and it’s quite wonderful in its simplicity.

Identify that on starting this exercise there is no story as of yet.  Just a blank page or board on which it will appear.  You are going to create a story – but one word at a time.  Each person in the group says one word at a time, building upon the previous participant’s word.  As each word comes out write it down, and read back through the story as you progress through the exercise.

Watch how characters emerge from nowhere.  Notice how bizarre recurring themes erupt forth.

If you have time, act the story out.

You can then go back and review the story and see if it worked for you, really.  What would you need to make it in to a more realistic story?

Can you create another story in the same way so as to further advance your story telling techniques?

This exercise also serves a linguistic function, in that you can use it to analyse the parts of the English language in practice.

It’s so hard to keep to just one word.  Most people want to share and share and share when they do this exercise.

Another story exercise which is very useful is to take an every day situation and expand on it.

Take any place, such as a school, or a library for example.

  • Who are the people who work in there?
  • Build details around the characters:
  • What does the chief librarian want from life?  Are they happy being a librarian?  Are they really a frustrated heavy metal musician?  Do they come in to the library at night to practice their music on their own, or with friends?
  • Who is that person that comes in to the library just before closing every day?  Why do that they turn up at that time every day?  What do they like to read?  Why?  Are they working their way through the complete works of Charles Dickens or Stephen King?  Why?
  • Once you’ve got a few characters outlined, put them up against each other.
  • Who would get on?
  • Who share similar aims in life?
  • Who would not get on?
  • Whose aims would not get on together?
  • How can you organically create a situation that puts these characters together so that they collide as they pursue their aims?

Notice how I’m only giving you information on how to create problems.  Not how to solve them.  At present I’ll leave that up to you.   How ever you do solve your problems try to do it organically, that it comes from the dynamic of how your characters interact in the environment in which they are operating.  No mechanical Gods being wheeled down from the ceiling to solve the problems on screen, please.


Take the time to allow your participants to play about with story elements.

Give them a provocation and then set them off to improvise around it.

Use situations they know.

A great source for material of this nature is Improvisation Starters by Philip Bernardi.

If you’re particularly interested in the potential of working through improvisation you should consider investing in a copy of Impro by Keith Johnstone.  There are many books out there on the subject, but it remains precisely explained by one of the key figures in its development in the use of story creation.

Books on Story Craft

There are hundreds of books on the practice of story craft.

One book which remains a touchstone for me is How Plays Are Made by Stuart Griffiths.  Based on an in-house manual he wrote for the BBC, it breaks down the elements of dramatic story telling and how it works.  It only takes a slight amount of side thinking to apply the same concepts to the creation of story for films.

John Yorke’s Into The Woods:  A Five Act Journey Into Story is a recent publication that outlines a clear approach to story construction.  It’s up to date with lots of references to current films and TV programmes.  It’s also a thoroughly enjoyable read.


3 thoughts on “Story Making: Thoughts and Exercises

  1. Thanks! These are great suggestions, it will be really interesting to see how the groups get on with some of these exercises and techniques. I’ve got my copy of Impro for Storytellers which will be a brilliant resource

  2. Thank you for this Alasdair. Your suggestions are very useful for getting my brain back into gear after the holiday and the Niles clip is brilliant – I’ll definitely show that to my groups.

  3. A pleasure, Sandie. Frasier remains a touchstone for me in terms of story telling and performance. To my mind it’s consistently brilliant, with only a few exceptions.

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