“But that’s all formula! That’s Hollywood!” someone in the back shouts. (It’s the guy donning a beret, smoking a clove cigarette and clutching a copy of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road.)
Newsflash–stories are formula. You can break down any story into the same parts. In my first fiction class in the University of Washington MFA program, my teacher Charles Johnson said that it wasn’t enough to write well. You had to know how to tell a story. I rolled my eyes at the time, but he was right. It’s not enough for your sentences to sing. They have to serve a larger purpose–i.e. your story.
So, even if or especially if you’re writing a novel or memoir, listen up. Here are three storytelling techniques you can steal from an unlikely source, a Tom Cruise movie:
Start with Emotion
Emotion is the food that fuels a story. We respond to stories because they evoke powerful emotions in us–anger, jealousy, the desire to protect loved ones. If a story bores us, it’s partly because we don’t give a shit about the protagonist. We don’t relate to—or buy—his basic drives.
Within the first five minutes of Edge of Tomorrow, Cage (Tom Cruise) faces almost certain death. You can feel his fear–the way he tries to bargain his way out of battle, the sweat dripping off his face, his desperate attempts to get the safety off his weapon. His fear is totally relatable.
At the beginning of your own story, what primal emotion do you tap into?
Raise the Stakes
There’s a consequence if the protagonist gets (or doesn’t get) what he wants. This concept of consequences is called stakes. Stakes are the reason we care about a story. If your protagonist is working for something that doesn’t mean anything to him, what’s the point?
In Edge of Tomorrow, the initial stakes are: Cage is going to die if he goes into battle. As the movie unfolds, the stakes rise for Cage. If he doesn’t find a way to survive the battle and kill the alpha, then the entire squad will die. Rita will die. And, finally, he realizes that the world will end. You know that scene in the bar that happens about halfway through the movie? Its sole purpose is raising the stakes.
If you write memoir like I do, then most likely your stakes aren’t about saving the world (if they are, then please send me your book immediately). This doesn’t mean that your stakes are any less important or powerful. I wish I would’ve thought about the stakes in my memoir much earlier in my writing process because it would’ve saved me time. Speaking of which . . .
Know what to leave out
Edge of Tomorrow is like Groundhog Day—this guy relives the same day over and over again, hundreds, maybe thousands of times. Sounds kind of boring, right? Not if we skip over the right parts. This movie does a phenomenal job of keeping up the pace and staying loyal to its story of this cowardly guy finding the courage to do the right thing.
For instance, when he’s sitting with Rita in the abandoned house, and he knows she likes three sugars in her coffee, we infer that he has lived that moment many times before—we don’t need to see every single time.
I’m currently revising the last chapter of my book and really struggling with what to leave out. I’m considering moving forward in time and skipping over some of the minutiae. Why? Although it’s all true and chronological, it doesn’t really serve my story.
Next time you watch a silly Hollywood movie (Taken, anyone?), don’t just watch for fun. See what you can steal from it!