How to Understand Stories Like a Boss

Start with a notepad that never leaves your bag. Every time you read or watch something, write a log line for it. After that find some time to write a synopsis of the story, then try writing the character portraits for the protagonist and antagonist using a simple formula: Want + Motion + Obstacle + Choice = Character. Try combining this formula with Theophrastus’ archetypes to breathe more life into them. This process will have you understanding stories in no time.

Log lines are the most important step here as you will be learning how to boil down pages and pages of story into 1 to 2 sentences. You can even compare your version to the one on IMDb or, say, Netflix. Here’s one I did for Billy Wilder’s Irma la Douce:

A naive ex-policeman falls in love with a Parisian prostitute who he tries to keep off the streets only to get in over his head. 

It’s similar to the Netflix log line, but with a little more mystery. To be honest, I prefer the Netflix log line as it follows ‘the book’. Here’s one for The Hospital (1971):

Doctors keep dropping dead at a New York hospital as one melancholy doctor tries to keep the place from falling apart before he does. 

Not bad. ‘Melancholy’ might be too strong an adjective for the protagonist, but fuck it. I usually just give it 1-2 attempts then move on. No point dwelling on shit. Just get the practice in.

Writing a synopsis is harder. You need to make sure to jot down the emotional beats and plot points – developing the spine of your story. Give it a go.

Character portraits are fun and will help you get inside the character’s head to understand what he or she will say in this or that situation. Here’s one I did for Charlie Nash from SFV, which was for another blog’s article on him:

Charlie Nash: Intelligent, tactical and well-timed, he’s suspicious of and regards most people with the lowest of opinions. He doesn’t let others help him. His speech is underlined with arrogance, feels demanding and terse. He’s surly to others because of his narrow pursuit of vengeance, which he considers to be a pursuit of ‘ice cold justice’. He lacks fear, is confident, and cautious. 

The portraits don’t need to be written well, they just need to paint a picture of the character so you can better use the character. Of course, much more detailed and eloquently written portraits would help evoke certain things you didn’t know were there. That said, Nash here is a tad 2-dimensional. I’d love to beef him up. He portrays only two traits. Real people can show like 6-9 traits in a single night. You need at least 3-4 traits for a character to feel real.

That’s it. Give it a go.

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