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A theme that takes care to create an emotional experience in your audience.
This is the responsibility of your emotion cubby.
You’ve got to make them feel. They’ve got to care, they’ve got to invest in your characters and the events of your story.
How do you do this?
First, you want to choose an overall emotional concept.
An emotional theme.
The most effective emotional themes are the primal ones.
We talked about primal desires a few cubbies back – let’s take a look at primal emotions.
These are the basic, most easily understood emotions we animals feel. We’re talkin’ the kind of emotional themes that grip deep inside us.
Primal Emotional Themes:
Whichever you go with, you’ve got to keep in mind:
This theme is the main thing you want your audience to feel during your story.
It’s about emotion. What do you want them to feel?
A few details:
You want to make sure you don’t get too intellectual or philosophical with your emotional theme. This cubby is all about emotion. Feelings. If you get too heady with it, you’ll lose the heart.
Also, take care to make sure your emotion line has something to say.
Pick your central emotion, but then explore the positive and negative sides of that emotion. Really dig in and get interesting with it. Push the emotion in different directions with different expressions and perceptions. Re-define these emotions as much as you can.
So how do we do it?
Choose your primary emotion – then break things down into the four act structure.
Your primary emotional theme will be present throughout the entire story. But you also want to select related sub-emotions to explore during each specific act.
Say your main theme is: anger.
- Act 1: resentment
- Act 2: frustration
- Act 3: rage
- Act 4: catharsis
Notice anger, as a concept, is ever-present. But each act gets a specific expression of anger to explore.
In the end, you want to make sure you lean on your ultimate point about anger. What are you trying to say about anger? Whatever that might be, bring it to a head in act 4.
Depending on what you’re looking for, your emotion line can be very simple or complex. Whatever you go with, the emotion line is absolutely essential.
We can’t overstate its importance enough.
A story without an emotion line is a hollow shell.
[Be sure to check it out on a non-mobile device to see the annotations, Animals!]
The first cubby to concern ourselves with in short form storytelling is “seed.”
So what is a “seed?”
This is your story in its most basic form.
Its most primal form. Its most conceptual form.
A fundamental idea that the rest of the story revolves around. It’s an idea that the rest of the story grows out of.
As a storyteller, this is where you start.
Functionally, it’s defined as an inherent fantasy.
Expressed as a “what if” statement:
- What if dinosaurs were resurrected?
- What if time travel were possible?
- What if toys could talk?
- What if you were stranded on a deserted island?
These are all good starting points.
You take this fantasy, and you pull out a “premise” for your story.
You extrapolate it out into a clear, specific, expression.
For Jurassic Park, the fantasy was:
What if dinosaurs were resurrected?
That fantasy could go anywhere.
As we’re building the story, where specifically are we going to go with that fantasy?
How about a theme park?
A venture capitalist has funded research to clone dinosaurs and it’s worked! He now wants to build a type of theme park/zoo to have people visit these wonderful creations.
The fantasy: What if dinosaurs were resurrected?
The premise: Dinosaur theme park.
Now that we’ve pulled out a specific premise from the basic fantasy, how do we execute? How do we dramatize this?
Through the course of the story, we explore the “what if…” fantasy through four distinct phases:
Phase one: A neutral exploration of the premise.
You’re simply establishing the fantasy and the premise. Introducing it.
Phase two: A positive exploration of the premise.
This is where you explore the positive aspects of the fantasy and the premise.
Phase three: A negative exploration of the premise.
This is where you explore the negative aspects of the fantasy and the premise.
Phase four: A resolution of the premise.
This is where you resolve the premise. You have some kind of resolution that finalizes the fantasy.
As we’ll see when we get to the “plot” cubby…
Your short form story will be broken into four “acts.”
These acts will correspond with these four phases here.
- Phase 1 = Act 1
- Phase 2 = Act 2
- Phase 3 = Act 3
- Phase 4 = Act 4
Each phase, each act, gets an equal part of the story.
Let’s take a deeper look at this seed/fantasy/premise structure…
…with the Jurassic Park example in mind:
Fantasy: What if you could resurrect dinosaurs?
Premise: We’re building a theme park with live dinosaurs!
Act 1 (phase 1) is spent establishing this idea.
Our paleontologist main characters are taken to an island where John Hammond’s team of genetic researchers have succeeded in resurrecting dinosaurs.
His orientation film explains how they accomplished it. It’s possible, and they’ve done it.
Act 2 (phase 2) is spent exploring the positive aspects of this idea.
They tour the park and see all the majestic beasts. This is a paleontologist’s dream come true! Their life’s work, come to life!
Act 3 (phase 3) is spent exploring the negative aspects of this idea.
Everything goes wrong.
Dinosaurs escape their enclosures, terrorize and eat some of our characters. The park has become a hellish nightmare.
Act 4 (phase 4) is spent bringing this idea to some kind of resolution.
In this case, the resolution is that this whole thing was a bad idea. We shouldn’t have played with nature like this. Our ignorance and hubris led to disaster.
Notice, the resolution could have easily gone another way.
It just depends on where you want to take your story.
The phase 4 resolution could have easily been:
This was a disaster, but still worth it because of X, Y, Z…
The fantasy can go in any direction you want it to. In fact, many different stories grew out of the same inherent fantasy.
What if time travel were possible?
That’s Back To The Future, Terminator, Hot Tub Time Machine, and every other time travel story out there. The same seed can be grown into an entirely different story.
But what if my fantasy is:
“What if teddy bears are alive, and they love everyone.”
What’s the negative aspect to explore in that?
- Maybe that love becomes overbearing and maladaptive when expressed in the wrong way.
- Maybe the bear’s love inspires boundless devotion, which leads them into bad decisions.
- Maybe they’re paired with cruel unloving people, and their love is seen as a weakness to be exterminated.
There are always positive and negative aspects to every concept, you just have to find them.
- Establish the fantasy with a basic premise
- Find the positive
- Find the negative
- Then a resolution
Looking at the seed in this way, is really looking at the four acts of your story in their most rudimentary and basic form. As we look at the other cubbies, we’ll see how the four acts get filled with 14 other (cubby) ideas as well.
Now that we’ve tackled the seed and its four basic phases, there’s one more piece to concern ourselves with:
What’s the hook?
It’s that special something.
It’s that novelty, that immediate appeal, that commercial aspect that makes you go:
“Oooh yes! I want to see that!”
With our Jurassic Park example above, the hook is basically buried in the premise. Before that book/movie/story came out, where had you ever experienced a dinosaur theme park tale? Pretty much nowhere. At the time, it was a super novel idea. One with immediate appeal for most people.
But that’s cheating. It clouds the idea to have the premise and the hook be the same thing.
Let’s take a look at another example, something more clear cut:
The fantasy: What if you couldn’t make new memories?
The premise: A man tries to find his wife’s killer.
The hook: The whole story will be told to the audience chronologically backwards.
You can see how these three ideas are separate, but flow into one another beautifully.
We start with that basic fantasy:
What if you couldn’t make new memories?
That’s a pretty good fantasy. It’s different. It’s intriguing. And it has, within it, an immediate dramatic punch. If you can’t make new memories, that’s going to make day-to-day life quite difficult.
Then we pull a specific premise out of this fantasy:
What kind of story are we specifically going to tell with this no-new-memories idea?
How about a man who’s wife was murdered? He’s trying to track down her killer.
By itself, it’s a pretty solid idea. Everyone likes a good detective story. But coupled with our fantasy, it becomes great! If our detective can’t make new memories, well then that’s going to be one interesting investigation!
Then we’ve got the hook:
What can we add to this story to really add jet fuel to the fire? What can we add that will take this story from “interesting” to “oh man, I’ve gotta see that!”
How about: The whole story will be presented to the audience backwards. So that the audience only ever knows as much as our main character does, in any given moment.
That’s fantastic! That’s the essence of the hook. It’s that special something that will hook your audience into immediate interest and desire to hear your story.
If you want to build your story on the strongest foundation possible, You need ’em all.