What Makes A Compelling Story? Part 1

10 filmmakers answer one question: What makes a compelling story? 

Part one in a two part series

Over the course of our Field Notes interview series, we've gotten a chance to learn about both filmmakers and musicians alike and the creative process behind their craft. The end result is always about telling a good story — but what does that mean?  This can be such a subjective topic.

In any medium, a good story needs a few different elements (arc, pacing, energy, clarity of tone, etc...). But what is the key ingredient that separates a good story from one that absorbs and completely immerses you? Being first in a two-part series, we've compiled a list of some of our favorite responses to this question from filmmakers we've interviewed. Next week, we'll be focusing on the musician's perspectives. Read on.

1. Matt Jensen // Field Notes Interview #68

"From plot structure (e.g., hero's journey, etc.) to pacing, there are so many elements that can contribute to a compelling story, especially depending on the type of story being told! One of our favorite methods of storytelling is the "micro doc" format, which has become especially popular over the last few years. In my experience, the key to a compelling micro doc film is honesty and authenticity. Assuming the subject matter is interesting in itself, we want our audience to not just know, but feel, that what they're hearing and seeing is authentic. If the narrative is driven by an interview, this means drawing the interviewee out of their shell and making them feel safe enough to respond more honestly and deeply than they normally would. The viewer needs to feel like they are connecting with the subject on a deeper human, emotional level rather than just receiving a producer- or brand-crafted message."

2. Zippy Etzel // Field Notes Interview #35

"Stories are how we relate to each other as humans, and make sense of the world we live in. If you think back to history class when you were growing up, you’re essentially learning stories. It’s similar many times in music -- songs in of themselves, are essentially stories.

A good story makes someone feel something -- good or bad, whether it’s because it’s relatable, bringing to the surface something that’s already there, or whether it’s new, touching you and opening you to challenges, introducing you to new parts of yourself and feelings that you’ve never experienced before. These stories stay with you."

Zippy Etzel

Zippy Etzel

3. Dwightly // Field Notes Interview #60

"A good story is one that creates a well-developed reality and invites a viewer into it, restoring order to chaos, and instilling meaning, beauty, and hope. Story structure and key story elements are basic principles you can learn to master, and you can read about that anywhere on Google. But for us, what makes a good story is pretty simple: Leave them with gratitude."

4. KC Brown // Field Notes Interview #50

"There aren’t enough hours in the day to answer this question, but the shortest possible answer I could give would be that stories are just shared moments between two (or more) engaged parties. If it matters to the storyteller and it matters to the listener then it’s good, regardless of how poorly it’s told."

5. Matt Mahoney // Field Notes Interview #73

"The easy answer would be that a good story grabs a hold of you and never lets go. The way I watch movies and TV shows now is complicated. I’m trying to break down how it was shot in my mind while at the same time paying attention to the story. The silver lining is when I realize that I’ve been sucked into the story and have forgotten all about all the technical stuff I’m usually paying attention to. That’s a really awesome feeling. When it happens I just surrender myself and take the ride."

6. Camille de Galbert // Field Notes Interview #64

"To me, a good story is a story that resonates with the audience, triggers some emotions or reactions and brings a new perspective on a subject."

Camille de Galbert

Camille de Galbert

7. Ron Dawson // Field Notes Interview #61

"I think the best stories are ones that transcend whatever topic they’re talking about. Where they’re about more than what the person is saying. When they hit on some universal truth. Or, if they touch some aspect of the human condition that moves you emotionally. Whether to laugh, cry, or be filled with awe.

A good story stops time. A good story captures your attention within moments...

“Call me Ishmael.”

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”

“A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away….” "

Ron Dawson

Ron Dawson

8. Mike Palmer // Field Notes Interview #56

"A good story is something people can connect with.  It doesn’t have to be a strong, concrete connection, but when the viewer can relate to a character, a location, the music -- whatever it is, I think this ‘connection' is key to a good story."

9. Rebecca Grace // Field Notes Interview #76

When I need to raise the stakes in a scene, whether it’s during production or later in post-production, I ask myself how I can strengthen the unity between the characters. That’s where drama is born. All of the conflict in the world will fall flat if characters don’t need each other in some essential way.

10. Bowen Ames // Field Notes Interview #59 

I believe that people truly derive a pleasure in learning, and so I think a good story is one that somehow expands their knowledge or understanding of the world and their agency within it. This summer, I had a conversation with a songwriter in Colorado about her challenges writing songs that fell into her style of classic Americana but that were simultaneously inventive in some way. I immediately thought of a track by One Hundred Dollars, called "Careless Love," in which lead singer, Simone Schmidt, tells the story of the women on the receiving end of the reckless affection of their country-singing men. It's a perspective often left less considered and her poignant lyricism gives the listener a really epiphanic experience to an otherwise classic arrangement.

Posted on March 17, 2016 and filed under Filmmaking.