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Story Structure, Simplicity, & Hacking Away at the Nonessential

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For a lot of us, the reality is not that we have too few ideas, it’s that we have too many. This may not sound like a problem, but it becomes problematic when we get bogged down in analysis paralysis and feel unable to choose, and harder still to simplify. Reducing and simplifying in an honest way—a way that makes a message clear and memorable—is one of the hardest things for professionals to do. I am reminded of the old Bruce Lee saying: “It’s not the daily increase but daily decrease. Hack away at the unessential.” This is one of the secrets to mastery in general, and hacking away is indeed what we must do to identify the essence of our message and to build strong stories. As a follow up to the last piece of Billy Wider, allow me to share again some Wilder wisdom and apply the lesson to speech making or presenting.

In an interview recorded in Conversations with the Great Moviemakers of Hollywood’s Golden Age at the American Film Institute, Wilder is asked how he came up with the idea for the script Sunset Boulevard. Wilder answered that it was an idea they thought up and held in their heads five years before beginning to write the script. Then Wilder elaborates (emphasis mine):

“There is no such thing as somebody sitting down and saying, ‘Now, all right, I’m going to make a new picture.’ Not at all. You have ideas stashed away, dozens of them–good, bad, or indifferent. Then you pull them out of your memory, out of your drawer, you combine them… People think when it comes to a screenplay you start with absolutely nothing. But the trouble is that you have a million ideas and you have to condense them into a thousand ideas, and you have to condense those into three hundred ideas to get it under one hat, as it were. In other words, you start with too much, not with nothing, and it can go in every kind of direction. Every possible avenue is open. Then you have to dramatize it—it is as simple as that—by omitting, by simplifying, by finding a clean theme that leads someplace.”

The need for solid structure
The last line above—omitting, simplifying, finding a clean theme (message) that leads someplace—is at the heart of designing a compelling narrative. Having a clear structure makes it easier to simplify your content in a way that moves the material forward. The audience need not be aware of your structure, but without it you could not have crafted a compelling narrative that goes someplace. While describing the plot points in the hit film “Some Like it Hot” Billy Wilder stresses the importance of structure.

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