'The nickel was for the movies:' The importance of telling a good story

If "Tell me a story" is the ignition point of every good entertainment, "And then what happened?" is the fuel that keeps it going.

Narrative, the sequencing of plot details one after another, is what storytelling is all about. Everyone from children to the oldest adult enjoys a good tale. A story well-told is one of the most basic forms of entertainment humans have ever devised. The desire to know what happens next seems to be hard-wired into our psyches.

Unfortunately, the ability to tell a good story appears to be a fading art. Contemporary filmmakers have an unprecedented bag of technical tricks available to them, but most fail at the beginning by being unable to formulate a good story. How many movies (and TV shows, books, videos and news stories) have you seen in the last few years that begin well but then fall apart for lack of a decent tale to tell?

The filmmakers from Hollywood's golden age of the '30s to the '50s knew how to tell a good story well. They worked hard to build a plot that would keep audiences leaning forward in their seats and that wasn't overburdened with social significance ("If you want to send a message, call Western Union," Sam Goldwyn once famously said). They made sure that the characters helped drive the story and that events were compelling and believable based on those characters and the situation.

They knew how to use a sense of mystery and suspense and were willing, sometimes, to have an unhappy ending if that was what worked best for the story.

Lesson #1: the clip above from "The Last Tycoon." The movie is based on an unfinished novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald about Hollywood in the golden era. Robert DeNiro plays Monroe Stahr, a studio head modeled on the legendary Irving Thalberg, who ran MGM for Louis B. Mayer in the 1930s.

In the clip, Stahr is meeting with a serious writer, Boxley, played by Donald Pleasance, who Stahr has lured to the studio to write films and add a touch of class. (Boxley is probably based on William Faulkner and other such writers who had Hollywood writing jobs in the '30s and '40s.) Alas, Boxley is blocked and can't produce. To him, the movies are just a bunch of guys in tights fighting duels. He says he doesn't get how it works.

Stahr shows him that he's wrong. Boxley does understand the movies. It's all about "And then what happened?" Stahr's three-minute lesson in storytelling on film is probably the best explanation I've ever seen of how the movies work and how a good story draws us in.

There's a myth that the internet has shortened everyone's attention span and that no one has time for a good story anymore. I think that's wrong. No matter whether you're making a feature film or a two-minute video or writing a blog post, people will respond to a good story. It's in our nature.

Watch the clip and learn. And then go tell a good story.

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