A few days ago, I stumbled on a book by screenwriter Brian McDonald called, ‘Invisible Ink: A Practical Guide to Building Stories that Resonate.” Initially, I thought it would be a good read in the indirect sense that I could gain a better understanding of how story ideas are developed into films, TV shows, or novels. But then it sort of hit me: there are structures that create stories, and understanding these structures might actually help me support them through sound.
Let me give you an example of a personal project I’m working on. Several months ago, I decided to try my hand at a ‘radio play’ style of sound design. I picked out one of the books from my favorite fantasy series, The Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan, and found a particularly exciting passage. In this passage, you are immediately dropped into a scene in which a character slowly emerges from a door to find that he’s outside on the top of a hill overlooking a giant valley. The character is immediately greeted with a scene of death – a ‘Trolloc’ (imagine if a goat, horse, and hawk had a baby) and an old woman are lying in the walkway, unblinking eyes staring at the stars. Our character runs by them toward a gong, picks up a mallet and sounds the alarm. But as he does, he begins to become vaguely aware that there is already an uprising happening in the valley below. A battle between Trollocs and humans. More gongs from around the valley sound as pandemonium erupts. Suddenly, there are wings beating above our character as a giant flying monster threatens his own death. Our character thrusts out his arm as a giant bolt of fire roars from his hand, exploding the creature into a thousand burning pieces that slowly rain down toward the ground below.
This is a complicated soundscape, but one that I believed to be fairly straight forward in terms of the storytelling. After all, the narrator is literally describing to you what’s going on. So why is it then, that as I started recording dialog and pulling sound, I was having a difficult time making this blip of a story feel emotionally satisfying?
In his book, Brian McDonald begins his teachings by asking the question, ‘What is invisible ink?’ And in his words, ‘Invisible ink is the writing below the surface of the words. Most people will never see or notice it, but they will feel it. If you learn to use it, your work will feel polished, professional, and it will have a profound impact on your audience.’
Huh, sounds a bit like sound design, doesn’t it?
From there, McDonald goes on to describe the ‘Seven Easy Steps to a Better Story,’ which goes like this:
- Once upon a time…
- And every day…
- Until one day…
- And because of this…
- And because of this…
- Until finally…
- And ever since that day…
Steps 1 and 2 squarely make up what you’d call ‘Act One’ of a story. In Act One, you define the reality in which your story is about to take place. For example, if you started your story with, ‘A duck walks into a bar…’ (an example that McDonald used), you immediately know to expect a world that is akin to our own, ie. bars exist and are open to patrons, but slightly fantasized, ie. ducks walk into these bars and speak. McDonald then concludes this description of Act One by quoting the classic screenwriter and filmmaker, Billy Wilder, ‘If there’s something wrong with the third act, it’s really in the first act.’
After reading this, I looked back at my radio play project and realized that I had created no Act One. I was giving the audience literally no context for which this short moment in time took place. Who is this main character? Why do we give a damn about him, anyway? Is he living in the modern day world, or a fantasy world? Did you notice that he was able to kill the winged creature with a magic fire blast? Where did that come from?
I realized that if I was going to make a successful audio short, I needed to give the audience more than just a brief passage from a cool battle. Even if I created the best sounds in the world that exactly mirrored the words being written, a person listening to my radio play would still be confused by the whole thing. Because they’d be stuck trying to figure out who the hell this main character was as I was ringing gongs and exploding fire in their face. They wouldn’t be able to invest in the story I was telling.
Step 3 of McDonald’s Seven Easy Steps, ‘Until one day…,’ is what he calls the end of Act One and Steps 4 and 5, ‘And because of this…,’ are Act Two. This is the moment where something changes and conflict arises. The actions of Act Two are the direct results of Act One. For my radio play, I feel like Act Two begins with our main character happening upon the scene of death of the old woman and the Trolloc. That’s a pretty big ‘uh-oh’ moment. But notice that in the passage I chose, there’s almost nothing before that point? The lack of Act One is rearing it’s ugly head again.
Without establishing the beginning, there’s no way to create change – to emphasize character struggle and transformation. Let me give you some backstory into my radio play scene. Our main character’s name is Rand al’ Thor. He a young boy living in a society where magical powers are possessed and refined only by women. If a man is found to have these powers he is immediately killed, because although he would eventually grow to become more powerful than the women, he would also become more uncontrolled and corrupt.
All of a sudden, the actions in Act Two have more weight. A man hiding power from a society is forced to become a leader, and that internal struggle within himself materializes as a literal fire bolt as he begins to accept his power and use it. And that weight is born from the structure of the story, a structure that then begins to drive the sound design.
As an audio storyteller, how can I use this structure to enhance the emotional arc of the story? Unfortunately, I haven’t finished this exercise, so I can’t tell you what happens, but maybe the point of this article isn’t to tell you how I plan to move forward, but to encourage you to think about where you might go.
When I started this radio play project, I began by reading the words on the page and trying to sound design exactly what they were saying. But now, I’ve started to look at things a different way. I’m starting to ask myself questions like, ‘Through sound alone, how do I introduce the character of our story and bring you into his internal world of struggle? And how do I then build this internal battle to an external manifestation of his pain through an explosion of power?’
Act Three of McDonald’s Seven Easy Steps encompass Step 6, ‘Until finally…’ and Step 7, ‘And ever since that day…’ With a successful building of tension and pressure through Acts One and Two, I believe that I will be able to deliver Act Three in this sequence, the explosion of the winged creature, in a way that gives the audience a sense of resolution. And that, in turn, will create a more rewarding story.
Happy Sunday, everyone! (Technically.)
Ps. If this sort of story analysis fascinates you, I highly recommend Brian McDonald’s book, ‘Invisible Ink.’ It’s interersting, informative, and full of stories.