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  • Writer's pictureKrk Nordenstrom

Grow a spine. Tell a story!

As long as our species has had visual and verbal communication skills, we have told stories. Stories to entertain. Stories to educate. Stories for edutainment. Now there's a word for ya!

Long ago, if there was a deep dark forest and the people who ventured into it rarely returned, the local community would develop a story about the monsters, demons, and other baddies that lived in the forest so that future generations wouldn't stupidly blunder into this very dangerous place like their ancestors did. Don't go into the forest or an anthropomorphic wolf dressed like your grandmother will eat you! Let's face it, that's the basic lesson of just about any b-horror movie.

"Look you stupid spring breakers! If you go to that cabin out in the deep dark forest, you're going to act like idiots, and die in a humiliating fashion! The scary old man at the run down gas station told you as much!"

Ok. It's easy to write off horror films (but why would you? they're awesome!) as trite or unimportant. In a great many of them people die in a stunning variety of stupid and often gruesome ways.

Not every story is simply a retelling of "Don't go into the woods, you idiot." As human civilization grew and evolved, a story developed for almost every lesson that we as bipedal, carbon-based, ape-descended life forms need to learn. Carl Jung like to call this the "collective unconscious". That synchronicity where almost every single culture the world has ever known has developed basically the same stories independently of each other over millennia.

This is a fascinating, but hardly surprising occurrence. What is surprising is how the structure of stories developed so uniformly across continents, oceans, languages, and cultures.

Introduce the protagonist and their world as well as the negative presence that will thwart thwart them at every turn in the very near future. Present the conditions that make them what they are. Present a complication to that world and their way of life that forces the protagonist to reluctantly journey into a new world where they face countless obstacles to achieve their goal and return home. As they learn to abandon the rules of the old world in order to overcome obstacles in the new world, the obstacles become increasingly difficult to surmount. When things are at their most dire, and it appears that the protagonist simply cannot overcome obstacles presented by the antagonist, the protagonist suffers a grave loss, a literal or symbolic death that presents them with an elixir that allows them to see "the code of life". This elixir provides the protagonist with the ability to fully realize the lessons they learned over the course of their journey, defeat (or not) the Big Bad, and return home, forever changed by the experience. Ok. Ok. Ok. I know. This is a very generalized, high level overview of classic story structure. Story structure is rife with nuance and variance, but these are the core components that have evolved with our species over thousands of years. It's a subject that one can (and in my opinion should) study for years to master.

So this took a very anthropological and academic turn, and I prefer to keep things a bit on the lighter side. So why the hell am I spending all this time talking about the anthropological origins of classic three act story structure? Because learning the basics tenets of this structure will aid you greatly in developing your 48 Hour Films and any others you go on to make in the course of your creative career.


Story structure is the difference between an amusing sketch or comedic bit, and something that moves an audience on a very fundamental level. Syd Field in his famous treatise on stringing words together as the beginning of a motion picture, "Screenplay", posited that story structure is like a container; something within which the story is contained. If the structure isn't solid, the contents will leak out, weakening its impact.

Alright. I can hear it already. But, but, but.... I'm an artist! I don't want to be constrained by the fascistic notions of structure. I want to make art! Art can't be contained by paradigms and other important sounding but meaningless words!

Ok, Artist with a capital A. Hold your horses! Structure can only enhance your art! Remember, it's just a container strong enough to hold the contents of your story. You can put whatever you want in that container as long as it fits. It could be a nice steaming hot cup of coffee, potpourri, guacamole, or even salt, razor blades and lemon juice! The only factor constraining what you put into your story is the container.

Knowing how to simultaneously craft the container and its contents will greatly help you craft a rewarding story for your audience during your 48 Hour filmmaking weekend. How? Well, you have 4 elements that we provide you. Boom! You've already started before you even know that you've started. You immediately have ideas of what kind of story you're going to tell, but they're scattered, like trying to catch confetti in a wind storm. Now, either willingly or unwillingly, you have a grasp on three act story structure. Old world. Protagonist embarking unwillingly upon a journey into a new world fraught with peril, and an antagonist that wants nothing more than to thwart their goals. After overcoming countless tribulations, and nearing failure, the protagonist receives wisdom from a Yoda type, sees The Matrix for what it is, and Shaun can finally grow up enough to sustain an adult relationship with Liz.

For the sake of sticking to story structure, let's say I'm hit by a bus, while telling you this last part. In your head you know this. Getting the words out is the hard part. Luckily there's a classic tool from the world of improv called the "Story Spine" that can help you develop a plausible timeline of cause and effect that perfectly correlates to classic three act structure.

  • Once upon a time there was a...

  • Every day...

  • But, one day...

  • Because of that...

  • Because of that...

  • Because of that...

  • Until, finally...

  • And, ever since then...

That is your act structure right there! Figure out who your story is about... "Once upon a time there was a..."


Then figure out what their ultimate goal is... "And, ever since then..."


You have a beginning and an ending! Now you need to fill in the blanks with a plausible series of increasingly difficult cause and effect events that connect the beginning with the end! I would love nothing more than to say this is easy, but the two halves of act 2 are the hardest part of the process! You're tough, though! You can do it; like our ancestors have for millennia! Now! Go register a team for the 48 Hour Film Project, and let the world enjoy your mastery of story craft!


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