What's Your 60-Second Story?

This post contains spoilers for The Evil Dead and John Carpenter's The Thing.  Albeit mainly via the medium of clay.

Hello!  I've only just caught up with Lee Hardcastle's remarkable claymation videos - in particular his web series which presents 60-second versions of horror classics.  I've enjoyed them on two levels: namely, being greatly entertained, and having a subsequent think about story-related matters.

If you haven't seen it already, give Lee's take on The Evil Dead a spin, then come back to me, further down the page.  I'll make a cup of tea while you do so.

Great, isn't it?  As I say, it's also got me thinking about the tentpoles of plot.  The pillars which hold your story up - each of which topples forward to knock the next pillar over, like dominoes.

Obviously, to a certain extent, these 60 seconds are sped up for comic effect and you could argue that it does omit key information/moments.  But actually, there really aren't that many.  It certainly leaves out the group arriving at the remote log cabin, but if we're talking essential stuff, then the story can be enjoyed without it.

It also skips most of the third act, rejoining the story for the final splattery confrontation by the fireplace.  And why does it do that?  Because much of the first half of that third act is a great big run-around between Ash and his undead love, Susan.  She gets possessed, they fight, she seems to die, he buries her, good lord she's alive again, he decapitates her.  This stuff is tremendous fun to watch onscreen, but 'stuff' is exactly what it is: flesh and muscle in between the bones of the actual plot.

If you've got a story in your head and you're wanting to get it down somewhere, it might be a worthwhile technique to ask yourself what the 60-second version of this story would be.  It might well help you boil everything down in your head to the main events.  You could even write a single page of script - which roughly equates to 60 seconds onscreen - for just such a 60-second version.  Picturing it frenziedly acted out with clay is optional.

If you've written a script and it's over-long, the 60-Second Story technique could also be of use.  Again, write out the key moments which would fit into one single minute.  These may well differ from the bullet points of your outline, but provided it does so in a good way, that's all right.  The 60-Second Story technique will hopefully help you identify the flab - the stuff, the flesh - which you may regrettably have to hack out because there's just too much of it.

Lee Hardcastle's latest video, a Pingu remake of John Carpenter's 1982 classic The Thing, is not only very funny and entertaining, but perhaps even more instructive than The Evil Dead.  Take a look:

Brilliant, yes?  Now, then: this one's more thought-provoking than The Evil Dead because there's no dialogue at all, save the odd squawk from comedy penguins.  The story's told completely visually, but even in this hyper-fast, exposition-free deliveryof the tale, you get the general idea.  A dog arrives at an icy outpost and spreads itself around like a virus.  The key set-pieces - the ones which move the story and the threat on - are here, intact.

1) The dog arrives.

2) The dog transformation scene introduces the threat to the crew.

3) The open-chest scene hammers home that any penguin here could be The Thing (or The Thingu).

4) The blood-test scene determines who is who.

5) The dynamite scene sees the crew seemingly destroy The Thing.

6) ... or have they?

So those are, very basically, the story's six plot pillars.  Pretty much everything else in the film itself is the fleshy stuff - the way the humans react to their plight, with rising paranoia, dwindling trust and a whole load of shouting.  There's also wonderful suspense, misdirection and all the rest of Carpenter's tools in this, his true masterpiece.

You've got to have the flesh on those bones - of course you do.  Flesh is good.  Flesh is the stuff which makes that story organic and alive - more than just a cold framework of domino-toppling causality.  Besides, without it, your movie would be far closer to 60 seconds than 90 minutes.  Yet these videos remind us that it's vital to know your flesh from your bones.

Once you know your pillars, you can have immense fun with the stuff which happens in between them.

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leehardcastle said...

Hi, i'm Lee Hardcastle and was frilled to find this blog post!
I'm actually a frustrated writer and find the anatomy story fascinating, it's my greatest interest. I've read John Truby & listened to Robert McKee. I've written maybe four feature films in the last 6 years which are complete garbage, my problem is I quickly lose the desire to continue writing the stories and feel completely stupid because I don't know the difference between motifs, symbols, themes and that sort of thing. Never the less, it's a puzzle I enjoy and a dream I will not give up on. Now that I've read your article, I will consider taking my own medicine and put the 60 seconds rule into practice!

Best wishes,

Jason Arnopp said...

Hooray - it's Mr Hardcastle himself! I could tell you'd studied story structure from the choices you made in creating these films.

Don't worry too much about knowing the difference between those things. For my money, the most important thing is to keep writing, never stopping and gradually nurturing your story-telling instincts. Which I'll wager you already have in abundance anyway. Thanks for getting in touch, sir!