Define: Film “Story”.

My doctoral thesis is an analysis of the common story elements of the Top 20 RoI Films of the past 70 years.

The Top 20 Audience Reach/Budget Films of the Last 70 Years. Data Source: The-Numbers.com. Analysis: JT Velikovsky

The Top 20 Audience Reach/Budget Films of the Last 70 Years. Data Source: The-Numbers.com. Analysis: JT Velikovsky

I do like Gottschall’s definition of story from The Storytelling Animal (2012):

`Story = Character + Problem + Attempted Extrication’ (Gottschall 2012: 52)

There is a great Edge article of Gottschall talking about it here.*

And I also like Brian Boyd’s definitions, in On The Origin of Stories (2009).

I also like what Kubrick said: (which supports Jon Gottschall’s formula/algorithm for all story):

Kubrick story problem - 3 comp

Source: Kubrick By Kubrick (02020)

I also like the idea that the hero’s journey monomyth is a metaphor for all creativity, i.e. all problem-solving. (But, that’s also probably because: I was the one who thought of it.)

But – what does the term “story” mean in the context of the study (and, for working screenwriters?)

A Definition:

`Story’ – this doctoral thesis and empirical research study assumes the `Story’ of a feature film is the entire (viewed/heard) audio-visual feature film experience itself.

The film story includes: the film premise, characters, plot, settings, themes, events, all images and sounds, opening and closing credits (even the font that the film’s titles are presented in); also the music played over titles/credits, as all these elements in the film contribute to the viewer’s experience of “the film story”.

Included in this holarchic conception of film story is the trailer, and the movie poster, as when they have experienced this, is in fact when the audience enters “the Story” of the film. (Although some of the audience may not see either the trailer, nor poster).

(Velikovsky 2012)

Here is a diagram of how I see Film Story.

(Click on the diagram to enlarge it)

Film Story Structure (Velikovsky 2014)

Film Story Structure (Velikovsky 2014)

Here is what I suggest, the Story (of a film) is:

Story = Premise + Plot + Characterization + Setting (Places & Times) + Genre + Themes + Structure + Tone + Mood + Style(s) + Point of View(s) + Dialog + Camera Moves + Editing + Sound + Music + even, the Opening and Closing credits of the movie. In fact also the Title, and the Trailer(s) and the Poster. They all comprise the film: story.

It (the story) is a holarchy-partarchy. It is a holon-parton. It is a meme.

Also – the official onscreen `story credit’ (and/or `screenplay by’ credit) may well be awarded to a particular individual/s as per legal / Guild guidelines.

Notably, the film story that finally emerges onscreen in the completed film may be considerably different to the initial “written 3-page story outline”, and even to the story as presented in the screenplay, as films are collaborative creative artifacts, whereby a Screen Idea Work Group (see Macdonald’s definition, below) `authors’ the film.

The Seventh Seal (1957)

The Seventh Seal (1957)

This `SIWG’ (Screen Idea Work Group) includes: the actors, director/s, and production and post-production crew (such as film editors, sound designers, producer/s, etc.) who also influence and contribute to (even change) the film story.

Notably, it is said that films are `written’ 3 times: once in the screenplay, once in the shoot, and once in the edit (Wood 2002). This thesis asserts that a film story can be observed to evolve constantly until its final release as a completed film.

Some other Definitions (for the purpose of this doctoral research thesis):

Screenplay/Script – a written document of approximately 80 to 120 pages (approximately one page, per minute when filmed), used as a `blueprint’ for the production of a feature film. Notably, some of the films in the thesis data-set did not require a screenplay, but were instead improvised from a story outline (without dialog), namely the #1 ROI film Paranormal Activity (2009) (Campbell and Rosenberg 2009) and also the #3 ROI film, The Blair Witch Project (1999). (Klein 1999Importantly: this doctoral research study finds that the `perfect’ ROI film screenplay length is 90 pages/90 minutes. (Researcher: JT Velikovsky – 2012)

Narrative Fiction Feature Film – a fiction film of over 60 minutes in duration. The first feature film was the Australian film The Story of the Kelly Gang (1906). The films in the primary data set of this research (the top 20 ROI films) range from a minimum of 77 minutes (Primer, 2002) to a maximum of 121 minutes (Star Wars, 1977).

`The screenwriting convention’ – the dominant `accepted industry wisdom’ on the `rules and guidelines’, dramatic `principles’, and formal characteristics of a feature film screenplay. This convention and discourse arises from the popular and academically-cited screenwriting manuals and guru seminars, and is based on quasi-Aristotelian ideas of drama, that may be problematic in film-making practice. (Macdonald 2004: 284)

The Screen Idea Work Group (SIWG) – `a flexible work group clustered around the development of the screen idea… which strives to create and re-create the idea in the light of beliefs about common goals.’ (Macdonald 2004: 10). This work group can include the writer/s, story development executives, producers, directors, actors, and film crew.

So- there we have it; some definitions.

…If you like this sort of thing (i.e. `Definitions’) there are a whole lot more here.

See also this post and also this one for more on the Holarchy of Story.

In short, the Story is: everything that happens – from when the film starts, to when it ends (even the film studio logo at the start, as sometimes that’s `treated’, right?

e.g. Think of what happens to the studio-logo at the start of Alien 3, and Waterworld, etc etc.) The filmmaker can start telling `the story’ as soon as the film rolls. (Using sound, image, anything.) And including, the feeling you get from the music (or even the silence) over the End Credits of a film…

I know this is going to cause criticism. Some people just mean `Plot’ when they say Story

Ask the next 3 random people you meet, to define `Story’ and see if the definitions match.

Ask 3 random filmmakers. Ask 3 random novelists.

As we’ve seen, it’s one heck of a word / concept.

One issue is, storytelling itself, keeps on evolving. So – what the word `story’ means (as a general description of a `thing’) – in one decade (or century, or millennium) may change in the next decade/century/millennium… (I know film is only 1 century old…)


David Bordwell’s (and Kristin Thompson’s) writing on plot (and, fabula and syuzhet) is great!

But I also think Sir Karl Popper was right, that definitions – in themselves – can really trip you up sometimes. (You can easily get lost in them – and can go around in circles, even sometimes accidentally playing language games… – I do it myself, all the time 🙂

They’re (definitions) of course, important – (as you sort of have to start somewhere when talking about a `thing’) but – you also can, (and, maybe shouldn’t) get `lost’ in definitions.

As Richard Dawkins says in The Blind Watchmaker: Words are our slaves, not our masters.

Trying to define the word `Story’ is just, really, really, really difficult.

Eg – Look it up in any number of Dictionaries, and, see if any of them satisfies you…

There also isn’t an official `Encyclopedia of Screenwriting’ (- yet! But – at the SRN, we’re working on it!)

. Maybe even the Opening and Closing credits of a movie have some of the Story in them. (eg – even the typeface or the font – of the opening titles and end credits, might tell you, the Genre.)

Ask yourself – Are you being `told’ the story by even the font in the credits? How about even the final songs/music, over the End Credits? It’s still shaping your emotional journey, right? Is that still part of the Story? Does that inform how you interpret the Plot you just saw, and if so is that part of the Storytelling?

– If it’s part of the Storytelling, does that then make it part of the Film Story?

I think so.

…Thoughts, comments, feedback?


JT Velikovsky

High-RoI Story/Screenplay/Movie and Transmedia Researcher

The above is (mostly) an adapted excerpt, from my doctoral thesis: “Communication, Creativity and Consilience in Cinema”. It is presented here for the benefit of fellow screenwriting, filmmaking and creativity researchers. For more, see https://aftrs.academia.edu/JTVelikovsky

JT Velikovsky is also a produced feature film screenwriter and million-selling transmedia writer-director-producer. He has been a professional story analyst for major film studios, film funding organizations, and for the national writer’s guild. For more see: http://on-writering.blogspot.com/



* Thanks to Mike Tintner for the link to this Edge article!


Campbell, Christopher and Rosenberg, Adam (2009), ‘‘Paranormal Activity’ Director Oren Peli Says Film Was ‘Spontaneous”. <http://www.mtv.com/news/articles/1624894/paranormal-activity-director-oren-peli-film-was-spontaneous.jhtml>.

Klein, Joshua (1999), ‘Interview: The Blair Witch Project’, The AV Club. <http://www.avclub.com/articles/the-blair-witch-project,13607/>.

Macdonald, Ian W. (2004), ‘The Presentation of the Screen Idea in Narrative Film-making’, (Leeds Metropolitan University).

Wood, J (2002), ‘Editing’, MovieMaker Magazine. <http://www.moviemaker.com/magazine/issues/45/editing.html>.

6 thoughts on “StoryAlity #23 – Define: a Film “Story”

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