Saturday, October 26, 2013

"Atoms" Excerpt: How a Story is TOLD

Call it a change of pace, call it a preview, call it me taking it easy this time. This month, instead of an original article, I am posting a short excerpt from Chapter 3 of my book Screenwriting Down to the Atoms, "The Basic of the Most Basic." I know, I know, it's a cheat. But I am in the middle of a number of craft-related subjects that will eventually work their way into articles, but none are currently ready for the light of day. So please enjoy the excerpt, and in case you have not yet had a chance to read it, Screenwriting Down to the Atoms is available in paperback from online retailers everywhere, and in e-book exclusively on

“Storytelling” is a two-part term. First, there is the “story.” Then, there is the “telling.” It is not enough to simply have a good story. Equally important is how that story is told. Even the best of stories can be sunk by poor telling. So, with that said, we must ask-


To be more specific to our purposes, how does one tell a cinematic story? Storytelling has many forms: novels, stage plays, operas, anecdotes, comic strips, dirty jokes, even song lyrics. Each tell a story in a different way, each with its own inherent advantages and limitations. But how does cinema tell its story?

Cinema is possibly the most complex form of storytelling. It is definitely the most complex art form. Most methods of storytelling use only words to communicate. Some only images. Others only sound. Cinema, on the other hand, uses words, images, sounds, light, movement, color, time, space, editing, and camerawork. Where does one begin to break down something so densely layered?

To find out, we must put the entire field under the microscope. We start once again by seeking the most basic, of the most basic, of the most basic.


Consider the word “atom.” Though used most often in chemistry, the word itself refers to any element so basic that it cannot be broken down into smaller units. Its origin dates back to the fifth century BC, when the Greek philosopher Democritus proposed (quite rightly) that everything in the universe was made of tiny particles. He believed that if one had a knife sharp enough, an apple could be sliced thinner and thinner, until it came to a point where it could be sliced no further, down to the very particles that held it together. Democritus called these particles atoms – Greek for “uncuttable.”

Not only was Democritus’ idea revolutionary, but so was his approach. He knew the key to study was to first break the subject down to its MOST BASIC ELEMENT. The whole is best understood by first identifying the tiniest building blocks by which everything is constructed.

Nearly every legitimate field of science is built upon a most basic element. Chemistry procured the word atom for itself to label the swirling particles that make up matter. The chemistry atom is uncuttable. If an atom were split, the result would not be two half-atoms, but a useless scatter of subparticles. Biology is the study of life. Its most basic element is a single living cell. A single cell can carry out all requirements of life, but if cut into smaller parts, it ceases to function. Sociology studies behavior in human societies. Societies are made up of individuals, making a single person sociology’s most basic element.

Any field of study will suffer until it discovers its most basic element. Chemistry was a rather hit or miss pursuit before the theory of atomic structure. Biology developed slowly until cells were discovered inside a piece of tree cork. Identifying the most basic element makes an entire field far easier to comprehend.

But, can this method be applied to cinema? Does cinematic storytelling have a most basic element? Many would refuse to even consider the question, simply because chemistry and biology are sciences, while cinema is an art. People tend to segregate art and science into isolated categories. Nevertheless, can an understanding of an art be found in the same manner as a science?

To answer the question, it is first necessary to figure out what it means to call cinema an art.


Art. It is a word of such high and mighty connotation that many dare not define it. In this case, let us first ask, why do people create art? Works of art have no practical purpose. Officially, art must be non-utilitarian in nature, meaning it has no use other than the aesthetic. A beautifully crafted sculpture is art, but a beautifully crafted lamp is not. A novel can be art, but the book you read now is not. If art has no practical use, then what is its purpose?

The answer is found in the artistic process itself. The artistic process is made of three parts: the artist who creates the work, the medium the artist works through (paint, dance, music, etc.), and finally the audience who ultimately receives the work. One must not overlook the importance of the audience. It is the audience who brings the process to its completion. Art without an audience is like the proverbial tree falling in the woods. What is the point of a novel that is never read? Music that is never played? A film that no one sees? “Artistic expression” implies a second party to whom the artist’s efforts are addressed. Only the most vain of artists would create something to put in a closet. Real artists create because they have something to express to the world: an idea, an opinion, an emotion... Artists create in order to communicate.  Art is about communication.

Art is the communication of meaning, from artist to audience, through a creative medium.

Since the purpose of art is to communicate meaning, how then is meaning communicated in something such as literature? Through words, of course. The most basic element of literature – its atom – is a single word. An author can communicate meaning with one word, but not with a single letter or detached syllable. It is by the accumulation of words into larger structures that the novelist makes his or her art. The art of dance communicates through movement. Its most basic element is a single movement of the body. Music is made of a collection of singular notes. Painting is an accumulation of individual brush strokes. Photography is the manipulation of individual photons of light. Thus, we see that like science, the arts have their own atoms. Each has a basic building block with which the artist constructs a greater meaning.

However, things become far more complicated when it comes to cinema. Cinema combines elements from nearly every art form; from photography, to theatre, to music, to the graphic and plastic arts. In addition, cinema has its own unique attributes, such as the ability to elongate or compress time, or to change perspective through editing. If cinema contains the most basic elements of all other art forms, plus elements of its own, what could possibly be the single, most basic building block of cinema itself? Can cinema be boiled down to a single element? Or is it just a hodgepodge?

The search proves difficult. Cinema’s most basic element cannot be a single image, since that would ignore cinema’s use of sound. It is not a spoken word, since dialogue makes up only a small part of any film. It also cannot be a single scene, or a shot within that scene, because both of these elements can be broken down further.

It turns out the answer is right under our noses. Cinema is an art. Art communicates. And what is transmitted by the act of communication?


The cinematic experience is created by a constant transmission of story information from storyteller to audience. Whether it be seen or heard, everything presented to the viewer is part of an intentional act of communication. Every detail; a line of dialogue, the look of a room, an expression on an actor’s face, an off-screen sound effect, exists to advance the story with NEW INFORMATION. If a character is murdered, that is information. If someone reveals a secret, that is information. If a character walks across the room, that is information. It is through this steady flow of information, communicated one piece at a time, that the cinematic storyteller makes his or her art. Each piece builds upon that which preceded it, advancing the narrative and developing the audience’s comprehension of the story as a whole.

This is cinema’s atom: the communication of a single piece of information from storyteller to audience; whether it be communicated by audio, visual, or any other means. Cinematic storytellers make their art through the creative control of this information – knowing what information to give, and when to give it. By gradually accumulating this information, the audience is able to understand, and enjoy, the cinematic narrative.

So, to return to our original question: How is a cinematic story told?

A cinematic story is told through the creative communication of information, given one piece at a time, from storyteller to audience.

How the storyteller chooses to communicate makes all the difference. Have you ever heard two people tell the exact same joke, and watch it generate a huge laugh for one, yet nothing but silence for the other? The difference was not the joke, but how that joke was told. This is what is meant by story-telling: the proper and effective execution of a story’s information. Good storytellers know how to communicate information in a way audiences will best understand and appreciate. The true skill of storytelling comes not simply from the story, but from how that story is told.

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