Wednesday, March 3, 2010

You don't need to tell the whole story to tell a good story

I was watching Disney/Pixar's Up a couple nights ago, and it really got me thinking. For those of you who haven't yet seen it, I'll try not to spoil anything. Basically, the first twenty or so minutes of the movie involve the main character meeting his future wife as a child and then shows their life together. Even though there's so much more to the story after they reach old age (the rest of the movie, in fact), that first twenty minutes is amazingly powerful, and poignant. All it is after their initial introduction is a montage without words. But it tugs on every heart string (I) have, and tells an incredible story. Without words. Without devoting more than thirty seconds to a single snapshot of their life.

I thought about this first part for a while, and realized that what the movie does there is tell a compelling and powerful story by only showing the most important parts. You leave that first twenty minutes feeling saddened that they're gone-- it seems as if the whole movie has already taken place-- only to discover there's still a lot more of the story to go. It's a masterful execution, and a technique we could all learn from.

If you haven't yet seen Up, I recommend watching it so you can see what I mean. If you have, I recommend keeping that first twenty minutes in mind the next time you're struggling with a narrative summary or a too-long story (I know I will). Some of the most compelling and powerful stories can literally tell whole lives in a few pages.

The key is the snapshots. I'll take one example, from the middle, that might have a slight spoiler. Carl, the main character, and Ellie, his wife, are lying on their backs watching clouds when one of the clouds takes on the shape of a baby. Suddenly, the sky is full of clouds that look like babies, and the way the two of them smile suggests they're going to try for one. They're shown decorating a nursery. Ellie paints the wall joyfully. Then the scene cuts to a doctor's office. Ellie sits in a chair, head in hands, shoulders shaking. Carl comforts her from behind.

We don't get a lot of information here, but it tells us everything we need to know. We have some questions: did Ellie ever get pregnant? Or, why can't they have a baby? But those questions pale in comparison to the story, and we're okay not knowing the answers. Saddened, but okay.

Using snapshots in your writing could easily and effectively reduce summarizing narrative to a powerful, yet brief tool to tell a story. I intend to experiment with it myself.

Do you think this would be an effective tool for you?


  1. I loved that opening montage in UP too. I thought it was incredibly well done. And the great thing about UP is that it didn't disappoint after that strong opening-- the rest was just as good of a story as that beginning. (Not something you can say for the movie Wolverine.)

  2. Yeah, but I think it works better in movies than books. In some of my short stories, people are always wanting to know more about certain characters and events. Maybe I'm overdoing the scene.

    Excellent examples.


  3. I loved that montage in Up- it was a great movie. I don't think a montage would work well in my book, but maybe in others? I'm trying to think of one, but can't.

  4. Love this post! The montage in Up is so beautiful and moving... I cried, twice, in twenty minutes -- first in the scene you describe, the baby/doctor scene, and then again when Ellie dies.

    I wouldn't try to do a montage in a book, but Up is a powerful reminder of how to transform a compelling, transformative life experience into an evocative fragment. Thanks for this!

  5. Whenever I see a montage now, I always think of Team America... youtube the montage clip from it if you haven't seen it...

    But, steering back to your point, snippets are good, but staying on the path and connecting the dots is where the trickeration comes into play.

  6. Hmm, I think I rushed this post. That's what I get for writing while trying to eat.

    I don't necessarily mean to put a montage in a book, just that the montage in Up showed me how powerful even snippets of a story can be. We as writers, in other words, don't need to show every little detail of the story we are trying to tell to get the point across and form a connection with our reader. We can do it in fewer words, and make it more powerful for the doing, I think.

  7. No, you didn't rush, we just went tangential... off on our own little snipe hunt.

  8. Ah; well, if you guys find Kevin, bring her back for me. I like that bird!

  9. I haven't seen UP. I think it would be interesting to experiment with. I noticed something similar recently but dang if I can remember what and where.... :D