The Top Secret Guide to Storytelling

Once upon a time I used to have way more free time. Back before I grew up, got a job, and got into this writing thing, I had to look around and try to find things to keep me occupied.

I’m kinda hating the former me, just thinking about it.

Anyway, one of the things I used to do to flush my valuable time down the toilet was to watch the directors commentaries on DVDs. I don’t know what it was that compelled me to do this. On the whole listening to directors commentaries is about as interesting as watching paint dry. But one of them taught me something that has stuck with me to this very day.

It was the commentary for Top Secret that unveiled this incredible revelation. If you’ve never heard of Top Secret it’s a comedy made by the same guy who made Airplane If you’ve never heard of Airplane then you’re dead to me.

The guys on the commentary were talking about what made Airplaine such a success and what it was about Top Secret that had resulted in its relative failure. Now keep in mind that Airplane and Top Secret are both off-the-wall joke-a-minute comedies. Their worlds are completely nonsensical constructs that allow for the most bizzare situations imaginable to pass unremarked upon by the rest of the characters in the world.

So what was the difference between Airplane and Top Secret? Where the jokes funnier in Airplane? Did it have a better production value?

According to the directors it was none of these things. The thing that made Airplane a better film than Top Secret was story.

“Story?” you ask. “That’s the crucial element? In an unbelievably off the wall movie like Airplane? Surely you’re joking!”

I’m not joking. And don’t call me Shirley.

See, Top Secret had some semblance of setting and there were tons of jokes, but there was nothing memorable about the characters, and no real sense of what they were trying to accomplish.

Conversely in Airplane, we know exactly who the characters are and what they’re trying to accomplish. The former pilot with a fear a flying has to fly a plane with hundreds of sick passengers and his stewardess ex-girlfriend on board and land it safely.

It’s not an original story by any means. In fact it was based scene for scene off of another movie, and even stole some of its dialogue. It doesn’t even come close to taking the story seriously. But the story is there.

And even back then, when being a writer was the farthest thing from my mind, I latched on to that concept.

Story matters.

Special effects, fancy writing style, bizzare characters, none of those things come close to being as important as story. It doesn’t even have to be an original story. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: you’re never going to write a completely original story.

Characters are not stories. Worlds are not stories. Concepts are not stories.

Nothing wrong with those things, but they can’t be central in your mind. Got a great idea for a surreal world, filled with fantastic creatures, where logic works differently, and everyone eats cupcakes? Good. Now push all that to the back of your mind, and figure out the story.

In the end, it’s the only thing that matters.

Addendum:

I realize I’ve been somewhat vague about this idea of the “story.” If you’re interested in specifics I recommend you check out Kristen Lamb’s Blog. When she isn’t preaching the gospel of social media she has great posts detailing how to craft a story that works.

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4 responses to “The Top Secret Guide to Storytelling

  1. on the ball (chair)

    ‘the former pilot with a fear a flying’ … ‘based scene for scene off of another movie’

    Your message in this blog is a very good one. I accept it and hope to work with it. Your editting could be improved.

  2. I take exception to the director’s notion “Top Secret” has no story line. As with “Airplane,” it’s scene after scene of quotes from other great movies, all woven together in an hilarious accidental reluctant interloper who spoils the nefarious plans of a evil, albeit well-toned, military overlord.

    I love “Top Secret,” and am thrilled to see someone else writing about it.

  3. “If you’ve never heard of Airplane then you’re dead to me.”

    made me laugh and laugh and laugh. I’ve got you pegged now, buddy.

  4. It reminded me of Sucker Punch (shudders). Not all movies would be good but a movie with a confusing story better prepares to go down the drain.

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