Picture the scene in Bridget Jones’s Diary, when Mark and Daniel square off in the street outside her apartment. One of Bridget’s guy friends throws open the doors to a nearby restaurant to tell everyone inside, “Fight… a real fight!”
“The most critical element of any story since the dawn of time is conflict,” states writer/producer Julie Ann Sipos.
She is a widely produced and published screenwriter, author, editor, blogger, digital content creator and part-time professor of cinema and television.
“Being very nice people, we screenwriters – regardless of skill level – like to avoid this at all costs. Unfortunately, lack of some measure of conflict in every moment of every scene – even a passionate love scene, or the uplifting resolution of the feel good story of the year – is the hallmark of the novice writer. (Imagine Rhett kissing Scarlett against the backdrop of Atlanta failing to ignite; or the big on-stage finish of Little Miss Sunshine without the threat of arrest).”
Sipos presently teaches at California State University Northridge. “I teach a technique called the ‘Wa-Do-Gee’ that I in turn learned from venerable screenwriting professor Hal Ackerman. Short for ‘What does the character want and what is he doing to get it,’ the Wa-Do-Gee must be met with direct opposition by another character or event at every significant point along your hero’s journey.”
“This metaphorical dance propels every story ever told toward a satisfying resolution. Obviously, in an action piece the conflict builds in a series of ever-louder explosions the hero narrowly escapes; while in a deftly-written character piece, the fireworks are gut wrenchingly subtle.
“Master this age-old storytelling technique, though, and you will master any genre technology may throw your way, now or in the future.”
Common Filmmaking Mistake
We asked Sipos what the prevalent mistakes were that emerging filmmakers make. “For reasons unknown to me, it is far simpler to master advanced production equipment and complicated software programs than it is to dwell on the mechanics of a story. In the age of the accidental Internet star, a 10-year-old can produce a wildly popular YouTube video on his mother’s smart phone – but any real story at its heart generally appears only by happenstance.
“Set on debuting films slick enough to contend for big awards, film schools often encourage young filmmakers to show off their technical skills without a script worthy of production in place. I think the key for aspiring filmmakers is to focus not on the ever-louder pyrotechnics but rather the simple, basic and very learnable techniques of rendering a compelling personal story. As I often tell my students, the market may be flooded with graduates bringing fierce production skills, but nobody else brings you.”
Creating Digital Content
“Digital storytelling obviously lies at the heart of my personal brand: a longtime Hollywood blogger, web series producer, online crime novelist and writer of interactive media for Disney, Mattel and American Girl.
“Calling on the use of ordinary, everyday electronics, digital storytelling is simply my preferred medium as an artist – just as a graffiti painter might use the side of a bridge to weave a given narrative or a baker works in cakes. Because I also have a strong visual sense, coupled with formal training in film, television and digital media at UCLA, I’m able to demystify the craft as little more than a modern extension of the ancient art of storytelling interwoven with digitized still and moving images, music, dialogue and sound.
“It’s important to note that I take the very same approach to crafting a character game or app as I do breaking the bones of a feature film script. Calling on tools so very close at hand to exhibit my completed work definitely beats waiting for a call from my agent on the latest fate of that great unsold spec script. When I want to share something wonderful with the world, I just hit the button marked ‘Upload.’”
Sipos notes, “transmedia is a word so newfangled my spellchecker won’t yet accept it.” But the concept has a long history. “Transmedia storytelling is just another very old concept – perhaps used most memorably by Walt Disney in furthering all those character tales originally created by the brothers Grimm. Big screens, small screens, theme park thrill rides – the imagination may be limitless, but the story is still the story.
“One could argue,” says Sipos, “that through the ages there has been only one narrative, the human narrative, with each one using a given platform – cave walls, family bibles, community quilts – to add our personal chapter. Desperate to cross-drive viewership, television networks are creating ‘second screen’ narratives to drive stories, literally, into the hands of the audience – through games and apps, celebrity blogs and interactive videos. Competition shows like American Idol engage viewers to actually construct the story – and most notably its resolution – via the Internet or mobile device.”
“I myself might expound upon the work of, say, A.A. Milne – whether developing an online game set in The Hundred Acre Wood or writing an interactive character party featuring Pooh’s Beehive Cupcakes. There is something comforting about the unchanging story of the English kid and the bear with mood issues hanging out with their anthropomorphic forest pals remains. Pooh is always going to end up with his nose in that honey pot, and wanting to see him finally wiggle his way out is what keeps us coming back for more. There’s nothing fancy or advanced about any of it.”
“Regardless of the canvas where you choose to spin your yarn, don’t try to reinvent the wheel, folks. Just keep it spinning.”
Julie Ann Sipos on IMDb.