At the beginning of my career, I worked on a lot of what are almost universally referred to as “B-Movies.” Hmmm…now that I think about it, they filled the middle of my career, as well. And also the “now” of it. Ok, so low-budget films have pretty much been my bread-and-butter for more than twenty years (by my last count, I’ve worked on closing in on 75 of them in various roles – mainly as a storyboard artist, but also as a writer, director and even producer).
One of the most important things I ever learned came early on while working on a number of things for New Concorde and Roger Corman’s group. It was a lesson that taught me a lot about moviemaking, storytelling in general, and, even though I didn’t realize it at the time, marketing.
I learned what I liked to call:
The Rule of 7 Iconic Moments in Storytelling
The rule goes like this: for a movie to be successful, a filmmaker’s goal (and this applies to storytellers in any medium) is to control two things when it comes to their audience:
1. What they are thinking about when leaving the theater (or finishing a book, comic, videogame, or any other piece of storytelling).
2. What they are going to be recounting to their friends.
In the movies of New Concorde, that amounted to opening with something crazy and then having another big moment follow every fifteen minutes thereafter. Since the movies generally ran about 90 minutes (give or take) to make distribution requirements, this amounted to seven pieces.
These “pieces” were the things the producers hoped would be the most memorable bits in the movies. In a horror flick, it would be scares; a comedy it would be laughs or quotable lines; in action, you’d be looking at fights, explosions, or stunts. Nowadays, they might be called “trailer moments,” although it’s usually a big mistake to have all your iconic moments shown upfront. They helped to keep the pace moving on the films and helped to keep an audience’s attention where it might otherwise start to fade.
Think about the greatest movies of all time and there are pieces that stick out — pieces you’ve quoted, discussed, debated, or cringed at later on with friends.
“I know kung-fu.”
“Are you talkin’ to me?”
“Go ahead, make my day.”
“Show me the money.”
“May the force be with you.”
“Then we’ll fight in the shade.”
I latched onto this idea of iconic moments as a storytelling device early on, but it wasn’t until much later — once I’d gone back and gotten my master’s degree in marketing — that I realized it was as much a sales and marketing piece as anything else.
Controlling your audience’s reaction and, even more important, what they’re going to be thinking once the film is over is absolutely essential. If your comedy doesn’t have quotable lines the audience is going to latch onto and repeat ad nauseum for the next month to all their friends, then there’s a good chance it’s going to fail.
If you don’t give the audience something to remember, they’re going to forget you. It’s as simple as that.
This is true with movies, video games, comics, and novels.
Ever since I figured out the rule, every piece of storytelling I’ve ever done has been built around it. The rule is in the back of my head from the moment I first put pencil to paper (okay, finger to keyboard) all the way until I write out “the end.” I work with it in my outline, and I obsess over it as I read over my finished work, constantly asking myself “what stands out” or “what will the audience talk about at the water cooler Monday morning at work?”
For my latest work (and first novel), “The Cestus Concern,” the rule of seven iconic moments was in the back of my mind the entire time. I constantly wrote and rewrote to make sure I had action sequences that were over-the-top enough that I knew my readers–an audience already jaded by having seen everything possible in the more visual worlds of films and video games–would get excited over them. If an action sequence was “good,” I’d go back in and go “Spinal Tap” on it to take things up to an eleven.
The rule helped me push my pacing in every effort to make sure things were exciting (it is my homage to over-the-top action films, after all) and that my readers would be pumped up enough by each of my iconic moments to want to continue–to need to continue. And, above all, I wanted to make sure they’d remember “THE CESTUS CONCERN” once the story was over for them.
Now, go and take a look at whatever you’re working on — film, comic, novel, short story, whatever. What are your iconic moments? What is going to blow your audience away? How will they remember your work after it’s done?
Keeping that in mind will help make sure it you and your work are remembered while others are forgotten.
OH, and don’t forget — THE CESTUS CONCERN releases January 25, 2013 for the Nook, Kindle, iPad, Kobo, and every other ereader out there, as well as for print. Don’t miss out on what is going to be the coolest sci-fi action novel of the year.
-Mat Nastos, Super Genius