When I teach young people about the elements of a story, I tend to lean on the trusted models of the Who-What-When-Where-Why-How (or the 5WH) structure. Or the one about having a Beginning, Middle and End. (My version of this, for those writing for the web is to make sure they have a Beginning, a Middle and a Hyperlink.)
So this week I revisited two stories, separated by several centuries. The Lone Ranger, and Beowulf. (Yes! There’s a delicious irony of being able to listen to a 1930 radio show of The Lone Ranger via a Kindle app!)
The basics of these stories –one from the radio age, and the other from a different culture and era, entirely – is that they revolve around conflict. It makes good drama. Good vs evil material. But beyond that, it is how carefully the author, or script writer selects his words.
So here are four things we could take away from Lone Ranger:
1. Grab Your Reader/Listener
Cut short the pre-amble, and get to the point fast. In Lone Ranger, we are all familiar with how the scene is set: “A fiery horse with the speed of light, a cloud of dust and a hearty “Hi-yo Silver!” (The previous intro was: ”In the early days of the western United States, a masked man and an Indian rode the plains, searching for truth and justice. ….Return with us now”)
The ‘search for the truth’ is built around intrigue (masked man) and the promise of action (search for truth, hoofbeats…)
2. Cut to the ‘Chase’
Move quickly to build up the tension. The stereotypical car chase (or horse chase here) can have other variants such as a puzzle that the reader is yearning to solve, the expectation of a confrontation etc.
3. Build Great Dialogue.
Though the story is told to us by a narrator, it is rich in dialog. Tonto, his foil, despite the author’s use of some clumsy pidgin English, is full of exchanges.
TONTO: “Crooks try rob bank last night”
RANGER: “Have Bogus Brown and his pal Elk been in town?”
TONTO: Umm. “Them the fellers try to rob bank?”
4. Humanize Your Characters
The Lone Ranger, despite his mask, is still human enough for others to be able to relate to him – Sheriff’s, townspeople, crooks.
Too often our modern ‘stories’ –um, press releases, podcasts etc– are full of inside jargon, and layer upon layer of description. It’s almost as if the boss’ requisition stated that the script be stripped of ‘normal’ words, and the sort of everyday, ordinary exchanges. Instead what creeps in a slick, sloganized phrases, put in the mouths of spokespersons who would never talk like that.
Maybe we should make Fran Striker (college dropout, announcer) the little-known writer behind Lone Ranger, essential reading for those writing for an attention-deficit audience.