by Jeff Lyons
“The Whistles and Bells Test™” is a quick test you can carry out whenever you get the inspirational flash of a new story idea. It is a simple, cut-to-the-chase technique that can quickly give you a sense if you have a story or a situation (click here to see my 2-part series on story vs. situation). It is not a substitute for learning the difference between a story and a situation, or for working through the full premise development process, but over time, with a lot of practice, using this test you can hone a kind of sixth-sense for the presence of a story—before you start serious development.
“The Whistles and Bells Test™”
Here’s how you do it:
- Take your idea and get rid of all the whistles and bells. Get rid of all the car chases, all the robots, all the aliens, all the quirky set pieces; everything that you think is cool, or that makes your script or novel special and unique. In other words, strip out all the flash-bang and glitz. Get rid of all the high concept.
- Then ask the question, “What is the story?” and wait. If you start hearing in your head, “Oh, the hero does this, then goes there, then drives a car …” you’re getting caught up in the noise. Quiet the yammer-yammer and just ask the question again. You’re not waiting for story details (this happens, then that happens). You’re waiting for the story’s essence to come.
- After some time (not a lot, just a few minutes max), if you have a story you will get a gestalt impression of something like the following:
- This is a story about a man who has to learn how to love.
- This is a story about a mother-daughter who together learn the real meaning of family loyalty.
- This is a story about a guy who will die if he doesn’t learn how to forgive himself for the past and heal his forgivable mistake.
(Excerpt from Anatomy of a Premise Line: How to Master Premise and Story Development or Writing Success, Focal Press 2015)
No story details, but emotional essence. The test is especially useful with genre stories (mystery, horror, action adventure, romance, etc.). For instance, if you have a murder mystery, take away the murder and the mystery elements, and then ask yourself if the story can still support itself without these two elements. If it is a story and not a situation, then you will still have a sense of a personal story (the human experience) even without the presence of the genre elements or high concept.
Here is an example using my favorite test case: The Verdict (Twentieth Century Fox, Paul Newman, 1982).
Quick Synopsis: Frank, an ambulance-chasing, alcoholic, loser attorney uses people for personal gain, and only sees people for what advantage they can get him. Their worth is defined only by what Frank can get out of them for himself. He’s down-and-out, and a human parasite. Frank is hired by a family to defend a woman put into a coma during medical procedure, and they want to sue the big-bad hospital for damages. The Arch Diocese that owns the hospital tries to buy Frank off to get him to settle the case (and drop the defense). But, Frank decides to turn down the money and take the case, and in the process of defending a woman society has written off as valueless, discovers his own worth and value and becomes a champion for her human dignity and his own. Frank takes on the big-bad law firm representing the big-bad hospital and wins the case and wins back his personal dignity and sense of value.
So, the “Whistles and Bells Test™” for The Verdict would be: This is a story about a guy who rediscovers his sense of personal value, and that what he does in the world matters—he has impact.
There is nothing about the coma, hospital, big-bad law firm, conspiracies (which are in the story), cover ups, etc. The test only reveals the essence of the protagonist’s journey and what he learns. It reveals everything that is essential about who he is as a person, where he starts the journey (emotionally), and where he ends up (emotionally). It is a story, and says something about the human condition, not just the action plot of medical conspiracies and legal cover ups. The results are a simple, powerful sentence that captures the human essence driving the story; and this is how you know you have a story and not a situation.
The test will show you the big-picture sense of the thing: the protagonist and the main issue/moral lesson faced by the protagonist. You may also get a clear picture of the opponent or core relationship too, but if you have a story you will get a gestalt sense of the hero-heroine and their core issue. The whistles and bells (action, adventure, mystery, etc.) are just noise, so when you get rid of them—if you have a story—your idea will hold up and shine through. A situation will just leave you with an action line or a puzzle-mystery to be solved. If you get a statement in your head, like the three bullets above, or like the example, then you know you are on the right track and you can have even more confidence moving forward with the premise development process.
“The Whistles and Bells Test™” is a powerful and easy technique that when mastered can develop your story senses to a fine edge.
Jeff Lyons is a published fiction/nonfiction author, screenwriter, editor, and story development consultant with more than 25 years’ experience in the film, television, and publishing industries. He has worked with literally thousands of novelists, nonfiction authors, and screenwriters helping them build and tell better stories. Jeff is an instructor through Stanford University’s Online Writer’s Studio, University of California at Riverside’s Extension Program, and is a regular guest lecturer through the UCLA Extension Writers Program. He is a regular presenter at leading writing and entertainment industry trade conferences, as well as a contributor and advisor to leading entertainment industry screenwriting and producing fellowship programs, such as the Producers Guild of American’s “Power of Diversity Producers Workshop,” and the Film Independent Screenwriting Lab. Jeff is also a regular guest blogger on major writing industry blog sites like Script Magazine and Stage32.com. Jeff has written on the craft of storytelling for Writer’s Digest Magazine, Script Magazine, The Writer Magazine, and Writing Magazine (UK). His book, Anatomy of a Premise Line: How to Master Premise and Story Development for Writing Success, is the only book available devoted solely to the topic of story and premise development for novelists, screenwriters, and creative nonfiction authors. His new book, Rapid Story Development: How to Use the Enneagram-Story Connection to Become a Master Storyteller, will be published by Focal Press in summer 2017.
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