How truly great stories focus on only a seven-second moment.
Many of the greatest stories that you have ever been told have not been about what you actually think they are about. Big statement I know, but I am sticking to it.
This isn't to be controversial, but what it does reveal is one of the great storytelling secrets. There is always a story behind the story, and that underlying story usually centres around what I call a 'seven-second story situation' in the main character's life. That 'seven-second solution' is a moment where the character's life is changed forevermore and everything is different from that moment onwards. Everything else in the story has been building and leading to that moment.
Let's look at an example. Most people would describe the Steven Spielberg movie E.T as a film about an alien that gets stranded on Earth and a young boy looks after him and helps him get home. But, Steven Spielberg initially came up with the concept for the film as a way to make sense of the alienation he felt growing up in a divorced family and being one of the only Jewish families in a non-Jewish neighbourhood of Arizona. So E.T is actually about alienation and not aliens.
The main character Elliot is the middle child, he's misunderstood, lonely, has no father figure in his life, and yet the greatest connection he has ever made in his young life so far is with an alien from another planet. But, Elliot's 'seven-second story' comes towards the end of the film, when he realises he faces finally losing his greatest friend and he says to E.T, "You must be dead because I don't know how to feel." This is the moment that Elliot comes of age and he realises that he must stand on his own two feet. This is the moment where Elliot's life is transformed forever. This is what the whole movie has been building to. From this point onwards Elliot becomes a man, and he finds the strength and confidence to deal with getting E.T back home.
The movie Rocky isn't a film about boxing. It is a film about being the underdog and proving to other people that you are worth something, and boxing happens to be the vehicle for this story to unfold. Rocky's motivation isn't even to necessarily win the big fight. His 'seven-second solution' comes when he realises he is worth something and isn't just a nobody. This moment of self-acceptance then gives Rocky the motivation to step into the ring with the champ, as an equal.
So, even when you are telling your own personal stories, look for the story behind the story. Look for what the seven-second solution is. What was the moment that changed you forever?
Was it a realisation? An event? An awakening? A situation? Once you can articulate that moment then you can work on building the rest of the story around that.
Everything else in the story must contribute to the revealing of this moment, otherwise, you might need to question how valid and relevant it is. Is it necessary? Does it bring you closer to the revelation?
This 'seven-second story solution' should be a real relief to you as a storyteller because it means your life is filled with these moments. These aren't the climbing Mount Everest moments, very few people have these moments in their life. These are the deeper, inner moments that happen to us all. Everybody has them, you just sometimes have to look a bit deeper to see them. The beauty about these moments is that they are usually universal and so when you uncover your inner truth, it resonates with other people because they too have had those moments.
These simple moments make good stories great.