The Five Flavors: Proven Movie Story Elements

film storytelling

photo by: Respres

Making a movie is like cooking a big meal.  You want something to tickle the whole palette — dishes that range from savory to spicy to sweet.  You want the audience to leave with the same feeling of satisfaction they’d get from a delicious dinner. 

Great chefs may seem to have no limits — some don’t even limit themselves to ingredients that are edible — but they are ultimately limited to the five basic flavors that the human tongue can sense: sweet, salty, sour, bitter and umami, the full-bodied taste we associate with ripe tomatoes or MSG.

Likewise, in narrative films, while there are almost infinite ingredients that make stories unique, there seem to be five basic elements that please audiences. 

Saltiness: Action 

Just like salt enhances existing flavors, action is the enhancer for any plot.  There’s a reason that chase scenes are a staple of cinema — they grab the audience’s attention in a visual, visceral way.  The gourmet filmmaker should be careful not to add action to simply disguise a lack of plot or character.  That’s just like over-salting a dish.  But movie theater popcorn is salty, and most “popcorn movies”, the big action blockbusters, are salty too. 

Sweetness: Romance 

Pop quiz: name a Hollywood film from the last fifty years that doesn’t have at least a small romantic sub-plot?  Hard to do.  Especially if you make the definition broad enough to include close friendships (“bromances” “soul sistas”).  If you look at the ingredient labels of packaged foods, you’d be surprised how many have sugar, or fructose or some other sweetener in them, even those that don’t seem sweet.  Romance is a part of life, and a movie that doesn’t reflect that risks tasting bland. 

Sourness: Irony 

While some filmmakers are masters of irony, others seem incapable of anything but sincerity.  Likewise, not everyone loves sour candies, or sour fruits.  I happen to be a guy who will eat a raw lemon.  So I guess it’s no surprise that I love films that are dripping in irony.  You can mix irony with other flavors for light comedic effect — the sweet and sour sauce approach.  Or you can have your movie end with a sentimental war song, “We’ll Meet Again”, even as the entire human race is annihilated by nuclear bombs.  Yes, Dr. Strangelove is one tasty lemon. 

Bitterness: Tragedy 

No less than the philosopher Aristotle, in 335 BCE, first identified the ability of tragic drama to have a purging function on audiences, indeed, society.  Tragedy is a bit of a paradox — why do we go to see Titanic if we know how it will turn out?  But there is something in the struggle against great forces, or in seeing the mighty humbled by the tiniest of flaws, that is somehow uplifting to the human spirit.  Another philosopher, Seneca, wrote tragedies himself.  A stoic, he believed that you can prepare yourself for the inevitable tragedies in your own life by imaging them ahead of time.  The tragic film provides a similar outlet, and also a feeling of release when we step out of the theater and realize it was all just a movie. 

Umami: ??? 

I’m not sure what basic storytelling element would correspond with Umami.  Walt Disney and his artists often spoke of “Appeal”, which was their word for anything that was cute, like babies, or generally tugged at the heartstrings.  Maybe the final flavor is simply a unique personal style, such as we’ve come to associate with great filmmakers.  Or maybe we should draw the analogy quite literally.  The flavor of umami is “full-bodiedness”.  A fully-developed story world provides a richness that audiences can savor.  Part of the fun of watching Blade Runner or Inception is to visit a world that seems to extend beyond the boundaries of the film itself. 

Nothing will take an audience out of a world more quickly than a violation of the world’s own internal logic.  Likewise, nothing will have them clamoring for a sequel quicker than to present a world that demands to be explored. 

So, now that you know the five flavors of filmmaking, get out there and start cooking!

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