#955. The rules of storytelling never change: why don’t we use them more?

By pascaljappy | Art & Creativity

Jan 20

In some ways, few ways, Star Wars 9 is the best movie I have seen in the series. In some ways, many ways, it’s the worst. And the baffling aspect is that all the negatives come down to poor storytelling. This, under the direction of Disney, the absolute, undisputed masters of the art. Or so I believed.

 
 

Slightly off topic, at least for the first half. And riddled with spoilers. You have been warned (but, hey, it’s been a while since the release, c’mon).


Watch lots of interviews of adventurers, particularly in personal-story centered venues such as TEDx, and you’ll discover the exact same narrative underlying every presentation. Whether the guest speakers are all coached to present in the exact same way, or actually are telling an eerily similar story, I don’t know. But you only have to change a few words to switch from one to the other.

That narrative is the Hero’s Journey, popularised by Joseph Campbell, but studied long before him :

Luke, quietly picking mushrooms in his uncle’s farm when the Empire blows it to pieces and a old bloke with a beard and a scary arse neon guides him through all sorts of heroic – and self affirming – adventures. Rey, quietly scavenging leftovers from Empire ships, when the First Order blows her market to smithereens and a grumpy old bloke with a scary arse hairy wooky guides her through heroic – and self affirming – adventures. Harry, quietly breathing the dust under the Dursley staircase, when a serial killer wizard reappears and a bearded old bloke with a scairy arse sense of humour guides him through heroic – and self affirming – adventures.

 
 

On TEDx, the goals are less ambitious. No Death Star is going to blow up a planet. No Nazi order is going to take over the universe (well … it is, but that’s not what the guest speaker is going to tackle). No pure blood klan is going to mass murder infidels (well … it is, but ditto).

The story goes : I was living my life, doing this menial thing that kept me safe, then this major catastrophe happens (my brother dies, my best friend dies, I nearly die, …) and I change my life forever. This being a marketing stage, the speakers then offer to guide others rather than describe those who guided them. Sometimes, no one guided them and the story went awry. But the idea is the same.

And the structure is essentially the same. Has been for eons. There are others, tens of other narrative frameworks that work more or less well in storytelling. But the Hero’s Journey is the one we most resonate with as a species, because it mirrors our everyday struggle between safety (that menial job, that “great” carreer, that predetermined school/college/job/marriage/house/kid life path …) and our true aspirations, represented (and aided) by adventure. Because humans are part animal (safety first) and partly weird thing that aspires to move upwards (whether that be a religion, a philosophy, something more personal) most human beings feel that call to the Hero’s Journey. Who doesn’t want to be a hero?

 
 

Yet, I feel Disney messed it up. Huge time.

Now, they’ve had some practise. You can’t mess up that spledidly without a bit of rehearsing. Solo. Han Solo. Best character in the franchise for me, and many others. The link between animal and spiritual, between venal and selfless. The hinge between us spectators and them heroes. A character about whom a great set of books had been written. Just adapt those to film – 3 books, 3 films – and voilà. Sure winner. But no, somehow, the Solo prequel was butchered into a post-adolescent ramble with no roots in canon, no substance, not a single link with the first trilogy character except for the name and not a single nod to the hero’s journey. Instead of the recipe (intrinsic quality) Disney blamed excessive frequency (quantitative measurement) for the Solo movie’s lack of success. To me, this was an epochal moment in the company’s existence.

Cue Star Wars 9. In my eyes, the most endeering aspect of the latest trilogy is introducing Adam Driver (to me, at least). What an actor!!!! He brings so much class and nuance to the role. And this, even when forced to play a death scene that would not have been out of place in Blake Edward’s The Party. I want to watch the trilogy again just for him. Rey’s great but Ben’s character is so much more tortured. At any rate two cool performances.

 

But my understanding of the recipe for SW9, oh dear:

  • Dig up as many iconic scenes from the past episodes as possible, making them dumber and more spectacular (the board room choking, the duel by the ship when trying to escape, the mirror image style of the duelers on Mustafar, heck even the set of that duel, if you replace lava with water, Luke abandoning his training, the cave on Dagobah where you confront yourself and your fears … all of the iconic and deeply meaningful scenes, and probably others I have forgotten in the interest of self-preservation, now pointless and superficial).
  • In between those, add scenes that complicate the story line while contributing nothing to the arc.
  • Pepper with new characters every 10 minutes, most of which don’t get enough screen time to develop a personality. End up, as in “Avengers, End Game”, with so many extraenous characters that most of them have nothing meaningful to do during the big final battle and act so completely out of place. Oh yeah, about that (final battle): Remember Palpatine bringing Luke to the dark side by showing him the collapse of his friends and allies, from his lofty emperor’s chair? Blue lightning from his fingers, ring a bell? … yup, exact same ending here, only not as good.
  • Kill all suspense. The thing with a pivotal scene you’ve already seen in a previous movie is that you know how it ends. Here’s the final episode that is supposed to tie up the whole story, and there’s zero suspense.
  • Refuse sacrifice. Some die, but they are not dead. Some disappear but they reappear. Sacrifice is the root of growth. But there is none here. The only important characters who die, as in so many American blockbusters – those strangely redemption-adverse movies, are those who misbehaved in the past (or when the actor is actually dead).
  • Isolate every character. The first series were all about the group. In this film, all the characters are individuals placed together in a same room with no sense of friendship, no sharing … Community is a key to well being. Apparently not here.
  • Bring imbalance to The Force. On one side of the ring, someone who struggles to juggle a few stones. On the other, someone who can literally lift hundreds of megaton ships simultaneously from the ground without breaking a sweat. 3 .. 2 .. 1 fight. Who cares, though? We’ve seen the scene before, we know how it ends.
  • Add actuarial doses of inclusivity and space fights.
 
 

The really sad part? A standing ovation at the end. Sabers flashing, wookies awooking.

So, yeah. It’s powerful entertainment and is probably raking in tons of money – today’s only metric for quality. But my guess is poor Walt is squirming in his grave.

And yes, it has been modernised. We have heroes from all areas of the globe, that lesbian kiss that was always going to make the headlines, … And Rey is fantastic. And it really is cool to have heros that aren’t all white dudes in their 20s.

 
 

But I can’t help feeling Disney – like so many other large corporations – have lost the plot altogether. “So busy chasing big data and fashion trends they are, that understand the fundamentals, they do no more.” Shouldn’d Disney be worried that I’m just one of many raving fans who found this amateur fan movie more interesting than the official releases?

And I can’t help but notice the film being hailed as really poor by quite a few credible sources.

Does that matter? Not really. It’s just a movie. But from the beloved home of powerful and poetic storytelling, this comes as a shock.

 
 

At this point, you ask: What’s that got to do with photography? 😉

Everything (said with Yoda’s voice). Plus I need text to place my pics, right ? 🙂

Photography is an artform dedicated to communicating ideas and feelings to others. Storytelling is how humans communicate information. Not the best way, the only way. Today’s news? All stories. Today’s NYSE level? You won’t find it without a small narative attached. How the kids did at school today? Do you have 90 minutes to listen to all the stories? How to set up your printer? It starts with imagery of what happens if you put your fingers in the mains, because some people do that, apparently, and because short, visual, stories communicate information very efficiently. Cue photos. And their potential use as storytelling tools.

 
 

I find a lot of inspiration for photography in movies. My numerous rants against video features polluting my photo camera don’t mean I wouldn’t love to try video with an actual, dedicated video camera. Movies are wonderful when they tell good stories. And photographs can do the same, with a very different emphasis on time.

The fundamentals of storytelling are the same in photography and cinematography. These are basic human psychology. And those fundamentals will only change significantly when we evolve significantly as a species. You have plenty of time to practise, trust me. Obviously, how you tell a story differs between the two artforms. But that is a matter of technique, not of foundation.

What story you should tell, I can’t say. When you’re walking about a place, what feelings or meaning does that bring up? That’s your story. Contributor Lad has told me many stories about a local trail (the Chessie Trail) and what it means to him and his local community. That’s a great story which he tells in calendars, in photo series … Whatever drives you to a place is a story. Whether that story is “I saw it on Instawham and want my 15 microseconds of celebrity too” or “my grandmother died defending this place, I want to honor that memory” is your decision entirely.

 
 

A series of photographs makes the meaning simpler to convey, but a photograph must be able to stand alone. Lighting and colour set the mood. Exposure can suggest movement. Focal length creates perspective. And, most crucially, composition creates tension or balance between protagonists. And, in a series, using the same idea, same focal length, same PP helps make the point stronger and clearer.

When in doubt, KISS! The series of photographs on this page is all about the flow of little local river. Nothing more. It’s a simple story. No heroics. Nothing life altering. But something most of us can relate to and care about. Everything from the framing, to the exposure length and aperture, to post processing is there to highlight the flow of water.

I could have added Greta-friendly messaging in the form of dried-out pools or plastic floating in the stream. But why would I? This would only muddled the story (it would be a story all of its own, and a valid one, just not the one I tuned into on that day, plus there was no plastic, no dry pools around). Besides, that story would just have been a temporary one. In a few decades, we’ll have cleaned up our act or disappeared. Water, on the other hand, will flow for as long as there is water around.

 
 

The plan, then, is easy: go deep (in meaning), keep it simple (in execution). What say you?

(tech info: all photos made with a Hasselblad X1D and XCD 30 lens at speeds between 1/10s and 1/60s, processed in Phocus and Lightroom).

 

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  • philberphoto says:

    When I laugh and cry at the same time, I know it is a seriously good post. When I need to pick up my jaw from the ground no less than 3 times because of the sheer beauty of the pics, ditto. Do I need to write that I had to do all three? Seriously, seriously good post, Pascal! You practice what you preach, in demonstrating that entertaining can be educating. Or vice versa.

  • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    Now I’m completely confused. AndI thought I had it, there, for a while. I don’t recall blushing on my first date – I don’t recall ever blushing on a date. I think it would have been a distraction from the main game. So I’m going to ignore it, and get back to the story.

    I was having a wonderful time, tripping through all those photos. There was another distraction in the background – a whole lot of text, about stories and story telling. But the photos kept holding my attention – at times, they were mystifying – was it inherent, or induced by the introductory summary of what seems to have been one of those modern films about zombies and warlocks?

    Finally, they came together. And I am asked what do I think? Well to be honest, if I ever answered such a question you’d find the answer tedious – so I’ll skip that.

    Instead I’ll respond with two thoughts that have been flying around in my head for some time – both of which I think, in some way, link straight back to your question, about going in deep, and the application of the KISS principle that the US marines suggested won World War II. Or someone else suggested it. I was only 3 when it ended. My memory of those days is a bit fuzzy, and short on detail.

    I keep seeing adverts for courses that will make everyone a better photographer – articles with wonderful suggestions as to how we can all do better – and I end up thinking- “this is only going to stampede a whole heap of people into all doing the same thing, and how is it ‘better’, doing that?” And then every so often, I am abruptly brought up by an article which does nothing of the kind. Instead, it canvasses possibilities – it pokes fun at the idea that a “rule” of composition is any more than a kind suggestion – an idea as to how to move forward, in an atmosphere where previously there WERE no ideas. And instead of providing “solutions” or telling dear read “how to be a brilliant photographer in 8 easy steps”, the article puts out “suggestions” – like “go and think of some projects that you can do”. And that, dear reader, is the nub. “Go and think”!

    Maybe that’s where we are to find Pascal’s “deep”!

    The other – also related to Pascal’s two questions – is “KISS”. A year or two back I bought a new Epson printer – smaller than Pascal’s Canon, but then I never print larger than A3 – we don’t even have the wall space for that any more, it’s already gone under the hammer to paintings and to three photos, and short of hanging pictures on the outside of the house, I’ve run out of blank walls. So – armed with my new toy I have been steadily working through my JPEGs and TIFFs. And the funny thing is, the more I do, the less I do. The more photos, that is. And the less “post processing”. Why? Because Pascal is quite correct. Less IS more. The KISS principle overrides the urge to tinker.

    Of course I’m probably upside down as usual, and Pascal is probably talking to “taking” photos, rather than “post processing” them. But the same principle applies to taking them. Since the beginning of photography, there have been those who take photos on the basis of including everything they possibly can, that lies within the field of view. And those who “select” – who identify what is the important thing in front of the camera – and seek to blank out the rest of the image, in some fashion (be it through manipulation of the depth of field, control of shutter speed, exposure, or simply moving to a different position in order to take the shot). KISS rules, OK? Clutter only works when the subject matter IS “clutter”, and that’s rather rare.

    So what do we have here?

    Well for a start, this series of photos was reminding me all the time of a painting I used to have, of “the spirit of the woods” – where you couldn’t actually see anything, but nothing made sense until you realised that painting’s name WAS “the spirit of the woods” – and all of a sudden everything made sense, and you could feel that you were in the presence of “the spirit of the woods” – but you still couldn’t see it. Which means the painting had depth – TICK!

    As I said, I had this same sort of strange feeling, as I moved from one photo to another in this article. Each making suggestions – none providing an answer. So I must apologise, Pascal – I found that more interesting and didn’t pay attention to the text, properly, until you announced what the plan is. What happened next is your own doing – you asked what I say next, so I’ve said it! 🙂

    • pascaljappy says:

      Hi Pete, all very true

      “how to be a brilliant photographer in 8 easy steps” : whenever you see a list post, you have 99% chances it’s going to be shallow. Of course, that’s the draw. You know it’s going to be packed with dream and empty of the harsh reality of … (ghasp) … hard work.

      I think KISS is actually a lot of work. Creating a simple product is super hard. Creating a simple policy is super hard. Creating a simple (but powerful) course is super hard. Simplicity for the user is often very hard work for the maker. That’s why simplicity commands high prices and why Apple and Amazon are the most expensive companies on the planet (simplicity and trust).

      Your analogy with your “spirit of the woods” painting is very flattering, thank you.

  • JackT says:

    Hmmm. Guess you didn’t like the movie. But I like your photos.

    • pascaljappy says:

      Ha ha. Well, the film *was* entertaining, and I was probably expecting too much from it. It’s a film for the Instagram age. All the spectacular moments of the past 8 films packed into one, tons of politically correct sentiment and nothing deeply moving. God forbid we laugh or cry in a movie.

      Thanks for the kind words about the pics !

  • Lad Sessions says:

    Time flows like a river, and so does this post, both in the narrative and photos (of a river flowing). I think you are incapable of taking a bad picture, Pascal, but these B&W ones are absolutely absorbing. I like the tonality, and the serpentine flow through silhouetted trees is stunning! (I can’t comment on the latest Star Wars flick, which I’ve not seen and have little interest in seeing.)

  • Michael says:

    For me, maybe your best post ever. We should always strive to get back to basics…..today’s world full of social media pulls many of us away from that. Keep it simple in every way possible and you’ll always wind up happy with your work.

  • This is one of your best posts to date Pascal. As there was so much truth being said I found the photos most grounding and relaxing. You struck a chord, my friend.

  • Sean says:

    A very astute and articulate commentary on the well established application of ‘Once upon a time …’ as per your words “… The fundamentals of storytelling are the same in photography … [that] will only change significantly when we evolve significantly as a species… [As] a matter of technique, not of foundation…” because, as you sate “… Whatever drives you to a place is a [or the] story…”.
    Can this also be seen in how, say, a parable is constructed and then delivered, in its technique, to assist how it conveys, guides and secures? This is truly an inspirational post Pascal. I’ve benefited from having the opportunity to read it and garner from it what you are driving at – well done.

    • pascaljappy says:

      Thanks, Sean. My understanding of writing principles is very limited. Beyond this blog, I do not write much. But your assumption about the parable feels intuitively very true. Cheers

  • Kristian Wannebo says:

    Pascal,
    such lovely water photos, with *just* the right exposure length in each case!

    ( I have (almost) no patience with this fashion of over long exposures that make water look dead, even deader than when frozen with too fast exposures.)

    And to me there is almost magic in the way you have balanced the visibility of detail in the water and in the environment.

    And yes, they do make a story!
    – – * – –

    Starwar stories?
    I’ve seen a couple of the original films but only on TV screens. I’ve appreciated the classical saga motives and story telling … but what comes to my mind is the lovely satire in C-3PO’s body language.
    – – –

    > “Yet, I feel Disney messed it up. Huge time.”

    And not for the first time!
    “The Jungle Book” (lost the story through funny scenes filling it up)
    … and others…

    • pascaljappy says:

      Oh my. I *do believe* you flatter me, Sir. My circuits are overheating. (said in a C3PO tone, one arm in the air 😉 )

      It’s odd how a company can churn our masterpieces and what seems to be very cynical movies. Unrelated to Disney, but I fear the next James Bond will also fall victim to the trends of the moment. Oh well. We’ll have to write our own stories.

      • Kristian Wannebo says:

        > “It’s odd how …”
        Money money money makes the world go round…
        (… and Abba made money but [IMHO] no masterpieces. But I think they could have – but probably at a loss.)

        Btw., Pascal, I never flatter.
        I say what I think, or, if better not, do my best to avoid the issue.

  • Adam Bonn says:

    That really was (is?) a quality post Pascal.

    I think the problem with the latest Star Wars trilogy is that it’s effectively a reboot… nothing that wrong with a reboot, it’s why we’re able to enjoy a different take on the Batman or Spiderman story every 8 years or so…

    But we were expecting a continuation and conclusion of the saga… not the bastard offspring of pastiche and homage.

    Look at Rogue One (best one since Empire IMHO) and lament what could’ve been..

    I think (as you say) our photographs need to have a similar sense of purpose (as yours do here) if we’re not reinventing the wheel (which is most of photography IMO) then be proud to present your images as part of the well trodden path of street/travel/portrait/etc but the important thing is try and understand why the path is well trodden rather than merely seek to half arsedly pastiche and homage (1.) what went before, like Disney failed to do with their expensive franchise that they ended up crashing like a drunk teenager who’s stolen dad’s car (2.)

    ====

    1. I’m conceivably very guilty of this…
    2. If I was 10 and I saw the Disney trilogy, with little or no exposure to the original I suspect I might have liked them more… maybe

    • pascaljappy says:

      Thanks Adam!

      Yes, I think the problems at Disney are mostly political. They have no long term view. So they bring in a director who sends the franchise in a direction and, as soon as some big wig is displeased, they have someone patch up the next. So there is no feeling of continuity anymore. Whereas in the Lucas years, that was much less the case. So, they can be excellent (Rogue One) or terrible (Solo) at individual films but really struggle with series.

      Oh well. Isn’t it time someone came up with a new idea (ghasp), anyway? Or are we stuck with 1970s movies and 1960 comic books forever?

      We’re all guilty of (1) to some degree. Some of us are lucky to be guilty of (2) and to have come out unscathed 😉

  • Nancee Rostad says:

    Another thought provoking post, Pascal! Yes, story telling is important when pulling together images for a gallery or portfolio, as you have done here with your lovely and mysterious images of water. I also believe that when one is asked to comment on a group of disparate images with no visual storyline, that the storyline can be found with the photographer. It might not be an interesting story, but it could be insightful and could explain why they chose to photograph those subjects and why they thought they belonged together. There’s always a storyline, just maybe not the one you’re looking for.

    • pascaljappy says:

      Thank you, Nancee. Very true. I think what keeps most people away from storytelling is the notion that the story has to be profound, novel and earth-shaking, when all it really has to be is personal.

  • Doug Shoemaker says:

    I battle with the idea of narrative in my photos.

    Sure, you are correct…everybody wants a story, but story feels so impure in certain regards. It requires in the viewer to have language to construct a backstory or context, which is in turn needed to add meaning. This meaning can have little correspondence with the photographer’s reality. As an example, the photographer can convey an image of what she thinks is abject poverty, that then comes across to the viewer as bucolic bliss. Maybe it’s OK…who cares how a photo impacts, as long as it impacts? To me, it is unsettling.

    Some philosophers have proposed that language is needed to construct a reality. While there is truth in that, I love the example of how, wordlessly, music or scent can evoke strong emotion. Taken another way, the Buddhist value “sudden realization” or “awakening” as the immediacy of touching something fundamental in each of us—universally, not requiring explanation and in turn, language.

    This is a criteria for my favorite art: the ability to land a transcendental message as strongly as the waft of perfume worn by a lover, or a sudden slowing the heart like Debussy’s Clair de lune.

    There are so many ways to achieve this, but all are hard. The decisive moment is a prime example: no one needs to know where the man in the hat has come from, or where he is going, just the realization of peril in jumping that puddle. Another is the way good abstract work develops tension through weighting. Why is the dying flower beautiful? We can say exactly, but it is painfully beautiful.

    • pascaljappy says:

      Hi Doug,

      that’s a very interesting comment and one I would love to expand into its own article.

      You are, of course, completely correct. A statement that all photographs must convey a story would deny the existence of abstract art, for example. I should instead argue that storytelling is one of the powerful ways of connecting with others.

      Sudden realisation, awakening: nothing would fulfill me more than to be able to create works of art that trigger that sort of “reaction”. Nothing. I just don’t know how to. I would love to continue this conversation and it would be my number one project if I had real pointers. But, to my mind, this is even more “subjective” that stories. Don’t you think so?

      Stories are a common method for conveying information. Yes, there can be a difference in ineterpretation between the creator and the viewer, but I believe what motivated the former to create the photograph will at least reach the latter. But a “visual koan” … I just feel that would have to be taylor made for each individual viewer. Maybe I’m completely wrong. But I would love to hear more about your ideas on this. And why not publish something on the topic if you feel like it. I can think of no topic more interesting and vital than this !!! Thanks again.

      • Doug Shoemaker says:

        Pascal,

        I think “sudden realization” is less subjective, and may be universal. And I agree it would be interesting to develop these ideas further.

        I was thinking of Emerson in using the word “transcendental” because he believed that every human possessed the ability to transcend both the dialog in our heads and the material, and thus realize some experience bigger than ourselves capable of being shared by all. For the Transcendentalist, the ‘”trigger” needed to break though was immersion in Nature (with a capital “N”). It is no surprise that landscape was one of the first subjects photographers deliberately trained their lens on.

        My musing on this subject actually arose from the Tibetan practices surrounding mediation: the use of the gong to start and finish, the sharp scent of burning incenses, the use of bright colors in the temple. The Buddhist, being a practical lot, emphasized the training of the mind (rather than immersion in nature) to release humankind from dwelling on attachments the and phenomenal world, and to cut through to something genuine. Sharp cues can remind us to stay in the moment, and these three things–intense sound, scent, color–become handrails to find the space offered by the quiet mind, and amazingly work for Tibetans as well as they work for me.

        All this to say, I find a universal appreciation for meaningful experiences that occur between the ears, especially those that transcend the deliberations of the mind. And I want my best photographs to trigger that sort of immediate, meaningful experience.

        My guess is that the boxes that need to be checked for a photo to be considered “good” by almost all (eg. symmetry, contrast, exposure, balance, framing) are not essentially valuable on their own, but instead are handrails that speed the viewer to the moment of realization.

        If the photographer too many of the boxes “wrong”, these elements can be a barrier to some flash of insight. Instead, the viewers mind dwells on the feeling that “something is not quite right”, foiling the impact and perhaps seeding a mental dialog as to whether they “like” it or not, or trying to construct meaning.

        Symmetry, contrast, exposure, balance, framing done well are as the toll of the gong, or a waft of sandalwood: a mainline for an image to connect with our authentic self.

        Feel free to email me directly, and in the meantime I’ll try to fix my Flickr page 😉

  • Jaap Veldman says:

    Pascal,

    I fully agree with the commenters above on the quality of the article and the photographs.

    But one thing seems unnoticed.

    Darth Vader has been pulling your sliders to the Dark Side!

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