Our worldviews determine how we interact with our environment and walk though life. And stories are there to confront worldviews with certain realities (this is the premise of part one). But how is this done to keep an audience captivated for hours, as it is by a good movie ? Here’s where storytelling comes in to play.
Storytelling is a much maligned word and an often misused one as well. Marketing, for example, is one negative association of the term. I suppose marketing deserves it for stooping to the lowest levels demanded by social media and other cheap, untruthful, methods of force feeding a message to a world saturated by similar messages. But storytelling is the exact opposite to this (so is good marketing, the act of matching a product to a market, by the way).
The reality is that a good story always spreads like wildfire. And the occasional negative undertones associated with the idea of storytelling stem from two falsities which I would like to debunk here :
Both, of course, are utter tosh. And to counter those prejudiced ideas, let’s examine two ideas :
With that done, part 3 will deal with how filmmakers and photographers can use storytelling in their work, and what techniques are at their disposal to grab the attention of a viewer and keep it long enough to ingrain an idea, sow a seed, Inception-style. Because, remember, the purpose of stories is to confront worldview and reality to plant a sapling of evolution and growth into our minds. Yes, even Avengers or James Bond. Any “story” that doesn’t achieve this is merely anecdote.
A character arc is the change in personal worldview he or she undergoes during the trials and tribulations the achievement of a specific goal, voyage or task throws in the way. That’s what storytelling is about and, yes, this holds for a snowy landscape in the peak district (we’ll get into that in part 3).
There are many “standardised” formats for telling a compelling story. The most famous is Campbell’s hero’s journey : our hero (Luke, Frodo, Jane, Thomas Andersen (Neo), …) lives a repetitive menial life, a sudden external force (Voldemort, the Empire, Sauron’s ring, Agent Smith, … ) blasts that life to smithereens and places a massive challenge on his/her hands. A mentor comes along to guide the inexperienced hero through the coming adventures (Gandalf, Dumbledore, Obiwan, Jim, in Huckleberry Finn, Morpheus, Helen Burns in Jane Eyre …) Adventure follows in a series of increasingly tense ups and downs until a final resolution. The hero returns to normality with a changed appreciation for life.
As famous as it is, the hero’s journey doesn’t cover all books, movies, plays or photographs by a long shot. Various authors have proposed many more ‘specialised’ plot structures, ranging from 3 to 36 over the years. Christopher Booker, co-founder of the private eye , reasearched this over 30 years, eventually publishing The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories, a (Jungian analysis based) compendium of 7 archetypal structures that most stories ever told follow.
The 7 basic plot structures are :
I’m sure there are more of these interesting structures out there. In fact, my hunch is that, as society evolves, some of these loose their pulling power and others rise to prominence.
What doesn’t change, however, is the underlying principle behind all of those : there’s no free lunch.
Any success, any victory, is a trade, a sacrifice. Sam Gamgee loves nothing more than his home and family in The Shire. But he still leaves to protect his master and friend Frodo. Luke wants to join the academy more than anything else, but follows Ben. He abandons his training with Yoda to save his buddies. He gives up his precious speeder to afford the trip with Ben. Neo gives up a comfortable life for one of suffering in order to access the Truth. Diego fight to the death to redeem himself and regain his honour (Ice Age). Lilly Potter gives up her life to save her son’s. Christ gives up life to save humanity. You can twist and twirl most popular stories any way you want, there’s often a tradeoff at the heart of the important scenes. And, if you think about it, evil characters rarely are willing to do the same. Lord Voldemort’s return to flesh happens through the sacrifice of others, not his. That, in the mind of JK Rowling could well be why he is defeated in the end.
Popular stories seem very karmic in their logic. They proceed in cycles (like life and death in Karma) corresponding to scenes or sequences in stories. And, at every stage, you can trade something material to gain access to something higher (knowledge, freedom, love …) and eventually rise to success (positive arc). Or you can trade something superior to gain something material and eventually go to your destruction, via corruption, disillusionment or fall (negative arc). There is something called the flat arc in which someone already in possession of the truth holds on to it through various hurdles, changing people around them along the way (as in 12 angry men).
At this stage, you’re probably wondering what the heck this has go to do with the photograph of a tree or a cat, right ? 😉
Longform content (books, movies) enjoys the luxury of passing time to narrate the adventures of Huck, Luke and Harry. But what can a few static pixels do? After all, at the very deepest core of ALL stories is our mortality. Go through the 5 whys on any story worthy of the name and human mortality (so, the entropic depletion of the only account we cannot top up in any way) will turn up before the end of the game. But ink on paper or led on screen, what that do?
The answer to this hold in one word :
The fact that thousands (millions?) of stories have been written following the very few plot lines enumerated above show just how generic those are. What makes a story interesting and relatable is its specificity. And, more precisely, the main character’s internal struggle, before the start of events and during them. Luke is rash and doesn’t trust easily. It’s only when he trusts the Force that he blows up the Death Star. Andersen doesn’t believe in himself. Not in his fake programmer life (he can’t follow Morpheus’ instructions to escape the Police), not in the real life (he doesn’t believe he can beat Agent Smith). It is only when he lets go of this falsehood that he becomes what he can be.
Storytelling achieves success or fails on those personal issues, internal lies and struggles with reality. And that’s where photography can catch up with film. By making a photograph deeply personal, you also make it deeply relatable. But we’ll get in to that in part 3!
Well, see you next time 🙂
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