#1091. Film or Photography? Which is best for storytelling? (2/3)

By pascaljappy | Art & Creativity

Feb 16

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 :

  • Stories are lies, myths, distortions of reality and truth, fairytales you read to go to sleep.
  • Storytelling is an instinctual soft skill that happens by sheer chance to lucky bleeders such as JK Rowling and JRR Tolkien.

Both, of course, are utter tosh. And to counter those prejudiced ideas, let’s examine two ideas :

  • What is the structure of a story? This will show how scientific and based on fact stories are, even the fantasy blockbusters such as Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter.
  • How this skill can be learned, practised and honed to a point where GCSEs or dans (or whatever grading system) could be attributed to storytellers. “Have you met Ted? Ted is blue belt in storytelling”.

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.


Story structure

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 :

  • Overcoming the monster: the hero opposes a powerful external source of evil. Star Wars, eg.
  • The Quest: A distant goal sets the hero in motion and along the way, resources and allies come to help overcome obstacles and external antagonist forces. Lord of the Rings.
  • Voyage and Return: an unplanned journey dips the hero into a very different world before taking him/her back home deeply transformed and knowledgeable about the world. Back to the future, The Hobbit. This is also what Transformative Tourism promises!
  • Rags to riches: After rising from nowhere to great status, the protagonist sees the new thrills of life removed very brutally and has to face evil opposition to reclaim success. Cinderella.
  • Comedy (in the historical sense) : Misunderstanding and misdirection plunge characters into confusion which can only be resolved when each character has cleared their misunderstanding about the situation. When Harry met Sally.
  • Tragedy: Misbehaviour by the protagonist triggers a chain of events that causes his/her downfall. Shakespear has a few of those.
  • Rebirth: A dark spell or event can only be lifted through the use of good forces, usually through the help of other characters. Beauty and the beast.

There’s no free lunch

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 ? πŸ˜‰

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 πŸ™‚


​Never miss a post

​Like what you are reading? Subscribe below and receive all posts in your inbox as they are published. Join the conversation with thousands of other creative photographers.

  • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    While 7 “formulae” for “writing a successful story” might very well fill the book shelves with tonnes of “potboilers”, they would seem to me to have about the same impact to “taking a successful photograph” as things like “the rule of thirds”. No more than “a useful starting point”.

    While “imitation might very well be the sincerest form of flattery”, I think it takes a little bit more than the “herd instinct” to be truly creative.

    I’ll add a test for your list – who do you regard as the most creative photographer contributing to the pages of DS? Which name immediately pops into your head, when you confront that question?

    • pascaljappy says:

      Difficult question, Jean Pierre. As you probably want to point out, there are multiple flavours of creativity. And John, Lani, Zelma, Jean-Claude, Philippe, Paul, Ian, Lad, Nancee, and many others, including myself and yourself, judging from the photographs you send me, have their streaks of creativity.

      The 7 types of stories are an interesting concept. Booker tried to synthesize all the books and stories he (and others) knew into common format and came up with those. His works indicates that when people write stories that move readers, they tend to be in one of those forms. But the shape of the story doesn’t really interest me. As you say, it doesn’t guarantee a good story. What I’m more interested in is the interaction between external events and internal worldview. All of those story formats emphasize this in their own way, which is what makes them interesting.

      Equally interesting is how on Earth, I am going to be able to tie this to photography in episode 3 πŸ˜‰ πŸ˜‰ Noooo idea!


  • Lad says:


    As you know I’m not a narrative thinker–I think rather in terms of concepts and their structures–and so I have nothing useful to say about stories, whether in general (one master story [as Joseph Campbell thought], seven or many) or in particular (many are interesting to me, many not). But I think the force of a good story depends also upon how it is told. Is the prose enticing, the cinematography stunning, the photography…what? I’ll be interested in your third post, at least as much as you!

    But let me just say that I found your images in this post quite compelling. A light snow refreshes everything, and you’ve mastered the light and composition. Excellent! I especially like the subject of the red barn, and think it deserves an even lengthier treatment, from various angles and up close as well as nestled in the woods. Am I right in thinking that all these images were taken on a single outing, hence in the barn’s vicinity?


    • pascaljappy says:

      Thank you for the kind words Lad,

      as always a very astute and interesting comment πŸ™‚ Yes, those photographs are from a same outing, when we were lucky to get a dusting of snow a couple of weeks ago.
      I am including more information about the barn photograph in a coming post about image stitching.

      Of course, you are correct, and the way stories are told is an essential ingredient in their success. Given a script (following one well traveled path to theoretical success) a movie made by Kurosawa and one made by the local youtuber won’t have the same impact. But story structure has its importance. I am stunned by the creative abilities of a huge number of young filmmakers. Their images are incredible, the flow of the editing is brilliant. But their films are very boring. The video abilities are very often wasted on a vacuous plot and that makes it hard to follow for more than a few minutes.

      At the end of the day, the two complement one another. What I find fascinating about story is that it is immemorial and shared by all cultures for as long as we can look back. Few concepts can claim the same universality and shared value πŸ™‚

      All the best, Pascal

  • Cliff Whittaker says:

    I probably shouldn’t comment at all since I don’t feel like I don’t fully understand what you are trying to do here. I don’t relate to your examples at all. I have never read or watched on TV any of the Harry Potter or Tolkien series. I’ve never even watched Gone with the Wind. But I do enjoy good stories of many types with a well developed plot and a well developed cast of characters whether they happen to be in book or movie form. My wife and I read several books a month, mostly novels, and then box them up and ship them to individuals or extended care medical facilities to be enjoyed again.
    I’m an old fart who grew up in a time when photojournalism was a real career with practitioners who could tell a story with one picture. Mostly they had to do it with one shot. It wasn’t easy reloading and changing flash bulbs on an old 4×5 press camera. I grew up with real newspapers, radio and “Life” and “Look” magazines.
    I still remember seeing a gritty picture (b&w of course) of a Chinese baby sitting alone in a railroad track crying his eyes out with all the destruction of bombed out surroundings in the background. That was from WWII. I saw it when I was a child in the late ’40s and I still remember it.
    More currently, I remember the horror and pain on the face of the little Vietnamese girl with burned skin and no clothes running with other children from a village that was being napalmed. And, I remember in detail the picture of the Vietnamese general using a snub nose S&W Bodyguard .38 Special to execute a VC prisoner. The shutter clicked at the exact instant the bullet struck the head of the VC and I remember the twisted features of his face.
    These are examples of pictures that I will never forget. They told real stories of real life and real death.
    I still read an actual physical newspaper in the morning with my gruel and coffee, but it is nothing like newspapers used to be. Warmed over pablum of politics repeated from TV news releases.
    As for photojournalism, it died a quiet death several years ago along with the birth of the cell phone….. and I miss it.

    • pascaljappy says:

      Hi Cliff, what you are describing are images with an extremely powerful subject. All of those are listed in Time magazine’s 100 most influencial images. When you are photographing a monk who set fire to himself, being there is 99% of the work. The subject is 99% of the photograph. It’s the same with burning towers hit by planes, D day soldiers in water, … The subject makes the photograph. I’m not saying there is no photographic talent in those, but these are all dominated by a very powerful subject. You don’t have to be a Pulizer winner to attract attention when you are describing a Pandemic that kills millions, a market crash, a human landing on Mars, a burning cathedral, a child falling from a fire escape …

      What I’m trying to do explain how you can create meaningful photographs anf films from ordinary topics. To me, that is far more important than hinging exclusively on catastrophe. It is also very difficult. Thankfully, few of us witness a general shooting an enemy in the head without trial. But we all witness small events that are probably far less spectacular than acts of barbarism but also far more meaningful, positive and relatable. Those are both more important to me and more complex to communicate properly. This is what this is about πŸ™‚

      • Cliff Whittaker says:

        I think you are right about both parts, Pascal: more important AND more complex to communicate properly. Maybe that’s what I’m trying to do with my photography and don’t realize it. I turned down my army promotion to captain in 1969. As an infantry officer I had seen and delivered more death and destruction than I ever wanted to think of again. I got out. Since that time I think I have devoted my efforts mostly toward seeing and recording the beauty of things. Now I’m going to give more thought to trying to create a story with a few of my pictures.
        BTW, one of my images was awarded a first place and one an honorable mention in the nature category in the downtownartistscoop.com annual open juried photo expo this month.

        • pascaljappy says:

          Congratulations, Cliff !!! πŸ™‚ πŸ™‚ I just found your beauitful Solitary Sandpiper (and am linking to it for others to see πŸ™‚ )

          That’s a very interesting background, you describe. And probably a hard life at the time. I’m glad you were able to turn the page and move on to a different chapter. Congratulations. It’s always difficult to give up something we are successful at.

  • Mer says:

    Hi Pascal

    Of the images you’ve provided, the second one has the most story potential for me. A path through the woods, made indistinct by a dusting of snow. Twisting branches. It alludes to fairy tale, fantasy and horror, those stories where folk venture into the forest and then it all goes a bit sideways for them.

    I guess that’s one way of telling a story, by giving just enough that the viewer fills the gaps and creates their own tale. The images with the red shed don’t work as well for me. The shed and bench ground the scene in a way that doesn’t prompt my mind to wander – mystery solved or something like that.

    There is one problem. Knowing that you’re writing about storytelling, I’m primed to view images with that in mind. Would I have noted the second image in a purely descriptive manner if I viewed it cold? I honestly don’t know and it’s a tricky one – as soon as you announce your subject, the reader is gifted a bias that might not otherwise be there.


    • pascaljappy says:

      Hi Mer, that’s exactly it !! Giving enough clues to get people interested but keeping enough hidden for the viewer to have to work for the truth, and fill the gaps πŸ™‚
      And, yes, context is important. In a movie theater, we are more receptive than at home with our phone next to us. And yes, a post about storytelling might influence our perception. I hope to clarify all that in the final post. Not sure how πŸ˜‰ πŸ˜‰

      Cheers, Pascal

  • >