Saturday, April 21, 2012

S is for Storytelling

I have a love affair with Netflix On-demand.  With my trusty steed Apple TV, I ride through the wilds of cancelled TV shows and movies I love to watch again and again (speaking of which, they added The Cutting Edge recently--insert SQUEE here).  It's also given me the opportunity to watch a lot of Independent Films I wouldn't normally know exist, much less get a chance to see.

Sometimes, I luck out.  I've seen some gems.  But other times...yeah, I think the reason some of these movies are independent is that no one in Hollywood wanted to make them.  Now, I'm fully aware that I may be lacking whatever gene it is that allows film students and literary critics to find artistic integrity in things that seem just plain boring to me.  So, if you're a film snob and you've come here to tell me I don't know what I'm talking about, save your breath.  I'm already fully aware that I don't know what I'm talking about when it comes to film.  My tastes are very mainstream, and I'm totally okay with that.

What I do have half a clue about, though, is storytelling.  And it's important, damn it!

Storytelling is one of the oldest forms of human civilization.  Before we had writing, we had oral traditions, passed down through generations.  Every culture on the planet has stories.  About its origins, its important, about love, and heroism, and what happens when we leave this place.  Stories help us make sense of a very strange world.

And all around the world, through all time periods, humans have been drawn to the same basic shape of storytelling.  It speaks to us on a primal level, and when a story doesn't meet our expectations, it's disappointing.

I'm certainly not the first person to say this.  There have been dozens of books dedicated to it, from all disciplines.  Here's a few of the best-known:

I think there is a lot of value in reading a good book about story structure, or taking a class.  RWA offers on-line courses frequently through some of its subchapters, like YARWA (where we say it like pirate!).  As a still-recovering pantser, I know how easy it is to get caught up in character and trying to come up with some kind of hook, or some twist on the traditional to make your story stand out.  And those things are great, but here's the thing:  If you fail to meet the audience's innate expectations about what a story is, they're going to be disappointed, no matter how great your concept is, how original your hook, or how lovable your characters.

Which brings me back to independent films.  I watched one earlier this week--which I'm not going to name, because I have a (fairly) strict no trashing policy 'round these here parts--that left me SO FRUSTRATED.  It was an interesting idea, and decently acted, but in the end, I felt like the protagonist had gone no where.  Worse yet, I had no clue what might happen next.  Maybe it was supposed to be irony (in the Albert Camus sense), but I don't think so.  I think it was just good old-fashioned BAD STORYTELLING.  The writer didn't give me any structure to the story.  There was no journey (metaphorical or otherwise).  Things just went from kind of crappy to ambiguously unpleasant.  Loose ends dangled all over the screen.  I didn't care about anyone in the story.


You don't have to make any of these books your Bible, but I promise you, if you learn a little something about storytelling, you'll start to see where the holes are in your own story, and maybe, if you're lucky, even figure out how to plug those holes.


nutschell said...

I do love Netflix On-demand. There are a lot of bad indies for sure--so when I do find a good one, it turns into an instant favorite:)
Happy A-Zing!

Heather Whitley said...

A college professor of mine was obsessed with Campbell's monomyth, and I've been hooked on the idea of story arc ever since. It is primal, and we do want to see a journey hit those basic points to feel satisfied. Nothing worse than finishing a story and feeling that overwhelming urge to rewrite it so it fills all the holes.

And Save the Cat is amazing. Every storyteller should read it.