I’ve been guest blogging a little, sharing my word snobbery opinions on other platforms. This time I’m giving ‘literally’ a piece of my mind on the UniBlogspot website.
A former employer of Pixar has recently listed her top tips on storytelling – and another website has compiled it all for our convenience. You might have come across this list already but if not, do take a look. Some points appear obvious, but you know why? Because storytelling really isn’t difficult – if you know how to do it.
It made me think for sure, and especially now as I’m working on both a novel and a 12-minute screenplay.
Read and digest: HERE
It’s very simple: watch films (edit: of course you can also read the screenplay – a wonderful experience!)
If you are, like me, a firm believer in the three-act-structure of storytelling, watching films seems to me to be an excellent way to explore and observe the way in which narratives take shape.
Allow me make a side note. While I do defend and assert that the three-act-structure is the most efficient and most lucid way to construct a narrative, I do not claim that it is the only way. Please note the difference. Also, I do think that this structure in itself is flexible and allows for artistic freedom to a large extent. That being said, let’s continue.
Screenplays often follow Aristotle’s early ideas of story structure and you will find that even convoluted films and abstract stories and what not have, underneath, this concept as foundation. Like I said, there is flexibility. Why is that? Well, I think the explanation is dual: for one it is a logical formation of events, is it now? If art is a representation of reality, that would make sense. And secondly, seeing as this structure has been used in drama since Aristotle’s time (more or less) it has built up an innate expectation in viewers. We anticipate the inciting incident, the high point, the low point and the final battle, whether we call them by that name or not. That which we call a rose…
As for fiction writing, I think the most rewarding stories will comply to this structure too. And by watching films where we visually receive such ideas we can learn to identify how to construct it in the best way. Personally, I prefer animated films. Cartoons, if you like. Recently I posted my views on Disney’s Brave and how its story structure fails – precisely because it breaks (and not in a good way) the three-act-structure by befuddling focus and so on. As a perfect opposite example to Brave, I’d like to suggest How to Train Your Dragon (2010). Look at it from a high vantage point: it is a similar story to Brave. WARNING: Spoilers! The child who does not comply with expectations from the family finds a way to understand something the others don’t and through a final battle with a monster achieves enlightenment and an improved relationship with his/her parent. While Brave strays and goes into areas not relevant to the central problem, the story of Dragon is tighter, more focused and more convincing. Ultimately, the structure is better.
Act 1: Hiccup is the son of a strong Viking but is a disappointment to his father with his feeble physique; all he desires is to kill a dragon so he can prove his worth.
Inciting incident: he manages to catch the noblest dragon of all which nobody has even seen – if he kills it he would become a hero! But he can’t.
Act 2: While being sent to Dragon Training to learn how to kill a dragon, Hiccup befriends the dragon he caught – called Toothless – and learns to fly on his back. High point: Toothless becomes his friend, the pretty girl likes him, and he is top of the rank in Dragon Training.The final exam comes up where he is supposed to kill a dragon but he attempts to show his people that they are not as bad as they think. Low point: his father kidnaps Toothless and uses him to find the dragons’ nest, leaving Hiccup behind.
Act 3: The Vikings fight the leader of the dragons and are about to lose when Hiccup shows up to save the day.
With this kind of structure the catharsis at the end becomes so much stronger and I will admit there were tears at the end of How to Train Your Dragon. I have now made it a habit to watch films regularly (animated and live action) and for each one of them note down the above points, so that I can then implement it into my own writing. It has had me reconsider my own story and model it a little more towards this structure.
Always remember though that art is a living thing – it is organic and alive and should be unpredictable. Not all stories end happily; not all stories end at all! It is not a template, or even a model, but a rough guideline which your readers will subconsciously hold on to as well. Challenge it, subvert it and use it to your advantage in whatever way you please! I think it’s worth being aware of, however, and personally I believe in its power to move. But that’s just me and my creative mentality.
Roland Barthes’s structural work was translated and published in 1977, but I maintain that this iconic book is essential for writers of any age – including in 2013. If you have yet to pick up a copy of ‘Image, Music, Text’ I recommend you to now take a pause in reading this post and hit whatever online book shop you prefer most. Or, if you’re of that conviction, you continue reading and go out first thing tomorrow morning to a physical shop. See bottom for online links.
In ‘Image, Music, Text’ (original in French) Barthes provides lucid and cogent expositions on topics such as the “Rhetoric of the Image” and an “Introduction to the Structural Analysis of Narratives” among others. He works, as the title suggests, through the three media of communication and addresses issues relevant to any narrative, whatever form it may take.
In his structural analysis, the very atoms of narrative are broken down into their microparts: catalysts, nuclei, cardinal functions, informants and indices for example. For each part, Barthes spends some time explaining its appearance, its function, and its place in the sentence and narrative overall. Whoever claims that storytelling isn’t a craft must reconsider after reading this book.
For it is precisely the craft of storytelling Barthes emphasises here. Of characters, for example, he writes: “as units of the actional level, find their meaning (their intelligibility) only if integrated in the third level of description, here called the level of Narration.” He breaks down characterisation into basic parts of action and derivation and suggests a tripartite division of all character types, or as he calls it, “a paradigmatic structure”: Subject/Object, Donor/Receiver, Helper/Opponent. Furthermore, Barthes stresses that the type of character is defined depending on its interaction in the action: desire, communication, and struggle.
Later he touches on the function of time and distinguises between real time and fictional time, suggesting that a narrative follows a sort of internal logic in terms on temporal movement. What we would denote ‘time’ in real life, simply does not exist.
Towards the end of the book he provides a “Lesson on Writing” through a parallel with Bunraku, Japanese doll theatre. Japanese theatre is self-conscious about its audience and an explicit performance. Forget Stanislavski and method acting: the puppeteers are visible although disguised in black. Barthes gives here an interesting and compelling discourse on the act of storytelling.
Sources for ‘Image, Music, Text’:
I recommend buying it so you can make notes and highlight significant passages. The book has now become my new bible in terms of fiction writing and as I move towards editing in my final year fiction project, I will re-read and absorb every word Roland Barthes has to say.
As I’ve written her before, a writer can learn from his/her favourite works. Just so, s/he may also catch on to warning bells in tales of less distinct preference, or even personal dislike. Whatever it is in the story can indicate to something you want to avoid in your own writing.
There are many reasons why one might not like a novel, film, play etc. It could be a character, the setting, an uninteresting plot, and many more. Yesterday I watched Disney Pixar’s Brave. Usually I will be over the moon about anything Disney produces, but I must admit I have mixed feelings about this one.
On the one hand, Brave is a wonderful film: beautifully animated, with a great setting in early medieval Scotland and the Scottish accents definitely add positively to the overall feel of the film. As soon as it kicks off, you get a sense of the atmosphere. The characters are perhaps not the deepest, most developed that we see in Disney’s history, but work on a superficial level.
However, there are some fatal flaws which become the film’s downfall.
There are always choices involved in writing – in fact, one might say writing IS making choices. Of course, no piece of fiction is perfect and without loop holes. They are, after all, written by humans. In Brave, there are several flaws in the plot’s logic.
When Merrida is trapped inside the tower, she does not try to mend the tapestry – the one action she knows will liberate her mother – but instead tries to force the locked door to pursue the hunters. Emotional turmoil aside, she is presented as a street-smart girl and this action simply does not seem in line with her character.
Secondly, when she finally reaches the Stonehengey area and the big bear is killed, and folds her mother, still in bear shape, in the mended tapestry, the clan warriors stand watching, passive. Only in the previous scene they used torches and swords and spears in an attempt to kill this bear, but suddenly they seem aware of the truth – without anybody telling it. There seems to be a scene lacking, or a statement at least, which would inform them of the situation. Now, I imagine children’s fiction can allow for such discrepancies and sudden revelations, but it does not seem to ring true to the story overall.
I also miss a background to the witch’s practice, at least a hint of why she would give a bear spell to the girl, who obviously did not mean to transform her mother into an animal. It seems to me the film begins too early, that the story is not about the marriage per se, but about the spell, and the ancient legacy of the witch and the clans.
Brave is scattered, and refuses to choose one focal point. There seems to be two stories going on, and neither is dominating. Both become part of the tapestry of the film, and fail to impress.
We begin the film before the betrothal is revealed, and end long after it is off. That choice suggests that the film is not, in fact, about the undesired engagement, but about something else. Of course it is.
It is a film about pride and concession; about family bonds and selfishness. Therefore, it would be a more efficient strategy to zoom in on the legacy, instead of using it as a preamble to the story of the clan. The most interesting scene in the film is towards the end where Merrida and her mother bear enter the castle on the cliff, and the truth about the big bear is revealed. But, as previously said, this story line is never explored further
Too many questions remain unanswered at the end. For example: why does Merrida ‘train’ her mother to be a real bear, fishing etc? Surely she expects her to transform back! What happens with the crown? This item seems like a strong motif in identifying royalty and human reign, and it simply drifts off into nothingness in the second half of the film. Finally, how do her brothers return to humanity?
Brave was friskily advertised before its premiere, and then faded into the list of cinematic feature films without further notice. Maybe the above contributed to the lack of global success of Brave as has been seen before in films like Toy Story, The Incredibles, and Wall-E among others.
So, returning back to the initial statement: in examining my personal response to this film, I pick out the key points and, turning to my own writing, will keep them as sign posts in ensuring that I do not fall into the same traps.
One must learn from mistakes, and an efficient way of doing so is to learn both from your own, as well as others’.