16 September 2009

Is Story Dead?

1101660408_400April 8, 1966 marked Time magazine's publishing of the provocative cover titled “Is God Dead?” spawning a knee-jerk reaction style of debate that swept through the country like a plague. Rather than apply critical thinking to this incendiary yet thought provoking piece of journalism, the masses reacted with hysterics, encouraged by social conservatives, already unsettled by the threat of change then sweeping through the country.

The title was a simple reimagining of Frederick Nietzsche’s statement, “Gott ist tott”, appearing in a significant number of his philosophical works. From “The Madman”:

“God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?”

Of course, what the ill-informed public did not grok was that Nietzsche did not mean for his statement to be interpreted in a literal sense; what he was expressing was that the “God” of the times – religion – was no longer a source of subjective wisdom.

Today, I would like for you to consider a new reimagining of this phrase. Is Story dead?

Consider the following quotes:

“When storytelling declines, the result is decadence.” ~ Aristotle

‘Deprive children of stories and you leave them unscripted, anxious stutterers in their actions as in their words.’ ~ Alasdair MacIntyre

Each year, over 50,000 scripts are registered at the Writers Guild of America, west. By including those scripts that have not been registered, the number is easily doubled. Each year, Hollywood spends over 1 billion dollars on story development.

Out of those numbers of scripts, less than 500 make it to the screen. Out of that number, less than a dozen are films of any true quality. Out of that dozen, we are told that five of these films (next year, it will be ten) are any good. Out of that five, we select one to represent what we believe is truth and excellence in storytelling. That one choice is often held up to the candle, to debate and discuss ad nauseum until the whole cycle begins again.

Technology has swept through Hollywood, like a raging inferno, incinerating each and every standard in its path. The upside to this is that film has never been less expensive – or more accessible – to produce. The price for this discount ticket is mighty – the devolution of story. Language has been reduced to a series of representational text bytes – “ruok” “wn2ply?” - and the enchanting “ull alw remain n my hart!”

This devaluation of language is then expressed in a devaluation of story, as language is the means by which we express story. The box office dependent story factory churns and regurgitates a series of half-truths, vomited up at the local Cineplex night after night. The public is so desperate for truthful storytelling that they then turn to the faux truth of the reality show – a double lie, as there is as much reality in THE BACHELOR and JON AND KATE as there is in DAYS OF OUR LIVES.

The societal implications of this decline are beyond disturbing. If art is a reflection of society, then, lords and ladies of the court, we are officially fucked. If art is a reflection of society, then we are a society of vapid, vain, entitled, thrill-seeking sociopaths with no need for change, or for transformation, because we’re working the system pretty damn well. If art is a reflection of life, we are, by large, a violent tribe, hell-bent on self-destruction, but not before we mow a few (insert perjorative describing the enemy here) down. If art is a reflection of life, then women are little more than big-breasted, long legged nymphs who can master martial art while giving the best blowjob G.I. Joe ever had. Violence is worshipped; rape is seen as a form of recreational sex, and scantily clad prepubescents assure us that there is nothing coming between them and their Calvins.

The above diatribe in mind, in combination with Nietzsche's musings, forces me to assert that yes, story is dead.

And yet ... while I do not embrace religion, I do believe that all may not be lost, that story can indeed be resurrected.

And so, my dear scribes, I challenge you to be the hero/heroine of Story. Take this challenge as a Call to Action on your journey. Understand the relationship of story to life. Accept responsibility for your writings – ask yourself, “Why am I writing this story? Is it necessary?”- and most importantly, “What is its effect upon society? Does this story need to be told/made?”

Last, but not least, get educated. I recently attended a storytelling seminar, filled with screenwriters, novelists and playwrights. Out of approximately 200 attendees, less than 12 had read Aristotle’s Poetics, and less than that number had more than a passing acquaintance with Homer’s The Odyssey. A few more knew Hamlet - one young woman asked me “Wasn’t that the one with Mel Gibson?”


Imagine a doctor, a surgeon, who decided that the study of medicine “got in their way.” This doctor decides that s/he can read a couple of books, and pretty much just wing it. No need for Latin, no need for anatomy, virology or understanding the development of antiseptic practices. S/he scrubs in and points to a row of surgical instruments:

Give me that thingy over there.

Story is God in our society, for story informs us of the deepest, darkest truths about our culture.

Do you want to be known as the writer who killed God? Will you be soulless bastard who made baby Jesus cry?

I hope not.

~ HRH, The Princess Scribe

WRITING ASSIGNMENT – take out your most trite and trivial tale you’ve ever written – and rewrite it. This time, give it meaning and truth.

SUGGESTED BOOKS – Poetics by Aristotle, The Odyssey by Homer, The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell, Story by Robert McKee and the collected works of Jane Austen and Robert Heinlen.


Deaf Indian Muslim Anarchist! said...

wow... that one lady actually thought Hamlet was a movie with Mel Gibson (yeah, it was terrible).

I agree with you that screenwriters (but this includes playwrights, novelists, poets, and journalists) SHOULD read as many books, plays, poems, and devour as many movies and stage plays as they can. How the hell can they write a good story if they've never explored other stories?

I hate screenwriter hack wannabes who have never read Aristotle or Tennessee Williams, let alone watch a classic 30s film. There are too many of them everywhere.

I am familiar with Poetics-- I have studied a few terms in it, but never read the entire book. I should read the whole thing, though. thanks.

I think the 2000s is one of the worst decades for Hollywood. Remakes, remakes, sequels, prequels, and many more stupid movies based on toys, comic books, action figures, and videogames.

the irony is that these crap-fest movies cost SO MUCH MONEY to make! Yet if they simply choose to produce an original, fresh screenplay (like the Hangover), they can produce it on a modest budget and earn lots of money from it!

What a joke. Story IS dead for this decade.

princess scribe said...

My dear Anarchist friend ~

I'm holding out for the resurrection of Story. I am not going to pronounce Story, not as long as I am scribbling - or you.

I did think of you as I composed my reading list. I was well aware that it is a list of purely Western doctrines and ideals; however, good storytelling does, I believe, cross all cultures.

I would be most pleased to create and publish a much more global list of suggested reads in a future blog (methinks this subject may continue or morph), and I imagine that you will quickly be able point me in the right direction.

I bow to you,

HRH, The Princess Scribe

Michael said...

Well you know how I feel on this...
so bravo on this post.

Footnotes Faulkner said...

I would disagree, but only so far as to say that I think story is alive and well on television. Despite the dominance of "reality" tv, there is an incredibly high level of complex, nuanced storytelling on many, many scripted shows right now. In fact, I would argue that some of the smartest, most engaging television of all time has come out during this past decade.

But as far as film, not so much. The current corporate mindset that pervades the studios requires big, fast profits for their big splashy movies. Which requires clever marketing to hide crappy content due to stories shaped mainly in committee to sell poorly made toys to kids who have already moved on to the "next big thing".

The bright side is that new technologies like Twitter are taking the air out of those efforts - several studios have blamed poor opening weekends this summer on bad virtual word of mouth, causing huge drop-offs between Friday and Saturday. (To quote that great philosopher, Nelson Muntz of "The Simpsons", "HA-hah!!!"

Personally, I think the public is still hungry for good stories in film form. I just think they've forgotten what the experience is like.

Let's remind them.

p.s. A big part of the problem with the current state of big budget movies is that grownups are not going out to theatres to see them - even if they are the target audience. Case in point, "Duplicity" -- a really fun, smart caper flick that came and went without making a ripple (admittedly, I saw it on a plane). Regardless of losses on crappy kid stuff, the corporate mindset will have a hard time making movies for grown-ups until they believe there is an audience for them.

princess scribe said...

Dear Lord Faulkner ~

I will concede that there is elevated storytelling found on television, if one can avoid the onslaught of one dimensional situation comedies, and reality tv. That being said, I do not believe that current television is the most engaging of all time. I do not consider this a platinum nor golden age for television (not yet, anyway); however, I do consider it amongst the finest of sterling silvers. Perhaps it will continue to grow, and to take on a more golden hue. Time will tell.

~ HRH, The Princess Scribe

Footnotes Faulkner said...

Agreed. Let's both banish reality, and reinvent the sitcom...

princess scribe said...

Ah! A call to action! Leave your title of Lord behind, I hereby Knight thee Sir Footnotes. Mount thy trusty steed and slay mediocrity!

(btw - you know how much I love tv. I'm still holding out for Rod Serling to reincarnate and start penning again)

~ HRH, The Princess Scribe

Maureen Brady Johnson said...

Story may be in intensive care but it's not dead, yet.
Story lives in the family celebrations when the kids come home...Story lives in the searing images as a young friend dies...Story is found in the journals of people who wake at 3 am to write in silent witness to a life well lived.
These stories may not be marketable but they live on and on in the telling.

princess scribe said...

Milady Maureen ~

Well said.

And yet ... any story, well told, is vital to humans. Therefore, in a sense, marketable. Write as you do. Write them well. Be a torchbearer.

I Knight you, Lady Maureen, Knight Beachglass. Go forth, mount your steed, and conquer mediocrity, as you always do.

~ HRH, The Princess Scribe

sarah said...

Jane Austen and Robert Heinlein -- that's a mix! But I agree that those are two of my favorite, most consistently capable, storytellers.

I grew up reading anything and everything; I majored in literature in undergrad; and now I'm studying for an MFA in screenwriting. I think I'll turn out some good work as the years roll by and I continue to dig into this craft.

I think the real reason for story's decline among youth is their overall poor education. They're not learning to read very well, so they don't enjoy it. They don't know what a good story is, and so they're willing to accept crap.

princess scribe said...

My dear Lady Sarah ~

Right you are. The current state of education in this country is appalling. Depression era sharecroppers had more knowledge of life and of story than most grad students (no insult intended haha) do today.

Which presents even a stronger argument for self-responsibility. Take charge of your brain. Read. Write. Read. Write some more. And, most important ... live. For through life and its actions, you will find your inspiration, your muses. Through hard work and discipline, you will create process.

I fully expect to read the most engaging, breathtaking, thrilling, emotionally - laden yet truthful screenplay I have ever read in my life soon. It's your job to write it. :) Keep it up. You CAN do it.

~ HRH, The Princess Scribe

Michelle Shyman said...

You are talking about literature here, Princess. Hollywood is more about mindless entertainment to produce revenue and less about literature.

This is tough for screenwriters who want to say something with meaning: we are competing with screenplays with a nominal story (the bones of structure) but without meaning or import or historical value or social value.

princess scribe said...

I respectfully disagree, Lady Sheiman of the Balancing Act.

Writers are the originator of their art. As long as writers take shortcuts and write what they think others want instead of telling truthful, enthralling stories (and yes, I find FORGETTING SARAH MARSHALL to work on those levels), there will be schlock, for films must be made, and if the scripts are not up to par ... one cannot expect the films to do wonders.

Peace and eternal respect ~