Showing posts with label story. Show all posts
Showing posts with label story. Show all posts

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.

24 August 2009

The Importance of Being Structured

Princess Scribe arose this morning to her usual routine – a glorious sunrise, bunnies fetching her slippers, little birdies draping a bathrobe round HRH’s shoulders, and a long-lashed doe presenting her with her ritual cup of green tea. All was right in the world, as Princess sat down to review the morning’s offerings before taking on DISTRICT 9 as a new blog subject.

However, the world is an uncertain place, and Princess found herself, mouth open in dismay, reading the following blog, “Be a StoryWeaver - NOT a Story Mechanic!”

An entire blog devoted to the argument that too much importance is placed upon structure.

While Princess is not inclined to argue with the theories of others, she found herself unable to not address the points raised and suggestions given in this most offending blog. (HRH must concede that the above mentioned blogger has since re-blogged on the subject, and in a mind boggling act of wordsmith acrobatics has simultaneously retracted - and defended - her original post. Oy vey, Maria). Princess also objects to the term "Mechanic" used in a derogatory sense, as HRH's step-princelet is himself a mechanic - with an advanced degree in engineering from a prestigious public university, partially funded by the Carnegie Foundation. Anyone who thinks that mechanics are slackers and hackers has a sadly limited understanding of quantum physics, string theory and mechanical engineering. HRH also has little use for marginalization. She appreciates it about as much as the residents of District 9 appreciate being called prawns.

Imagine her dismay at this sentence: “First, clear your mind of any thoughts about characters, plot, theme, and genre. Avoid any consideration of character arc, hero's journey, acts, scenes, sequences, beats, messages, premises, settings, atmosphere, and formulas. In short - don't give structure a second thought.”

Prior to this ill-given advice, this statement reared its ugly head: “We have all seen movies and read novels that feel like "paint by numbers" creations. Sure, they hit all the marks and cover all the expected relationships, but they seem stilted, uninspired, contrived, and lifeless. The authors of such pedestrian fare are Story Mechanics. A Story Mechanic is a writer who constructs a story as if it were a machine. Starting with a blueprint, the writer gathers the necessary dramatic components, assembles the gears and pulleys, tightens all the structural nuts and bolts, and then tries to make the story interesting with a fancy paint job.”

No, that’s not a Story Mechanic, milady. That’s a lazy writer.

Structure is a necessity. HRH repeats, structure is a necessity.

A story is like an architectural building, with the structure being the foundation, the supporting walls and the beams. The dialogue, characters and action – these are the elements where the artistry come to play – adding layers of color, hand crafting the finishing touches. Without solid structure, these elements are simply creating a façade, and one that could be toppled by the flapping wings of an Amazonian butterfly.

Writing is a craft; it is also an art. Let us look to other artists, those who broke the mold, and how classic structure played into their works:

• Miles Davis studied classical European music at Julliard. Although he did not complete the program, he often said that that training contributed to the theoretical background, which he would rely greatly upon in later years. Before breaking the wall of musical structure with jazz (a highly structured form), he knew he must master the principles of notes.

• Mark Rothko studied the German and Russian expressionists; Picasso spent years perfecting the colorings and shadings of the Old Masters, before shattering traditional structure with his cubist forms.

• Isadora Duncan studied classical ballet before becoming the muse of modern dance.

• Strasberg, Bobby Lewis, Sandy Meisner, Stella Adler … all studied the works of Konstantin Stanislavsky before branching off and creating their own systems of principles as applied to the craft of acting.

To state that structure is over-rated or of secondary or little importance is not just naïve, it is reckless, and terrible advice. Structure is not an impediment to the writing process – structure is the foundation of your story. Even better – structure is liberating. Good, solid structure frees you to focus on character, on dialogue, on writing pointed, breathless lines of action. Structure sets you free, free to breathe life into the world that you have created, and the characters that people it. Free to write with great emotional resonance, to write stories with social impact, with words flowing like the vibrato-laden notes of the Lady Tennant Stradivarius.

Of course, it can feel mechanical when you are a structural newbie. Not unlike the rote learning of notes on a piano, or the painstaking repetition exercises“I’m tired.” “You’re tired?” “I’m tired.” “You’re tired?” – of the actor-in-training, mastering structure takes time and work.

What every good scribe realizes, is that there is the Aha! moment in the practice of their craft in which structure becomes organic. Princess now writes stories, much to her delight, in which each beat drops down in perfect, classic placement without her even realizing it. Catalyst/Inciting Incident – pg 12 – 15. Break into Two? Pg 25. Midpoint? Oh, look, the sequence begins on 55. And so on and so on and so on.

She also finishes them. Completion is an added benefit of structure.

All it takes is practice - a great deal of it.

A secondary note – solid structure weathers the stresses of development hell. A story with a solid foundation can be an impenetrable fortress, the walls of which even the likes of Larry Levy cannot tumble down.

~ The Princess Scribe

TODAY’S ASSIGNMENT – Run, do not walk, far from anyone who suggests that structure is of little importance. Recommended readOutliers, by Malcom Gladwell; Save the Cat! and Save the Cat! Goes to the Movies by Blake Snyder. Make your 10,000 hours happen. Build your foundation. Build it well.