I intend to write about my frustration with the word STORY. A term that I find increasingly glib, overused, misunderstood, misconstrued and exhausted as it is subjected to constant and ill-considered sycophantic ass kissing…
Saying such a thing is just about blasphemy in my neck of the woods. Since I make my living writing, making, researching and teaching cinematic Storytelling, putting the sacred word STORY under fire, when it usually rests on a high pedestal of venerated worship, is asking for trouble.
But bravely once more into the breech I go…
From my students to my colleagues, from the emerging and ambitious to the seasoned and experienced, the exploitation of the word STORY by filmmakers and screenwriters seems near universal. You cannot visit a website, go to a conference or participate in a conversation related to filmmaking and screenwriting without being subjected to declarations of Story-Love. By this I mean overt assertions of the primacy of Story irrefutably above all else. (The irony of this, of course, is found when we consider that the screenwriter occupies such a lowly position in the hierarchy well below directors and producers.) None the less, unbridled Story-Love is very real. Recently the Australian Screenwriters Conference (staged by the Australian Writer’s Guild and an absolutely among the best conferences I’ve ever been to BTW) gave rise to a great many Story-Love declarations. Allow me to cite a few of the exceedingly common phrases i heard uttered by such story-telling professionals….
“it all comes down to story”
“story is everything”
“i am first and foremost a StoryTeller”
“Story is king”
And of course my favourite…
“story, story story!”
The problem with such exertions of Story-Love is that they are rarely accompanied by Definition, Clarity or Detail about what STORY actually means? It as if the word has the weight of religious significance - the true name of God - of which to question or seek clarification is taboo and transgressive. Story just IS and MUST be accepted. It is a word used as a preacher might when pressed hard with questions of logic against faith - “because God said so…!” and we smile and nod as if the very presence of the word itself explains everything and prevents any further questions.
But just as Douglas Adams cites the answer to the question of the Meaning of Life as 42 but has no idea what the bloody question is? So to do i believe the word STORY - and the commonality of its fervent sycophantic misuse - to be a term that fundamentally fails writers and filmmakers. The problem with the word and these examples above of its use is that they tell me Nothing and help me Not at all to either understand Why a good story works or How to go about telling a good story? - such phrases premised on the idea of Story are empty and meaningless.
What do those who make such statements as “Story is Everything” actually mean?
Do they mean, so called, ‘Classical Storytelling’ that dominates discourse around Hollywood feature films? Derived from the ‘Classics’? Which ‘Classics’? What is commonly referred to as ‘classical storytelling’ in Hollywood is very far from being classical at all, as it is only really as old as modern Hollywood and is a far cry from either historical classics of literature or theatre.
Do they mean to Aristotle and Aristotelian Story, is that where the idea of Classical comes from? Film scholar Howard Suber has referred to the process of attributing ideas to Aristotle as ‘Aristolatry’ - “the invocation of his name to support something he never actually said”. Suffice to say that Aristotle would recognize very little of his ideas in modern Hollywood film stories.
When they declare ‘Story is Everything’ do they mean specific Three Act Story Structure? Do they mean a particular scaffolding of narrative? If so, what about 4 or 5 act patterns? What about Television series or stage plays? Not to mention the bedtime stories we tell to our children which are certainly stories but rarely have any concept of act structure. Just because they have a beginning, a middle and end doesn’t constitute a 3 Act structure. As Suber expands “your last bowel movement has a beginning middle and an end” , Doesn’t make it a Story. Or at the very least Beginning, Middle End is not in the slightest bit helpful to understanding Story.
Does “Story is King” then derive from Campbell and the Hero’s Journey? Are the 12 stages inextricable and synonymous with Story and cinematic Story-telling? If so what about the myriad of successful narrative films that simply do match or follow the Hero’s Journey? The Hero’s Journey is a very compelling pattern of storytelling - make no mistake - but films like Elephant, Lantana, The Lion in Winter, MASH, Psycho, The Shining, Thin Red Line - just to name a few (and leaving aside long-form episodic series which are almost never a Hero’s Journey), these are all character and narrative based films that are clearly not predicated on the much cited Hero’s Journey. The Monomyth is a powerful and flexible Story pattern but its not by any means the Only pattern and cant holistically encompass the wide sphere of Story.
Is it as simple as Character then? Are Character and Story inextricably linked? Is Character what they mean when they declare the primacy of STORY? If so, then what about the near countless films of all kinds that seem to decidedly evoke Narrative but are clearly not predicated on dramatic Characters - i’m thinking of poetic and documentary films such as the Chris Marker’s Sans Soli, the Eames film Powers of Ten, nature documentary such as Microcosmos or concept exploration films such Baraka and Bodysong. All these clearly have narrative - progression of events, cause and effect, even tangible ‘what’s going to happen next’ dramatic questions to compel the viewer - but they do not have dramatic Character’s as such. So are these narrative experiences outside the bounds of Story and Storytelling? Do they not count?
So - more basically - is the primacy and infallibility of STORY derived from a definition no more complex than a “series of events?” Is causality, progressional cause and effect, the central Sacred Cow implied by STORY? This may be legitimate but it is also so vague and loose as to be not at all helpful to Storytellers seeking to understand their story and effectively tell their story.
So where does this leave us…?
It seems to me that the further we dig on the word STORY the more hollow, empty, vacuous it becomes. A word fueled by inconsistencies and intangible ghosts of meaning. When I hear people use the word Story in such a fashion as to imply that it has innate meaning and significance - an unassailable answer to an unasked question - I cant help but think of it as a Corporate Buzzword in a game of Bullshit Bingo. A word used to glibly avoid real understanding, a way to duck questions and circumvent real exploration of answers. It seems to me that Story is a word used to dumb down the discussion of how to engage, arrest and effect an audience rather than what it should be - an idea-word to help understand and elevate narrative experience.
So….. If STORY is such a problem, what else is there, what’s a better word-idea? Well, if we look hard at the term Story in its simplest terms we see that it is a Noun, a naming word. As any dramatic writer should know, such a word is a passive entity - I cannot STORY somebody… Story is not a Verb (a Doing Word) and therefore it is a word without action, a word that does not describe what the Storyteller Does. One of the common criticisms of inexperienced screenwriters is they too often create Passive rather than Active protagonists - things Happening To the character rather than what the character Has to Do. It seems this same idea afflicts the conversation of Storytellers themselves whereby, when we use the word Story as detailed above in empty rhetoric, we are engaging a Passive rather than Active protagonist in our conversation.
So, to find something better than STORY I turn to words that are active and audience-focused (rather than passive and storyteller focused). If we consider Not what the screenwriter or filmmaker creates (a story) but rather what they want to Do to an audience with that creation, we might arrive at terms far more useful than ‘Story’.
Thus I offer two - ENGAGE and AFFECT.
It’s not rocket science. Storytellers in any medium, in any structure, in any form, invariably aim to do these two things - to ENGAGE and AFFECT their audience. If the viewer is Engaged they are wrapped up, enveloped, immersed in the story and the story world, swallowed up and saturated with it. If they are AFFECTED then they are prompted to feel, to be changed, to be moved intellectually, emotionally, even physically by the story, its characters and/or its events.
These are both words a Storyteller can actively DO, things they can aim to accomplish with their Story - they are, in effect, the reason to tell the story in the first place. Eminent screenwriter Nicholas Meyer once said “a good story is one that, once you’ve heard it, you understand why i wanted to tell it to you” and this simple yet profound statement points exactly to the reason for a Story to exist; the effect it has on people when it engages them. In simple terms, you cannot ‘STORY’ someone…! You can Tell them a story but the Telling is not the point of the Story - the telling is the means to an ends, and that ends (the very point of the story’s existence) is to engage and affect and audience.
To look at this from another angle; you can have all the hero’s journeys, 3act structures, cause and affect, actions and obstacles, tension and stakes and rich characters, in the world but if you don’t engage and affect your audience - if you don’t specifically aim for that outcome with the story - it simply wont work. Hero’s journey, 3 act structure, character, cause and affect, progression, transformation, inversion - these are all means to an ends but they are not the ends unto themselves. These are the mechanics by which you can Engage and Affect your audience. To work from the other way - from an abstract notion of Story first - is to put the proverbial cart before the horse.
So lets rework some of that glib, empty, unthinking Story-Love rhetoric with our new found verb-based terminology.
“it all comes down to Engagement”
“Engagement is everything”
“as a Storyteller I seek first and foremost to Engage and Affect”
“Engagement is king”
“Engage, Affect, Entertain”
What we invariably do the moment we swap the passive word Story for the active words Engage and Affect is we trade a useless word for decidedly useful ones. We swap out a word that is neither informative nor insightful in exchange for words that are specific and deliberate. Most importantly, Engage and Affect do not stop a conversation or pretend to be answer, they are a Target to aim for, they are the result of the story well told and thus they keep open the conversation about How to Engage and Affect - the mechanics and chemistry of narrative that will get us to that end goal.