Tag Archives: hollywood

Fact vs Fiction: The Psychology of Storytelling

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There are, according to Harvard psychologist Jerome Bruner, two ways of processing ideas and understanding them, of ordering experience and constructing reality. One is based on logic, verifiable fact or empirical proof. The other is based on how it feels and resonates. Or, as literary critic and philosopher Walter Benjamin put it:

Only the storyteller can transmute information — be it in the form of “objective” fact or “subjective” experience — into wisdom. ~ How the Novel & the News Killed Storytelling

Knowing vs Believing

There’s a fundamental difference between knowing something, and believing it. One is rational, one is emotional. To get personal for a second, it’s a major disconnect that I struggle with when dealing with depression. I know I can put words on paper in a way people enjoy – there’s empirical proof in the feedback from readers, in the fact my short stories are getting published, in the number of Twitterature followers I have. But I don’t always believe it.

I know 2+2 = 4. That’s information which engages my brain but absolutely no emotion. (I’m just not that into maths. If algebra does it for you, who am I to judge?)

I believe sunsets are beautiful. There’s no empirical evidence to support this statement, but watching a good sunset fills me with happiness. The response comes from my heart, not my head.

We live in the Age of Information. There’s more data available than ever before, more stats and numbers and analysis. It’s easy to forget people can use that information to tell stories, to makes us accept things emotionally by presenting them empirically. And belief is much stronger than knowledge.

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History According To Hollywood

There are a number of films which my friends can’t watch. Dr. Nick, naval architect, frowns at U-571; Andrew Knighton, historian, shouts at Braveheart; I, classicist, throw things at Troy. A lot of people have a film, or a book, which enrages them because it’s inaccurate. But for those who aren’t experts in that particular field, it’s their source of information. And because it’s told as a story, engaging them emotionally rather than cerebrally, they believe it.

 

You need people to believe your stories. Emotional engagement is how you keep them reading to the end. But by tapping into their emotions, you’re also teaching them, however inadvertently. If you’ve done your job as a writer, they will walk away believing in your world, in your characters, in their moral struggles and social acceptances.

That means we have a responsibility to know what it is our stories are teaching people, and to ensure it’s something we want to teach. To turn cognitive thoughts into emotional wisdom, via words on the page. So how do we do this?

In contrast to our vast knowledge of how science and logical reasoning proceed, we know precious little in any formal sense about how to make good stories. ~ Jerome Bruner, The Psychology of What Makes a Great Story

Thanks, Jer. Real helpful.

 

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Sing, O Muse, the Wrath of Achilles: Roll Initiative

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This week is the blog’s fourth anniversary so, to celebrate, I’m going to combine two of my favourite things: ancient epics and roleplaying games. This is because the common thread between them is part of what the blog is all about – collaborative storytelling.

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Roleplaying games happen when a bunch of people get together in a room, usually with drinks and snacks, and tell a story together about heroic deeds and terrible monsters. Or sometimes the terrible monsters are the heroes, if you’re playing World of Darkness.

Ancient epics were told when a bunch of people got together in a room, usually with drinks and snacks, to listen to a story about heroic deeds and terrible monsters. Or sometimes the terrible monsters were the heroes, if you’re listening to Beowulf.

You see where I’m going with this, right?

Kill Screen wrote a fantastic article about this and you should totally go and read it. What they didn’t talk about is how this is spreading out into a wider culture, thanks to modern technology.

The nature of a public is not one-way. It is not the provision of material to be consumed. The nature of a public is a two-way, three-way, multiple-way conversation that’s reciprocal, that requires listening as well as speaking. ~ Matthew Stadler

Twitter provides fantastic examples of writers who use the online platform to build a dialogue with their readers, as well as changing the content to better suit the medium. Joanne Harris, for example, tells a story on Twitter at least once a month, via multiple tweets, using the hashtag #Storytime and encourages her followers to give her ideas for the next one.

Back in 2014, Neil Gaiman ran a Twitter-based project called A Calendar of Tales, during which he asked his Twitter followers to suggest a single inspiring sentence for each month of the year, selected twelve to write a short story around, and then asked his followers for illustrative artwork. The results were a beautiful anthology, the collaborative work of an author and his readers. Then there’s places like Wattpad, where writers post chapter by chapter and readers can leave comments or feedback. There’s blogs like Andrew Knighton‘s, where people can comment or even request themes for his Friday flash fiction.

And, of course, there’s a rise in mainstream culture of SF&F stories which brings a whole new audience into the conversation. Stories about heroic deeds and terrible monsters. Or sometimes the terrible monsters are the heroes, if you’re watching Deadpool.

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Fantastical stories are ancient. The Epic of Gilgamesh, with monsters and quests for magic items, is over four thousand years old. Communal story telling existed back when (and because) people couldn’t read or write. When people start to panic about the decline of books in the face of advancing technology, this is the thing to remember. Look how far storytelling hasn’t come. We tell the same types of tales in the same types of ways, and have done for a very very long time. It’s how we’re wired to tell stories. The technology we create will inevitably serve to continue that.

It’s just that, sometimes, there’s also dice.

Who Needs A Hero? The Hero’s Journey & Cultural Imperialism

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I’ve just started reading Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers which takes a practical look at Joseph Campbell’s theories of the heroic monomyth laid out in The Hero With A Thousand Faces. It’s very well written and I can highly recommend it, especially if you find Campbell’s prose a bit heavy or convoluted. What I’ve found most interesting so far, however, is the disclaimer Vogler puts at the beginning.

Cultural Imperialism

I’ve mentioned this briefly before, but we tend to make a huge number of assumptions when discussing story theory. Mostly we don’t even notice we’re making them.

American values and the cultural assumptions of Western society threaten to smother the unique flavors of other cultures.   ~ Christopher Vogler

The dominance of Hollywood means that storytelling techniques risk becoming standardised around the world, because that’s what people learn to want / expect and therefore that’s what sells. Three-Act Structure, the heroic journey, Jungian archetypes, even the technical language that we use to describe storytelling are made and exported worldwide without even considering that they might not work in every single culture.

Because this book is looking exclusively at the heroic journey, Vogler only gives examples that differ from that particular ‘norm’ but they are pretty revealing. Obviously, when talking about whole cultures, major generalisations are going to be made so bear with me on this.

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  • AUSTRALIA: The idea of heroic behaviour has been ‘used to lure generations of young Australian males into fighting Britain’s battles.’ As such, what we would consider to be the traditional heroic figure is viewed with distrust. Australian heroes are portrayed as far more reluctant – way beyond the standard Refusing the Call – and far more unassuming. They don’t seek out the limelight and they get rid of responsibility as quickly as possible.
  • GERMANY: Off the back of the Nazi portrayal of heroism, which used it pretty strongly in the idealism of Aryanism, the traditional hero is viewed as tainted. Dispassionate anti-heroes and unsentimental realism is much safer.
  • EASTERN EUROPE: The idea that one man can change the world is generally viewed with deep cynicism in Eastern European countries, where the prevailing cultural view is that the world is as it is and attempts to change it are doomed to failure. Therefore, a traditional hero is basically a fool who is destined to fail.

The Heroine’s Journey

On the theme of assumptions, the heroic journey can be argued to make some fundamental assumptions on gender bias as well. Vogler talks about the heroic journey being linear, proceeding from one goal to the next, whereas the heroine’s journey is more of a spiral or series of concentric circles:

… the woman making a journey inward towards the center and then expanding out again. The masculine need to go out and overcome obstacles, to achieve, conquer and possess, may be replaced in the woman’s journey by the drives to preserve the family and the species, make a home, grapple with emotions, come to accord, or cultivate beauty.   ~ Christopher Vogler

To be honest, I’m a bit torn on this. The point of the Heroic Journey principle is that it should be flexible enough to account for both, otherwise you’d just end up with the same old stories over and over again. On the other hand, I do think there are fundamental differences in how heroes and heroines operate. This becomes even more pronounced when you look at how the roles of hero vs heroine have developed in stories over time. The journey of, say, Helen of Troy is very different to that of Achilles or Odysseus. It’s only comparatively recently that heroines have been able to play in the same arena as heroes, and that’s going to have left its mark.

What do you think?

Endings: Sacrifice, Twist & Resonance

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I have trouble with endings. Coming up with the climactic finale is fine but ensuring there’s enough of a cool-down period after is an issue for me. Endings are second only to beginnings in their challenge. You need to wrap up all the plots and sub-plots, get the tension spike and aforementioned cool-down at the right pitch, and ensure you finish with ‘resonance’.

It’s the last impression, what psychologists call the recency effect. Your audience will judge your book largely by the feeling they have most recently, namely, the end. Leave a lasting impression and you will build a readership.   ~ Plot & Structure, James Scott Bell

You can basically have either a positive ending or a negative. Positive is when the protagonist achieves their goal and negative… well, yeah. Both are obviously perfectly acceptable, but will leave the book with a very different feel. There are those – including fairly prominent authors like William F Nolan – who think positive endings are better but, with respect to Mr. Nolan, I disagree. In Gone With The Wind Scarlett doesn’t get Ashley; in Robin Hobb’s Royal Assassin, Fitz dies; in Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow, Sandoz is crippled, disgraced and hates God. These are all good books.

There’s also the positive ending with a negative aspect, and vice versa. This is more complex and therefore has the potential to be more powerful – it also has the potential to weaken or confuse things, so treat it carefully. Casablanca has the lead sacrificing his desire for the greater good (the war effort and the morality of marriage) and gaining a friend. He loses – a negative ending – but with a positive aspect that produced one of the most famous ending lines in cinema history. That aspect of sacrifice is a very important one. It’s a climax of the reader’s emotional engagement with the protagonist, really plucking the heartstrings. Scott Bell claims that this is because the theme of sacrifice is wired into our cultural consciousness, giving up selfish priorities for the sake of community. If the finale is a battle/action situation, the protagonist sacrifices his safety; if the finale is a moral quandary or choice (as with Casablanca), the protagonist sacrifices his goal.

The +ve with -ve aspect is NOT what counts as a twist ending. Twist endings are subversions of the plot, with things coming from the side unexpectedly. Scott Bell’s suggestion for coming up with twist endings is as follows:

As you get close to the end of your first draft, come up with ten alternative endings. Take the [best] four and deepen them a little bit. Finally, choose the one that seems to work best as a twist – not an alternative ending at all, but an added surprise. Figure out how to work that into your ending, and then go back into your novel and justify it.

M Night Shyamalan has done a lot of damage to the reputation of twist endings, despite the fact that I still think Unbreakable and The Village are awesome films. Twist endings have a higher than average potential to be weak or to piss off your reader – if you don’t seed the book with signposts that make the twist plausible the reader feels cheated, and if you make those signposts obvious then the twist will be spotted before it happens which makes the ending weak. On the other hand, if you can pull it off, you will definitely create resonance.

The language you use on the final page is crucial to creating resonance. One of the most common and effective methods is to echo an important phrase that’s cropped up earlier. It serves to tie the whole book together and is something that’s already emotionally weighted for the reader. Poetic license is also okay – this is a good place to indulge in a bit of purple prose, winding down the tension and action with beautiful words. The point is to achieve something that lingers in the reader’s mind long after they’ve put the book down, whether it’s a line of dialogue or an image or an emotion. This is what brings them back to your work, what makes them recommend you to others.

It’s easy to rush writing the ending. You’re so close to finishing that you just want to get there. But if you rush, your readers will feel rushed. They won’t get the time to breathe out and relax that’s so important to proper closure. Take your time. Take as much time as you took over the beginning.

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Follow The Cat

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Mixed signals

Mixed signals

I read The Week – it’s about the only newspaper I read cover to cover – and it frequently has little bits of awesome tucked away under the ‘Boring But Important’ or ‘Article of The Week’ columns. Recently, hiding at the bottom of the film reviews, was the following:

‘It’s hard to know whether to sympathise with Llewyn Davis, the hapless title character from the Coen brothers’ latest movie. On the one hand, he seems to be the unluckiest man in history; on the other, he brings a lot of misfortune on himself. Thankfully, the film-makers provide one big clue: they give him a cat. For it is a well-known rule of thumb in Hollywood that if a character has a “save the cat” moment, the audience is bound to like them.

‘The theory stems from a famous screenwriting guide by Blake Snyder. Published in 2005, Save the Cat! has served as an idiot-proof template for writing: you begin the movie with a strong image, outline the story’s theme by page five, and so on. But it’s the animal element – also known as the “pet the dog” trope – that’s key: if you see a character doing something nice to an animal, they’re one of the good guys. Likewise, someone can steal, cheat, maim, kill anything really – but if you see them kick a cat, chances are they won’t make it to the end credits.

‘Once you know about this phenomenon, you’ll notice it everywhere: from Sigourney Weaver saving the spaceship’s cat in Alien, to Clint Eastwood toying with a kitten in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. The cat is out of the bag.’

Is Blake Snyder, and this article, right? Are we as an audience simple enough to base our morality judgement so heavily on the treatment of our pets? I appreciate that how a man treats animals can give an indication of his character, but so can the rest of his actions – murder is pretty telling, for example. Also, why can’t the bad guys like pets too? If they’re decent, fleshed-out bad guys, they think they’re doing the right thing. This highlights the importance of animals – and, I’d suggest, anthropomorphism – to our psyches. It at least raises the question of whether we value them so much that we use them to define the heroes and villains of our stories. That’s pretty powerful stuff.

Film is a very different medium but there are a lot of story-telling techniques that transcend media. Is this one of them? Can anyone suggest books in which animals fulfil this role, or indeed subvert it? Timmy from Enid Blyton’s Famous Five comes to my mind, but I was wondering if there was anything a touch more current out there. Opinions please!

Black & White Character Study

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This week I was introduced to a 1950s film starring Henry Fonda, called 12 Angry Men. It contains no action, no scene changes, no character names and no resolution. It’s simply 90 minutes of character study, and it’s jumped straight into my Top Ten Film list.

As a writing technique, it’s fascinating to see how much story you can make on such lean ingredients. Writing a short story or novella with absolutely no action? That’s a tall order. Can anyone think of an example that works? Obviously there’s some differences between page and screen, as you can show things instantly which would be clunky and time-consuming to tell. No character names wouldn’t work on the page. But nonetheless there’s plenty to be learned and considered from this spartan approach.

Anyway, here’s the film on YouTube in decent resolution. It’s got subtitles but hopefully you won’t mind that. Seriously, take 90 minutes to watch it and see the mastery of character technique. It’s a thing of absolute beauty.

Silent Storytelling

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Storytelling in the media of video isn’t something I do, and obviously the techniques are very different, but we can still learn from it. One of the lessons that I find particularly interesting and useful is minimalism. Writers can’t tell stories without any words – that kind of defeats our purpose – but less can still be more on the page. It’s said Ernest Hemingway was bet he couldn’t write a complete story in 6 words. He is thought to have considered the result some of his finest work.

For sale: baby shoes, never worn.

I personally love the understated and minimalist approach, particularly as a contrast to our increasingly loud/bright/busy culture. Make people use their minds when they’re reading – make them work for the meaning, and they will be far more involved in it. Leave emotional or intellectual rewards buried for those readers who are prepared to spend time thinking about your work.

Here’s a couple of short films which are almost without dialogue, and incredibly powerful. See what you can learn from them.