Story Rant Part 2: What does all this mean?

Okay. So this is about the fifth or sixth version that I have sat down to write about this subject. By that I don’t mean the fifth or sixth draft, I mean five versions with a few drafts a piece – fun times. Can you say endless digression into a literary black hole?

Book tunnelSo anyway, back on task, I want to talk about what story is and what it can be and do. First let’s talk about what it can be. This is a very broad topic (hence the numerous versions & drafts and the literary black hole) and can become very convoluted. Again, let us go back to school so that we can talk about allegory and metaphor.

According to one of the many Oxford dictionaries, an allegory is “A story, poem, or picture that can be interpreted to reveal a hidden meaning, typically a moral or political one.” The key phrase in this definition is “a hidden meaning,” which means that there is one meaning to glean from the “story, poem, or picture…” While a metaphor is, “a figure of speech in which a word or phrase literally denoting one kind of object or idea is used in place of another to suggest a likeness or analogy between them… figurative language,” according to Merriam-Webster.

To make this easier to understand let’s simplify things. The best way to think of allegory is that something is something else. Let’s say I’m writing a story that centers around two kids who grow up playing on a tree in the woods. They grow up and the tree continues to grow along with them. They grow old and the tree begins to wilt along with them. The tree has become an allegory for the two people’s lives – fairly simple, a one to one ratio. The best way to think of a metaphor, as a literary device, is a little more vague. In the previous example, the tree could be a metaphor of the two people, but the two people could be a metaphor of the tree. The tree could be a metaphor of life, in general, or even the Tree of Life, in particular. These two devices are the sole responsibility of the author. They choose and we are along for the ride. But is there another point of view?

There is a term that is not widely known, but was coined over sixty years ago by a British professor that is gaining popularity – even if no one knows it. The term is “applicability” and it was the literary choice of none other than John Ronald Reuel Tolkien. He stated in the Foreword to the second edition to The Lord of the Rings:

 

“As for any inner meaning or ‘message’, it has in the intention of the author none. It is neither allegorical nor topical… But I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect it’s presence. I much prefer history, true or feigned, with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of the readers.”

 

Interestingly put, I think – however, Tolkien saw in his lifetime what I’m talking about in the very next sentence, “I think that many confuse ‘applicability’ with ‘allegory’; but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author.” Quite existential, wouldn’t you agree.

In many ways, this twentieth century ideal in art is probably the most important for the artist, but not in the philosophical way you might think. I’ll get into this more in Part 3, but not to leave you hanging I’ll talk about it in a practical way.

A few years after The Lord of the Rings was first published, another book was released to the world that plagued the author for the rest of her life, Atlas Shrugged. The author was of course Ayn Rand. Known for her philosophy, Objectivism, as much for her writing, Mrs. Rand wrote books that tried to tell allegorical stories to explain her beliefs. The problem was that the reading public either didn’t get it or didn’t really know what to make of it – and many still don’t even thirty years after her death. She spent her whole life defending this philosophy that she stopped writing to focus her efforts on making sure people understood. You see, Atlas Shrugged is a complicated allegory that needs for the reader to get the “hidden meaning,” while The Lord of the Rings is a story that you draw meaning from.

I think at this point I’m starting to repeat myself so I’ll bring things to a close. In the final rant I’m going to show the applicability of… applicability, (sorry about that) and show you the fun stuff that I promised in the first rant. Until then…

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Story Rant Part 1: Story all around us!

If you have ever had the chance to go to film school, read a book on filmmaking, watched a documentary on filmmaking, or simply picked up a trade like The Hollywood Reporter then you are probably familiar with the phrase “the story is the thing.” The importance of story cannot be understated; though there are some people who would argue that there are some directors who make films that have little or no story; the work of Mike Leigh for example, but having not seen his work I cannot make a comment on it.

I won’t bore you the typical verbiage that will either make you feel like you are in an English/Creative writing class, but I will need to talk about some things that just might take you back. So let us dive in.

Most people don’t realize it but we are all storytellers, every single one of us. Don’t believe me? Think that the only people capable of telling stories are novelists and screenwriters? Every tell a lie? When I was a kid, if I ever told a lie my mother said I was telling a story. Semantics to some but hang with me for a second.

Is a lie any different than a basic Three-Act structure? You have your first “Act” when you start to ease into the lie, your rising action setting up what is about to come. Your second “Act” where you really pile it on leading into what you are lying about, bringing it to the point of no return, where you – the protagonist – have to either do or say something. Leading us to the third “Act” where you complete and justify the lie.

Then you have a “fish story”, the ubiquitous (fairy) tale about something that no one can prove right or wrong. (Having grown up in the south, I’ve heard my fair share of actual fish stories. There is a reason it’s called that.)

Then there are the sports stories on Monday morning. I don’t care where you work, there is always, always, always that one person who is a die hard sports fan. The are such a fan that you honestly think they have a religion and it is their favorite college  and/or pro team(s). They will describe the game over the weekend with such intensity and enough detail that you will think that the both of you were actually in the stadium. You may even be pulled in and be able to see it in your own mind’s eye that the experience becomes real.

I could go on but you get the point; we all have the ability to tell stories. The only thing that separates us is that some are better at telling them than others.

Story, quite simply, has become such a part of our everyday lives that we don’t even notice it. Oh sure we know that a movie tells a story, even documentary films do this. Narrative Television is currently doing the best job of telling stories. AH HA! You might think you have me. What about Reality TV? Sorry but they tell a story too, and just as scripted as any movie that you might see at the theatre or on Netflix. How so? I’ll have to borrow form Jean Luc Godard on this; “A story has a beginning, a middle, and an end, but necessarily in that order.” Most, if not all, reality shows follow a pretty standard formula. They may vary on subject matter – music, dating, playing a game of some kind, strangers living in a house together –  but there is a pattern; you meet the contestant for the first time, you find out who they are, where they’re from, if they have any tragedies in their lives (tougher lives = better ratings) – and so on. This is Act One – the beginning. Act Two is the actual performance that the viewers see live, or the rising tension for non-competitive shows – the middle, quickly followed by the interview afterwards which is Act Three – the end. The next episode has a recap of the returning winner. This is usually abridged version of what they showed last week and, more than likely, where Godard comes into play. The only major difference is that it is a simple story told in such everyday sort of way, with everyday people that we don’t see it.

Pick any show on HGTV and it’s the same thing. You meet the people who are buying the house/getting the renovation/selling their house/etc., and hear the story as to why they are doing what they are doing – Act One. Then you watch as they go through the buying/renovation/selling/etc., for the majority of the show – Act Two. As the credits role you see the results of the labor and worry that happens along their journey – Act Three.

Have I missed anything? Everybody taken care of? Game Shows! Sorry, they are stories too. Take the format for a thirty minute games show. There are at least three commercial breaks which lends to a Three Act Structure. While there are some that do have a few minutes added at the ends of a show, this is really just an epilogue and not really an Act in my opinion. Act One is where the contestants are introduced and the first round is played and we begin to see their abilities and intelligence. Act Two – the rising action, again – is where things get serious is an evenly matched game, i.e., Double Jeopardy. In Wheel of Fortune, Act Two is where everything counts double and more prizes are on the wheel itself. Act Three is where we go to Final Jeopardy, where the game could be won or lost with one answer (though technically they give you the answer and you have to give them the question – semantics again). The only exception that comes to mind is The Price is Right. So if you like this show and it is the only game show you care about, then you finally got me. Though as an industry even the vast majority of game shows follow this format pretty consistently.

So if story is all around us, and we can see it, then why talk about it? What is the real point? That’s what I want to get into in the next two posts. This is mainly just to get you thinking about what story is and where you can find it. Next, I’ll explain what it is and how it can be used to communicate. This is where is gets fun.