Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Observing Drama in its Natural Habitat -- A Raccoon Adventure

All our knowledge has its origins in our perceptions. --Leonardo da Vinci

Leonardo da Vinci was 500 years ahead of his time. Think about that for a second. Five hundred years. He invented the diving suit, the armored tank, the helicopter, the parachute, the hang glider and even scissors, to name just a few accomplishments.

I once watched a documentary about Leonardo that quoted him as saying that all of his ideas came from nature, which reminded me that Aristotle famously said that drama was an imitation of life.

These two titans of thought are worth listening to--we need to be looking at nature because nature has all of the secrets.

Everything one wants to learn about telling stories can be observed by studying them in nature. I call this observing stories in their natural habitat. Life is the natural habitat of stories. We forget this all the time. We are surrounded by stories, and the elements that make them up, daily. All of the principles and rules are there to be seen by anyone willing to look.

The master of suspense in film, Alfred Hitchcock, said that he learned about suspense when he was a boy in school in England. At his school, when you got in trouble you would have to go see the headmaster of the school--who had a paddle for such occasions. At that meeting, the severity of the crime was discussed and it was determined just how many swats were to be given as punishment. But they were not given to the child at that time. No. The number was written in a book next to the child’s name. The child would then have to return at the end of the day for his punishment.

Hitchcock said that all one could think about for the rest of the day was those oncoming swats. He said that’s where he learned about suspense.

He always said that one doesn’t create suspense by keeping information from an audience, but by giving them information.

This wasn’t something he learned in a book. He observed it in nature. In life. And he used that lesson to build a long career of turning out film classics.

The basic elements one needs to create compelling dramatic (or comedic) conflict are these: Someone wants something desperately and there is an obstacle to that goal.  

This is not a rule made up by someone--this is what is compelling to us in life. It is life at its most basic. Life is a series of obstacles that we must overcome in order to survive.

For example, last summer my girlfriend and I went to the zoo. While there we found ourselves at the bald eagle enclosure. It was outside, very high, with a net overhead and all around to keep the birds in.

There is something compelling about seeing a bald eagle in real life--they are near-mythic creatures. They had everyone’s attention as they sat high overhead on top of a pole, looking powerful and majestic. 

That is, until we all noticed that a wild raccoon had pried an opening at the bottom of the fence and made his way into the enclosure. There was a small babbling stream running through the eagle habitat and, on the ground, suspended over this stream was a log. Underneath this log were suspended several fish. They had been hung there by the keepers for the eagle’s supper. But the raccoon had other plans. Here right in front of us was an unfolding drama. Drama in its natural habitat. The crowd was mesmerized. All eyes were riveted.

The raccoon made his way to the log. It was clear he wanted the fish. The first element of dramatic conflict: Someone wants something desperately.

It was also clear that this raccoon didn’t want to get wet. So he would reach for the fish, almost fall into the stream, catch himself, rethink his strategy and try another angle. With each slip the crowd laughed and gasped. The second element of drama--not wanting to get wet--was the obstacle to the goal of getting food.

And another obstacle was also present: eagles overheard. Would they swoop down to protect their food?

This was bona fide dramatic conflict and the crowd knew it. People held their collective breath as this drama unfolded. Will this raccoon succeed in getting his meal, we wondered. We were on pins and needles each time the raccoon reached for his prize. He would stretch out his little hand and arm as far as he could, almost touch the fish and slip. Each time almost falling into the stream. We gasped each time. Then all eyes would move to the eagles to see what they were going to do. They remained still. They hadn’t noticed the little thief.

And true to the “rules” of drama the raccoon had become the main character--the protagonist--while the eagles had become the antagonists. Why? Because we all identified with the “person” with the strong goal. We all wanted to know if he would succeed.

Eventually the raccoon found an angle on the problem that allowed him to succeed. He grabbed a fish, but not without almost falling into the water, and sneaked back under the fence with his well-deserved meal without being detected by the eagles.

Everyone, kids and adults alike, cheered at his victory like he was Luke Skywalker blowing up the Deathstar. This was a drama as old as life itself and still it entertained. It was, in fact, riveting. Not one person turned away from this scene. No one cared that this was an old story--maybe the oldest. In fact, its strength came from being so primal--the struggles to get food, the struggle to live another day. This is at the core of drama, at its nucleus.

I have often been accused of being too rigid with my “rules” for drama. But they aren’t my rules; they’re nature’s. It is when we start to separate these rules from the way life actually works that we run into trouble. It is when we break these rules that we risk losing our audience.

I’m guessing that few the people at the zoo that day were students of drama, but they all knew it when they saw it. Ironically, this was not a natural habitat for the animals, but it was for drama.

For those of us who create stories, these lessons are all around us. We are in school 24 hours a day. At least we can be if, like Da Vinci, we pay attention.


Will J said...

Brilliant story about the raccoon! It seems like studying stories in their natural habitat is the equivalent of life drawing for artists. Gotta keep my head in story mode full-time and not just during films. Thanks for the post, Brian.

Brian McD said...

Being a storyteller is not something you do, it is something you are.

Thanks for reading, Will J.

Joon Kim said...

Amazing post, Brian. I wish I could've been there to see FISH WARS. I'll be there for the sequel: THE EAGLES STRIKE BACK

Christine said...

OH BRIAN! Loved this post and story!!! It has everything I love in it...from crazy animal capers to some fantastic artwork by Mignola! Even just reading the story, I had my breath held for that little raccoon. So glad he got his meal in the end! ;o)

Brian McD said...

Thanks, Joon and Christine!

Anonymous said...

"One doesn’t create suspense by keeping information from an audience, but by giving them information."

I'm going to chew on this one for a while. I loved Hitchcock's example about getting paddled, but only at the end of the day.

Thanks for the reminder to keep my eyes open. I often forget to do that.

David Coe said...

Good stuff Brian. Reminds me of something that I think Mary Elder mentioned, about finding stories in my day to day life, things that I have direct experience with, as opposed to stuff I've just read about...

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