Thursday, December 27, 2012

Time Travel: The natural way to tell stories

Ever since Quentin Tarantino’s film Pulp Fiction was released, people have talked in awe about how that film and others have played with traditional notions of story structure. That film tells its story out of sequence and is therefore innovative, or so the reasoning goes. This is a mistake. Telling stories out of sequence is actually as traditional as it gets.

The idea that story structure is ruled by linear chronology is a common error. As I have often written, and told students, one must look at how stories are told in real life. One must study stories not in their written form, or some other medium like TV or films, but in their natural habitat.

Real-life storytelling, person-to-person, is the parent form of every other form of storytelling. In this ancient and most-used form of storytelling is contained every structural element of story.

 Since stories are all around us all the time, if you can train yourself to pay attention to everyday speech, you will learn more than I—or any book, blog, or teacher—could ever tell you about storytelling.

So, let’s look at stories in their natural habitat to see how we are not married to linear chronology in stories and why. 

Someone might tell you a story like this:

STORYTELLER:  So, I go into work this morning – traffic was crazy so I was about five or six minutes late. I grab some coffee from the break-room. Someone had brought donuts so I grabbed one and everyone in the office started talking about their long weekend and what they did. We did that for about 10, 15 minutes until I noticed the time and mentioned that we should get back to work. Someone was in the middle of a story, so they all stayed in the break-room and I headed back to my office. On the way my supervisor stops me and tells me that I’m fired for too much socializing.

That is one way someone might tell you a story, but it isn’t very likely. Why?  It’s a little boring. Why? Because the listener has no idea why they are listening.  Most of us are natural storytellers and understand that power of structure and the manipulation of chronology.  Most of us know to start with the most interesting part of the story to cue people in to why they are listening.

TYPICAL STORYTELLER: I got fired today! So, I go into work this morning – traffic was crazy so I was about five or six minutes late. I grab some coffee from the break-room. Someone had brought donuts so I grabbed one and everyone in the office started talking about their long weekend and what they did. We did that for about 10, 15 minutes then I noticed the time and mentioned that we should get back to work. Someone was in the middle of a story, so they all stayed in the break-room and I headed back to my office.  On the way my supervisor stops me and tells me that I’m fired for too much socializing.

See how this small change impacts the story? Putting the point up front works to engage one’s audience; that sometimes means hopping to the end of the timeline. “I got fired today” is the end of the story. It’s what everything is leading to. But notice how your brain barely notices this time shift. It’s because it is a natural way for us to tell stories and not anyone’s invention or construct.

We all know people who tell stories the way I did in the first example and those people make us very impatient because as listeners we are straining to ascertain just which details of their stories are germane.

The myth is that Hollywood invented story structure. They did not—they capitalized on it. Structure is not about adhering to page counts or putting the story events in a predetermined order, but rather understanding what order of events is most effective for the story one happens to be telling.

My advice—listen to people talk. Listen to people tell stories when they don’t even know that they are doing it. If the story is engaging, chances are they are instinctively using sound structural principles. You can learn all the “rules” of storytelling by listening to people. All you have to do is take the time.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Movies I Like: Stalag 17

You can’t beat Billy Wilder—the guy was amazing, so good that it’s almost scary. He was a screenwriter first, and if he had remained a writer, he would still be a legend; he and his early writing partner CharlesBrackett wrote several hits for Paramount studios.   Because of this success, he was able to convince the studio to let him try his hand at directing. He went on to direct a string of classics. Stalag 17 is one of those classics.

Billy Wilder and  early writing partner Charles Brackett
I should state that I don’t think that the film is perfect—much of the comedy doesn’t age well. It’s much too broad for modern sensibilities and often distracting. (I go into more detail about this in my book Invisible Ink.) Still, in most ways, it is a solid piece of work that entertains.

Stalag 17, made in 1953, takes place in a German POW camp during World War II. The prisoners are all American airmen, who begin to suspect that one of their fellow prisoners is working with the Germans and feeding them valuable information. Which of them is the traitor?

The suspicion falls on a man named Sergeant J.J. Sefton, played by one of my favorite actors of all time, William Holden (who won an Academy Award for the role). Sefton seems to get favors from the Germans, and he seems privy to information that must have come from them. He also has a trunk full of supplies and goodies that the other prisoners do not have: Sefton has soap to wash with while the others do not. Sefton eats eggs, while the others must eat watery potato soup.

William Holden as Sefton
Not only is Sefton is permitted to visit the off-limits area where the female prisoners are held, but he charges all the men in the camp to have a look at the women through a telescope he has managed to acquire.

For all of these reasons, when the group suspects that there is a spy amongst them, Sefton is the prime suspect. Sefton contends that it’s a POW camp, after all, and that he has just learned to live by his wits. He has learned how to trade well and that’s how he gets things, but that that doesn’t make him a traitor.

At some point two new prisoners are introduced to the barracks. One of them is a guy that Sefton knows—a rich guy named Lieutenant Dunbar. Sefton doesn’t like Dunbar, believing that the rich guy has had life easy because of his wealth.

Dunbar and Sefton
This is great story construction. The inclusion of Lieutenant Dunbar is at the heart of what makes this story work: The group is judging Sefton the same way Sefton is judging Dunbar.

Wilder shows Dunbar to be a team player, even though he outranks everyone in the barracks and is worth 25 million bucks. Right away, when he is introduced as a lieutenant, he waves it off as unimportant—he just wants to be one of the guys.

What makes Billy Wilder better than most writers is that his stories are not just a series of events strung together. His stories have a point—a reason for being told. In this story we learn something about the danger jumping to conclusions before we have all the facts, and just how wrong we can be. In the end, the prisoners learn that they should have not been so quick to judge while Sefton learns the same thing.

Billy Wilder with his six Oscars
Knowing how to make a fun, entertaining film that has a meaningful theme at its core is what helped win Wilder six Academy Awards and a place in film history as one of the giants. Believe me, if you learn how to master this aspect of the craft of storytelling there may be a few awards in your future, too.

Monday, December 03, 2012

Why don’t people ask why?

 “A wise man can learn more from a foolish question than a fool can learn from a wise answer.” – Bruce Lee

In English we use the word “why” to ask questions, but we also use “why,” rhetorically, to mean that one shouldn’t, to criticize. When we are annoyed by people we might say, “Why do people act like that?” But it is not meant as a question as much as a condemnation.

When it comes to story structure, I often get questions from students that are not questions. I remember once talking about the structure of Finding Nemo and a woman asked me, almost angrily, “Why do so many of the mothers die in these stories?” She meant, “I hate when they do that.”

This is really common—we ask questions without wanting an answer. Often we think we know the answer. We often don’t ask a real “why,” an honest “why,” a “why” without judgment. A “why” without assuming the answer. A pure “why.” Until we train ourselves to do, that we will never get to the true answer.

We have to take the time to ponder. Pondering is an essential part of asking why. And it may take, days, weeks, months or even years before you have come to a conclusion where all of the puzzle pieces click together. Even then, your answer may change and evolve as you learn more.

“Why?” and I are lifelong companions. I often ask “why” because no one else will. There is a scene in the HBO biopic Temple Grandin where the autistic Grandin is at a slaughterhouse and asks why the cows are mooing. 

She is dismissed for asking such a question, but Grandin’s reasoning was that cows are prey animals, and would not make sounds unnecessarily to call attention to themselves.  A moo alerts predators to their location, so they would not do it without cause. She asked a real “why” and got a real answer. The cows were stressed. They were alarmed. There were too many things around that spooked them. It was through asking this question that Temple Grandin was able to help design more humane slaughterhouses.

I, to the best of my knowledge, am not autistic, but I am dyslexic and dyslexics are known to think this way, too. When Temple Grandin asked that question, it reminded me so much of myself. It is exactly the kind of question I would have to ask.

In my ongoing quest to understand my brain and why it works the way it does, I just read a great book called The Dyslexic Advantage by Brock L. Eide, M.D., M.A., and Fernette F. Eide,M.D. One of the traits they mention is that dyslexics have a compulsion to know why. I know this is true for me. It is difficult for me to grasp anything fully until I understand why. So most of my “whys” are honest ones. I need to know.

So, why do so many mothers die in fairytales and other stories? I could be wrong, but I have pondered it, and had even before I was asked the question.

If stories are told and re-told because they contain survival information, as I and others have argued, then why so many stories with deceased moms?

Because, I think, for most of human history this was not an uncommon occurrence. Mothers did die, often in childbirth. But children need to know that life goes on and that they can survive even this ordeal. In BrunoBettelheim’s book on the subject of fairytales, The Uses of Enchantment, he points out that often there is fairy godmother or some such figure that is a kind of ghost of the mother looking after her child even after death.

Mothers want their children to survive even if, God forbid, they are no longer there to take care of them.

Stories are dress rehearsals for life’s ordeals, so that when we confront a problem we are better equipped to deal with them. And no matter how our world advances technologically, we still face the same basic problems that humanity has always faced.  We need to eat, find love, protect and feed our children. We still fear death and wonder what happens when we do die, just as did that famous Danish prince:

HAMLET: Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio; a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy; he hath borne me on his back a thousand times; and now, how abhorred in my imagination it is! My gorge rises at it. Here hung those lips that I have kissed I know not how oft. Where be your gibes now? Your gambols? Your songs? Your flashes of merriment, that were wont to set the table on a roar?

Stories are rehearsals for life’s problems. Stories allow us to face and survive many of life’s dilemmas in our imaginations, so that when confronted with such problems they are not wholly new to us, and we can better navigate them. And because we have the same basic problems as humans have always had, with mainly superficial changes, stories will by necessity have many repeating patterns.

Many storytellers today, upon noticing these patterns, ask, “Why do they always do that?” But it’s not a real “why,” if they vow not to use this pattern themselves. “I’m going to do something that no one has ever done,” they proclaim. They change things without asking an honest “why.”

Sometimes the answer is that many storytellers have been lazy and followed the story patterns without asking “why” themselves. This too is a mistake. But often the pattern has stayed in place because it helps make the story’s point clearly.

Many storytellers want to know what makes their story unique, then, if they are going over such a well-worn path. The answer is you. You are the only one with your particular set of experiences and if you filter what you write through those experiences and make honest observations about what it means to be a human being trying to survive in this world, even those old dusty story patterns will shine like new.

But that will only happens if you know why, or why not to, use certain story devices.  And the only way to do that is to ask with humility and sincerity, “Why do they always do that?”