Monthly Archives: October 2012

Storytelling Lessons from Jesus

Doesn’t matter what you think of Jesus, gotta admit the guy could tell a story. Or the people who recorded them spiffed them up. Either way, Jesus often communicated (religious and otherwise) points through stories in ways that were not heavy handed yet still managed to tell a good story.

See, Jesus knew his audience. He knew that some people were inherently opposed to him and knew that there were occasions where he wasn’t gonna win anyone over if he started getting preachy (I’m looking at you, October Baby). So rather than constantly preachifying, he told good stories. His truth was in his stories (and messages can be found in arguably any story), he didn’t have to spell it out every time (October Baby, you again).

For an example let’s look at the Good Samaritan. Most everyone knows how this one goes, so let’s make like the movie industry and update it. Israeli’s walking through an alley. Bunch of guys jump him and beat the crap outta him; they steal everything he has and leaves the man bleeding against the bricks.

A man walks past, just another ordinary man. He ignores the pleas for help. A teacher of religion walks by and, hearing the man’s cries for help, turns around and finds a different route.

The bleeding man’s almost passed out when another man comes down the alley. This Palestinian sees the dying man and instantly stops to help him. He drags the man to his car and brings him to a hospital, paying for all the fees. Then they become best friends and fight crime [not actually in the Bible].

The point of the story is simple: help can come from unlikely places (and love others as you want to be loved). But there’s no beating anyone over the head with the point.

So Jesus did it. Who else?

Joss Whedon in Firefly! In the episode “The Train Job” Mal and his crew pull of a heist on a train. But when they find that it’s medicine a nearby town desperately needs, they eventually come to the decision to return it at cost to themselves. Understand, some of the crew are fugitives, some of them are very amoral, and most of them are not above thievery. Yet they choose to do the right thing anyway. What’s the message? Help the other one in need, do the right thing, don’t screw over those who are already screwed over. It’s understated, but it’s there and it works. Granted, Mal does later kick an uncooperative goon into Serenity’s portside turbine, but hey, he aims to misbehave.

Within the grand adventure of Thor is a simple lesson of humility. It’s his hubris that gets him thrown down to earth and it’s his learning to care for others that gets him back on his feet. Does Kenneth Branagh and his writers make it overt by someone saying “behold what your humility hath netted you!”? Nope. It’s there. Thor arrives on earth haughty and proud, but slowly comes to realize there’s more to life than glory and honor as he interacts with Jane and friends. We see the change in Thor’s actions and later in his conversations with his brother. It’s shown through a person and his journey, not having it told to us through some speech!

So let’s take another swig of this. A big one. In one of the finale episodes of Avatar, Zuko is reunited with his uncle. Understand that Iroh has been trying his best to lead Zuko to be a man of honor (unlike his family) but Zuko betrayed him at the end of the second season. Suddenly the prince has his honor back and everything he wanted, but he’s haunted by turning his back on his uncle.

When they finally meet again Zuko feels that he is not even fit to wake the old man from his sleep. It’s only when Iroh wakes up in the morning that Zuko begins apologizing, but his uncle cuts him off with a powerful embrace and says he was never angry with his nephew, but rather was so proud of him for getting this far.

There’s so much there! Forgiveness, love, and so on! It’s the parable of the Prodigal Son only with more firebending and world domination. The message isn’t obstrusive; it’s heartfelt and a longtime coming.

 

Look, I love a good story. And it’s awesome when stories have a point. The Lord of the Rings displays that no matter how little we are we can have an effect, Up tells us not to dwell on what’s lost and to find adventure everywhere, Tangled’s about having dreams, Zombieland reminds us of the importance of having a ‘family’. Yes, Zombieland. But the reason we don’t gag on it is because it’s done softly, gently. Like Jesus and his parables, good stories don’t try and force a point down your throat over and over again until you’re tired of it.

Granted, sometimes some things need to be made obvious, but if you’re breaking up the narrative (October Baby!) for the moral, you’re just not doing it right. When Jesus told his stories, the point evolved with the narrative. The message and story should be woven together seamlessly. Otherwise you’re just preachifying, and, as Phineas of Phineas and Ferb put it: “I think we all learned a valuable lesson today, but we all know what it is so why waste our time restating it?”

Also: buy my book In Transit! Just because!.

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Time Doesn’t Flow Linearly

Well, actually time does go linearly in real life. But this is fiction I’m talking about. Y’know  those stories where events are told in the order of the sequence of events? Well this isn’t about that.

Lost’s early episodes followed a basic format: focus particularly on one character on the Island all the while showing us flashbacks to their life before. We see Sawyer’s escapades as a con man while we see him attempting to pull a con now. Charlie failed repeatedly when he was given responsibility, so now he’s trying desperately to prove himself worthy on the island. By juxtaposing who they were before with who they are now, we’re given a very clear picture of the character. Telling it in the order it happened just wouldn’t be the same. Flashbacks (and flashforwards) aside, Lost also used the character Desmond – a man unstuck in time – to tell stories that took place all over a timeline. This wasn’t for exposition or drama, it was the earnest story of a man trying to get his mind to stay still.

But enough harping about Lost. Let’s chart new territory!

Firefly* has an episode, “Out of Gas”, which stands as probably my favorite (*y’know what I said about charting new territory? I lied). It’s my favorite since it really hammers home the constant theme of being an Artificial Family, but it’s a fantastic achievement in storytelling. See, the story does not take place in ‘order.’ There are three concurrent storylines: the ‘present’, the train of events leading up to the ‘present’, and the moment when each member of the crew joined the ship.

It’s vital for the episode. “Out of Gas” is about the crew and their bond, so we need to see motivation. It’s also needed to build tension in the plot. The more we see of how Mal got to be bleeding out in a derelict Serenity the more invested we become — especially when we see him thinking back on meeting his crew.

But the thing with telling a story out of order is that it can quickly become confusing as to just which parts are happening when. “Out of Gas” skillfully avoids confusion by giving each ‘timezone’ it’s own palette. The ‘present’ is very cool; lots of blues dominate the scene. The sequence of events leading up to the ‘present‘ — Simon’s birthday celebration and so on — is relatively untouched. The past is very saturated; colors are brighter and richer, almost dreamlike. This color washing means that we can instantly tell when each scene would be set linearly. Combined with deft writing and setups that informs us whether each part takes place way before, before, or now, we never get lost in the storytelling. The end result is a beautiful episode about family and Home that wouldn’t have worked any other way.

So now let’s take it another step further. What if a whole movie were set in anachronistic order?

Enter (500) Days of Summer. Y’know how when you look back on a relationship or a period of your life it doesn’t quite come back in the order it happened? Yeah, this movie is like that. We start on Day 488 of Tom and Summer’s relationship, which is long after they’ve ‘broken up’ (it’s complicated). Then we see Day 1, then we go forward 200 odd days, then back to Day 7. The movie avoids temporal confusion in two ways. First off, the movie’s incredibly postmodern. We have a narrator reminding us here and there as well as title cards that pop up most of the time to introduce a new day (be it forward or backward in time). Second: Tom and Summer’s relationship happens in stages. Are Tom and Summer in the flirty stage? Then it’s in the early days.  Are they really close? Towards the middle. Tom trying to win her back? A bit later. Trying desperately to get over her? Towards the last hundredish. Finally moving on? Almost 500. Basically: as confusing as it sounds, it’s not.

But why not just tell the story in order like a normal movie?

Because (500) Days of Summer isn’t out to tell a love story. It’s a story about love as remembered. What better what better way to capture the highs and lows and the humor and desperation than to show it all in contrast? We laugh empathetically when Tom’s best morning ever (Day 35) cuts forward a couple hundred days to where we see him dejectedly walking into the office. It’s self-aware and honest, something that its nonlinear storytelling helps push along.

If well done, this sort of storytelling can do wonders. One just has to look at any of many How I Met Your Mother episodes, or Vantage Point telling the same story from different perspectives, or even Bataman Begins to see how it can be used for humor and/or drama. It’s fun, so long as everything stays clear in the audience’s mind.

In any case, I hear Memento is pretty good…

Also: buy my book In Transit! It, well, yeah, it takes place linearly.

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The Consistency of Continuity

The way reality (and by proxy, stories) works is that if one thing happens then something else does. Because of this, we have a natural sequence of events that happens. It’s a consistent sequence of events that have bearing on each other.

Man, describing continuity is difficult.

Basically, if something happened, it happened. Events that happen influence the next one. Yet how much this affects the story depends on, well, the story.

Let’s take The Avengers, because I love that movie and it has an example. Iron Man, Iron Man 2, The Incredible Hulk, Captain America, and Thor all lead up to the movie. Events in The Avengers reference what happened in ‘prior’ movies and hew to characterization established thus far. Thor’s worried about Jane Foster and Tony Stark doesn’t really trust Natascha Romanov all that much. Loki’s also got some issues to work out with kingship, sonship, and all that.

Thing is, it’s not so interwoven that you absolutely have to see all five movies to be able to ‘get’ The Avengers. It stands alone just as well as it stands as a part. Each character is still introduced and established. Watching the other movies adds to the experience, but you don’t have to. The continuity’s there, but it’s not restrictive.

Examples of this loose sort of continuity (events don’t contradict each other, but you don’t need to be a guru on the work to know what’s going on) abound. During Firefly’s brief tenure it would introduce a character or place and bring it back later. Saffron was introduced, then we meet her later as Bridgett (and then Yolanda [or Yo-Saff-Bridge for short]). Malcolm Reynolds instantly recognizes her again, of course. That’s continuity!

Or the Uncharted games. Each successive one builds on what’s been established earlier, but, again, one doesn’t have to play all of them to get the plot. Nathan, Sully, and Elena are introduced each time as is their standing with each other. They have a history (some of which we know about) that influences their actions. Playing the other games adds, certainly, but it’s not necessary. The plot doesn’t contradict itself but it’s still accessible no matter where you start.

Then you’ve got the opposite end of the spectrum. Lost’s continuity is so deeply, heavily interwoven that missing an episode leaves you trying to figure out what you missed. This isn’t necessarily bad, just not the most viewer friendly way to do things. Just about every event in Lost has connection and meaning that will pay off later. A seemingly-trivial event that happened once actually has deep repercussions, something that wouldn’t work as well were it not so tight.

So if you don’t watch Lost since the first episode you’ll be lost. Crap. We get that, so what else? The story seldom, if ever, contradicts itself. Events impact the next. Even when time travel gets introduced it’s done in such a way that doesn’t create gaping loopholes. Though time doesn’t always flow linearly in Lost, it doesn’t go back on itself. Storyline contradictions break the suspension of disbelief, leaving the audience thinking “wait, what?” instead of focusing on the plot. Lost does no such thing.

Continuity, no matter the amount, is always important. In a sequel we want to see what happens next to the characters and events given to us in the original. Pulling a Revenge of the Fallen and deciding to undo a lot of what happened in the first leaves a very sour taste in the audience’s mouth. The Dark Knight brought Batman Begins to its logical next step without blocking out a new audience. Toy Story 3 acknowledged all prior events but told an independent story (that didn’t tread on the feet of the first two). Don’t undo what’s been done.

Going all out works in some cases, in others it’s best to keep it light.

Just don’t end up like Metal Gear Solid and reveal in the fourth game that half the exposition thus far has been lie after lie after lie. Sure, it works as a twist, but it’s kinda confusing. Tell a story, and tell it consistently.

Also: buy my book In Transit! It’s got continuity in it, at least as much as you can have in a short story collection!

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Go For The Heart

Does anyone remember the movie Eragon? That horrible movie based on an alright book? It was a movie so poorly made and objectively bad we could ignore how crappy an adaptation it was.

But what about when it’s a crappy adaptation too?

M. Night Shyamalan cost himself his credibility when he put out The Last Airbender. Let’s ignore the crappy script, acting, and direction for a second. The movie was pretty. The tidal wave at the end going towards the ship was absolutely gorgeous. But, the script, acting, and direction were crap; like it or not. But more than that, the film complete missed the point of the TV show.

Avatar is an incredibly layered show. Not only do we have the intricate relations between the protagonists, but we have the background complexity of the war between the countries. The heart of the show was the dynamic between Aang and crew; the big quest and saving the world was the plot and vehicle. You couldn’t have one without the other. Airbender replaced the characters with cardboard cutouts and put the quest front and center. Bending is cool and the Fire Nation must to be defeated! Screw everything else, this is what matters! To the surprise of no one, it sucked.

How would one go about making a proper adaptation of Avatar? By necessity, cut out much of the little adventures along the way but keep moments that help us establish characters (Katara and Sokka taking Aang in at the Southern Air Temple, Sokka growing trough meeting the Kyoshi warriors, Zuko choosing to rescue Iroh, etc), even if it means rearranging/combining them (an event on Kyoshi Island could result in Aang going Avatar and needing Katara to console him while Sokka and Suki help defend the island). All the while keeping that spirit of adventure. It’s not so important to hit every plot point as it is to make sure the heart of the work is there.

Let’s do another comparison! BBC put out an adaptation of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe in the late 80’s. It was alright at best, hit all the beats that the movie needed to to stay ‘true’ to the book and it worked well enough. It just.. wasn’t Narnia. Then came the new one in 2005. Due in no small part to advances in special effects, Narnia really came alive and proved itself to be a fantastic movie.

It wasn’t the most faithful adaptation of the book, though. The characters were all aged up by a few years, we saw the bombing of London, the characters had baggage, and the climatic battle was accentuated. But the spirit was there! The heart was the same! The movie captured that magic that makes Narnia Narnia. That’s what made the new one so much better.

Take a cursory look at some of the really good adaptations these days: The Help and The Hunger Games for example. Both of them don’t follow the book blow by blow, both skip or change parts of their books, but both still remain true to the spirit of the book. The Help still deals with treatment of, er, the help, and attitudes towards them during the early 60’s. All the main characters stay true to themselves and are undeniably them. Katniss and her struggle to survive in a hellish battlefield are still there in the film of The Hunger Games. The brutality of it all is retained through the carefully reckless use of the camera, the dynamic between Katniss and Gale is quickly well established, and The Capitol and inhabitants shown for what they are. The spirit is there.

The Lord Of The Rings stands as possibly the best adaptation. Peter Jackson glossed over several plot points, changed characters considerably (Aragorn takes most of the journey to attain the regality he takes up immediately in the books), and even altered just where the books are divided. But the core was still there. The themes of the smallest being able to change the world, of standing up to the impossible, of living for more than yourself; it’s all there! The movies may be structurally and narratively different, but it still feels like The Lord Of The Rings.

Why?

‘cuz they went for the heart.

Also: buy my book In Transit! It’s not an adaptation and probably wouldn’t work as one; so it’s a book!

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