Saturday, February 27, 2010

What is a story?

I think a lot about storytelling because I perform improv and I like to write stories. I've memorized Vonnegut's advice about writing "make your characters want something" which is such bullsh*t because his characters are shoddy puppets tossed about to express his ideas. So here is my own bullsh*t wisdom from what I see in good stories and try to emulate in my own work. It's shameful but I feel compelled to watch the ending of bad movies if they simply employ these two storytelling tricks.

1. Have a clear ending point.
Heist movies, mysteries, and sports films (I'm sure there are more genres) all have the advantage of a clear finale. The inevitable last job/game/confrontation. This promise to the audience is made early and gives us a sense that we're going somewhere. I just watched Where the Wild Things Are. While I love Spike Jonze and the visual style of this film it was sorely lacking in this area. I found myself quite bored watching the film which was simply a montage of interesting monsters standing around, bitching about their lives. You might say the structure was: boy goes to island, has adventure, boy leaves island. But I really felt he left the island because he checked his watch and the movie was about over. They weren't moving toward any final action and it bored me.

2. Give me a chance to guess.
Reward attentive viewers. We should be able to foresee how the main character will solve their problems by what we have learned about their character and environment. This is such a key skill in improv that I realized with the help of Keith Johnstone's work.

I land my spaceship on the moon. I drive my moon rover around. Then I'm attacked by an alien. If I shoot it with a gun, it's bad storytelling. Where the f*ck did I get a gun? Bad storytellers solve problems by pulling things out of their asses. Good storytelling goes back to what we already know. I could hit the alien with the moon rover or, better yet, I could drive back to the ship, letting it chase me, only to fry it with my spaceship's engine. That incorporates the things that the audience knew. I love this feature of storytelling. It's a very artistic dance that storytellers do. If you call something back in a way that's too obvious or too obscure then you lose them. It's a careful, interesting balance. When it's done right everyone has a sense of how the movie will end, leaves saying "I saw that coming", but wasn't sure enough to speak up.

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