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.