Saturday, June 16, 2007

It Builds Character

A couple of conversations with friends this week have left me once again examining what it is that I look for in Story, and how I evaluate them. I think the perpective I come from when looking at a story is this: "What happened did happen. Does it make sense, does it communicate the story clearly and effectively enough to capture my attention, how was the story told and, most importantly, what does it communicate?" That is how I judge every kind of story. If a story brings me to the point where I start trying to decide what should have happened instead, then there is, in my opinion, a problem (of whatever degree of severity) with the storytelling.

Breaking that down:

  • What happened did happen. - On my best of days I look at the stories I experience as just that, stories I experience, not create. I try not to criticize a story by saying, "that event should not have taken place," or "the writers should not have created that character that way," unless I think there are larger structural problems with the story. The fact is, I'm not creating it and the writers/directors/producers are (though that doesn't mean I have to like it).

  • Does it make sense? - Every story presents facts to the audience. Places, times, customs, personality traits, beliefs, motivations; I require that they don't contradict each other. If a character who has always been calm and rational suddenly starts ranting and yelling, I don't have a problem with it — as long as there is a believable reason to motivate the behavior. In fact, I expect there to be a satisfactory explanation for any change in established character traits (a significant failing in Spider-Man 3). If a character dies, I expect it to have an impact on the characters who cared about him/her. If a TV series reveals a character who was thought to be good to have been evil all along, I expect to be able to watch the episodes over again and have that character's behavior be consistent with his/her true nature and motivation.

  • Does it communicate the story clearly and effectively enough to capture my attention? - This may overlap somewhat with the previous question, but I expect to be able to understand what is happening in the story and why the characters chose to do what they did based on the information contained in the story. At the same time, while I don't expect the story to be innately interesting (to me), I do expect it to be made interesting. I find it very dissatisfying when I near the end of a story, and I am still wondering what the plot is supposed to be. What's worse is when I know what the point of the story is, but the writers haven't found a way to make me care. For an example of what to do, look at Bobby Jones: Stroke of Genius. It's a golf movie for crying out loud, but I think it's great because the storytellers make me care what happens.

  • How was the story told? - This one is all about style. Many times a unique style of storytelling or visual design or a particularly daring or unconventional choice on the part of the storytellers has been enough to turn a mediocre storyline into a good or even great Story. First example: Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. It had cheesy dialog and some particularly ludicrous plot elements, but the near black and white color tones and the fantastical retro-future styling made it all seem on purpose (maybe it was?); the end result was very enjoyable for me. Second example: The second season finale of Alias; I would use the third season finale of Lost, but I would feel bad if I spoiled it. Alias was a mediocre TV show, but at the end of the second season, superspy Sydney Bristow passes out after a knock-down drag-out with her nemesis, and wakes up two years later. That is so wonderfully against the rules (not to mention potentially series redefining) that it almost qualifies as genius. Unlike Alias, I'm hoping Lost follows through on their series-redefining finale. Third and best example: the TV series Farscape used its undeniable wierdness, originality, and literal outlandishness to make a love story one of the best epic Sci-Fi stories ever told.

    This is not to say that stories always have to be mind-blowing. Subtlety works wonders as well, and is often far more appropriate to the story than dramatic effects (ex., Meet Joe Black, Unbreakable). The point is, does the style of storytelling enhance the story, or distract from it?

  • What does it communicate? - I don't enjoy stories that present as right actions or conclusions I believe are wrong. It can be the most fantastically well-told story ever, but if the happy ending is a character cheerfully going off to have an abortion, I'm not going to think highly of it. For a less clear-cut example, take Batman Begins: I think it's an extremely well-made movie, but the fact that the hero's motivation is revenge and is still revenge at the end of the movie just doesn't sit well with me.
In the end, I guess the point is this: make it good, make it well, and make it interesting. If you don't, it's just my high-school history class all over again. Only this time I can leave. (And if you say that all of this is subjective I'll say, "Exactly!!")

On a different note, here's this:
" should accept compliments as an encouragement, not that you have arrived, but that you WILL arrive, not based on your own attempts or actions, but based on God's grace which is constantly at work within you giving you the desire to obey Him and the power to do what pleases Him."
I agree. More discussion here.


Wednesday, June 13, 2007


The past several weeks have been, shall we say, interesting. A rolling series of overlapping, short deadline projects at work have left me feeling a little like Indiana Jones: you know he's not going to get flattened by the boulder in the end, but while it's happening you have your doubts. A few weeks ago my boss made a comment about the necessity of building trust with our customers, and what we as a department need to do to accomplish that. It left me with a question: why do we trust? What exactly is it that causes us to trust?

You may be surprised to know that I think trust, in most cases, is actually a thing very easily given. The dictionary defines trust as "firm reliance on the integrity, ability, or character of a person or thing." That definition is a little redundant in my opinion, but think about it: you walk into a room for the first time and there is a chair. You have never seen it before, but you sit in it anyway without a second thought. Why? Because you trust that it has the ability to hold you up. Your trust is based on previous evidence of other chairs holding you up but nevertheless, this chair gained your trust simply on the basis of its innate claim of being a chair. Talk about easy. No, what I think is hard is keeping trust. Keeping trust requires not just a claim, but evidence and action to back it up.

When you're picking a doctor, the first thing you probably do is go to your insurance company, or maybe even the phone book. Somewhere, on some piece of paper with the heading "Doctor" you find the name "Dr. Stanetsky, M.D.". Based on this endorsement you head to the address listed to have Dr. Stanetsky treat your lacerated knee. Perhaps when you get there Dr. Stanetsky has a clean office, some sterile sutures and a prescription for antibiotic ointment to back up his (or her) initial claim: trust kept. On the other hand, if Dr. Stanetsky turns out in reality to be Madame Gerta, the beaded woman who practices "medicine" out of her tent by the river, you'd probably change your mind and limp to the nearest box of Band-Aids instead: trust lost.

In among all the claims and evidence, there's another key element that also affects trust, or lack thereof, and I touched on it briefly in the (admittedly cliché) example of the chair: people tend to generalize. After sitting in a hundred different chairs, it's a lot easier to trust the next chair you come across based on the evidence of the previous ones. On the other hand, after you've visited one Madame Gerta, or two or three, you are likely to be much more cautious about the next doctor you visit.

There are entire industries based on these ideas. Marketing and advertising companies exist to help other companies make the right claims about themselves to obtain the trust (at least initially) of their target consumers, as well as present themselves as different enough from their competitors to seem a viable alternative for dissatisfied customers.

I have come to realize that all of these ideas (yes, even the advertising part) apply in the area of interpersonal relationships as well. In a perfect world, we would have the ability to trust everyone completely, and everyone would be completely trustworthy. The truth is, your past relationships affect how much you trust the people you meet and how quickly you come to do so, but as we get to know new people, we come to trust them as they prove themselves not to be what we expect. Though not as often as I might wish, I am grateful to say that I have learned this from experience.

I cannot leave off a discussion of trust without talking about God, because it is he who has made the greatest claims, and he who has offered the greatest proofs, and yet it is also he in whom we (even Christians) also have the most trouble placing our trust. Jesus is the fulfilment of every promise God has made, and the whole world stands as evidence of God's power, and his provision is made evident in our lives every day: all this and yet we still very often struggle to trust in him. We struggle because, living in a painfully imperfect world, we have no experience with perfection. We struggle because the only experience we have with gods is with the ones that aren't real. However, there is good news: all relationships grow, given time and commitment. Our relationship with God is no different, and he has already demonstrated his commitment. The more we come to know his nature and the more we experience him in our own lives, the more we will find ourselves able to trust him.

Psalm 9:10
Those who know your name will trust in you,
for you, LORD, have never forsaken those who seek you.

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Monday, June 11, 2007

So close...

"Now set up this clip. He's like Moses, right? And he has to build an ark."

- Jay Leno to Wanda Sykes, discussing her new movie, Evan Almighty

For those lucky ones who haven't heard of it, Evan Almighty is the completely unnecessary sequel to Bruce Almighty, in which the main character, Evan, is commissioned by God to build an ark. To hold two of every kind of animal. Just like Moses.

That's what having a paid staff of twenty writers and researchers gets you.


Sunday, June 3, 2007

Bad Marketing

What loony in the Six Flags marketing division thought it would be a great idea to make a commercial that portrays the Six Flags brand as a menacing lightning storm that wipes out a suburban neighborhood and replaces it with a theme park?