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.



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