In an earlier post, I used an up-coming TV series (sight unseen) to comment on some potential pitfalls in storytelling — to speculate on “do”s and “don’t”s. Which can be a kind of interesting topic, with two schools of thought. Those who say “art” is all about inspiration, about visceral spontaneity and that anything that seeks to channel or dictate that creativity is anathema to the process. And those who say that creativity has to be built upon an understanding of the underlining craft. You wouldn’t hire someone to build you a house who brags that they know nothing about architecture or engineering — so would you want a writer or filmmaker who brags that he is ignorant of the fundamentals of storytelling and character development?
It isn’t that they are mutually exclusive. The best, most creative and pioneering people in the arts often started out studying the core principles. But as they will tell you, that’s the point. They mastered the rules, and that’s what gives them the right — and the wisdom — to break the rules.
I’ve often thought about this when watching a movie or TV show, or reading a book. Thinking how maybe with a little more understanding of the “craft” — and yes, the cliches — of storytelling, the storyteller might have made the story work better. Things like having a lead character gives you a protagonist. But a lead character with a love interest gives your story heart. And a lead character facing an obstacle to his love interest gives you drama. Pretty basic stuff, but things that often get overlooked in the race to deadlines, or the struggle to just make your plot make sense.
Years and years ago I saw a TV documentary/profile of British comic actor John Cleese where he talked a lot about the process and logic of comedy — not simply whether something was funny but why it was funny. That’s something a lot of artists tend to avoid, particularly comedians, as if somehow acknowledging there is a mechanism behind it all will suddenly invalidate the whole thing. But I’ve always remembered that show about Cleese — indeed, I recall it as being one of the most fascinating examinations of the creative process I’ve ever come across.
In a similar way, I never used to think much about musical scores in movies — I mean, I knew there was dramatic music, and romantic music, and scary music. But I never thought much beyond that. Then I read a book interviewing various people involved with Star Trek over the years — actors, directors, writers, as well as composers. I’m guessing I left the interview with the composer till the end because, really, why would that interest me? But…it actually became quite fascinating and eye opening, as the composer talked about the subtler underpinnings beneath simply whether the music was “scary” or “jaunty” — he talked about how different characters would have themes that could be threaded through the background, sometimes deliberately evoking a character even when he wasn’t in the scene. He talked about overall motifs that would suggest a flavour to the story even beyond the immediate needs of the scene.
As with the Cleese interview, it made me realize there was a lot more thought — a lot more mechanics — involved than simply an artist saying “this feels right to me.”
And thinking about these things can come to me when I watch a lot of movies and TV and I can’t help thinking the people involved aren’t really putting that same thought and effort into their production — either because they just literally don’t have the time, or because they just haven’t stopped to really think about it, and they don’t understand the craft involved. Sometimes you can see movies where you suspect the people are sort of thinking about it…but kind of stopped half way. Like a movie which clearly has settled on a musical theme for a significant character…but uses it in a kind of lazy, uninspired way.
Part of what this all relates to is the notion of realizing there is a difference between doing something in a story because, well, you know that’s what you’re supposed to do…and actually understanding why you’re doing it.
I’m trying to write a few shorter posts — so we’ll leave it there for the moment. This is basically just establishing one of the themes of this website, which is to try to examine and look beneath the storytelling process (in my humble, ignorant way, of course) including my next post…