Hollywood films and popular novels are made with certain audience expectations in mind. They have a story to tell, and they are structured so that this story is easy to follow and understand. Act 1, Act 2, Act 3 – we can usually tell how much of a film is left to go by what is happening on the screen.
Structure and story tend to fit together neatly in a Hollywood film or popular novel. The structure is designed to fit the story: beginning, middle, and end. Or “orphan”, “wanderer”, “warrior”, “martyr”. The audience know what they came for: a drama in which a hero runs into trouble, learns a lesson, and meets with surprising consequences. (Recently I read Story Engineering by Larry Brooks, which explains the elements of storytelling really well.)
Sometimes it can all seem quite shallow, especially if it’s not done well. Or if it’s done so neatly that there’s just no surprise, not really. You knew from the beginning that it had to go one way or the other, and – Oh! – it went this way and not that.
Perhaps one day you’re feeling tired of the shallowness of much of popular culture – one “psychodrama” after another – and you decide you’ll try something different. You won’t try to deliver a story like that at all. Instead you’ll play with moments and textures and let a like-minded audience come to you. And perhaps you’ll feel some satisfaction in doing that for a while.
But what if, having done all that, you find you want to tell stories after all? What do you do then?
Structure is essential. But that doesn’t mean you have to revert to the Hollywood-style, story-guided template. There are all kinds of ways you can introduce structure into your work, by putting the requirement for structure before the needs of the story.
“John Cage had made a record in the ‘40s called … Indeterminacy? … for which he collected a hundred tiny narratives, fragmentary fictions. Then he looked for a structure: he would tell each story in exactly one minute. No matter how long the story.”
And that’s just one way to do it, described by Peter Greenaway in an interview with Kathy Acker. The structure is not only external to – meaning, not determined by – the stories, but it’s also utterly arbitrary: why one minute, after all? Acker explains the effect this arbitrary structure had on the storytelling:
“A very short story had to be read so slowly that it became incoherent; a long story so fast, equally incoherent.”
But structure is essential: you need something to get you started.
How can an arbitrary structure be essential? Isn’t this a contradiction? Isn’t “arbitrary” almost the opposite of “essential”?
It’s best not to think too much about it. Accept the paradox. Otherwise you’ll never begin. So he just gets to work.
So Peter Greenaway moved from abstract to “narrational” films while remaining “a lover of abstract systems.” This determined the kind of storyteller he would be. Some people are natural storytellers, while others find the process of making stories up to be a bit silly or trivial, and are ashamed that this is how they want to spend their time.
“Tell stories … without embarrassment.” You’ve done it on your own terms, so there’s nothing to be ashamed of. (There was never anything to be ashamed of, of course, but we get in the way of ourselves.)
The main thing is not to lose your own vocabulary in the process of becoming a storyteller. I suppose this is why we often feel that Hollywood films are less valuable then “real” works of art: they are so often created with a ready-made template in mind, so the original voice seems to have been lost somewhere along the way, if it was ever there at all.
What are you interested in? What are you trying to do? Why do you need to tell stories? I feel like I can tell when a writer or director has asked themselves these questions earnestly again and again all the while they’ve been working. A sense of purpose keeps the work real, keeps it from being trivial.
And not compromising. In this case, not compromising means not simplifying. All the depth and texture you wanted to get across remains and it’s not just a story but a story that’s your own and has meaning.
(Image is from Pixabay.)