Lately I’ve been watching a lot of the Criterion Channel. Criterion streams a combination of classic Hollywood films, newer indie and foreign films, and everything in between. In bouncing around between them, particularly the Hollywood films and the smaller, weirder, indie films, I’ve noticed that the movies that affect me most, the ones that stick with me best, are the ones with which I have a strong emotional reaction.
Fresh in my mind is the comparison between two strange films: Sara Driver’s SLEEPWALK and David Cronenberg’s VIDEODROME. They were released only a few years apart (1986 and 1983, respectively), and have similar dreamlike tones. The major difference that I walked away with is how much structure and explanation accompanies each. Because SLEEPWALK is an indie film, there is a sense of unpredictability throughout, for better or worse. VIDEODROME, on the other hand, adheres to expected storytelling elements that made the film less impactful for me.
In SLEEPWALK things happen seemingly at random. A child walks a pigeon. A woman calls her boyfriend’s empty apartment, where a strange, large machine sits next to the ringing phone, and it’s never spoken of again. The film ends with Nicole, the protagonist, falling asleep near a river while searching for her missing child, who is blindfolded and sits just a few feet away, out of reach for both of them. None of it is explained, much of it doesn’t even seem related to the main plot, but all of it is emotionally impactful.
VIDEODROME, on the other hand, dives deep into its weirdness and explains it to make a larger point about its themes. All fine, but in explaining the television signals and how they lead to hallucinations the weirdness of the film, and thereby its emotional impact, is blunted. By allowing us to see behind the curtain I found myself engaging with it on a less emotional level. While much of VIDEODROME has stuck with me, I don’t find myself returning to its images like I do SLEEPWALK.
By any objective measure, VIDEODROME is a better film. It’s well-made, with spectacular effects and strong performances throughout, inventive cinematography, and a strong story with resonant themes. SLEEPWALK, on the other hand, is like a tone poem. But in focusing solely on the emotional impact of each scene without trying to tie it all together, I found myself drawn into the movie and still thinking about it weeks after watching.
All of this is to say that storytelling is, first and foremost, and emotional experience. Emotions literally rewrite our brains. Building from that foundation, hitting the audience in the heart and them aiming for their head, I think is the most effective way to tell a story that will stick with someone.
In thinking about the type of writer I want to be, I’ve begun to consider what attracts people to stories. Obviously, there are a lot of different genres, each with its own audience expectations to be fulfilled. Beyond that, there is high-brow and low-brow entertainment, right? Your WAR AND PEACE and your TWILIGHT. I’m not talking about either of these things, as those are just a matter of preference. What, at a fundamental, elemental, atomic level attracts us to storytelling? What are we searching for in stories?
To be clear, there’s probably no universal answer. Just like genre or high-brow / low-brow art, different people search for different things in their stories. So, I can really only speak to what I want in a story, and what all the writing advice I’ve consumed tells me most other people want in their stories. Things like story structure, the “Hero’s Journey,” and other classic storytelling traditions aren’t accidents. They work.
In my opinion, people like me, MR(S). EVERY(WO)MAN, seek out things that reflect us and give us resolution. Let’s talk it out.
People are vain, self-absorbed creatures, which is why we only ever tell stories about ourselves. Even stories with non-human characters assign them human traits. Emotions that are not natural to an animal, for example, like envy. When there is a purposefully inhuman character, it’s more of a contrast than a true other. Spock, for example, is an alien character whose primary trait is a lack of emotion.
There are lots of reasons for this, not the least of which is that stories are told by people. In that fact alone we’re limited by our experiences. If, somehow, we came across a story that showed truly alien things we probably wouldn’t even be able to recognize it as a story.
But reflection is more than a limitation on our experience. In fact, I think it’s the opposite. We tell stories that reflect us because they help us to understand ourselves. As far as we know, we’re the only creatures in the Universe that are consciousness of our consciousness. That’s confusing! We understand our own mortality, we have notions of abstractions like “justice” and seek order in an inherently chaotic world.
Reflecting our emotions, our social structures, our politics, our dynamics, our everything back to ourselves through art and storytelling helps us to make sense of it. To pull it apart a little bit and put it back together in a different, perhaps better way. We want stories to reflect ourselves not only because we relate to it, but because we want to better understand ourselves.
I don’t believe we only want to better understand ourselves. In some sense, I think story helps us to enact some control over things we inherently have little to no control over.
Every day new mysteries come and go, in our personal lives and in whole societies. The sock that goes missing. The serial killer that goes uncaught. The $5 bill you found in jeans that you don’t remember wearing. The thought-extinct fish that suddenly shows up on shore.
It’s rare we get answers to these things. Our lives are an increasingly silly machine we’re building piece-by-piece, with little insight into its inner-workings. Stories give us the opportunity to step inside the machine and swap out its parts so that all the pieces fit.
In that sense, I think stories are about resolution. The happy ending. The mystery solved. The family gaining closure, either through understanding or not. In life things are rarely explained, and things rarely end conclusively. Storytelling gives us that satisfaction.
These are the conclusions I’ve come to as I’ve thought about the type of stories I want to tell, and the types of stories I think people want to hear. It may sound obvious (because it is), but I firmly believe that sometimes in order to make progress you have to start with the absolute basics and then let those principles guide you.
The first half hour or so of Sergio Leonne’s ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST is dedicated to introducing the four main characters. Harmonica, seen in the screenshot above playing the harmonica; Frank, an enforcer for a railroad company; Mrs. McBain, the widow of an important landowner; and Cheyenne, the leader of a gang of bandits.
What makes each introduction so effective is that each scene tells us exactly who each characters is through their actions. In Harmonica’s introduction, for instance, we very quickly understand just how calm under pressure, how dangerous, and how focused on Frank he is.
Let’s take each in turn and explore what each introduction tells us about the character.
The movie begins with three rugged, violent men showing up to a train station and locking the clerk in a closet. As the opening credits roll they wait patiently in their own ways. One stays in the shade and uses his hat to catch water from a slow drip above him. Another wanders the tracks. The third toys with a fly, ultimately trapping it in the barrel of his gun.
When the train shows up they become on edge. On alert, they wait for someone to get off. At first, it looks like no one will. The train pulls away.
And reveals, on the other side of the tracks, Harmonica. We are nearly ten minutes into the film.
As played by Charles Bronson, Harmonica is calm, cool, and collected. He plays his harmonica (hence the nickname) as a way to occupy himself and throw off his opponent. He knows those men are there for him.
His first question is about Frank, demonstrating how important Frank is to him. After realizing he’ll need to wait longer for Frank, he has the following exchange:
Harmonica: “You bring one [a horse] for me?”
Hired Gun: “Looks like we’re one short.”
Harmonica (shaking his head): You brought two too many.
Once upon a time in the west
Through a single action–playing the harmonica–and two lines of dialogue, we’ve already learned everything we need to know about Harmonica. We know he’s cool under pressure, is focused on someone named Frank, and is confident in his ability as a killer.
We learn one more thing about Harmonica before the film moves on. After he’s taken out all three hired guns, we see that he was only able to draw quickly enough to do so because he had hidden his gun inside of the bag he was carrying, saving him the extra movement needed to reach for a holster. He’s clever, too.
Frank’s introduction is structured similarly–most of the screentime in this sequence is dedicated to Mr. McBain preparing for his wedding feast–but just as efficient. To be fair, what we need to know about Frank is a bit more straightforward.
After watching several minutes of Mr. McBain and his children, a sense of dread slowly building, we hear a gunshot. Quail fly away in the distance while a look of concern crosses Mr. McBain’s face. When he turns back to his daughter, blood gushing from the gunshot wound in her gut. He rushes over to her and his shot himself. As he crawls, he watches as his son, who had just been about to leave to pick up Mr. McBain’s new wife from the train station, is also mowed down. He dies in the dirt with two of his three children.
Frank leads several men out of the bush that surrounds the house. His face is steely as he observes the area, still on alert for other threats. Mr. McBain’s third child, a young boy, comes out of the house, alarmed at the commotion. The men stop, unsure of how to handle the situation.
“What do we do, Frank?” one of them asks.
“Well, now that you’ve said my name…” Frank says, and then shoots the child.
And now we know everything we need to know about Frank. He likes to murder and has no rules governing him.
Next we follow Mrs. McBain as she arrives in town to celebrate her new marriage. She gets off the train and searches for her husband, joy on her face. When he can’t be found, she waits. And when she waits for long enough, she decides to go to town herself.
She gets one of the men in town to drive her to Sweetwater, the name of the land her husband had bought, and tolerates the man’s snide remarks about what a silly purchase that was. She tolerates several stupid men from the moment she gets off the train, all with grace.
While her introduction isn’t as exciting as Harmonica or Frank, it’s just as informative. In watching her wait for her husband, whom we know is dead, we see her love for him. Her loyalty to him. And then when she solicits a ride to his land, we see her resourcefulness and independence.
While on the way to Sweetwater, Mrs. McBain is forced by her driver to stop at a small bar outside of town. While she waits for him to get his drink and tolerates the bartenders advances, there is a sudden commotion outside. She is nervous, but unshaken by the gunshots.
A man stumbles through the doors, bound by handcuffs, and holding a gun we are certain is not his. He struts around the room, watching the other patrons watch him. The first thing he does is order a drink that he swigs directly from the bottle.
And then we hear the familiar harmonica. The room’s attention shifts, and Cheyenne pushes an oil lamp into the dark corner the music is coming from to reveal Harmonica. He goes to him and takes the gun that Harmonica has casually left near his feet. Cheyenne tests Harmonica, taunting him. Harmonica plays along.
Another man in the bar, clearly intimidated by Cheyenne, reaches for his gun. Cheyenne sees him and gives him a warning that stops him. Then, Cheyenne takes Harmonica’s gun, gives it to the man that just threatened to shoot him, and has the man breaks his chains.
Cheyenne takes the gun back, and returns to the bar where his men have just entered. With snark, Cheyenne lets his men know that they’ve let him down. “Oh, you’re right on time,” he says. “To bury my escorts. If I’d have waited for you, I’d be in jail by now.” The men clearly respect him.
He almost leaves with Harmonica’s gun, but gives it back when Harmonica reminds him. Harmonica tells Cheyenne that Frank is trying to frame him for a murder.
Throughout this scene, we come to understand who Cheyenne is via his actions and his dynamic with the already-established Harmonica. Because we already know what a badass Harmonica is, Cheyenne showing no fear of him and, in fact, testing him, automatically elevates him in our eyes. The movie uses an already established character as a shortcut to learn something about another.
This is the major difference from the other characters’ introductions. While the other characters are introduced on their own, and are largely defined by their individual actions, Cheyenne is largely defined by how others react to him. We see their fear and their admiration for him. Which makes sense, since Cheyenne turns out to be one of the lynchpins of the film.
By the end of the scene we’ve come to understand Cheyenne as charismatic, intimidating, dangerous, and savvy. All qualities we’ll see play out again throughout the story.
What I take away from these introductions is that by the end of a character introduction, your audience should know their most important traits–the thing that will carry them through the rest of the story. ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST also demonstrates how many different ways you can do that. Through action, reaction, or via the characters navigating a situation they don’t know much about.
Watch the scene above. And then watch the scene below.
For being similar scenes (the Trini and Kimberly scene from 2017’s POWER RANGERS is probably influenced, directly or indirectly, by Jackie Chan’s THE FEARLESS HYENA), the execution is vastly different. To me, the major difference in the scenes is that one stops at the idea and the other builds on the initial idea. And I think that escalation of ideas from an initial kernel to an exploration of multiple ideas is what elevates small moments in an overall story from good to great.
An idea is rarely enough to build a story around. A single thought or idea is usually pretty easily explored and can’t sustain the momentum needed to tell a compelling story. The chopstick fight, while only being a minute and a half long, throws a bunch of ideas at the audience, each building on the last, taking a single joke premise (as in POWER RANGERS) and elevating it into a truly great scene, culminating in the sly reveal that Jackie Chan has stones in his mouth instead of the chicken he was fighting his Uncle over.
Sketch comedy is a good example of this theory at work. A common criticism of Saturday Night Live is that their worst sketches are single ideas drawn out too long. Key and Peele, on the other hand, are masters at evolving their ideas to sustain a premise longer than it should go. Take the example below.
The joke escalates from being about the inherent silliness of rap battles, to an overexcited hype man, to a continuous escalation that becomes difficult to manage, and ends with a twist that satirizes Of Mice and Men. The initial premise builds on itself until a twist that feels different but is logical.
I think that’s what separates great stories from good ones. Similar to the way that Stephen King uses trauma, finding ways to continually freshen your story for the audience not only keeps them engaged, but allows the storyteller to explore different avenues, different ideas, with more depth.
What makes a story compelling? Which is to say, what makes us as readers want to keep reading? Is it lyrical prose? Mystery? Suspense? Character? Conflict? Some combination of some or all?
I recently read The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern with a book club at work, and the reactions to the novel were split. About half of the group loved it for its world-building, beautiful prose, and deep themes. The other half of the group (of which I fell into), agreed the book had all of those things but were also frustrated at the slow pace, passive protagonist, and repetitious plot.
This got me thinking about what different kinds of readers value. In this case, half of our group really valued world-building over everything else, while the other half was interested in character and plot over everything else.
What fell flat for me was what I’ll call narrative propulsion. I think narrative propulsion can be achieved in any of the ways listed above, but I also think that each of those ways has a limited energy. Sort of like a spaceship punching out of Earth’s gravity well and making a break toward the stars, a book needs to use multiple forms of fuel to keep a reader engaged–especially when your book is just shy of 600 pages.
The Starless Sea handles narrative propulsion masterfully for the first third of the book. The writing is gorgeous, the themes interesting, and the mystery at the heart of the story intriguing. But as the story goes along it relies on that same fuel to push the story along instead of introducing new types.
The other side of narrative propulsion that’s somewhat unique to The Starless Sea is its structure. We’re used to following one or a few characters that may each have their own storylines, but are each in service of a single overarching narrative. The Starless Sea alternates between the main plot, that of Zachary Ezra Rawlins, and a series of vignettes pulled from the books that Zachary’s story revolves around. While this adds a lot of variety to the book, it also breaks the narrative into chunks and adds complexity to an already dense read. In short, it interrupts any narrative propulsion built from chapter to chapter. I read the book pretty quickly, spending time with it everyday, and because of the vignettes between the main chapters I often found myself having difficulty remembering what had just happened in Zachary’s storyline.
In short, I think it’s dangerous for authors to rely on just a few aspects of storytelling to hold a reader’s attention. A story needs to constantly build on itself, adding new depth to its plot, characters, world, and theme, otherwise there is a risk that a reader will become bored and leave, no matter how beautiful the writing.
Craig Gusmann is a writer currently stationed in PA with his wife and two cats. Sent from the future in a clear homage to The Terminator, he wanted to get a head start on perfecting his use of words. Feel free to let him know how he’s doing.