Is Storytelling Dead

I am reminded of Rod Stewart’s old song “Every Picture Tells a Story”, every time I read a screenplay (or listen to a song a friend is composing, or gaze at a collection of photographs in an exhibit at a gallery). It is true—to an extent for every artistic endeavor, that there is a story behind the work of art. Sometimes you might have to squint hard to find it, but that’s part of the joy of art appreciation. Every movie, every stage play, every painting, sculpture and photograph, every novel, short story and poem, and every song and dance should tell some story. That’s what art is all about after all (save for purely and intentionally abstract art). Sadly though, it seems of late that story telling, if not dead, to paraphrase something Frank Zappa once said about jazz, smells funny.

There are a lot of business-minded folks (as well as skilled technologists) out there, in places like Hollywood and New York, as well as in cities and small towns the world over, who seem to think that storytelling is secondary to having exciting action sequences, dynamite special effects, gratuitous violence, and frankly, as much as we try to believe it ain’t so: lots of T&A. And the problem isn’t just an issue of quantity over quality, or ultra-tight schedules and budgets. I truly believe the fine art of storytelling has been lost to many people—especially in filmmaking, where sophisticated computer-generated imagery, dazzling visual effects and sensational high-dollar action sequences have supplanted good old storytelling. As long as the film does well at the box office, it doesn’t matter to producers how artistic a film is. Getting back to Frank Zappa, I remember at one of his concerts way back at the dawn of heavy metal, he wheeled an air raid siren onto the stage, donned ear plugs, and then activated the siren. While he was making a not-so-subtle statement that rock fans were becoming more interested in loudness than in the quality of the music, the fans in attendance cheered wildly, in essence validating his statement.

While Hollywood is often thought of as a soul-crushing machine where nothing but the almighty dollar matters, I’m seeing a lot of locally-produced micro-budget independent films (both shorts and features) — where you would think good storytelling would be used to make up for lack of budget, but in fact where it seems storytelling has taken a backseat to getting something (anything) out there on Vimeo or YouTube as fast as humanly possible, and then begging anyone and everyone across the blogosphere and Facebook and MySpace, who will listen to their incessant rants to watch and like it. The signal to noise ratio in my humble opinion has dropped to near zero in the indie filmmaking world. (At this point my colleagues would remind me to breathe).

But the truth is, cheap camcorders and cheap editing software along with free and easy distribution models like YouTube, has made moviemaking into a much more democratic process where the studios don’t control everything. But this has brought with it the dramatic lowering of quality of the average independent production, as everyone and their kid brother records some trivial stuff on the family camcorder or DSLR and then posts it. Facebook groups dedicated to local filmmaking endeavors have turned into bulletin boards where the mediocre hawk their stuff, and beg people to view and like. If it’s goofy enough, it might end up getting more hits than an entire season’s worth of NHL action.

A similar situation exists now for literature with the advent of self-publishing models such as Kindle. While it makes getting one’s novel out in the public eye far easier than it used to be (no dealing with agents, editors, and publishers who won’t give the time of day to anyone who isn’t already a well-known published author) it has lowered the bar to the point where the bar is practically underground. And while user ratings and reviews can sometimes help guide a reader through the morass of junk masquerading as literature, the ratings systems can and have been gamed. I heard recently that a writer who penned a scathing assessment of the Chinese penal system had found the fury of the motherland released when in a single day a huge number of negative reviews (some calling her an outright liar) appeared virtually overnight. And that’s why purveyors of low-quality movies on mediums such as YouTube go on a campaign of begging other filmmaker wannabe’s to give them a “like” to support their “career”.

I joined a couple of these local filmmaking Facebook groups to try to network with other serious filmmakers about techniques and maybe find people for cast and crew (or who were looking for cast and crew) but found they’re mostly of the “watch and like my home movie” variety of posts (with an occasional religious sermon thrown in by a fanatic). I rarely take a look at their news feeds anymore. I guess there’s a supposed implication that if enough people view and like someone’s hastily slapped together home movie on a site like YouTube, it will propel the filmmaker into a great filmmaking career. The fact is, all it does is pull the signal to noise ratio even lower than one would think possible (can it become a negative number?). The chuckles I hear from filmmaker acquaintances of mine who have actually won awards in local film festivals is that these pleas to “watch my video and like it”, as opposed to “give me your helpful feedback either way”, are a somewhat pathetic embarrassment. The really good local filmmakers seem to have abandoned mainstream communication channels like Facebook (other than private messaging), due to the high level of noise bombarding these groups on a daily basis. It has become like trying to hear the music above the air raid siren.

In all fairness, YouTube was never really intended to be a distribution mechanism for quality entertainment. Everyone knows it’s mainly where you can post your cell phone video clips of dogs gone wild, or babies vomiting up strained peas. It’s a video bulletin board. The fact that you can monetize your YouTube channel if you get enough views and likes, and actually make some money from it, doesn’t make the dog chasing his tail into an artistic work. The universal maxim that “you get what you pay for” has already moved the more talented and serious filmmakers into outlets like Netflix online and the festival circuit. Anyone willing to shell out $1,500 up front (or whatever it’s up to) to get an aggregator to screen your film to determine if it’s got any redeeming quality worthy of being potentially seen by millions of viewers on Netflix online is generally is a more serious filmmaker. It’s not that everything on Netflix is really good——on the contrary, much of it is rubbish. But it is far more likely a filmmaker will be discovered there or at festivals than on YouTube.

The small local film festivals usually charge a modest entry fee and at apply at least a little bit of pre-screening before they will show a film. Again, much of what you see on the local festival circuit is of dubious quality, but at least some of the absolute rubbish gets weeded out. I didn’t intend to get into too many details about film distribution in this particular blog. I have acquaintances who are far more knowledgeable about distribution than I am. And a man needs to know his limitations. But it bears mention that YouTube, while a good place to post and look for very short documentary-style clips of real world shenanigans, and the “peoples’ news”, it is not where people in general go to watch an entertaining movie. But I have digressed. Back to the almost lost art of storytelling.

The essentials of good storytelling: complex plot development, a central theme, character arcs, rising conflict and resolution, and maybe a moral delivered by the end, have all become afterthoughts (if thought of at all) to just cranking out footage as quickly and cheaply as possible, and maybe glamming it up a little with software tools like Aftereffects (or not). A good writer researches the subject area a little, maybe even interviews certain people to try to write with more authenticity. Coming up with an idea for a story is just the beginning of a long journey that can take months for a short and a year or more for a feature. Then comes the hard part of developing the story. Most good writers rely on trusted friends to read their scripts with an objective outside (read: critical) eye. They can take (or not) that feedback and use it to strengthen weak areas of the story. Sometimes, a friendly table read with local actors can let a writer know if dialog is working or not. The writer needs to let go of his or her ego as much as possible throughout the process.

I recently read a script that was sent to me by a local beginning writer I had worked on set with before, for an action-adventure short film that started off with a boring office conversation and then went downhill from there. The person who sent me the script seemed offended when I asked if anyone else had read and commented on the script before me. This aspiring writer told me a local director and a few actors were already on board and that they liked the script (in other words they were desperate for work). I suggested that maybe starting with a more intense dramatic scene than having two cops passively discussing the bad guy at the police station would be a good hook. I even gave notes and an example I came up with, starting the story in the midst of a crime in progress, and the local police foiling the crime, yet not catching the criminal. I explained that starting off with a tense bit of drama and as much action as the budget would allow, would make a good lead into the office scene. For my troubles, this writer acquaintance no longer talks to me, I guess for my attempt to help, I was seen as showing disrespect or something. I simply figured that the concept of putting in a hook in the first few pages, and then keeping the audience involved vicariously and/or voyeuristically, and on and off the edge of their seats throughout, as characters were developed and a plot unwound, and then bringing it all skillfully to a climax, was good storytelling technique. But good storytelling seems to be something a lot of folks who call themselves writers, seem oblivious to. I think this is the ego getting in the way. I look forward to seeing the finished production (which to the best of my knowledge is still in preproduction). I am after all, a curious person.

Many films coming out of “indiewood” suffer from the same malady. They seem to just be mere collections of scenes that the writer and director (often and unfortunately the same person) thought up and jotted down. Maybe someone thought of an interesting thing that could happen to someone and made that the centerpiece of the story, and then slapped a bunch of disjoint scenes together in front of and after it almost as a filler, and then thought they had written a good screenplay worthy of producing and distributing. I can’t imagine these writers having started with a log-line, then a synopsis, and then an outline, and then laying out color-coded scene cards on a table and arranging and rearranging them, carefully thinking about story threads interweaving across locations and between characters, as a complex plot emerges and colorful dimensional characters are shown evolving—all leading to a satisfying climax.

I get the feeling most of these “writers” have never read a book on writing nor taken a single writing class. It’s blatantly obvious when their script doesn’t even follow universal screenwriting conventions. But even if they’ve read one or two books, they still don’t seem to understand what they’ve read. When I was learning the craft of screenwriting, I was advised by my instructors and in countless books and articles I’ve read on screenwriting, to read as many scripts as I could get my hands on, in multiple genres, to get a feel for what works and what doesn’t, and why. I found after I’d read maybe a hundred different screenplays, that I was just starting to get an idea of what flows well and makes a good and entertaining story.

If I could give these aspiring writers one important bit of advice, it would be if you want to be a decent writer, you should first become a reader. Read, read, read, read—everything you can get your hands on. “Elements of Style” is a must-read. There are a number of good books on screenwriting out there, but my personal least favorites are the “Save The Cat” series (for promulgating the Hollywood formulaic approach to writing (find a successful story and “write the same thing only different”). The advice to read lots and lots and lots of screenplays bears repeating. You can get them for free from various sites on the Internet.

And for god’s sake, master the English language—strengthen your vocabulary and knowledge of grammar, syntax and usage. Even if you’re writing a down and dirty street story full of slang, you want to use the slang and idioms and “street talk” in the right places and in the right way. If you are not reasonably competent with the language you are writing in, you probably shouldn’t be a writer until you do become so. You don’t want to negatively impress the world with poor language skills when you’re trying to sell the idea that you’re a writer. Now, I’m sure I’ve overlooked a mis-spelling or three in this blog that the spellchecker missed, and maybe got the grammar wrong somewhere, but this is blog of the kind that gets cranked out in one sitting. Hopefully there was nothing too distracting. In the blogosphere, there is no luxury of passing work onto an editor for prior review. So forgive my petty sins fellow writers. I am of course always looking to improve myself, so fire away with your salvos if that makes you feel better.

To conclude this rather verbose entry, it’s a darned shame that moviemaking has become so easy that people have gotten lazy with respect to the demands of good storytelling. Reliance on just on having a decent camcorder or cheap DSLR, and a few willing friends to stand in front of it and monotonically read a script you slapped together with all the reckless abandon of a blog, might be a good practice exercise, but it is not a formula for making a good film. If you want to be a successful screenwriter (or novelist, musician, photographer, painter, sculptor, dancer or whatever) you have to be able to tell a good story folks. And I do believe that like any talent in any area of endeavor, some people are born with innate skills and others have to work very much harder to come close to the same level of proficiency.

To answer my own question: no I don’t think storytelling is dead. There are some great storytellers around. There are great small-budget filmmakers (I hope to be able to interview one from time to time), just as there are some great singer-songwriters amidst a sea of kilowatt amplifier stacks, tight spandex, and high-speed guitar shredders. You just have to look harder for them. And when you find them, make sure you let them know in one way or another that you do like to hear or see or read a good story.

In a future blog I will talk about what happens when the writer and director are not the same person, and the director misinterprets the story but insists he or she has the sole authority and responsibility to manipulate the story for the film medium.

Cheers,

B.C. 3-4-2013

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About Boris Chang

Writer, filmmaker, photographer, musician, actor, philosopher, art/food advocate and critic, and incorrigible cynic. I don't hold back on my opinions. Neither should you. Visit me at Facebook.com/TheRealBorisChang Follow me on Twitter: @boris_chang Email me at TheRealBorisChang@gmail.com Tune me in to any interesting art/music shows, exhibits, concerts, recitals, poetry/literature readings/contests, film shoots, and so on that the mainstream media may have overlooked.

Posted on March 4, 2013, in Art, Film, General, Literature, Music and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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