Storytelling is at the core of all art forms. No matter how abstract that form is, there is still at least a basic theme behind it. It doesn’t matter if you’re making a film, writing a novel, composing a song, making carvings from tree stumps, painting a watercolor, or photographing orangoutangs in their native environment. If you are creating art, you are telling a story. And the better you are at the craft of storytelling, the better of an artist you will be.
Of course good storytelling is in the eye of the beholder. I have my own opinions about what elements of storytelling I consider invaluable to various artistic disciplines and I will talk a little about that here. However, I won’t go into too much detail regarding the classical methods and elements of storytelling. I am after all, a self-described jack of all trades and master of but a few, so while I consider myself a writer as well as a connoisseur of good writing, I absolutely will not be so sententious as to pose as a writing expert. It is my humble opinion that all artists should read a book or two on writing in order to gain a basic understanding of story construction.
Books on writing talk about various ways to categorize and classify stories. There are genres (e.g. comedy, action-adventure, horror, thriller, science fiction, etc.). And there are recognized archetypical themes (e.g. the hero’s journey, the coming of age, fall and redemption, etc.) And then there are also the aspects related to the length of the story and how that affects how the story is unveiled (short stories and short films have to tell the story more quickly, and therefore may gloss over or even skip entirely, certain elements that would be considered more important in a full-length feature film or a novel. But all storytelling has a few central tenets.
The primordial component of a good story is the theme. The theme is that central concern of the work of art that resonates with the audience. Writers know that every work of fiction has a theme and that theme should be clear in your mind before you start the process of writing. But other artists also should think (albeit sometimes unconsciously) about a theme when they pick up a brush or chisel or guitar or still camera.
A theme could be as simple as a feeling or emotion (pain, elation, anger, bliss, etc.) or it could be a more complex concept such as man’s inhumanity to his fellow man, or a warning about the oppression of the common man by the machinations of life, or it could be a moral adage such as do unto others what you would have them do unto you. But it is always there, even if only at the subconscious level. It is useful to pull it up into conscious thought when trying to create something meaningful.
Beyond a theme, stories have a plot, characters and settings. The plot (in a very small nutshell) is essentially the sequence of events in various settings, that shapes the characters as they encounter conflicts and work toward resolving them, from the beginning to the end of the story. Plots can be rather complex: there could be several subplots twisting and turning and intertwining in the story.
In literature and film, these three elements are complex and carefully developed: the story is laced with dialogue and narrative descriptions that help define the settings and the characters. In more static works of art, these are usually more subtle. A painting with people posed in a particular setting, going about their lives can evoke an idea about what’s going on, but to a lesser extent than explicit prose can. Much of the story must be inferred by the viewer, and clearly each viewer will come away with a slightly different take on it. Again, that is part of the pleasure of art: that part of what you take away from it is highly personal.
Of course, as art becomes more abstract, the story becomes more difficult to perceive. The more abstract the art, the more its interpretation is left to the imagination. But this too is part of the satisfaction and pleasure of viewing art. We cultivate our imaginations by attempting to see beneath the wavy lines, the rough textures, the vivid colors and the sharp borders.
A friend of mine was working on an oil painting a while back, and she asked what I saw in my mind when I looked at it. So I sat in a comfortable chair just looking at it for a while and thinking about it. And in a way, I sort of translated it into a little story in my head. Although a painting, by its nature is static (there is neither action nor dialog in a painting) and this one was a bit abstract, I saw distinct imagery and felt a certain feeling. I saw a savage city looming over the people who resided there, oppressive with its size and complexity. The city didn’t do this intentionally—it was just being itself. Yet the people seemed to be coping with it, and even thriving, as most life can thrive almost anywhere if it has the will to. So I saw a triumph of the will over oppression and angst. When I told my artist friend what I gleaned from her painting, she looked at me with amazement. She told me that lots of people saw the buildings and the people beneath them. But not many saw a story with a powerful theme (replete with conflict and resolution) in it. And then she told me that this was exactly how she had felt on her first visit to New York: that the tall buildings and bustling streets had seemed intimidating and even threatening—until she walked inside a few and found a friendly neighborhood bar, or a nightclub with a jazz band playing, or a market with shelves full of colorful and tasty things for sale. The feeling that she had was about how even the cold intimidation of the city could be overcome by digging beneath its veneer. I felt good for her (and a little for myself) that I had seen the same little story behind that painting that she had been thinking of when she conceived it.
And then there’s a great body of classical music from which you can glean stories without hearing any words or seeing any actions. There are stories of bloody wars, disaster and triumph, love shattered, and redemption from a fall. It’s all there in the sad violin solo, the cascade of horns, the crescendo of the timpani drums, the crash of the cymbals—if you but listen for it. You can hear the story build from movement to movement. And you can be driven to tears by the climactic ending.
With literature and film, the storyteller has more means to express the story through spoken words and actions and narrative descriptions than in other forms of art. And therefore, the pressure is on the writer or filmmaker to tell a good story to an audience that is expecting more than just mundane dialogue, funny jokes, exciting action, and stunning scenery. But every brushstroke, every bit of stone chiseled away and every musical note has a meaning too.
I’ve heard it said by a famous sculptor, when asked how he knew what to chisel away: “I see in my mind what it is I’m trying to say, and anything that doesn’t contribute to saying it gets removed, and then what I’m left with is pure meaning.” That was a bit of an epiphany to me, since sculpting is subtractive in nature—you start with all the material and remove that which shouldn’t be there, as opposed to building up a work piece by piece as happens in painting. By comparison, writers and filmmakers do both: they put together a rough work and then edit out what they then feel doesn’t add anything.
No matter what form of art a person is into, the common goal is to tell a story, no matter how short and sweet it is. All artists should think about this before getting started on something. What is it you’re trying to say? Your audience is expecting a good story when they sit down to read your novel or to watch your film, or listen to your song, or view your photographs, paintings or sculptures. When you fall short on your implicit promise to tell a good story, you let your audience down.