film criticism by maryann johanson | since 1997
Sun Jan 03 2016, 11:04am | 15 comments
All stories are the same to the degree that all people are the same. Most people fall in love. Most people grow up and leave home. Not everyone goes to war, but most people live through a war, if they live long enough. So we like to hear stories about these things.
I think it’s partly a survival mechanism. A romantic story about love will teach us how to court someone, or at least give us hope of finding our true love when we’re about to give up. And a story about heartbreak can help us get through pain and sadness.
But I think it’s a mistake to say that all stories are identical. Most stories about war have the same elements: People learn how to fight. They face their enemies. Soldiers die on both sides of the battle. But that doesn’t mean that a film about the glory of war is the same as an anti-war satire.
Here’s a dumb, obvious metaphor:* Writing a story is like baking a cake. If you don’t put in an egg, the dough won’t stick together. If you don’t put in baking powder, the cake won’t rise. If you don’t put in sugar, it won’t be a cake.
And that’s why screenwriters like to put an inciting incident twelve minutes into a movie. If they don’t, the audience tends to get restless. The three-act structure works the same way: If there’s a dramatic change in the character’s life every thirty minutes or so, it keeps the story moving. And, more important, the dramatic changes allow the character to grow and evolve, which is usually what the story’s about.
Inventive writers will find other ways of telling a story, just like vegans and diabetics will find ways of making a cake without eggs or sugar. But the basic recipe works really well.
Tom Stoppard came up with a better metaphor than I did. He talked about a cricket bat:
Shut up and listen. This thing here, which looks like a wooden club, is actually several pieces of particular wood cunningly put together in a certain way so that the whole thing is sprung, like a dance floor. It’s for hitting cricket balls with. If you get it right, the cricket ball will travel two hundred yards in four seconds, and all you’ve done is give it a knock like knocking the top off a bottle of stout, and it makes a noise like a trout taking a fly… (He clucks his tongue to make the noise.) What we’re trying to do is to write cricket bats, so that when we throw up an idea and give it a little knock, it might… travel… (He clucks his tongue again and picks up the script.) Now, what we’ve got here is a lump of wood of roughly the same shape trying to be a cricket bat, and if you hit a ball with it, the ball will travel about ten feet and you will drop the bat and dance about shouting ‘Ouch!’ with your hands stuck into your armpits. (indicating the cricket bat) This isn’t better because someone says it’s better, or because there’s a conspiracy by the MCC to keep cudgels out of Lords. It’s better because it’s better. You don’t believe me, so I suggest you go out to bat with this and see how you get on. ‘You’re a strange boy, Billy, how old are you?’ ‘Twenty, but I’ve lived more than you’ll ever live.’ Ooh, ouch! He drops the script and hops about with his hands in his armpits, going ‘Ouch!’ Annie watches him expressionlessly until he desists.
People have said that Star Wars and The Wizard of Oz are the same story. They’re not. They have different tones and different genres, and the songs in Star Wars are much shorter. Also, The Wizard of Oz says it’s a bad idea to leave home, and Star Wars says the opposite. But both movies provide some of the things we need in life: exciting dangers, scary monsters, interesting travel companions, and some pretty good travel tips. And that’s what a story’s for.
*Actually, it’s a simile.
This also reminds me of Kurt Vonnegut’s “shape of stories” lecture.
I really like Danielm80’s comment.
A couple of thoughts:
1) I’m not entirely sure that all stories ARE the same. Where’s the monster in the Biblical creation story, or in the Visitation of Mary, or in the Parable of the Good Samaritan? Where’s the journey through the dark woods to find the magic elixir in the children’s books “Didi and Daddy on the Promenade” or “I Love You Forever”? Are there ancient mythic themes being explored in, say, a random episode of The Office? At some point, if you move the goalposts enough or make the description vague enough, I suppose you could boil down a lot of stories to “There is a problem, and it is eventually resolved,” and you could always say “well, this problem is the equivalent of the monster or the quest.” But I don’t know how useful an observation that is.
2) To the extent that many stories ARE about questing, monster-slaying themes, I agree with MAJ that it may have something to do with our stories reflecting our evolutionary history. For tens (hundreds) of thousands of years before we invented civilization, we LIVED that story: went on perilous journeys, braved the dark, slew monstrous beasts that we hunted or that hunted us, brought life-giving supplies back to our struggling tribes, discovered new lands. It doesn’t surprise me that we would still respond strongly to stories that in some way evoked that human experience.
Georges Polti asserted that there were 36 distinct plots; I’ve also heard claims of 6 and 7. As you say, get generic enough and…
There’s an anecdote I’ve heard which seems to be at least partly true. An important scholar wrote an article suggesting that every folk tale is based on the myth of the sun god. So, for example, Little Red Riding Hood’s cloak resembles the fire of the sun. The article became influential enough that, for a number of years, folklorists would look for parallels to the sun god in every story, even when there weren’t many.
After a while, somebody wrote a paper proving that the first scholar was, himself, a myth about the sun god. His theory became less popular after that.
I’ve heard there are only two plots: “A stranger comes to town” and “A man goes on a journey.”
There’s really only one plot: “Something happens.” ;-)
They’re both the same plot. It just depends which side of the road you’re watching from.
A stranger comes to town. Builds TARDIS. Goes on journey. Comes back in the past as the stranger.
Man goes on journey. Woman either stays at home or possibly accompanies man on his journey.
A man goes on a journey. IN HIS MIND.
Heh. Funny that you happen to put it that way, Bluejay. It inevitably reminds me of this.
Cue Ted Nugent and the Amboy Dukes.
Yeah, well, we need to expand the idea of who can go on a journey.
And it was all a dream.
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