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How to Tell a Story

How to Tell a Story

We’ve learned a lot in this Modern Era (lets say, the beginning of the Industrial Age). The Modern Era has seen the transition from single artists supported by patrons to the image of poor starving artists in Paris, sitting in a café arguing about Impressionism vs Expressionism. It opened the flood gates; with so many labor saving machines in the Industrial world, we have to time to be artists, musicians, singers, poets and stars.

With this explosion of art-making (if you will allow that) came these odd myths. Stories of a movie star being discovered while working as a waitress, for example, created this century long illusion that you (yes you, sitting there) might be stunning enough to become a star without doing any of the work. Read the Yahoo Answer forums on the Arts today and you will find questions about “how can I be discovered”. It doesn’t work that way.

We also have been delighted to see and recognize formulas for story-telling success. Joseph Campbell’s work (combining a lot of other’s research) taught us the Hero Saga. Applying that formula will make your story have a good chance of success or at least be “a good story”.

When big money is on the line, like making a movie, Hollywood once had intern systems. People working up the ranks and not just writers but artists, actors, dancers and more. They learned the “how to” tell a story, they talked about the craft. Little things like a “meet cute” described in The Holiday were very real and recognized ways of telling a story.

Riding on the coat-tails of the Movie Industry came genre specific work. Detective stories, War Stories, Love Stories, Propaganda Stories, Musical Stories and, of course, Super Hero stories. Each and everyone has a specific formula, tried and true and understood what makes it “work”.

I could write pages on each genre, even down to how the Disney Channel shows work or don’t work. I would be what is called a Script Doctor (yes, they existed). The major lesson one learns when working in the craft is this: Respect the Genre. Within the formula you can do almost anything. If you try to break the rules (I’m a rebel, baby) then you will leave your audience bewildered and not satisfied.

Genre plot lines are like a pyramid. For example, you want to tell a story. Let’s try Boy Meets Girl, Boy Loses Girl. Almost always the end is Boy Gets Girl Back, unless it is a tragedy and he seeks revenge on all the bad guys with the greatest motive of all: love (millions of movies, try The Outlaw Josie Wales). A Super Hero story, our hero always saves the day (the kidnapped girlfriend, for example), Super Heroes never let their girlfriends fall down an elevator shaft and die — that would kill a franchise; every writer knows that.

When dealing with the Super Hero genre, it is really about two things: out-smarting the bad guy and the love story. Supers are cool and we like the big fights, however, in the end, our hero has been managing the entire event to “trick” the bad guy into a trap! We love this as viewers because the solution is something we can imagine doing; we relate to our hero. The love story is fun because our hero has a mask (of some kind) and she loves the hero but he pines for her to love him as himself (with often wry understated humor, please).

The argument of whether Superman could beat up Godzilla is for the comedy cast of the Big Bang Theory. It is the discussion you had in sixth grade; it was fun to imagine. No director or writer would actually try that idea — would they? How stupid to have Batman fight Superman or Iron Man fight Captain America — it breaks the genre and leaves the audience unsatisfied. No one who knows the genre would dream of actually putting those playground arguments on the screen.

Now, you can argue: Marvel has put out some blockbusters. I agree that this is the silver screen’s Era of the Super Hero. But it is not really the era of good movies — look at it, this is really the Era of CGI. Finally stories that had been told with a fantasy flair can be made for the movies! Well done genre-honoring movies like The Avengers and Avatar will be seen for decades with love. Ironman movies (which are, as they should be, about Tony and Pepper) will be enjoyed. The directors who decide to “go maverick” and “break the rules” simply fail; often still making box office due to great CGI.

The writers and directors may not have grown up in Hollywood. Maybe they got fame as music video directors or special effects artists. If they don’t know or never learned the Art of the Genre, they fail. There are a LOT of 3D movies, CGI movies that are well-produced but suck badly. On some level, Hollywood may not care; they have a cash ticket in a star who does well overseas or a cast like Fast and Furious, carefully built to cater world-wide — those movies sell well even if they are miserable (they do follow a genre script, btw).

Telling a successful story, at base, will follow a formula or recipe. Even if the plot can be reduced to “boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back”. Watching the story is the best part, even when you can smugly reduce the plot down to that.

In a Super Hero story, the best stories have a love story in it. Superman (and Clark) have Lois, Spiderman (and Peter Parker) have Mary Jane, the first Captain American had Agent Carter; these are the reasons that we care (deeply care sometimes) about how our Hero will solve the problem. Without it, it is simply a jock in tights jumping around and acting arrogant.

Batman is wonderful because he doesn’t follow the Super Hero formula. Batman follows the Detective formula; which is “the more eccentric, the better”. Batman follows the same path as our other favorite oddballs; Sherlock Holmes, Miss Marple, Mr Monk, Columbo and so on. Smart, obsessive and socially flawed on some level; I love the Detective genre!

Today, I came across the new Marvel Comic announcement:


Sure, he wears red white and blue on the outside, but on the inside? It turns out Steve Rogers, a.k.a. Captain America, supports the evil, former Nazi organization, Hydra.

Marvel comics introduced the shocking twist Wednesday morning when Captain America: Steve Rogers #1 went on sale — and it turns out there have been hints that this was coming for a long time.


My answer is: no.

There is nothing Heroic about being a evil spy. I’d rather read a horror novel. Egads, imagine a publisher handing you the Sherlock Holmes franchise and you decided to make him a Nazi spy; you ruined a franchise. Learn how to tell a story first!

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