Once upon a time…
It was a dark and stormy night…
The sun was just beginning to creep over the horizon of a new day…
Magical, isn’t it? The beginning of a story. You never know what’s coming next, or who will show up first. But you do know that you are about to embark on something new and exciting: a story.
Today, I want to ask what draws us in and keeps us connected to a story? Over the weekend, I was able to watch two VERY different films that relied on VERY different means to keep its audience spellbound.
The first, Boyhood.
The second, Jupiter Ascending.
This afternoon, we will look at these two movies and see how they use character and plot to hook their audience and keep them to the end.
Boyhood is a marvel of modern filmmaking. Shooting over 12 years, we watch a young boy grow up before our eyes without the use of special aging effects or recasting. It was this premise that caught my attention, and I finally sat down to watch it.
Full disclosure: I am a plot person. I love thick, multi-layered storytelling where politics and personal lives come crashing together. I love characters with well-defined goals and antagonists who are opposed to those goals. I like rising action, building tension, a thrilling climax, and a satisfying resolution.
Boyhood is not that film.
Boyhood is about growing up. And if you are like me, your childhood was not a carefully scripted series of obstacles to overcome on the way to a climactic graduation. It was more like a series of mundane bowls of cereal, high moments of passion and hormones, low moments of despair and hormones, with a peppering of fun and adventure.
Boyhood is THAT film.
It’s easy to get lost in these characters because we’ve been there, for at least some of the story moments that Boyhood tells. I’ve gone camping, been excited when my dad comes to pick me up, agonized over the fruitlessness of the world, and gone off to college. I’ve watched my parents divorce and remarry, been passionately absorbed in my art, and mumbled incoherently because I was trying to be cool. Watching Boyhood is a little like going through a photo album of my life. I see myself in the characters, and continue watching because I’m invested in what happens to them (even if it’s nothing).
Jupiter Ascending, on the other hand, is all about its plot. The characters are fairly shallow and generally only have one desire throughout the film. Jupiter (our protagonist) just wants to go home and spends most of the movie being dragged from one end of the solar system to the other.
What we get, in the place of deep character development, is fast-paced action scenes that grip the audience, pull us into the fantasy world of Jupiter Ascending, and drive relentlessly towards the climatic battle sequence. We continue to watch because each scene is either gorgeously painted with CGI or unravels a little more of the mystery of the story. We, like our protagonist want to know more of what’s going on. So we keep watching.
In my opinion, the best films are laden with both deep character development and high stakes plotting. We care about the characters and keep watching because they want something so badly and will go to any lengths to get it. That, my friends, is compelling storytelling.
Think Captain Miller and his platoon in Saving Private Ryan. They are all deeply real people with flaws and heroics. They want to go home, but must first march across Hell to find one lone soldier before they can.
Frodo is an everyman with likes and dislikes (perhaps not as many as his uncle Bilbo), who also must do the right thing (destroy the Ring) before he is allowed to go home.
Maximus must come to terms with his betrayal and the death of his family before he can defy the emperor and ultimately avenge the deaths of his wife and son.
So, how about you? Are you drawn to one of these more than the other? My wife is far more character oriented, balancing out my plot obsession. Or, are you drawn to something else entirely, like beautiful cinematography or hilarious comedic situations.
As we learn what draws people into stories, we can better craft the stories we want, or need, to tell. Well-told stories will always reach more people, and get your message across clearer, than poorly-told ones.
So go, write, or paint, or dance. Speak or play. Tell stories of love and death and heroics and the mundane. But tell them well.
The world will thank you for it.