You know how in “The Matrix” Keanu Reeves couldn’t see the Matrix, but by the end of the film (spoiler alert) he could see everyone in code? I’m starting to feel that way with story structure. The more I learn about and internalize narrative, the more I can’t help but seeing it everywhere I go. Last week I wrote about a recent experience with a film that lost steam at the end. Yesterday I went to the movies with my family and I was struck again by story structure issues. The movie itself was good, but I found myself noticing how a certain aspect of the story was confusing. Towards the end of the film, the story switched focus and picked up a new narrator briefly before returning to the original narrator and storyline. It was an interesting part of the film, but felt out of place. It was compelling, but it felt so separate from the main storyline and to be perfectly honest, really didn’t add to the message I think was trying to be told overall.
Yet, I think this “B” story* could have been integrated. Instead of shifting narrators once at the end of the film, the director could have begun to follow this character’s story earlier on and brought in the second narrators voice throughout the film. Or this part of the story could have kept the same narrator as before for continuity sake. And there’s always the (horrifying) option of shortening the sequence. Gasp! Sometimes as a storyteller we have to be ready and willing to edit. That has been some of the best writing advice I’ve ever received. I tend to have lots of ideas when writing and am ready to approach a topic from a myriad of directions. However, too many angels can take away from the main point. Last spring when I wrote about modesty I ended up having to cut out close to 50% of the original piece. The day before I posted it, I read it to a friend and she gave the honest feedback that the first half really didn’t connect with the second half. Then she came back to me with the question: what are you trying to say?
I think story tellers can forget the main narrative they are trying to communicate. Sometimes we get so swept up into the details that we lose the plot. Now, I’m all for complex storylines, but when the film fades to black, we the audience should be able to say what the story was about. Unless the film is “Inception”, but let’s face it, most of us are not as skilled storytellers as Christopher Nolan. Yet, we all still know what was motivating Leonardo DiCaprio’s character in that film, even if we disagree with the state in which he finds himself. If we lose the story, whether it be in film, writing, or even the narrative of our lives, then we lose the message we are trying to communicate.
So, what are you trying to say?
*“B” Story means a sub-plot to the main storyline. A great example of this is found in “The Shawshank Redemption” when Andy teaches the young inmate how to read.