Archive for the ‘paradise lost’ Tag

Story Structure

In recent years the word and concept of Story has become fetishised. Every dull brand has a story, every prostituted hack is a storyteller. But despite this cheapening, Story remains a fascinating aspect of human behaviour. I have been interested in the structures underlying Story for many years. A couple of landmarks were being sent, on my second job, at Melrose Film Productions by my boss and mentor the late Peter Cole (ex-BBC Panorama), on an early outing of Robert McKee’s Story course in London. And reading Into The Woods by my former Channel 4 colleague John Yorke (Head of Drama).

robert mckee story book and course

Also on the McKee course, which has since become something of a screen industry cliche, were John Cleese, Joanna Hogg and a famous British sci-fi writer, I think it was Brian Aldiss but I forget. It took place at the Liberal Club off Northumberland Avenue over a weekend and it was a profound experience. I remember writing to McKee after to thank him for a transformational couple of days.

into the woods book john yorke

Into The Woods I found a great synthesis of the various theories I’d heard over the years.

Another key experience was the first time I worked on a development with my Little Dot colleague Paul Woolf. I was a Commissioning Editor at Channel 4 at the time and he was a senior Development Producer at Maverick TV. He is now based in Philadelphia heading up Unscripted Development in the US for Little Dot Studios and we’ve been working together closely throughout 2019 – a lot of Skyping. I was struck by how Paul applied story archetypes to the factual entertainment programme we were developing at the time – not an obvious tactic but it worked really well.

I use concepts of Story Structure all the time in developing documentaries, even when derived from sources more focused on movie and drama scriptwriting. In the area I work in much of the time, short form online docs, there is a tendency to neglect narrative and default to what are in effect mini character portraits. I’m a real Story merchant, pushing all the time for narrative drive in documentaries.

violet vixen poster real stories original documentary

A good example is the recent Real Stories Original Violet Vixen. The young director, Leanne Rogers, brought me some lovely footage centred on Leo, a charismatic 11 year old exploring his gender identity. But there was little story in place. I gave her a commission for a 25-minute doc on the proviso that she add an element to up the narrative drive. I suggested she encouraged Leo (and his mum) to go see his hero. It turned out his hero was Courtney Act, drag queen graduate of RuPaul’s Drag Race. Leanne managed to pull off the encounter and the trip down to Brighton to meet Courtney (the charming Shane Jenek) gave the film a spine. Our timing was lucky too as Courtney won Celebrity Big Brother while we were in the edit – he has since been given his own show on Channel 4 this Christmas.

So I’ve been spending a lot of time over the last year thinking about Story Structure. My starting point was reflecting on Why Do Us Humans Love and Tell Stories?

Cavemen at camp fire telling stories cartoon

My conclusions in brief can be summarised thus:

* to distract us / entertain us
* to find meaning / patterns in our experiences
* to get a sense of there being order
* to think about what we would do in the circumstances / rehearse situations
* to get guidance on how to understand other people
* to connect to others through shared experience
* to pass on information
* to pass on values
* to define our identity/give us common ground/bind the group
* to feel better about our lives (by comparison)

All of these seem to me to grow out of our Human Condition and the imperatives of evolution.

* to distract us / entertain us – the world is a tough place
* to find meaning / patterns in our experiences – evolution has made us great pattern spotters
* to get a sense of there being order – we need a sense of meaning and purpose
* to think about what we would do in the circumstances / rehearse situations – we’re more likely to survive if we’re well prepared
* to get guidance on how to understand other people – we’re more likely to thrive if we have insight into how our fellow bald monkeys think
* to connect to others through shared experience – we have an inherent need to belong (to the family and tribe and race)
* to pass on information – e.g. to help our offspring survive & thrive
* to pass on values – to help our society run smoothly
* to define our identity/give us common ground/bind the group – we need the group to survive
* to feel better about our lives (by comparison) – the world is a tough place.

In the same way, archetypal stories grow directly out of the human condition. Let’s start at the beginning – Birth. One of the main story structures is Paradise Lost. We spend nine months floating around in a benign place, well fed, nicely muffled sound, a steady reliable rhythm of heartbeat. And then we get ejected. Into a tough place.

When I was doing some research on that second job at Melrose I went down to the old Docklands to meet a bloke whose big theory was that the trauma of Birth was the defining moment of our whole lives. I’ve reflected on that from time to time over the years and I buy it more and more.

So what I’m calling the Paradise Lost story is: I was in a perfect place. I got ejected. I need to get back there. I reckon this is reflected in all sorts of human behaviour from people tending to drift back in their later years to where they grew up (or a place similar to it) to men spending so much time and effort trying to get back up that little birth canal. This story is intimately linked to the concept of Home.

It’s the central human story of the Bible – the expulsion from the Garden of Eden. It’s there in The Godfather – Michael gets sent off to Sicily after tasting the forbidden fruit of illegal killing (the murder of Sollozzo and McCluskey) and works his way back not just to the family kitchen but also to the desk in the background. It’s there in Where The Wild Things Are – Max gets sent to his room and from there finds himself in that wild place, it’s fun but he’s happy to sail back to the peace of his childhood bed.

al-pacino godfather murder of Sollozzo and McCluskey

Of course it also the story of both Trump and Brexit as highlighted in John Harris’ excellent 3-parter for BBC Radio 4, The Tyranny of Story, which has been repeated this week. “Make America Great Again” – America was a great place (e.g. in the post-war 50s boom); that disappeared; Trump is going to bring it back. “Take Back Control” – Britain was a great place (e.g. when we had an empire); that disappeared; Brexit is going to bring it back. Neither Hilary nor Remain came up with an effective counter-narrative.

where the wild things are maurice sendak book childrens

Over the holidays I’m going to reflect more on the connection between the human lifecycle (both as individuals and a species) and the core human stories.

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The 10 Books which made the most impact on me

A friend of mine, Carol, (aka The Naked Novelist) via my bestman Stuart, passed on a challenge this week: to list the 10 books that have had the most impact on my life. So that’s impact, not my favourite 10.

Here’s my stab at it…

1. ‘Here We Go’ – the Janet and John book I learnt to read with: “Look, Janet, look!”

janet and john here we go book
2. ‘Ulysses’, James Joyce – it’s about everything, and very resonant if you’re a Jew married to an Irish woman “Yes, yes, yes!”

First edition (I'd love one of these)

First edition (I’d love one of these)

3. ‘Paradise Lost’ Books 1 & 2, John Milton ed. John Broadbent – the poetry’s pretty damn good but the footnotes were a revelation – it helped me realise school subjects are artificial divisions and everything’s connected to everything else. “Of man’s disobedience and the fruit of that forbidden tree…”

 'Paradise Lost' Books 1 & 2, John Milton ed. John Broadbent book
4. ‘Asterix in Britain’ – I loved the notion of an invasion succeeding because one side stopped for tea at a set time every afternoon (5 o’clock)

Asterix Chez les Bretagnes

Asterix Chez les Bretagnes

Time for Tea (a fatal weakness)

Time for Tea (a fatal weakness)

5. ‘The Dinosaur Strain’, Mark Brown – got me into the subject of Creative Thinking, led to me making a computer game (MindGym) and ultimately to writing my own book about Creativity, ‘When Sparks Fly’ (5/8 finished, interviewed Jamie Oliver for it today)

the only picture I can find as it's almost extinct

the only picture I can find as it’s almost extinct

6. ‘Romeo and Juliet’, Shakey – emblematic of the year I had an inspiring teacher (English teacher of course – Mr Fitch RIP MA Cantab) who got me really reading

romeo and juliet shakespeare arden edition
7. ‘The Riddle of the Sands’, Erskine Childers – made me realise what a burden material possessions can be in the scene where the protagonist can’t get his trunk into the sailing boat and has to dump all his shit on the quay

'The Riddle of the Sands', Erskine Childers penguin book
8. ‘The Complete Plays of Joe Orton’ – bought it for a 6th form project, turned me on to satire and the Sixties

'The Complete Plays of Joe Orton'  book
9. ‘Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide’ – pored over this fat tome when I first got really into movies as a teenager

'Leonard Maltin's Movie Guide' 1979
10. ‘On the Road’, Jack Kerouac – led me to Allen Ginsberg who in turn inspired ‘When Sparks Fly’ (see above) and is the subject of the first chapter, With a Little Help from My Friend

On the Road by Jack Kerouac

on-the-road-book-cover-jack-kerouac-poster

jack Kerouac-On-The-Road book novelIf it’s not too Neknominate, please do share your Top Impact 10 below (or a link to it)…

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