The Purpose of Storytelling – My $0.02 Opinion

So, as I am sure that many people have seen “Pixar’s 22 Rules of Storytelling”  that seems to have currently been dominating my Facebook news feed.  It’s irritating me for a number of reasons.  But the chief reason is it being called “rules.”

The word “rules” implies that to break them is Bad(tm).  I was raised, as I am sure many, especially of my generation, with the ingrained belief that rules MUST be followed.  They must be unquestioned.  To break the rules makes you a Bad Person and whatever resulted from rule breaking has no worth.  Really, this irritates me because most things are followed up with examples of the same people who made The Rules going on and breaking the ones they made.  The media industry clings to rules and to formulas.  They want success in a bottle, with no effort, and that must be done by using the same format but changing the names, the costumes, and the sets.

“Rules are made to be broken,” some would say to me.  Bull pucky.  I am pretty sure this concept is the reason behind most criminal activity and the horrible way people treat one another.  It has extended to this idiot belief that “the rules don’t apply to me.”  Because we seem to be incapable of differentiating between rules that really should be followed like, oh, obeying speed limits, not driving drunk, not forcing ourselves onto other people (and this concept can cover SO very much, not just sexual assault and rape, but that’s not the purpose of this rant) and when it’s okay to break the ‘rules’ like with writing and other artistic endeavors.  {An aside, to the dude who paints with his dangle… it might be art, but seriously, effing ew.}

Artistic “rules” are really “guidelines.”  If someone can explain to me a good reason why something must be done or something must be avoided, fine.  Doesn’t mean that it is expressly prohibited, just it may or may not be advised.  (See a previous post about my gripe about adverb and passive tense usage)

Now.  When my kids were teenagers, I returned to college.  I took classes like Shakespeare, sociology, psychology, and mythology.  People might consider these rather pointless when my goal was a business-technology degree, but that was what was wonderful about them.  It talked about storytelling.  It talked about how people think and react, how to build something coherent out of a mass of chaos and cacophony.

But mythology was my favorite class, hands down.  Because myths are stories that were not simply about entertainment.  They were teaching about life and people.  They were an attempt to explain and understand the world.  The hero (now known as the protagonist) was the person you wanted to be.  The villain (now known as the antagonist) was the one you did NOT want to be.  Actions or lack of them were met with consequences.  If they were good consequences, that was what you wanted to do/be like. And if they were bad consequences, well…. duh?  (Nowadays, we have heroes we hate and villains we love and we wonder what’s wrong with society. But that’s another rant.)

Now we have more than just the storyteller by the fire, more than just scrolls or books.  We have television.  We have movies.  We even have music, some few that are story songs and not ass-wagging hit-me-baby-one-more-time shit written by committee to fit into the formula and vomited up by the hottie of the moment.  (I miss the real musicians.  But. Rant for another day.)  Each medium has a different storytelling style.

So, that brings me to Pixar, today’s “authority” on storytelling.  One of my gripes in their “22 Rules” is #5: Simplify. Focus. Combine characters. Hop over detours. You’ll feel like you’re losing valuable stuff but it sets you free.

The thing is… you are losing valuable stuff.  This is why novels or long running TV series converting into movies nearly always ends poorly.  Yes, the average person has trouble remembering more than 7 items.  (This is why there are 7 dwarves, not more. And we still usually forget one of them.)  Most TV scenes don’t have more than five people interacting, because we’d get dizzy trying to follow it all.  However, most popular TV series have a LOT more than just five characters.

There are the side characters.  The person you only get to know in passing, by a few paragraphs, by the interaction with the other characters.  The ones you fall in love with because they make the smartass remark in passing, or do something to help, or whatever.  The world is not just those few central characters.  The small characters are part of the environment, explaining details of the world that are not in our own.  They have names, so when they die, it isn’t some nameless, faceless, who-cares-if-they-died person.  It was someone we had met, maybe even liked a little, or hated a little or something that gives some feeling.  We don’t need to kill off our heroes just to keep our audience afraid for the heroes.  We just need to pull them into the story, make them feel what the characters feel, and sometimes, make them hurt with them.

In Toy Story, Pixar had a lot more than a handful of characters.  They were color. Background.  Describing the toys’ world.   Extraneous characters to someone else who is a bean counting, formula-clinging, rule Nazi, not an artist willing to accept something is different than what they have decided is “the one way to do things.”


About LexyWolfe

I am a writer of fantasy and occasionally science fiction.
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