Saturday, September 3, 2011

A Convincing Impossibility Makes the Best Story

This is a post about STORY HOOKS that could have appeared in my review of WARRIOR

Also, Hooks and Log Lines go together. So here's a link to my post on creating good Log Lines.


I encourage my students to start developing their stories with a nearly impossible physical hook, and then as the story takes shape to stick close to the psychological truth of natural law.  Taking a line from comedy development, a good story will "tell a lie that tells the truth". The LIE is the physical hook (it's an impossibility). But the TRUTH is the moral motivation that drives the action. The two together ensure you will engage your audience.

Storytellers are typically allowed only one hook per story. Everything else must be true in a physical sense. But EVERYTHING in the psychological world must be true. No moral hook is allowed. 

So, with that here's a quote from the production notes of WARRIOR written by the director Gavin O'Conner and Anthony Tambakis.  Emphasis mine.
O'Connor's original, enduring story idea was one about two brothers who haven't seen each other in fourteen years and end up fighting for the world championship, both coming up as extreme underdogs. Although on paper the story might sound farfetched,  the door to the room where Anthony Tambakis and Gavin wrote bore a sing with the Aristotle quote: "A convincing impossibility is better than an unconvincing possibility". To them, this mean that in the world of fiction, anything is possible if it's told truthfully.
The impossibility is the physical hook, and to that O'Connor and Tambakis emphases the importance of telling the story truthfully. So, if I can channel Aristotle and O'Conner here's what I'll put outside my door the next time I write a story:

A convincing impossibility told truthfully
is better than an unconvincing possibility told falsely.

BTW: the original Aristotle quote from POETICS found in my Samuel Henry Butcher based translation is this, [with an editorial correction by me]:
The poet should prefer probable impossibilities to improbable possibilities. ... Once the [impossibility] has been introduced and an air of likelihood imparted to it, we must accept it in spite of the absurdity. (ARISTOTLE: On Man in the Universe. Classics Club Edition. Walter J. Black, Inc., Roslyn, N.Y.. p. 439).
In other words, a possible story that ignores the natural laws of morality is no match for an impossibility story told with moral integrity.

And now a word from a pretty good story writer:

Amended 5/28/13

Critics of Hollywood often point to the a motion picture's overt exaggeration of character trait or story arc. The claim is that the exaggeration is not "real" and therefore invalid. Aside from the boredom factor of watching the story about a man who shops for groceries and comes home to fix dinner as a regular occurrence with associated drama, the criticism ignores the purpose of stories in culture, which I cover elsewhere.

In talking about hooks and story impossibilities, here's the seminal quote (emphasis mine):
In general, the impossible must be justified by reference to artistic requirements, or to the higher reality, or to received opinion. With respect to the requirements of art, a probable impossibility is to be preferred to a thing improbable and yet possible. Again, it may be impossible that there should be men such as Zeuxis painted. 'Yes,' we say, 'but the impossible is the higher thing; for the ideal type must surpass the reality.' To justify the irrational, we appeal to what is commonly said to be. In addition to which, we urge that the irrational sometimes does not violate reason; just as 'it is probable that a thing may happen contrary to probability.'
[POETICS by Aristotle (translated by S.H.Butcher). XXV. Critical Objections brought against Poetry, and the principles on which they are to be answered.]

 A couple of terms jump out when I look at the original. "higher reality," "Impossibility," and "type"; which reminds me of this:
To the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large startling figures. 
[Flannery O'Connor]
A story's "hook" is all this, and is a necessity for a story to connect. Stories need impossible hooks. These are brought to mind by the concept of type. Types shout. Types draw startling figures. Types, when done properly (like similes and metaphors) do get people's attention because they are not natural, surreal, other-worldly, interesting, and out of the mundane. 

The concept of "type" is worth underscoring. "Types" are like figures of speech. Types exaggerate a particular trait or facet of the story for the sake of underscoring an attribute of the moral or point. Noah taking eight souls on board an ark (along with a host of animals) while all other animal life perishes, is an exaggeration compared to what it foreshadows — Christian baptism, in which no one dies. The same is true of Moses leading the Children of Israel through the Red Sea at the expense of Pharaoh's army. That story also foreshadows Christian baptism. To get the point across, the flood and the Red Sea crossing both sound like impossibilities, and thus accentuate the higher and more important, but less dramatic, thing. They becomes surreal stories that seem to surpass reality, in order to highlight the attributes of the reality. They are thus TYPES.

When Sandra Bullock won her Academy Award for acting in THE BLIND SIDE she thanked the Tuohy's for allowing the them to "exaggerate" their lives. The exaggeration was necessary to convey the finer points of Michael Orr's and Lee Anne Tuohy's lives.

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