Thursday, December 6, 2012

Great Stories - True Premises

I lead a bifurcated life when it comes to the types of projects I work on. I find my greatest satisfaction in structuring and writing stories for myself and for my clients. My wife, Pam, and I consume a great many movies and novels; and we're mesmerized by the integrity the best stories have with respect to a true and consistently applied moral premise that informs the metaphors used to do the story telling.

But the other side of my creative life has been involved in helping others produce very didactic series for Catholic television. Yes, we're talking about "talking heads" here. There are times when I don't want anyone to know that I write, produce, direct, edit and distribute such stuff. Not because I don't believe in the messages that the series contain, because I do believe in them. I'm a devout Roman Catholic who loves the Church's teachings. But I am convinced that didactic presentations DO NOT engage audiences very well, nor do they pass on values from generation to generation as well as stories do. But the didactic stuff does explain WHY and WHAT is going on in a psychological and spiritual sense in our lives, and in the lives of characters in stories with true moral premises.

One such connection occurred to me this morning as I was writing collateral materials for a Bible Study series on the Epistle of James that I'm preparing for broadcast. The particular Bible passage that applies to storytelling so well is this:
Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.  (NAB, James 1:2-4)
This passage hits a particular nail on the head with what we try to do --- or rather, what we MUST DO as storytellers. Our protagonist wants to reach the goal, but to do so our hero must traverse through myriad of trials and sufferings. Why do we drag our heroes through all of that? One answer is because in real life we are dragged through it all. The tests we put our hero through (as well as the trials we go through as humans) will teach our hero (and us) about life. Experience is the best teacher, after all. And simulations (movies) are a close second. Hopefully, in a redemptive story, our protagonist will persevere through the bad stuff and in the process learn something important, so that the end result her or she will be a better person -- and goal of the story achieved.

For the protagonist the "faith" is their belief in the truth of the moral premise. Yet, for them to really, truly believe the truth of the moral premise, we have to take them through hellfire and brimstone, (the testing of their faith as gold is refined with fire), before they get enough sense knocked into them to learn how to navigate life, latch onto what's really important,  develop the nerve to remove their mask of "unbelief," and risk all to persevere through Act 3 to the goal. (Do you see the story structure in that?)

And if our heroes persevere through all that, they can be joyous. Thus, great stories are about characters that learn something that is greater than themselves and persevere against great odds to bring that truth home to themselves and those around them....including us in the theater.

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