Why Do Storytellers Ignore Story?

It seems a little like meeting a man who insists the dust is wet and the sea is dry. Some things are just too obvious surely?

I’m usually pretty good at ‘getting – not agreeing – but getting where people are coming from with opinions that are different from mine. We’re driven by pretty similar things when it comes right down to it – love sex and rocky road ice-cream.

I get the endless drowning of story in sex and violence, why Voyager winched poor Seven into that costume, why Buffy’s hair was always perfect, I can even wrap my head around the endless machinations of the hideous folk that people stuff like Gone Girl, Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead. Like it, no, agree with it, hell no, admire it… do I have to answer that?

But when writers skip right past the story, the story built into the premise, the plot, the characters, the very title! – not address it poorly, but just ignore it entirely. Can they not see it? Genuinely or is there some deeper reason they don’t want to address it?

Take Voyager. It was as the name implies a ship on an epic voyage. A voyage home. It’s on a mission into the badlands in the alpha quadrant to track down a missing Maquis vessel, tracing the route of the rebel ship they find themselves mysteriously transported across the galaxy to the delta quadrant, 70,000 light years from home.

It’s a great premise.

Here’s more.

The rebel ship has a spy aboard – Tuvok – Captain Janeways confidant and security chief.

Captain Janeway destroys the mysterious array that transported both ships, acting under what she believes are Starfleet principles, the very principles that have left the Maquis as outcasts.

The Maquis vessel is sacrificed by Chakotay in order to protect both crews from an attacking native species, the Kazon

A ‘helpful’ trader manipulates them into saving his friend and creates the animosity that in part causes the Kazon to attack.

The two crews – because of Janeways actions – are now stuck together. Although Starfleet outnumber the Maquis considerably.

Besides Tuvok, there is another traitor, Paris, a jailbird, brought on board to help navigate the badlands, who sold them out for a reduced sentence.

The Maquis crew include a half Klingon who washed out of the academy, a Cardassian infiltrator and a beta-zoid sociopath.

I don’t think you could GET a premise more ripe with story. At the end of the opening episodes, you have both crews alone, in the debris of the battle…and there is Chakotey in full uniform beside Janeway as she announces how they’re all going to have to make their new crew members welcome ..

And all of a sudden it’s homeward bound only with pointy ears instead of wagging tails..

 

Oh story raises its head now and again but it’s tepid, token at best, raised and solved in a neat half hour, with no real sense of underlying tension or unrest. And the only time any true voice of dissent appears she is quickly relegated to a cartoon villain role, revealed to be a traitor, and departs – the same episode – to make an alliance with their new enemies the Kazon.

Can you set up something so ripe and not see its potential? I suppose its possible. Perhaps there were conflicts. Whedon has spoken somewhat openly about the demands of working within an established franchise when he stepped down from hemming the Avengers. Star Trek is huge and at the time Voyager was launched it was at its height, with Deep Space Nine still running and the popular TNG having not long wrapped. It may have been intended to fill that void, and veering from the well worn formula may have had opposition. It’s also worth remembering that DS9 is often considered the least Star Trek of the franchise, – with little trekking involved, a very alien-heavy main cast, and a willingness to undermine and question the untouchable Federation. The Maquis are never painted as villains, even when one of the crew is revealed to be a member, betraying them all, he is unrepentant to the end and shows both heroism and treachery.

Voyager rather than further exploiting this complex situation seems almost instead to function like party sponsored arbitrator, absolving the rebels of anything but misguided good intentions while not so subtly upholding Starfleet values and practices at every turn, moulding them all in the accepted Federation way..

Propaganda in writing is probably unavoidable but on behalf of a fictional institution? Yikes…

I’ve encountered a lot of threads on a lot of boards (its a weird way to be jaded, but I like the tobacca-chewing image) with writers saying, I have my characters – I’m great at characters! – or I have my setting – I’m great at world building! – but I can’t think of plot. And each and every time I think, but if you have characters, you have plot. If you have a world you have plot. You might suffer from too many to chose from, but you surely shouldn’t be faced with none?

Unless of course by character they mean 5’5, 124lbs, good student, average athlete, likes hotdogs, punk music and hates long walks on the beach. if so, please revise your previous assessment. You suck at characters. It’s not an e-harmony profile..

I have no difficulty wrapping my head around the issues with works such as Interstellar. Not to say its forgivable but they didn’t ignore the story sitting in front of their eyes, they just ignored the lack of story sitting in front of their eyes.

Ignoring causality, believability, and accountability in favour of visuals and cheap tricks that tickle the directors fancy – or wallet – is pretty standard. Hollywood is an odd mix of both wanton self indulgence and ruthless risk avoidance in pursuit of profit. Much of this results, as in the case of Voyager with a rigid adherence to formula over and above anything approaching character. The strings are so clearly marked you can see the reason written like chalk directions on a clapper board in front of every action, and its never, ‘because that’s how the character would naturally react’.

In Age of Ultron we have Tony Stark the troublemaking genius who pushes at every barrier just to test it, deciding to use mind blowing alien tech not because its mind blowing alien tech but to keep his superhero friends and family safe. Or Black widow – I mean the name says it all – but she eschews her name, training and flirt with everyone commit to no-one personality to fall headlong in love with a man who despite being a giant uncontrollable monster, is, we can only assume, a scintillating conversationalist..

And finally we have a villain, built from a desire to protect the world, who just wants to drop something really big on it.

Given the established party line is formula bad.. thank you Hulk, while character and conflict are both revered as good, you sort of wonder if this is an honest attempt gone wrong. Not just Age of Ultron, but much of Hollywood’s output. That they can’t in fact see how closely they are adhering to cliché, but rather imagine that they are plumbing the emotional depths of their characters.

Sometimes I think we get character and personality mixed up. We use the former in writing a lot, we talk about flaws and traits, depth and believability, yet we rarely end up with a personality, that unique messy blend that defines a person.

when writing a novel a writer should create living people; people not characters – Earnest Hemingway

Character is the best most natural and compelling form of conflict there is. Their power to drive and shape plot, provide obstacles and generate tension is however, rendered utterly obsolete when they’re all the same character; when every writer is looking not to life, to the people around them, even within to the truth of their own feelings and reactions, but to tropes, to established patterns of behaviour within fiction, we’ve left story far behind.

Pixar storytelling rule #15 If you were your character in this situation how would you feel? Honesty lends credibility to unbelievable situations

Returning to Interstellar, we have a little girl who adores her father and wants to grow up to be a scientist just like him. When he has to go off to save the world (for her) she gets mad at him. Fair enough, it’s a standard trope but believable enough. I wouldn’t have behaved this way, nor can I imagine my brother or sister reacting similarly, but we grew up in a happy two parent home, with no threats of imminent world ending so who knows. Where the trouble starts to come is that in the few days that her father is traversing space and looking through his messages, a great deal more time has passed on earth. And his daughter is still mad. Twenty years later. It makes for a poignant moment for poor old dad, if you’re willing to go along with it. I’m not sure how any fully grown woman, fully cognizant of the tragedy facing mankind and how few remain who are skilled enough to offer any help could possibly still be mad, especially when all she has to do is chat into a laptop camera, as pain free apologies go they don’t come much easier.

Beyond character – as some might put it – you have world. I don’t personally think the two are distinct. World – at least any we know – is built by people, what we do, what we need, what we fear and how we deal with it all.

In the case of Interstellar you have again a lack, rather than avoidance. The world is dying, but no one knows why. Most of the action is not spend dealing with either figuring this out or attempting to deal with the reality of it, but navigating space where we are treated to a series of inconsequential, implausible and somewhat tenuously linked issues, none of which relate to the characters. The final solution does actually attempt to link back to the central (apparently) relationship of father and daughter, suggesting their deep abiding love could connect them across space and time. The same abiding love that left a grown woman perfectly content to see her father strive and die alone in space knowing his daughter is pissed off with him… mmmm I hope no one involved ever decides to love me..

But Voyager… ah Voyager. There is a reason fan-fiction is so ripe in the Star Trek community. It’s a rich ready made soil. A plethora of alien species, existing conflicts, and the unlimited possibilities of a new system without the tying strings and danger-free familiarity of the Federation controlled home territories.

Or consider Age of Ultron. Many films draw on the world we have here and now, positing an alien – literally or otherwise – element and then simply asking what if? I often find this sort of premise somewhat akin to superhero origin stories. Our instinct is the new is always preferable from a story pov, but in reality there is little new left. They’re all dealing with essentially the same thing, treading the same ground of shock and denial, horror and wonder, something that makes the second instalment or third much more appealing. We can go deeper. Or we can rehash. Hulk is targeted.. again. Tony and Steve butt heads .. again and none of it affects the seamless fighting dynamic of this disparate group who’ve barely seen each other – as all the intermediate franchise films demonstrate. New territory is provided by going against the established canon. The chemistry between Hawkeye and Black Widow fizzles to nothing as he suddenly has a wife and three kids (who were totally not worried when he was under the evil power of Loki), the fall of the triskelion – eh… the what now? and Fury’s surrender of power become irrelevant like all the other intervening events. While the world at large continues with the same old headline – Avengers: friend or foe?

Superhero films as a genre have always struck me as particularly guilty of the ‘ignore story’ protocol. Is this a matter of fearing to disrupt an existing audience? Comics themselves have grown in darkness and scope, holding firm as the lonely teenage geeks best friend but no longer afraid to piss off mom and dad by addressing everything from masturbation to sexual identity. In fact identity has always been at its core, it just got a little dirtier.

I get wanting to remain loyal to your fans, the aspirational quality that has always defined them whether it’s wisecracking Deadpool or earnest icon Superman. But to borrow that old adage about courage.. is aspiration defined by lack of struggle or the overcoming of struggles? It can’t be a coincidence that the vast majority of superheroes have such pathetic roots – bullied, belittled, orphaned, traumatised – but to render overcoming as simply as buying some spandex and coincidental as shit-other-folks-did-made-me-cool? Somewhat redefines ‘overcoming’…

Some recent films have seemed to attempt to address this. Chronicle is about powers gone wrong; Zach Snyder commits the ultimate sin when his superman kills; Spiderman lets a criminal walk free. Yet none of it speaks to the individual’s struggle. It’s portrayed as an attraction to the dark side(usually leggy and smelling of whisky), a contrived set up, a superficial attitude that never dints their self sacrificing heroics.

Nowhere else is this more agonisingly evident than in Superman and most specifically in his recent incarnations. The Clark Kent persona has been discarded, reduced to the equivalent of a fake moustache rather than the real man behind the blue suit. By removing all the inherent weaknesses of Clark Kent – the difficulty of growing up different, wondering where you really belong, having to conceal physical abnormalities, the desire to be loved and accepted for who you truly are, feeling inadequate in face of the expectations placed on you – you reduce Superman to less than even a ‘character’, to a symbol.

Lastly one of my pet hates is the curious paradox of the hero who must bear the ‘responsibility’ of his powers, yet in doing so renders all others free. The Flash must fight for Central City because no one else will.. well honestly if folk won’t stand up and help themselves. If all the brilliant bright minds, deep pockets, political powerhouses can’t ante up and do something then I’d honestly be saying screw you. The demands – the constant cries of save us! – has he abandoned us? – are embraced as staples of the genre, as evidence of his unique chosen-one stature rather than examined on a larger scale. No one addresses the very real evidence that the only people who put all their needs on someone else are usually abusers.

Now there is a story – does society abuse superheroes? I’m sure someone will be along to ignore it any day now..

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