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What Kind of Story Do You Want to Tell?

Knowing the answer to this question is crucial for any artist heading into a new project.

"How sour sweet music is, when time is broke and no proportion kept!"
– Richard II, William Shakespeare

Last week I interviewed a very talented playwright (read it here!), and his response to my last question in particular makes for a very good segue into this week’s topic. A playwright is an architect. And in fact, actors are architects too. So are designers and directors. Whether you’re building a character or a soundscape, a play script or a lighting plot, you must ask all the right questions and come up with as many good answers as possible; and then you must craft those answers into something real. As an artist, particularly a theatrical, film, or television artist, one of the most important questions to be asked is this: “What kind of story do I want to tell?” That question gets at the heart of why we chose to enter this field, what motivates us as creative beings, and what we most want to contribute to the world. Hefty ideas, but on a practical level, that one simple question is quite revealing.

Genre is a big part of it. Over centuries and centuries of culture, we’ve developed quite a complex set of schemas through which we interpret art. What we expect from an action movie is quite different from what we expect of a comedy. From there, sub-genres get even more specific. We go into westerns expecting hot, arid landscapes, horses, rough and tumble action, and the essential conflict between the order of law and the wildness of nature. We went into Cowboys and Aliens not knowing what to expect. Seriously though, could a movie be any more genre-confused than that one? It didn’t know if it wanted to be a horror movie, an action movie, a sci-fi, a western, or a comedy. In all seriousness, I think it’s a great example of how horribly wrong things can go if one isn’t specific and decisive when putting together a story. Breaking genre expectations is often one of the most interesting things a story can do, but it’s also exceedingly difficult to pull off with any kind of grace. And the more genres you try to incorporate, the more likely you are to end in a downward spiral towards the mire of incomprehensibility. If we do mix and match, we’d better know why.

As a counterpoint to Cowboys and Aliens, Joss Whedon’s TV show, Firefly, and the following movie, Serenity, blend the genres of western and sci-fi expertly for a very specific reason. A crew of smuggler-outlaws flies a tiny merchant ship under the radar of the immense system-wide Alliance government, twisting the commonly recognizable moral spine of westerns into a commentary on the dangers of an overwhelmingly powerful central authority – made so by the technological superiority of a science-fiction age. I could write pages about this show alone, but the point is that it’s a bleeping incredible show in part because it knows why it is what it is.

So ask yourself, what sort of things do you want to say? Or just ask, how do I want to make people feel when they see my work? Maybe your answer is, “I just want to make people laugh.” That’s as legitimate an answer as they come. Maybe you want to show people something sad or something ugly, to make them question, to make them think, to make them believe, to make them doubt. Maybe you just want to tell a great love story. Maybe you don’t want to tell a traditional ‘story’ at all! Then your story becomes more of an abstraction than a narrative. (Though I don’t go into it as much here, style is just as important as genre. There are many factors in a story.) Maybe you want to do it all. Maybe you don’t.

Every time I start a project, whether it’s a new role or a new script, pretty much the first thing I want to know is: “what’s the story?” Then it’s, “okay, so how do I do that?” If I jump to the second question without knowing the answer to the first, I get lost. So on a very immediate level, I think this topic is vital. But with a wider focus, paying attention to what stories appeal to you (and how you’d like to tell them if you got the chance) will define your career. So… it might be worth some thought.