Studying Storytelling: An Introduction

February 12, 2015

One of the great benefits of my new career path is that I can do things like read a ton or watch television and movies under the guise of “research” about my craft. And it’s not BS! These things are often incredibly helpful even as they are also time-consuming. In order to prove that I am, in fact, learning things by watching television and reading, I am introducing a series of posts to share my thoughts on some of the things that I read, watch or maybe even listen to.

This series is called “Studying Storytelling,” and I think it’s going to be a lot of fun.

The Format

I’m proposing a simple structure for these posts. Each one will focus on a piece of media — a book, a movie, a television series, maybe even video games. If, for example, a movie is part of a trilogy (this is legally required now, right?) I reserve the right to lump each film into a single post. I’m more interested in looking at the complete stories told by these things rather than their individual chapters.*

I want to look at what techniques, motifs, choices, etc. are used by storytellers of all kinds to create the worlds their stories inhabit.

My objective is not to give straightforward reviews or recaps like you might find at the A.V. ClubVulture or any other of a gazillion review platforms. There’s plenty of that already. Instead, for each story I choose I’m going to pick out three aspects of how the story was told that jump out at me with each getting its own distinct section in the writeup. The stories themselves are not the focus, though a bit of story discussion is inevitable. I want to look at what techniques, motifs, choices, etc. are used by storytellers of all kinds to create the worlds their stories inhabit. Because the stories are secondary to their delivery here, spoilers should be pretty minimal. I’ll do my best to call out big ones if I feel like I have to include them.

This might seem a bit…esoteric right now, and that’s probably accurate. In hopes of making my intentions a little clearer, here are a few examples of things I might discuss:

  1. What are the relationships between key characters like? How do they help or hinder the overall story?
  2. What narrative devices are used (flashbacks, dream sequences, red herrings, etc.) and are they effective?
  3. Are there noticeable stylistic choices, like this one, that shape how the creator wants us to perceive the story world?
  4. Are there other recurring elements and how are they important? Great example: “so it goes” from Slaughterhouse-Five
  5. How does the story fit within genre trappings and how does it defy them? Is this good or bad for the story?

These are but a few of the kinds of questions I’ll be asking as I evaluate things. The exercise of doing this will be great for me because I’ll be forcing myself to think critically about what I notice in a story. I hope it will also be entertaining for others who might gain some insight into their favorite shows and movies or perhaps discover something they had not heard about.

I do not plan to write only about things I love or avoid criticizing something just because I like it. While I cannot promise that I’ll sit through five seasons of a television show I don’t like or finish a 500 page novel I find dreadful, I will be looking for opportunities to discuss both positive and negative aspects of things I read and watch. I’ll always be looking for balance though. What works for me/ What doesn’t? I like to challenge myself to find something interesting or redeeming even in things that don’t quite do it for me. Maybe it’s because I am obviously a relentless optimist.**

The Subject Matter (Tentatively)

Right now I’m thinking that I’ll do these posts once per month. I think that’ll be sustainable. There’ll certainly be enough to draw from, but I want to be fairly choosy rather than just writing about whatever I’ve read or watched most recently.  Like everything else on the blog this will be subject to my whims, but here is a preliminary list of titles I plan to write about.

  1. The Sopranos
  2. Californication
  3. The Marvel Cinematic Universe
  4. Fringe
  5. The Dark Tower (books 1-7)
  6. American Psycho
  7. How I Met Your Mother
This photo does not add context to the post, but don't tell you're going to complain about puppies. Are you some kind of monster?

This photo does not add context to the post, but don’t tell me you’re going to complain about puppies. Are you some kind of monster?

Though the list above is in no particular order, I will be tackling The Sopranos first. It was the show that inspired this series in the first place, so it only makes sense to start there. You may also notice that as of now I have only one book series that I plan on discussing. Perhaps that seems odd for an aspiring novelist, but as I said a TV show was where the idea came from. Focusing on movies and TV shows came about because I felt like I had just as much to learn from visual media as from print. I sometimes see things onscreen and try to figure out how I would create that same feeling on the page. I’m also interested in writing film and television, so it’s not as far afield as it might seem for that reason too.

If you’re interested in not just the what of storytelling but also the how, this should be a lot of fun. Even if you prefer your entertainment to be pure leisure where you can completely disengage your brain, it’s possible you can gain a new appreciation for some of the stuff you like. I suspect most people who find themselves enthralled by something — particularly in what might be considered a new golden age of TV storytelling — are thinking about how the stories are told even if they don’t quite realize it. For all the doom and gloom associated with much-overhyped “death of reading” and “death of the novel,” I think people are looking for engagement with stories and characters every bit as much as ever, maybe even more so. As someone who wants to tell stories, I think that’s great!

So let’s chat about it. Come back next week for “Studying Storytelling Vol 1: The Sopranos.”

Links to Studying Storytelling Posts

Volume 1: The Sopranos

Volume 2: Californication

Volume 3: Fringe

Volume 4: Chef

Volume 5: The Dark Tower

Volume 6: Hot Fuzz

Volume 7: John Wick

Volume 8: Portal

Volume 9: Final Fantasy III (or VI)

Volume 10: Star Wars

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*When looking at series of books, TV, and movies, I’ll probably show a preference for series that are complete, but I won’t exclusively do so. Something like Doctor Who for example has no end in sight but would be really interesting to write about.

**Hahahahahaaha. Nope. This is all pointless and we’re all going to die. Yes, you too.

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