Why We tell stories
Updated: Jan 15, 2019
Last week, I was honored to be the guest speaker at the Hazak Luncheon at Temple Bnai Israel in Bethesda. We had one of the largest crowds yet for a talk, and the room full of seniors were attentive and enthusiastic, judging back the fact that they laughed at all my jokes, had abundant questions, and many even bought a book after the talk.
I had weighed several topics before addressing the group, owing to the fact that it was billed as a talk on How to Tell Stories the Right Way. That's a topic covered in the entirety of my book and over the course of a 13 week college semester, not something to broach in just sixty minutes. So I decided instead to talk about Why We Tell Stories, a subject that is the catalyst for How we do it. After all, if we know the function of storytelling, we can determine how to best go about fulfilling it.
This then is the text of the talk I gave on Aristotle's Guiding Precept for the vital purpose of storytelling:
A Jewish father was very troubled by the way his son turned out and went to see his rabbi about it.
“Rabbi, I brought him up in the faith, gave him a very expensive Bar Mitzvah and it cost me a fortune to educate him. Then he tells me last week, he’s decided to be a Christian. Rabbi, where did I go wrong?”
The rabbi strokes his beard and says, “Funny you should come to me. I too brought up my son as a boy of faith, sent him to university and it cost me a fortune and then one day he comes to me and tells me he wants to be a Christian.
“What did you do?” asked the man.
“I turned to God for the answer,” replied the rabbi.
“And what did God say?” asked the man.
He said, “Funny you should come to me…”
A screwdriver walks into a bar. The bartender says, “Funny, we have a drink named after you. The screwdriver says, “Really? You have a drink named Murray?”
In the town of Chelm, one rainy season, the downpours threatened never to end. The roads became impassable, puddles became lakes, and rivers of mud flowed down the mountain. The town council was very concerned. Chelmers could not shop, children had to be carried from place to place, for the old or infirm, just going outside presented an existential danger.
The Wise Men of Chelm discussed and debated for seven days and seven nights and finally came up with a solution: The Great Rain Wall. After all, the elders declared, walls are essential for keeping anything undesirable OUT. So they agreed to empty the town treasury to build a twelve-foot wall around the entire village of Chelm to keep the rain out. And despite the terrible conditions in which the workmen struggled, going way over schedule and way over budget, the wall was finally erected. And the townspeople rejoiced.
Unfortunately, the rain refused to cooperate. It didn’t care that there was a wall around the city, and continued to fall on the good people of Chelm!
So the elders met again. Their plight was dire. They had abundant rain, but not a whit of money in the town treasury. So after another seven days and seven nights of intense discussion, they hit upon the ultimate solution. They decided to switch the meaning of the words.
And in this way, the town of Chelm suddenly had abundant money and not a whit of rain.
Three different narratives, with the structure, the subject matter, themes, tone, and characters that we associate specifically with Jewish humor.
But while that may be true, it is also true that within each of those brief narratives, exist all the characteristics that exist in any effective story, whether a joke, an anecdote, a parable, a commercial, a novel, or a MOVIE. Whether based on reality or completely dreamt up, any good story will follow the same set of essential principles because there is indeed a RIGHT way to tell a story.
And first of three shameless plugs: That’s the subject of my new book, Classical Storytelling and Contemporary Screenwriting, a comprehensive guide to writing a successful screenplay the way the pros do it, by examining those essential principles that effective stories share. So if you’re interested in writing movies or any kind of story, or just enjoy watching or hearing a good one, it’s available on Amazon and makes a great Tu Bishvat gift for the aspiring writer in your life. I even have a few copies in the back which I’d be happy to sign for anyone interested in buying one after our talk.
And there, first plug over. Two more to come.
So, with gratitude for Marcia and Harriet for inviting me to come talk to you today, and deep appreciation for all of you for coming to listen, I’d like to talk a bit about storytelling in general, writing for movies specifically, and then open it up to questions so we can talk about anything YOU want to talk about.
And we have to begin any conversation about storytelling with this simple, but profound observation: we ALL tell stories. Since we first arrived on this planet and would sit around the cave fire telling the tale of that morning’s Great Saber Tooth Tiger Hunt, regardless of WHERE we are in the world or WHEN we existed in history. We tell stories.
It is in fact the primary thing that separates us from all the other animals on the planet. It’s not language, or tools, or opposable thumbs. What distinguishes us and simultaneously connects us as a species is - We tell stories.
And even more profoundly, when you look at the dramatic narratives that have stood the test of time, from the earliest oral histories, through Oedipus Rex, Hamlet, Death of a Salesman, Hamilton, right up to Aquaman, you start to see some observable patterns. In fact, in story after story, the ones we venerate as worthwhile, artistically or commercially, as narrative forms have changed and evolved, we see the same recurring elements and principles of character, plot, structure, tone, theme, etc. repeated over and over again. Regardless of medium. Regardless of geography, culture, or history.
And what these patterns tell us is that there must be something built into our biology that compels us not just to tell stories, but to tell them in a very particular way. Why?
What need, of the individual, of society, of the SPECIES, could possibly be satisfied by this shared desire to sit around the campfire or Theatre of Dionysus or Arclight Cinema and hear a tale, whether of the aforementioned Great Saber Tooth Tiger Hunt, the downfall of King Oedipus, the madness of Lear, the folly of the Wise Men of Chelm, or the talking butt cheeks of Ace Ventura?
Is it simply an entertainment? A chance to take a break from our dull or troubled lives for a little while? Or does storytelling (and by extension, screenwriting, since screenwriting is just the most contemporary form of storytelling) serve a greater function? Because if we can understand the PURPOSE of storytelling, we can figure out how best to go about fulfilling it.
And that’s the fundamental question I was asking when I set out to write my book. So at this point, I need to digress and tell you a brief story about myself and how this book came to be.
I was born in DC, and from my earliest memories, of my Bubby taking me to see the Wizard of Oz, I’ve had a fascination with movies.
For the first third of my life, I wanted to be an actor. I grew up doing children’s theatre, graduated to the professional DC stages, trod the boards in New York, eventually went out to Hollywood to find my fortune in front of the camera.
And it was there, on the set of Beverly Hills 90210, hanging out with the writers as I usually did at lunch, that I had an epiphany. As an actor, my biggest frustration was that I was so dependent on other people’s creative enterprises in order to enjoy my own. Someone else had to write the role in order for me to perform it. I wondered, instead of mouthing other people’s words, why couldn’t I be the one creating those words and those worlds?
So on a whim I applied to UCLA, the top screenwriting program in the country, and by luck or happy accident, got in. And by luck or happy accident, the very first screenplay I wrote got sold to Universal and I was off and running as a professional screenwriter.
But that too, had its frustrations. If I had rued my dependency on others as an actor, my goodness, making a movie is far and away the most collaborative of artistic mediums. Sure, I could write a script on my own and exercise my creative impulses, I could even sell it and make a lot of money off it, but without the approval, commitment and creative work of countless others, it would never find it’s way to production.
So I found myself in the position of making a living as a writer, yet seldom seeing my work on the silver screen – which for those aspiring screenwriters out there, is the most common career for a professional screenwriter.
But then, through luck or happy accident, I found myself falling into my third career, when my former teachers at UCLA asked me to join the faculty, and I found myself at the front of those classrooms I’d once sat in, now teaching a new generation of wannabes how to write and what to expect.
And for the last several years, that’s what I’ve been doing, at UCLA, Johns Hopkins, Yale, and starting next week at RIT and Hollins University, yes thank God for Skype, teaching students around the world how to write a successful screenplay.
And the honest truth is, while I still enjoy writing, and look forward to seeing some recent and yet-to-be-written work make it to a theatre or more likely Netflix monitor near you, I find I get the most satisfaction these days seeing my students’ work up on the screen – even getting nominated for Emmys and Golden Globes, probably because I still take full credit for it, of course.
Then a few years ago, while building a new MFA Screenwriting program from scratch for the Brooks Institute in Ventura, I was approached by a publisher, asking if I had any ideas for a new book on filmmaking. I said “Sure,” and proceeded to pitch her some ideas based upon the screenwriting classes I was putting together.
And I remember the look of disappointment on her face as she said: Screenwriting? Really? Aren’t there enough books about that? Honestly, is there anything left to say? And I thought, guess not. And obviously didn’t get the gig.
But the experience did make me start to wonder if I could come up with something new to say, some novel approach, or new way of looking to the craft worthy of a book.
And as I say in the foreword to my book, instead of finding something brand spanking new, I rediscovered something brand spanking ancient. The ultimate manual for composing a screenplay, written 2500 years before the invention of cinema.
You see, any screenwriting program worth its salt will tell its students on day one that the very first book written on the subject of dramatic narrative is Aristotle’s Poetics, in which he breaks down in very complete and painstaking detail, the recurring patterns that he discerns in the successful tragic plays and epic poems of his time.
And these writing programs, like UCLA, have students in their first class read Poetics, discuss it, think about it profoundly, and then promptly forget about it to deal with more contemporary writing realities (how to write a PG-13 love scene or make Sandra Bullock more sympathetic). I’m constantly meeting writers who say: oh yeah, we had to read Poetics. Not sure why. It’s really just about Greek tragedies, right? Well, I don’t write those. I write zombie romantic comedies.
Which is a shame.
Because what’s most interesting about Poetics, for us writers today, is not what Aristotle had to say about Oedipus Rex. But what he had to say about Star Wars and Some Like It Hot. Because the observable patterns and universal principles that he identifies and explores are not at all specific to Greek tragedy. But to all good dramatic narratives. In fact, to EVERY successful story that has ever been told.
That is because, as I said at the outset, there is a RIGHT WAY to tell a story, one built into our very DNA because it gets to the heart of WHY WE tell stories in the first place.
And that then ultimately is what my book is about: identifying and exploring those universal principles that Aristotle first identified in Philoctetes and the Odyssey, and showing how they are still present and just as relevant for Murray the screwdriver, a Jello No-Bake cheesecake ad, and Mary Poppins Returns.
And that, once we recognize and understand those principles, what I call Aristotle’s Guiding Precepts, we can utilize them in our own creative endeavors, to make them more universal, more successful.
And while, plug number two, you’ll just have to read my book to get the full picture of HOW to write a screenplay using Aristotle’s timeless insights -- I wanted to talk about Aristotle’s Guiding Precept Number One, from which all the others are derived.
So first a little background: As you may know, Aristotle was a Greek philosopher, actually Macedonian if we’re splitting hairs, who lived from 384 BCE to 322 BCE . He was a pupil of Plato and a teacher of Alexander the Great, and he wrote treatises on just about every subject under the sun, from physics to ethics to linguistics.
In Poetics, he wrote what is essentially the earliest surviving work of dramatic or literary theory. The title come from the Greek word POISES, literally translated as “creation” or “the making,” and he uses the term poetry to encompass drama, comedy, tragedy, lyric and epic poetry -- every form of imaginative fiction.
And what he does is examine the narrative works that were popular in his time and prior and ask what the successful ones have in common, what are the essential elements that are absent in the works that fail and we don’t even know about today, as a result – to draw conclusions about HOW successful stories are told. And from those observations, to determine WHY we tell them.
And cutting right to the chase, Aristotle comes up with two explanations that, together, form the basis of our understanding of the important function of storytelling, and thus, of everything that is subsequently required to accomplish it.
In Greek, they are MIMESISand CATHARSIS.
This will be on our final exam, so let’s take these two vital concepts in order.
First, mimesis, defined, depending upon your translation, as “imitation” or “representation.”
Aristotle says (and this is the only time I’ll quote Poetics, it’s rather dry and archaic in its language, so I’ll do it in a bad British accent):
“The instinct of imitation is implanted in man from childhood, one difference between him and other animals being that he is the most imitative of living creatures, and through imitation learns his earliest lessons…[and] to learn gives the liveliest pleasure… Thus the reason why men enjoy seeing a likeness is, that in contemplating it they find themselves learning or inferring, and saying perhaps, 'Ah, that is he.'”
In other words, Aristotle believed that the fundamental quality that separates us from the other animals on the planet is that we want to learn. We have questions. Who are we? Why are we here? Where can I get a decent bagel in Bethesda? And we get PLEASURE from seeking answers. And the primary way we learn, as Shakespeare concurred, “both at first and now, was and is, to hold as ‘twere the mirror up to nature,” in other words, to experience ourselves and our world reflected back to us, imitated, represented.
It is no coincidence that even in English, that word “play” has a dual meaning. As adults we go see plays atArena Stage, the plays that Aristotle deconstructs, imitations of life and actions and people represented on stage. Similarly, when we are kids, we playcops and robbers, play house, play Spiderman and Queen Elsa. Our PLAY as kids is all about representation.
As Aristotle says, our earliest lessons are through imitation, and that continues throughout our entire lives. Because it’s through imitation that we learn about the world and our place in it. And exploring those universal, existential questions gives us pleasure, scratches that desire for answers that is built into every human being on the planet, that allows us to recognize not just “Ah, that is he,” but “Ah, that is me.”
So mimesisconcerns the instinctual pleasure of LEARNING, of looking at something and saying, “Ah, I recognize that,” or “I get that,” which occurs whenever we experience a representation, whether gazing at a painting or sculpture, or watching a play.
Still, the question remains, why must that pleasure from learning come through representation and not simply through direct experience?
Perhaps it’s because the distance between the observer and what is being represented allows us to be objectivein our analysis, something that would be more difficult if the experience were actually happening directly to us. Maybe we learn most effectively by adopting a more circumspect vantage point.
Or perhaps the answer has something to do with Aristotle’s assertion that we get the same pleasure from watching something that is joyous and beautiful as we do from watching something terrible and horrifying, that the distance afforded by imitation allows the experience to be safer.
Or maybe it has something to do with the communalnature of the experience of observing a representation. When something is happening to us alone, we might imagine the experience is unique to us. But when we are looking at that painting or sitting in the theatre, surrounded by a group of people experiencing the same representation, we can say not just “Ah, that is me,” but take pleasure and comfort in knowing that “Ah, that is US.”
Or “D,” all of the above. And that communal element is a nice segue into the second reason we tell stories.
Catharsis, usually defined as “a purge, specifically of emotions.”
This concept is a bit more problematic to nail down, mainly owing to the fact that Aristotle mentions it only once and never actually defines it. (So I’ve got no bad British accent definition for you) And as a result, it has been the cause of much debate over the centuries.
So while catharsis may be a more familiar word to us in English, what exactly does Aristotle mean by a “purging” of emotions? Again, three schools of thought.
The most common idea is that the phrase refers to an emotional cleansing of the audience. This idea is based upon the observation that while we have entered into a civilized society, we are still basically animals, with the same primal urges and emotions of our fellow creatures.
Experiencing a drama then is a chance to purge those emotions, to laugh or cry or scream, to have an appropriate outlet for our strong but bottled-up feelings, that would then allow us to continue living in that civilized society. In other words, catharsisis a way to have a safe, communal forum for expressing and releasing otherwise troublesome and detrimental emotions.
Though a fairly common explanation for catharsis, the problem with this interpretation is that there is no evidence whatsoever that Aristotle found emotions the least bit troubling. It is Plato who thought that emotions were bad. A sentiment that Aristolte responded strongly against.
Aristotle thought emotions were good, vital even. But he believed in moderation. Not too much, not too little emotion. His idea was that you NEED fear. Not so much that you shrink away from the slightest challenge. But not too little that you stupidly plow right into any dangerous situation.
So the second reading of catharsisis that it is a way to BALANCE one’s emotions. This school of thought says that Aristotle’s sense of catharsisis all about telling stories in order to let off some excess emotional steam, to be able to restore a healthy and proper harmony of emotion. So there is something therapeutic about seeing a play or going to a movie since the emotional experience they provide resets us to an emotional equilibrium.
A problem with this interpretation is that it posits that those with a greater imbalance of emotion get a greater benefit from the experience. Yet that doesn’t seem to be the case in reality. Having a disproportionate amount of emotion is hardly a prerequisite for enjoying a drama, and unstable people don’t necessarily get more out of a play than the rest of us. I’m assuming we’re all stable.
So still a third approach to this question is that Aristotle is talking about the purging of emotions in a way that is similar to his more defined description of mimesis— that catharsisis also rooted in the pleasure we feel at representation, not simply in the way things appear, but in the way we respondto them.
In other words, the emotion we experience while watching a movie is an IMITATION of that emotion in real life.
Think about it. When we watch A Quiet Place, we are terrified as Emily Blunt and her kids walk through that cornfield. Something is lurking in the shadows. Something is going to jump out. We are going to scream. And then we are going to laugh with relief that such an emotion was provoked, but we are in fact still safe and sound.
Now imagine feeling that same fear in real life. You walk down a dark alley, knowing that something horrible is in the shadows up ahead. Are you feeling that same chill? That same giddy dread? Not at all. Because it’s real. Because that alley has the potential for actual danger and pain.
And if those feelings provide you pleasure or any positive benefit at all, then let me give you the number of a good therapist, you’ve got bigger concerns than how to write a screenplay.
The threat of actual peril does not exist in the movie theatre, so the emotion cannot possibly be the same. Instead, we experience a facsimile, an approximation of fear. The same holds true with sorrow. With joy. With the whole gamut of emotions.
But why would we want to experience an imitationof an emotion?
For the same reason Aristotle says we desire to experience an imitation of an object.
We derive pleasure from learning — and we accomplish that through FEELING just as much, if not more, than by OBSERVING. But as with mimesis, that experience requires a safe environment, with that same objective distance only afforded by experiencing the representationof those powerful emotions.
And this is where our understanding of the purpose of storytelling starts.
According to Aristotle, we have an innate, instinctual desire to better understand ourselves and our world. And we most effectively do that by both SEEING and FEELING representations of ourselves and our experiences reflected back to us. So mimesisand catharsis, imitations of objects and emotions, together, allow us to experience aspects of our lives, while maintaining a safe and objective vantage point.
And because STORIES provide that experience, we find them not only pleasurable, but necessary.
Aristotle may have not known the term, but he is in fact describing an evolutionary imperative. We need to learn about ourselves in order to grow and develop, as individuals, as a society, as a species. Therefore God, in his infinite wisdom, has blessed us with pleasure in learning, along with a built-in mechanism to accomplish that end, the intrinsic desire to tell stories.
So storytelling has a purpose, an important one. And that purpose provides us with Aristotle’s Guiding Precept #1:
TO TELL A GOOD STORY EFFECTIVELY, WE MUST A) SHOW OUR AUDIENCE SOMETHING UNIVERSAL OF THEMSELVES AND THEIR WORLD REFLECTED BACK TO THEM, AND B) THROUGH THAT IDENTIFICATION, GIVE THEM AN EMOTIONAL EXPERIENCE.
We might not all have owned a bar in a war-torn way-station like Rick Blaine, risen to the top of an underworld empire like Michael Corleone, or rescued a space princess like Luke Skywalker, but we certainly know what it’s like to be jilted, to deal with family conflict, to dream of a more exciting and fulfilling future. These movies, like all good ones, make us cry and cringe and curse and laugh and scream as we see aspects of our own experience reflected back to us, allowing us to recognize important truths about ourselves through the experience of another.
So everything about the craft of screenwriting, from idea to story to structure to character to theme to the choice of the very words on the page, must help provide that experience.
In other words, we must fulfill the dual purpose of storytelling, mimesisand catharsis– to provide the joy of LEARNING through the experience of FEELING.
For Aristotle, Oedipus Rex succeeds because it accomplishes that purpose. Just as Green Book does for us.
These narratives make us FEEL. Excitement, fear, love, joy, dread. They make us laugh or cheer or cry. Catharsis.
And at the same time, we can recognize our own experiences on that stage or that screen. Not because we’re King of Thebes with a tragic prophecy hanging over our heads, or a black musician traveling through the pre-Civil Rights south.
Those are the particular facts of the story. And for Aristotle, a good story is never about facts, it’s about TRUTHS. The truths of the human experience.
For we all know about wanting to forge our own destiny amidst overwhelming forces propelling us towards a different fate. About wanting to be treated with respect and basic human dignity in the face of narrow-mindedness and long-entrenched prejudice. About encountering adversity and struggling to overcome it. Having to deal with betrayal, compromise, suffering, passion, loyalty, doubt, triumph, regret, and the difficulty of having to adapt to changing circumstances.
Great stories are about the universal, not the particular.
And they’re also about:
A hero in pursuit of their heart’s desire against impossible odds. About conflict, the lifeblood of any story. About a unity of action defined by a hero’s objective. About a clear beginning, middle and end connected causally by the laws of necessity and probability. About motivated moments of reversal and recognition. A hero that undergoes a transformation. Who overcomes his primary flaw or is overcome BY it. And a proper magnitude bounded by a dramatic question asked at the beginning – will he get the girl, will they solve the mystery, pull off the crime, find the ark or find Ryan or find Nemo, get back to Kansas, to the Miss Sunshine pageant, or New York in time for Christmas -- and then answered at the resolution.
And they contain all the essential principles of character, plot, dialogue, setting, and STRUCTURE that we see in Oedipus and Green Book, and every successful dramatic narrative in between.
And which, you’ll have to read my book to learn, understand, and utilize them all. There, that was the final plug.
But I would like to make one final personal observation before we open up to questions:
I’ve said that the vital, evolutionary function of a good story well told, to enable us to progress and move forward, is to provide the joy of learning through the experience of feeling.
But right now, we live in dark times, when it feels our society isn’t always advancing, but moving backward, particularly in terms of how we treat and regard one another, with the rise of intolerance in our rhetoric, politics, and policies.
So more than ever, we need that benefit of good stories and good movies in particular.
Because the true power of film, beyond any other story telling medium, is that it can really make us, whether we are conscious of it or not, better understand each other, to identify, to sympathize, to empathize, by allowing us the opportunity for a few hours to walk in someone else’s shoes (like Don Shirley or Tony Vallelonga), to fear what they fear, care about what they care about, want what they want. To understand someone else, and understand that, Jew, gentile, black, white, man, woman, gay, straight, native or immigrant, we are all the same underneath. Humans with the same needs and desires and fears and hopes and dreams. The same questions we are all seeking the answers to.
To expose or break down the artificial, arbitrary and nonsensical barriers that divide us, like the Wise Men of Chelm’s Ridiculous Rain Wall, THAT is ultimately the blessing of a good story well told, one that can help us all progress forward.
So walk in another’s shoes by going to see good movies, read good books, and if you are so inclined, write them as well.