Recently, I was on Skype with an actor/director client of mine in London. As we discussed his latest work and how he can move from acting to producing, he asked me a very simple question: What is story?
For a moment, I was taken aback. Story? What is it? What a huge question. Well, I said, to be very clinical, one could say a casually linked series of events that arouse curiosity and is therefore entertaining.
But – isn’t story about CHANGE, the actor said?
Well of course it is. But life is about change; flowers bloom, wilt and die. That cycle is too large to be helpful, I think.
Fundamentally, story is something that helps us understand ourselves and our lives. It gives meaning to what can seem a random series of events. It frames our lives and our collective experience.
Story allows us to vicariously LIVE revenge, or lust, or happily ever after. It takes us out of our ordinary, slow-motion lives and speeds UP outcomes of tragedy, heroism and the ever elusive AHA moment. Most of life, as Alfred Hitchcock once said, is spent standing in line.
But – what is story? At it’s basis?
I think to begin to answer that question, one must think of what story does for us, what it’s function is and has been since time immemorial. Story entertains us while it also shows us something about what it means to be human – the triumphs, the failures, the curiosity, the love, the hate – all of it.
Story asks – what would YOU do? Could you find your way home over decades, going from island to island to island, fighting monsters and seductresses and the sea – and what if, when you got home, nobody knew who you were? Story asks what if? What if the person you loved was from the family that your family hated with a vengeance? Can your love ever bear fruit? Or is it doomed? What if you were a middle-class teacher who was dying of cancer and you had the chance to take care of your family forever – by becoming a meth dealer – only for a little while. Can you live with the morality of that? Can you live in the violent milieu? What YOU do that? You might. Walter White will do it for us and we can watch what happens.
This past summer I was very ill for a time. For the first time in my LIFE I picked up a James Patterson pot-boiler. Me. Of all people. Me – the literary snob, who weeks earlier read A Confederacy of Dunces. That pot-boiler entertained me wildly. I couldn’t stop turning the pages. Did I learn something about the human condition – not that I am aware of. But damn was I entertained. I was entertained during a time when my thoughts were primarily of my illness, I was entertained when I needed a distraction.
Story is our companion, our friend, our personal court jester. It distracts and sometimes – but not always – even enlightens us.
We need to be entertained, we need to be distracted from our own lives sometimes. The closure we seek in Real Life can take years – if we ever get it. The reality of standing in line and paying bills and shopping for groceries can sometimes be crushingly dull.
Just entertain us. And we are entertained relatively easily… we just want to know what happened – and what happened next, and how did it all end? Let us cogitate on the deeper, cosmic reasons, the insights into humanity later, in our dreams or over a glass of wine.