Storytelling is at the heart of all films, videos, documentaries and even commercials and music videos. Whether they are 30 seconds, three minutes, or three hours long, a story is still being told. Great stories never go out of style and we always are drawn to the ones we relate to the most. Like timeless myths and ancient wisdom tales, cinematic stories tell us something about ourselves, our world and our relationships with each other…in short, they teach us how to live.
Here are some examples of different storytelling models:
The Hero’s Journey (Mythology)
As outlined in Joseph Campbell’s book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, the Hero’s Journey is the universal story behind all stories, the monomyth of a thousand mythologies. From the ancient epic of Homer’s Odyssey to the science fiction movie Star Wars, this archetypal story ‘template’ can be utilized again and again.
The Hero’s Journey has three distinct phases:
1. Departure: This is the home or familiar world of the hero. This is the where the adventure begins, but sometimes the hero is reluctant to answer the call because it would mean leaving this world behind. Eventually, the call is too strong and the hero departs.
2. Initiation: This is the new world into which the hero is thrown. He or she is often met by a gatekeeper who grants admission to the unfamiliar realm. A mentor also appears and teaches the hero new skills and imparts wisdom. The enemy or antagonist presents challenges that the hero ultimately cannot overcome and it appears all is lost. At this lowest point of surrender, the hero gives up the small part of him/herself to become greater than before.
3. Return: Now the hero is prepared to face the villain once again, and will finally succeed. The hero returns to the home world, but it’s not the same anymore: S/he has been transformed, and, as a result of receiving the gifts brought back from the adventure, the home world and people have changed as well. The ending is now a new beginning.
This is perhaps the most used storytelling model and therefore requires a deeper look into the Hero’s Journey.
Hegelian Dialectic (Thesis + Antithesis = Synthesis)
This term comes from philosophy, bearing the originator’s name, but it is also a familiar storytelling device or formula. We know this from most love stories that go something like this:
Boy meets girl – Thesis
Boy loses girl – Antithesis
Boy wins girl over – Synthesis
Storylines that follow the Hegelian Dialectic generally require opposing forces to collide, and as a result of the conflict, they are able to reconcile and co-exist in a new form. This also works well with shorter formats such as 30 second ads:
A popular commercial from the 1970’s for peanut butter cups made clear use of the dialectic: One man is walking down the street eating peanut butter and another is walking toward him eating a chocolate bar (Thesis). Then they bump into each other and complain that one’s peanut butter got on the other’s chocolate, and vice versa (Antithesis). Then they both eat the new combination and are pleased with the results (Synthesis).
Metaphysically, this is depicted in the Taoist ‘yin yang’ symbol that harmonizes (synthesis) the opposing (thesis & antithesis) forces of nature. This is also the Alchemical Marriage between the Sun (Gold, Masculine) and the Moon (Silver, Feminine), which is sometimes depicted as the Androgyne.
Inner and Outer Stories
Most good movies will have an inner and an outer story going on simultaneously. The main character, or hero, will undertake an epic journey or difficult task in the physical world, but also must face the demons and challenges of his or her inner life. The outer goal and the inner need are very much related and both must be confronted.
Since this topic is vital, particularly from a metaphysical viewpoint because it centers around the character’s psychology and belief system, there is much more about it in the section on PSYCHE.
Note: This is different than a sub-plot, which is often the ‘love interest’ portion of a story where the relationship isn’t the primary focus.
Other Story Elements:
3-Act Structure is the commonly used model for Hollywood screenplays. As you probably notice, the three sections of the Hero’s Journey as well as the three elements of the Dialectic relate directly to Acts I, II and III in the traditional format.
Here is a video outline of the Hero’s Journey as it relates to 3-Act Structure:
Having bookends are a great ways to frame a story. By repeating a similar line of dialog or situation at the beginning and the end can be a great way to show how much the characters have changed through the journey. The same statement takes on completely new meaning by the end. Just think of the line “Rosebud” at the beginning and then at the end of Citizen Kane. Or, a return to an earlier location could show change as well.
“The Rule of Threes”
A time tested device in any play, speech or story is to repeat a particular line of dialog three times, usually spread out over the three acts. Since the line is the same, we can see how the characters have changed over time.
- The first time, the line itself may seem like just an ordinary bit of information.
- The second time, we remember hearing it the first time and we’re practically saying it along with the character when it is repeated.
- But the third time, something changes: either a different character delivers the line, or, the context has changed so much that the statement now has new and profound meaning.
Example: “Pretty Woman”: This exchange between Edward and Vivian is repeated in each of the three acts; when she first goes to his room, next when they go to the opera house, and at the end when he goes to her crappy Hollywood apartment.
Edward: I’m afraid of heights.
Vivian: You are? So how come you rented the penthouse?
Edward: It’s the best.
Vivian: If you’re afraid of heights, why do you get seats up here?
Edward: Because they’re the best.
Edward: Had to be the top floor, right?
Vivian: It’s the best.
Of course there is nothing ‘the best’ about Vivian’s apartment. The subtext is that she is the best, and worth Edward facing his fear of heights to win her over.