Tuesday, 29 November 2016

Storytelling by numbers?

Seeing the rather splendid Wes Anderson Christmas Ad for H&M has reminded me yet again of how close the worlds of branded communication and entertainment have become. The current interest in storytelling, which I've blogged about here, shows no sign of abating, and, while I have some misgivings about the way storytelling is being pushed by naive and/or unscrupulous consultants, it's a subject which is close to my heart.

There's a good article in The Atlantic by John Yorke which poses the question of whether All stories are the same - and if so, why?

The article starts off with looking at the similarity of many story-lines: Avatar and Pocahontas, for example, or Jaws, Beowulf and Jurassic Park. My favourite that I always use is those three great 19th century novels - Anna Karenina, Madame Bovary and Effi Briest, along with the 20th century true story of Princess Diana - unhappy wife commits adultery and comes to a sticky end.

Story shapes and structures are remarkably similar. But is structure something that can and should be learned? Screen and novel-writing courses, and increasingly courses and services for brands and companies include a lot of theory about structure, narrative arcs, inciting incidents, heroes' journeys and all the rest. I have ploughed through Joseph Campbell myself, and it was a bit of a slog.

Some would argue that it's not necessary to learn all that stuff consciously, that it's better to assimilate it naturally through listening to, watching and reading plenty of stories yourself. I was at a school class of 10 and 11 year olds recently, and gave them a simple bit of theory about beginning, middle and end aka the 3-act structure. But I honestly don't think they needed it. All the short stories they produced had a shape, a structure, that made sense.

I belong in the camp not of rejecting all the theory outright, but of not getting too tangled up or constrained in it. The author of the article warns: 'It is all too tempting to reduce wonder to a scientific formula and unweave the rainbow.' Furthermore: 'all great artists ... have an understanding of the rules whether that knowledge is conscious or not.'

For anyone involved in telling brand stories, it's the same. Imagination, a way with words and pictures and an understanding of the brand - where it's come from and why it exists - as well as a big dose of human empathy will get you further than knowing what % of the way into the narrative the second inciting incident should come.

Once you know the rules, you can break them.

Now, get me on that train to the Grand Budapest Hotel!


Barbara Fisher said...

Another superb blog post Sue. I may not understand very much about advertising, but I do know you write expertly and with a passion. How wonderful is that H&M advert? I’ve watched it once and am about to watch it again, thanks so much for sharing.

Sue Imgrund said...

Thanks! And if you haven't already seen it, then I recommend the film Grand Budapest Hotel. It's wonderful!

Barbara Fisher said...

Wonderful film which reminds me I must watch it again. It might have to wait until January though things are getting a little hectic as Christmas approaches. I hope your Christmas plans/preparations are going well