storytelling

Cinematic Attention for a High-Def Life

Cinematic Attention for a High-Def Life

Any perception you can observe directly in real time can be used to train a variety of attention-related skills.

I like to make a game out of turning ordinary activities into opportunities for practice.

There are a number of exercises I use when watching a film — whether it’s one I enjoy, dislike, or have seen before.  

Clusters Based on Similarity

Clusters Based on Similarity

Stories cannot demolish frontiers, but they can punch holes in our mental walls. And through those holes, we can get a glimpse of the other, and sometimes even like what we see."

~ Elif Shafak

Stories are Powerful

"Stories are powerful because they transport us into other people’s worlds, but in doing that, they change the way our brains work and potentially change our brain chemistry. And that’s what it means to be a social creature—to connect with others, to care about others, even complete strangers. It's so interesting that dramatic stories cause us to do this."

~ Paul Zak  director of the Center for Neuroeconomic Studies and author of The Moral Molecule: The Source of Love and Prosperity

See also: "Trust, morality — and oxytocin?" In this TED Talk, neuroeconomist Paul Zak shows why he believes oxytocin (he calls it "the moral molecule") is responsible for trust, empathy and other feelings that help build a stable society.

Welded Together So Tightly in Your Mind

Elizabeth Hellmuth Margulis speaking with Anne Strainchamps about "Music and Memory," from To the Best of Our Knowledge, March 30, 2014:

"Music is not really like a language. It's one of those metaphors that's really out there.

As I was growing up, I went to Interloken Arts Camp. Over the big stage there, they have it emblazoned in large letters: MUSIC IS THE UNIVERSAL LANGUAGE!

But maybe there are some things going on in music that aren't really the same as what's going on in language. 

I'll give you some examples. 

When we think back to what happened in a story somebody told us, we tend to remember the gist of what happened not the specific words they used to tell the story to us. But if we try to remember back to a song we listened to or a piece we really enjoyed, there's something about the actual, specific, sequence of notes that is still very present and verbatim in our memory. And in fact, really gripping.

There's a great example that Mark DeBellis uses in a book he wrote, where he asks—If you think about The Star Spangled Banner, and you think about the word Oh and the word you. Where those sung on the same pitch?

To answer that question, what you have to do is go back in and sing through the tune. You can't just duck in and get one little snippet. They're all welded together so tightly in your mind that one note seems to kind of inevitably spill out of the preceding one. 

That tight connection from note to note is really an effect that is created through repitition." 

~ Elizabeth Hellmuth Margulis, from "Music and Memory," To the Best of Our Knowledge, March 30, 2014. 


See also:

Atomic Components of Narrative Elements

Attentional Fitness Strategies for Hearing Out

Margulis, E. H. (2014). On repeat: How music plays the mind. New York: Oxford University Press. http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/851068495 

Telling Stories

Pixar Story Rules

Storytelling guidelines compiled from tweets by Pixar story artist Emma Coats

#1: You admire a character for trying more than for their successes.

#2: You gotta keep in mind what's interesting to you as an audience, not what's fun to do as a writer. They can be v. different.

#3: Trying for theme is important, but you won't see what the story is actually about til you're at the end of it. Now rewrite.

#4: Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___.

#5: Simplify. Focus. Combine characters. Hop over detours. You'll feel like you're losing valuable stuff but it sets you free.

#6: What is your character good at, comfortable with? Throw the polar opposite at them. Challenge them. How do they deal?

#7: Come up with your ending before you figure out your middle. Seriously. Endings are hard, get yours working up front.

#8: Finish your story, let go even if it's not perfect. In an ideal world you have both, but move on. Do better next time.

#9: When you're stuck, make a list of what WOULDN'T happen next. Lots of times the material to get you unstuck will show up.

#10: Pull apart the stories you like. What you like in them is a part of you; you've got to recognize it before you can use it.

#11: Putting it on paper lets you start fixing it. If it stays in your head, a perfect idea, you'll never share it with anyone.

#12: Discount the 1st thing that comes to mind. And the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th – get the obvious out of the way. Surprise yourself.

#13: Give your characters opinions. Passive/malleable might seem likable to you as you write, but it's poison to the audience.

#14: Why must you tell THIS story? What's the belief burning within you that your story feeds off of? That's the heart of it.

#15: If you were your character, in this situation, how would you feel? Honesty lends credibility to unbelievable situations.

#16: What are the stakes? Give us reason to root for the character. What happens if they don't succeed? Stack the odds against.

#17: No work is ever wasted. If it's not working, let go and move on - it'll come back around to be useful later.

#18: You have to know yourself: the difference between doing your best & fussing. Story is testing, not refining.

#19: Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.

#20: Exercise: take the building blocks of a movie you dislike. How d'you rearrange them into what you DO like?

#21: You gotta identify with your situation/characters, can't just write ‘cool'. What would make YOU act that way?

#22: What's the essence of your story? Most economical telling of it? If you know that, you can build out from there. 


See also: 

Price, D. A. (2009). The Pixar touch: The making of a company. New York: Vintage. [library, Amazon]

For No Good Reason

For No Good Reason

"One of the most difficult things to say to another person is, I hope that you will love me for no good reason. But it is what we all want and rarely dare to say to one another – to our children, to our parents and mates, to our friends, and to strangers. Especially to strangers, who have neither good nor bad reasons to love us."

~ Russell Banks, from The Angel on the Roof

Fiction Rules Our Lives

Mark Slouka discussing "Brewster" on KCRW's Bookworm, September 12, 2013: 

I think that fiction does contain certain kinds of truth that are apartmaybe beyond what we've actually lived. I actually think that anything that has slipped into the pastany moment that has actually passed -- has entered the domain of fiction.

If you tell me what you did this morning, you know, after breakfast, it will creat a kind of a fiction. You'll leave certain things out, you'll stress other things you didn't think were more interesting. So I think fiction sort of rules our lives on every level.

For me, it's a matter of looking at how storytellingfictionsort of bleeds into our reality all the time. I mean, that's kind of where I live as a writer.  

Slouka, M. (2013). Brewster: A novel. [Amazon, library

Apparent Truth

"I love the apparent truth of theater. I love that people are willing to fill in the blanks.

The audience is willing to say, 'Oh, I know that's not a real sun. You took pieces of sticks. You added silk to the bottom. You suspended these pieces. You let it fall flat on the floor. And as it rises with the strings, I see that it's a sun.'

But the beauty of it is that it's just silk and sticks. And in a way, that is what makes it spiritual. That's what moves you. It's not the actual literal sunrise that's coming. It's the art of it."

~ Julie Taymor, from "Spider-Man, The Lion King and Life on the Creative Edge," TED Talks, March 2011

Only Afterwards

"When you are in the middle of a story it isn’t a story at all, but only a confusion; a dark roaring, a blindness, a wreckage of shattered glass and splintered wood; like a house in a whirlwind, or else a boat crushed by the icebergs or swept over the rapids, and all aboard powerless to stop it. It’s only afterwards that it becomes anything like a story at all. When you’re telling it, to yourself or to someone else."

~ Margaret Atwood, from Alias Grace

Entering Fictional Worlds

Thomas Allen

Excerpt from "The Power of Fake Gay (and Black) Friends," by Jonathan Gottschall, Psychology Today: The Storytelling Animal blog, :

How can fiction—the fake struggles of fake people—transform the real world? Until recently we have had no idea.  But in the last several decades psychology has begun a serious study of story’s effects on the human mind. 

Fiction teaches us facts about the world, influences our morals, and marks us with fears, hopes, and anxieties that alter our behavior. As the psychologist Raymond Mar writes, “Researchers have repeatedly found that reader attitudes shift to become more congruent with the ideas expressed in a [fiction] narrative." In fact, fiction seems to be more effective at changing beliefs than non-fiction, which is designed to persuade through argument and evidence.

What is going on here? Why are we putty in a storyteller’s hands? The psychologists Melanie Green and Tim Brock argue that entering fictional worlds “radically alters the way information is processed.” Green and Brock’s studies shows that the more absorbed readers are in a story, the more the story changes them.  Highly absorbed readers also detected significantly fewer “false notes” in stories—inaccuracies, infelicities—than less transported readers.  Importantly, it is not just that highly absorbed readers detected the false notes and didn’t care about them (as when we watch a pleasurably idiotic action film). They were unable to detect the false notes in the first place.

And, in this, there is an important lesson about the molding power of story.  When we read non-fiction, we read with our shields up. We are critical and skeptical.  But when we are absorbed in a story we drop our intellectual guard. We are moved emotionally and this seems to leave us defenseless. Anecdotes about those rare ink people—like Rand’s John Galt or Stowe’s Uncle Tom—who vault the fantasy-reality divide to change history are impressive. But what is more impressive, if harder to see, is the way our stories are working on us all the time, reshaping us in the way that flowing water gradually reshapes a rock.

Read more...

See also: Gottschall, J. (2012). The storytelling animal: How stories make us human. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. [library]

Stories We Tell

Sarah Polley in conversation with Elvis Mitchell on KCRW's The Treatment about her new documentary Stories We Tell (May 22, 2013):

There were so many moments, I think, where I wanted to back away from it for all of the sane reasons why someone would, and not the least of which was [while] many documentaries people make about their families or personal documentaries are fantastic and enlightening and insightful, so many of them are totally narcissistic and self-indulgent and I felt that this film was absolutely in danger of those same problems. 

I think, for me, what kept me going was I was so actually fascinated myself in like What is it about us as human beings that needs to tell stories? Why are we so desperate to have narrative? Why is it so impossible for us to live in the mess?

We have to create this kind of neat arc of storytelling around the events in our lives, otherwise it's just too much. It's just too bewildering. 

Not Pretending

The Vintage Life by Mikela Prevost

The Mother of the Poet
by Matt Cook, from The Unreasonable Slug

The other of the poet is probably tired
Of explaining to people that her son is a poet.
Her son probably should have made more of an effort
To be involved in something that was simple to brag about.
The mother of the heating contractor does not
Have the same problem as the mother of the poet.
When the mother of the heating contractor talks about her son
It's usually understood, from the beginning, that her son, 
The heating contractor, is not pretending to be a heating contractor. 
When the mother of the poet talks, the listener will
Begin with the assumption that her son is pretending to be a poet.
The mother of the poet spends a good deal of energy justifying her son.
The poet, of course, did not mean
To put his mother in this difficult position.
Or did he?  

Follow Matt Cook on Twitter: @mattcookpoet

Higher Than Where It Began

"The people who can afford to buy books and magazines and go to the movies don’t like to hear about people who are poor or sick, so start your story up here [indicates top of the G-I axis]. You will see this story over and over again. People love it, and it is not copyrighted. The story is ‘Man in Hole,’ but the story needn’t be about a man or a hole. It’s: somebody gets into trouble, gets out of it again [draws line A].

It is not accidental that the line ends up higher than where it began. This is encouraging to readers."

~ Kurt Vonnegut

Kurt Vonnegut on the shapes of stories from Maria Popova on Vimeo.

See also:

  • "Kurt Vonnegut on the Shapes of Stories and Good News vs. Bad News," Brain Pickings, November 26, 2012
  • Vonnegut, K., & Simon, D. (2005). A man without a country. New York: Seven Stories Press. [library]
  • Duate, N. (2011, November). The secret structure of great talks. TED Talks. http://bit.ly/yrDGfo