December 26, 2012
To start, an anecdote: I was chatting with a director a long while ago and he mentioned how he had been recently hired by BMW. I asked him what commercial of theirs he might be directing, but corrected me, saying he had not been hired in the capacity most would think. It wasn’t a short film or 30-second spot he was working on, but rather he had been hired to help design the car from the ground up.
BMW wanted a storyteller to help figure out what story their cars currently told and also how to tell the story they wanted to tell. They wanted to understand what they were saying by using a certain color scheme, what kind of narrative would be interpreted from a particular stainless steel shifting knob, what it might say about the man who drives the car with 440 hp instead of 350 hp, and so on. Every detail was designed to tell a very specific story — about BMW, the car they made, and the person who would eventually drive it.
This is when it occurred to me that, very simply, everything is narrative. Everything. From the clothes you wear, to how you talk, to the cereal you eat, to the way street signs are designed, to car design, the layout of cities, architecture, brands, and how you hold a pen. It’s why an entire city has a specific font.
This is because on a very deep, primal level humans have a need to communicate. It is the very base of Maslow’s hierarchy. As much as we need to breathe, eat and be loved, we need to tell stories. It is such a deep seeded need, that it permeates everything we do.
This is what the famous communications scholar Walter Fisher called the “Narrative Paradigm”. Or, that every form of meaningful communication humans engage in is a form of storytelling. We revert to very basic and mythic stories to communicate with everyone around us. Joseph Campbell called everything a monomyth, saying that everything boils down to “a hero’s journey”. Arthur Quillier-Couch on the other hand, said there are only “seven basic plots.” But regardless of what story we’re trying to tell, what is indisputable is that no matter what, we are telling it.
This, just as an example, is the reason that the fashion industry is worth almost quarter of a trillion dollars in the U.S. alone. The story we communicate about ourselves is so important, we’re willing to spend big on it. Expensive, designer jeans or a shabby thrift store jacket for instance, both say something. Each tells their own, individual story. And even more powerful, what if both are worn at the same time? The story changes dramatically. Maybe wearing only the expensive jeans communicates the wearer’s affluence, but not necessarily sense of style. A shabby thrift store coat, maybe their lack their of. But together, they make a statement with purpose, and tell a whole other story. This juxtaposition, the bricolage of two things together, is what tells a complete story. In Eisensteinian sense, it’s the basis of all moving image narrative. Images linked together, forced to communicate meaning.
This is just an obvious demonstrative and if you extend this line of thinking to all facets of our lives, it’s easy to see how we both knowingly and subconsciously codify story into everything we do, say, consume, wear, buy, and everything in between. So then, if everything is narrative, then undeniably, narrative is everything. It is so fundamentally a part of existence, that its efficacy is paramount.
Yet, it is often overlooked. In movies, story is forsaken for hollow spectacle. In commercials, narrative gives way to incessant product pushing. Cars are designed as soulless wealth symbols. And so on. When you think, “That was a really bad _____”, what you’re really saying, whether you know it or not, is “the story was terrible.” Often what defines something as “bad” is its lack of attention to narrative. The reason Apple is the biggest company in the world, and why all their products are so popular, is not because they make better electronics than anyone else, because frankly they don’t. Rather, they are among the best storytellers in world. It’s not a coincidence Steve Jobs was co-Founder and CEO of Pixar. Storytelling was everything to him and it’s woven into the DNA of all every single Apple product.
And if you really focus on it, if you really integrate a cohesive, primal, and focused story into the things you do and create, then everything you do will be better. If everything is communication, then the more you connect with a person on a deeply resonant, emotional level the more successful you will be.
As content creators, the only question we should be asking is, “What story am I trying to tell?” Nothing else matters. Everything else will fall into place if your hero’s quest is true.