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The story and the teller

Anders Ericsson gave the world "deliberate practice". Malcolm Gladwell took the idea and ran with it, developing it into a full-fledged guidebook on achieving excellence.

An entire nation starved, and the uber-rich and famous Voltaire was moved to tears at their plight. Candide moved the populace to revolution.

The industrial revolution came and brought untold misery to many, many societies. Karl Marx liberated several from the clutches of capitalism.

Why is it that society needed these individuals for these specific tasks? None of the ideas each of the above people brought out was anything outstandingly clever. If anything, they merely solidified common knowledge: viz. "practice makes perfect", "this is not the best of all possible worlds, or even the seventeenth" and "when the oppressors and the oppressed clash, something needs to give". So, why were these not gradual things, built up over time and over several martyrs' graves? Why did they not end up being one of those super-important but anonymous ideas?

It's because most of us are shit at stories. We don't know what to tell, where to start, and we don't know how to deliver it.

There's a template followed by all the works of art (cinematic and otherwise) that worked best on me: get to the point, as quickly as possible. If you have to build up your scene with 120 minutes of stupid backstory just to get to a 5-minute climactic struggle, you've lost my interest and respect. More importantly, I don't even have anything to remember from the story, so I have no way of recommending it to anybody without letting on that I didn't watch the whole thing. So, I will most certainly tell people I hated it because it had "no content".

Speaking of which, everybody should watch Indian movies. Especially average family dramas. Preferably in Marathi or Telugu. They're studies in how to not set up a scene. In any given frame, the viewer has a lot to take in: lavish sets, expensive makeup, gaudy clothes, stale stereotypes, multiple characters occupying important positions on the screen for no real reason, and the like. All for what? Some horribly-written scene involving less than 20% of the total visual area, while the other elements are ignored or used for redundant expressions - like a heroine stifling her laughter while the hero cracks jokes at the expense of the dedicated comic relief, or like characters just standing around in anticipation of something that's so unsurprising, they have to try to induce it in the viewer.

I could go on, but the point is that people like rich scenes that are utilized well. They like it when every bit of the setting is accounted for and included in the narrative. This is why Candide moved people in a way that we can't even imagine a short story moving us now: Candide the character moved around, saw much of the world, experienced its troubles and did everything he did while interacting all the elements in every world he came to inhabit, however briefly.

And that's another thing we often forget: the passage of time. A simple snapshot of the world at a certain point in time is useless to us. We don't just want to know what the backdrop was. We don't just want to know that there is a certain guy shooting another person in the garden of a posh building. As much as we would love to hear the details, we want time to pass as the details are being revealed. We don't like it when the story freezes in time to allow the painstaking description of one woman's hair, beautiful though it may be.

The most important may be scale: temporally as well as in applicability. There's no use in telling a story that is only relevant to that moment in time. And it's not much of a story unless some effort has been put into showing how the events of the past influenced it, and how different the future would have been if things had turned out differently.

And lastly, don't presume that the intellect of your audience is too low to warrant all this effort. Just remember that perhaps the most influential pamphlet of all time began with this gem:

SOME writers have so confounded society with government, as to leave little or no distinction between them; whereas they are not only different, but have different origins. Society is produced by our wants, and government by our wickedness; the former promotes our happiness POSITIVELY by uniting our affections, the latter NEGATIVELY by restraining our vices. The one encourages intercourse, the other creates distinctions. The first is a patron, the last a punisher.
Thomas Paine would have died as another nameless face on the canvas of history, had it not been for his pamphlet, Common Sense, which brought the masses to revolt against the British rule over what came to be the USA. The storyteller may be irrelevant to the story, but his very existence in history is dependent on the story he's telling.


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