One Moment of Perfect Beauty: The Mechanics of Storytelling

WARNING: THIS ARTICLE CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR BABYLON 5, TRUE DETECTIVE, INTERSTELLAR, WATCHMEN, STAR WARS AND LORD OF THE RINGS, BECAUSE WHY DO THINGS BY HALF MEASURES?

The title of this blog is a quote from an old Science Fiction series few people now seem to recall except the diehard fans; that show is Babylon 5. While I accept there were faults with the series, such as wooden acting in the first season, a few duff episodes in which deus ex machina solutions presented themselves, it was also a series full of sublime moments, moments that were epic, perfect, and beautiful. The quote itself comes from one such moment, when Captain Sheridan, worn down with the cares of the world, has agreed to be trained by the mysterious Kosh, ambassador of the Vorlons. The Vorlon indicates he should enter a darkened room. Sheridan is hesitant.

‘What will I find in there?’

‘One moment of perfect beauty,’ the Vorlon enigmatically replies.

Sheridan enters the room and sits cross-legged. At first nothing seems to happen, then, slowly, robed aliens emerged, singing a strange, ethereal song. Amidst the hubbub of his busy, managerial life, Sheridan is forced to stand still and be subjected to this transcendental experience. The captain emerges a shaken and changed man.

This is one of many such instances in the series. There are numerous others, such as when the aforementioned Kosh risks revealing his true form in order to save Sheridan; each of the witnesses present sees Kosh as the incarnation of their own religion’s god, made manifest and living. A moment of awe and wonder that raises the hair on your arms.

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These moments are what make us fall in love with a story, whether the medium be a comic, novel, movie, series, music, or even a profound painting (many great pieces of fine art seem to tell a story even though they are allegedly ‘static’).

But how are they achieved?

The answer to this question has been debated since we were able to tell stories themselves. Critics have written countless essays. Bloggers posted countless blogs. Sometimes it seems we are still no closer to an answer even after thousands of years of discussion. Well, part of the reason for this is that there is a subjective element: people enjoy different types of stories. Christian Booker argued there were seven archetypes of story (2004), and that people identified with certain archetypes more than others. I think there is a great degree of truth in this, though it perhaps does not go as far as explaining how some people can love certain archetypes cloaked in one garb but not identify with the same basic plot in another (for example, a love story set in a science fiction universe or in a small UK town).

But some moments, even some entire stories, seem pretty much as close to universal as it is possible to get. The legendary scene in the Cloud City of Bespin, where, broken and humiliated, Luke Skywalker finally learns the truth that his father and the dark lord are the same person. The moment where Gandalf turns on the bridge of Khazad-Dum to face the one great evil ‘against which [he has] not yet been tested’.  The moment when the Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture breaks into the horn-blasting cavalry finale. Of course, there will always be people who dismiss these moments, it truly is impossible to please everyone, but overall they transcend an incredible number of barriers and enter the collective consciousness of generations.

I’m going to attempt to unpack some of the elements that make these moments so memorable, so eternal, and so emotionally breathtaking, so, to return to the original quote, perfect in their beauty. Of course, I will not be able to include everything, and I also think it is not possible to fabricate these moments, they have to arise organically from the artist or writer believing and feeling their own story. Nonetheless, there are techniques and traits which link these epic moment;  here’s my analysis.

Psychological Realism

The greatest moments are psychologically real. They are totally believable. Not in the sense they are mundane or ‘realistic’ (in fact, most of these moments seem to contain elements of the supernatural, surreal or spiritual), but in the sense we buy the character behaving that way, and more than that, feel it ourselves. So, Luke’s initial denial of his father: ‘That’s impossible,’ hits so hard because we know that is the perfect and emotionally true response. If we had gotten the ‘NOOOOOO’ straight away, it would be hammy, superficial, simply the machinery of a story, a ‘plot-twist’ rather than a moment of hair-raising, epic grandeur. Because that scene is brilliant to watch even when we know the twist.

Generations keep returning to it even though their parents have long ago ruined the surprise. That’s because the Freudian dimension – that of the ‘dark father’ who is the ultimate nemesis of growth – gives it archetypal significance, but at the same time, it retains its individual, micro-scale handling of human emotion. ‘That’s impossible.’ – a line which says so many things. I am not the person I thought I was. Life is not what I thought it was.  But it doesn’t spell it out. Mark Hamill’s acting is also potent in making us feel the reality. Against the prettied-up heroes we so often see, his harrowed, haunted appearance, the bruises and bloodstains, and then the twisted mask of pain as his hand is severed, make us realise we are not watching a silly story anymore, but a real one true to the suffering of human existence. The whole simplistic division of the ‘evil’ Empire and the heroic Rebels is shattered in this moment. In fact, the entire story is turned on its head. Vader’s obsession is no longer the monomaniac determination to destroy all that is good, but to reconnect with his lost children, greying him, and offering the hint of a tantalising explanation to his past.

To give another example, Watchmen conjures scene after scene of emotional intensity, and this is largely achieved through the depth and believability of its characters. None of the protagonists are two-dimensional costumed-capers. Many of them have deep psychological problems and prejudices. Many of them have done wrong in their attempts to do right. Even Rorschach, the uncompromising scion of truth, is completely believable in his extremity given what he has been through and how he grew up. And he is also morally grey – willing to do anything to achieve his warped idea of justice.

So, when you are telling a story, make sure that your characters are three dimensional. Make sure you have notes on them. Not all of these notes may make it into the final novel, but they inform their character and decisions. Psychological realism is true for music too in a bizarre way. Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture perfectly encapsulates the thrilling triumph of that victorious cavalry charge as the music onomatopoeically mimics the action.

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Converging Lines

Things come together. Stories converge. This is another aspect of really awe-inspiring moments. Two threads which seemed so tangential and disconnected suddenly coalesce in the most brilliant way. A good modern example of this is Game of Thrones, a story of tremendous scope and multiple threads. Watching these threads come together and then bifurcate is one of the most satisfying elements of the show. An earlier work, Spencer’s The Faerie Queen, achieved similar things in poetic form. Often characters would disappear, off on their own adventures, only to then dramatically re-enter the story of another character, sometimes changed by an experience or transformation. One brilliant example of this is when Britomart, disarmed in the treacherous abode of a lecherous queen, is assaulted by a whole part of knights. She fights them off as best as she can but without her magical spear and armour, it proves futile. However, unexpectedly, the epic hero, the Red-cross Knight, re-emerges at this pivotal moment to rescue her. Far from being a deus ex machina, this event seems completely plausible given that the Red-cross and Britomart are travelling in opposite directions (she into the heart of Faerie Lond and he back to England).

These moments of intercepting narrative can be positive or negative. Two loving characters, separated for a long time, can re-unite. Or a hero can once again be confronted with a terrifying nemesis they thought they had vanquished. Some of the best intercepting narratives are not immediately obvious as being such. For example, in Interstellar, where we realise at the end that many of the phenomena experienced by the Cooper and the deep-space team are actually created by Cooper himself travelling inside a fourth dimensional space.  In Watchmen, a seemingly innocuous motif, a man with a sign reading THE END IS NIGH, becomes pivotal when we discover that man is actually Rorschach unmasked. Hence why he appears to have heard many conversations where he didn’t appear to be present.

Mastering the art of drawing together these threads whilst not making it artificial is another important building block of a powerful, breathtaking moment. Though, needless to say, this is easier said that done.

Deeper Significance / Symbolism / Indirect Meaning / Message 

The greatest scenes have deeper significance for our lives, for the story and indeed, for our entire understanding of the cosmos and life itself. This might seem grandiose, but it is true that when we experience a truly awe-inspiring, breathtaking story, one of the moments described above, we come away from it feeling like we have been changed in some profound way. ‘A sadder and a wiser man / He rose the morrow morn’ to quote Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s masterpiece The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. 

This is perhaps the hardest of all three to achieve, for a number of reasons. Firstly, having some of value to say is normally something which only comes from having experienced a really meaningful and profound experience oneself (or having enough empathy to understand the impact of such an experience on someone else). Secondly, if the message is delivered too directly, it becomes cliched and untruthful and loses its meaning. If a poet stands up and says ‘Rape is bad / It makes me sad’, though we can consciously agree with his assertion that yes, rape is bad, we have not been made to feel why this is the case, and really, we are not won over to the cause. This is not to say that anyone needs to be convinced of the fact rape is bad, it is horrific and repulsive. I was using it as an example, however, of how even the most overtly true statements can seem weak and hollow and meaningless if not delivered with subtlety and ‘truth’.

So, when you tell your story, make sure that it operates on two levels. On one level it is itself, and on another, it has deeper significance. It does not necessarily have to answer age old questions (they are age old for a reason), nor does it have to provide a fixed and detailed viewpoint. But, it has to evoke something deeper. Think, for a moment, of the ending of the first series of True Detective, a masterstroke of emotional payoff. The conclusion sees our atheistic, nihilistic, psychological hero, Rust Cohle, suddenly healed by a spiritual experience (which could only have come about from his confrontation with the serial killer). In this near-death experience he feels his daughter, down in this ‘warm darkness’, a daughter that was killed as just a toddler. He feels as well, impossibly, her love for him. His entire belief system is toppled, and in being toppled, resurrects him, in a sense.

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So, what is the deeper message of this? Is it that God is definitively real? That there is an afterlife? None of these things are stated and Cole certainly doesn’t seem to advocate God all of a sudden. Instead we just get a tantalising hint, a prod in a certain direction, that maybe death is not the end, there is a greater existence. What lends this scene startling emotional power is how close it is to many real near-death accounts in which people experience the sensation of long-dead loved ones (some of which they may not have even known existed, for example, miscarried siblings).

This has been a long essay, so let’s draw it to a close now on that note. Thanks for coming such a long way with me! I hope these thoughts will help you create your own narratives, whatever medium you choose to express them in. If you have any thoughts, please do comment. You can engage with me on Twitter @josephwordsmith or follow this blog by clicking the button on the left hand side.

Thanks for reading

 

 

 

 

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2 thoughts on “One Moment of Perfect Beauty: The Mechanics of Storytelling

  1. This is a wonderful exploration of storytelling and the power of myth, though as the ‘I am your father’ of Darth Vader is a key example I can’t help but worry about myself!!!!

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