Storytelling has been degraded in our time by
corporate entertainment, which wants a mathematical formula for stories
that even a studio functionary can understand.  Hence the
“character arc”, which reduces a human being's story to a geometrical
figure, and the “hero's journey”, which reduces it to a grocery list of
plot points.

The heart of any real story, however, is mystery.

has no character arc — neither do Alice of Wonderland or
Hamlet of Denmark.  What they have in place of a character arc is
the illusion of an irreducible, inexhaustible inner life — in short, a

Here's a wonderful quote from Stephen
Greenblatt's recent biography of  Shakespeare,
Will In the World:

“Shakespeare found that he could immeasurably deepen the effect of his
plays, that he could provoke in the audience and in himself a
peculiarly passionate intensity of response, if he took out a key
explanatory element, thereby occluding the rationale, motivation or
ethical principle that accounted for the action that was to unfold. 
The principle was not the making of a riddle to be solved, but the
creation of a strategic opacity.  This opacity, Shakespeare found,
released an enormous energy that had been at least partially blocked or
contained by familiar, reassuring explanations.”

This sums up what's
wrong with Hollywood filmmaking today.  Anything you tell the audience
to feel they don't have to feel, because they know you'll feel it for
them.  In a Hollywood film today, for example, it's extremely reassuring to be introduced to a little girl with
no legs whose lifelong dream it is to climb Mount Everest, because you
know that at the end of the film she will, by the use of artificial
limbs or even by dragging herself along with only her arms, get to the
summit.  The only issue is how it will happen.  It becomes a puzzle
rather than a story.

But in trying to figure out why Hamlet is behaving the way he's
behaving, and never being given a coherent explanation, you
mysteriously internalize his experience.

Once a character has a legible “arc” she is no longer a character — she's an arc . . . a shape, not a person.

Understanding this is like possessing the storytelling
equivalent of the secret of nuclear fission — it's the key to a
radical new phase in popular entertainment, which I expect will unfold
in the next two to three years as the Internet gradually erodes the
corporate grip on distribution.

It will at any rate at least be possible to tell real stories again —
stories that engage the inner experience of an audience.  It will seem
incredibly new and exciting — though it's as old as Homer, as old as
the oldest storyteller Homer learned his stuff from.  But that's the
thing about stories — the great ones always seem brand new, even when
you know exactly how they'll come out . . . because they're like
emotional chain reactions that happen inside you, not like lines on a
geometrical chart.  It's the difference between E=mc² written on a
piece of paper and what happened
on the test site at Los Alamos.


  1. It is frustrating that Hollywood relies so much on surfaces. I recently saw “Spiderman 3.” I thought that its attempt to give some interiority to Peter Parker (the focus of a vast portion of the film) failed miserably (not the case with “Spiderman 2”!). If studios are willing to spend several hundred million dollars on a film, surely they can spend another hundred thousand to give body to and refine their script! But I think there has always been a strong element of non-narrative, spectacle-based, “cinema of attractions” thinking in Hollywood (even in the more literary years of Ben Hecht and Co.). I think this element has come increasingly to the fore in recent years, and it often results in degraded characterizations.

  2. Couldn't agree more. The great directors who worked within the studio system, like Hitchcock and Ford, gave the surface attractions of a film, thrills and chills, chases and shoot-'em-ups, their due, but told deeper stories between the lines. These days, more and more, the surface is everything.

Comments are closed.