Stories are a very difficult art to master as they require the skilled prodding of emotions and intellect. Some stores strive only to entertain, while the more ambitions aim to promote discussion, put forward profound ideas, and touch their audience in far greater ways than merely killing a few hours of their lives.
There are a few key things that must be remembered about stories, or art in general for that matter. At its core, art is a form of self expression, which is also a form of communication. Since that is the case, generally it’s best to observe the same social etiquette you would in any conversation.
Lets us observe the three biggest which I like to call the 3 Ps. Best avoid them less you PPP all over your hard work. Ba Dum Tss!
That was horrible. I’ll shut up now.
Be it by book or film, an author speaks directly to an audience through their chosen medium. Now, a skilled artist will try and make themselves, and their work, approachable. A less skilled artist will indulge in their vanity.
Kubrick was one of the most visionary filmmakers of all time, many of his films working against genre conventions, filled with abstract images, and even dispensing with typical narrative structure. Still, his movies never came across as pretentious. What many forget about Kubrick is he was just a kid from New Jersey who wanted to make movies.
Kubrick was human and subject to the same flaws as the rest of us, and he knew it. Because of that, Kubrick always kept his characters engaging, always made sure the imagery was beautiful, restrained his use of symbolism, and above all else gave the audience a cohesive narrative to belong to. Even his most unusual film, 2001: A Space Odyssey, is still entertainment along with art.
The Cell isn’t nearly as good an example. Tarsem Singh’s film is a textbook example of something pretentious. It has characters discuss issues that are supposedly deep and philosophical while showering itself with abstract images that are supposedly symbolic of something deep, but they leave you scratching your head before any discussion can start.
Its as if the director thought of issues he wanted to explore, thought up the most surreal image imaginable, and then put those images into the movie without really making those ideas part of the story. That’s what makes the movie pretentious. It may be wordy and pretty to look at, but under it all it is shallow. That’s the best way to describe pretentious. It’s just pretty, but shallow.
Once again, art is a form of communication. That being the case, it may not be the best approach to be rude to your audience. If there’s one thing people don’t experience art for, it’s to be insulted.
Ayn Rand had ideals that were interesting if not always (or ever) ethically sound. Atlas Shrugged tells the story of some poor little innocent billionaires who are subject to regulations by those big bad poor people and who run away from the world and let everyone die out of spite. Great people, right? The book’s crowning moment is a speech by one of the characters that slanders those who would dare subject them to regulations and how those who run industry and business should be the bosses of everything. For 70 pages.
This is bad enough on its own, but it only gets worse when you realize that speech is directly addressed to the reader. Ayn Rand straight up calls her readers subhuman whose only purpose is to be subjugated. As you can imagine, openly being insulted didn’t convince anyone that they should bow to their billionaire overlords.
Carl Sagan and his television Cosmos is a far better example. Sagan, an agnostic scientist, sought to share the knowledge he amassed to the public, and throughout his career tried to find a platform to reach people. That platform turned out to be television. He wrote and produced a 13 episode miniseries exploring the history of science and discovery.
Through it all, Carl Sagan was never condescending. Every moment of his astonishing documentary series showed Sagan wanting to be nothing more than friendly and open. This was a man who didn’t think he was better than everyone else, even if he knew he was correct on certain issues. He didn’t act like he wanted to put his boot to your throat. Rather, he invited you to join him on an adventure so you would be exposed to the same wonders that touched him. It was that friendly invitation that made the show a resounding success.
This is a big one, in no small part due to it being almost wrong for certain stories not to be preachy. When dealing with themes like war, racism, the environment and so forth, there always comes a time to discuss the issues at hand. There is a fine line between that being preachy and being provocative.
To date, Avatar is the highest grossing film ever made. Director James Cameron is an outspoken advocate for issues of the environment and scientific innovation, things that I agree with on pretty much every level. Too bad I’m not a big fan of this movie.
The protection of our environment may well be the most pressing issue of our times, and to open a dialogue about it is important. The way in which the message was delivered however didn’t give me the opportunity to become engaged in the story. That’s the biggest risk of being preachy. If you talk over your audience, you never give them the opportunity to think and discover for themselves. Since dealing with issues like this is largely centered on getting people thinking, the audience should be allowed to do just that, and the best way to engage them is in a solid story. Avatar spends too much time on its message, and not enough time on the characters and how they grow. They almost seem an afterthought.
The Twilight Zone does this job much better. Rod Serling’s series dealt with themes of racism, nuclear proliferation, war, individuality, and remaining civilized int he face of adversity. In spite of it all, it never really preached. Instead, it showed.
Serling and his writers seldom relied on dialogue to get their points across, save the closing narration of each episode. Instead, they showed the things they wanted to talk about. Want to say that nuclear war is bad? Show a nuclear war. Want to say racism is bad? Show racism. The line between being preachy and not preachy is at times as simple as that age old rule of ‘show, don’t tell’. Since The Twilight Zone showed the issues it wanted to talk about, though dressed up in fantasy and science fiction stories, it is much more successful at reaching the viewer.
And there you have it. Three things that a story should never be. Art is the personal ambition of everyone who ever put pen to parchment trying to make a story. Because of that, we all want our day to show off our work, talk about things that mean a lot to us, and indulge ourselves for just a little. The successful examples on this list all had one thing in common. They always invited their audience to participate. Art is a conversation between creator and audience, and a one sided conversation may be fun for the person who’s talking, but the person listening will already be looking for the door.