The Root of Storytelling

Pablo Picasso: "I paint objects as I think them not as I see them." guernica_pablo_picasso

The greatest challenge of anyone trying to tell a story visually is to try and figure how to tell the story. For a comic artist, it's a question of what do I put in the frame, what is its relationship to other things around it, and how close am I going to be to my subject? For the writer, it's a question of what do I describe, and which and how many words should I use to do so. For film makers and animators, the questions include motion, sound, and the manipulation of time.

So how do you make your choices? There are an infinite amount of possibilities at any moment of your story, and the human brain is physically incapable of analyzing all of those possibilities and selecting a candidate for the best idea. But the human brain is also very good at generalizing and finding simplified heuristic models to understand how any system works. For artists, this is called a theory.

The thing is, every artist operates on their own theory, whether they know it or not, and depending on their theory, their art will be shallow and unoriginal or deeply profound and unique.  Michael Bay's theory of film making can be summed up in one question: "Is It Awesome?" It's a theory based entirely on spectacle and resonance with pop-culture and is a common guide of the novice. The other two novice theories are the "make it different" and "do it like them" theories. Either, you are trying to come up with something that hasn't been done before, or you are copying something cool you saw someone else do. None of these theories are bad theories, in fact I think the best storytellers follow them to a certain extent, but I also think the very best storytellers have a much more important underlying theory guiding what they do.

And here's what it is: Empathy.

The best artists know, that at its root, storytelling is about understanding the experiences of someone else.

And the tool that the greats use to create empathy is point-of-view.

In 2002, I had the opportunity of participating in Orson Scott Card's Writer's Bootcamp. Previous to the Bootcamp, I was assigned to read Characters & Viewpoint by Mr. Card which discusses the importance of point-of-view and particularly the superiority of the 3rd-person-limited-omniscient-narrator in writing. Like most people I understood point-of-view at a surface level-1st person, 2nd person, 3rd person ect. It just means who is telling the story, right?  But it wasn't until I was in the workshop that I really understood the importance of point-of-view to telling a story.

He gave us some writing samples to read. They were very descriptive passages of landscapes and sunsets and details of clothing, but they were boring as hell. Why? Because the descriptions were too objective. It was like a robot describing a photograph-there was no humanity to the words. Then we read some other passages that were vibrant, gritty and funny. The difference was point-of-view. The writing communicated an attitude, not just a description. That's why the 3rd-person-limited-omniscient-narrator is such a powerful tool, because it communicates attitude so well. (For a masterful example of 3PLON, look no further than George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series.)

So, point-of-view is not so much about who is telling the story, but how he sees the world. You don't even have to limit the narrative to just the things a character thinks and sees, as long as the world you are showing is colored by his attitudes.

The textbook example of using point-of-view is Kurosawa's Rashomon. You see the same event three different times, from three different perspectives. The details and the feeling of the story are widely different with each telling, depending on the attitudes of who is telling the story at the time.

When the Thief tells his version of the story, it's all bravado and adventure. When the victim tells the story, it's nightmarish thuggery, and when the guy hiding in the bush tells the story, we see a pathetic struggle for survival. (By the way, the third act of Rashomon includes the truest fight scene in the history of cinema.)


So, point-of-view is not only an important tool, it's the most important thing to consider when telling a story, and can better help you decide what artistic decisions to make than any other rubric. If you want to do something awesome, unique or traditional go right ahead, but it'll be a thousand times more powerful if you can also make it support a specific point-of-view.

Lastly, I want to point you to this clip by Improv Everywhere. If you have the means or the desire, contrast it with the subway scene in Borat. We are seeing the same thing through two very different attitudes. Neither one is "true", they are simply choices. Ultimately you have the power to choose a point-of-view that will show others how you see the world.

Perhaps that's the most important choice of all.