This is the first of a series of articles that discuss something I believe is unique to humans. In fact, I think it’s one of the few things we can point to that does differentiate us from the animal kingdom. And it is something that goes deep into our past. It is our ability to use language to create and tell complex stories.
It is also one of my favorite topics. If you’ve read many of my posts, particularly those about movies and TV, you’ve seen me write about my love of stories.
There is an interesting continuum of storytelling modes. Books lie at one end; movies at the other. Plays and TV lie between. The continuum describes—in part—the experience of the audience. Here’s the deal…
The story in a book occurs as you read it. If you stop to reflect or take a break, the story stops and waits. You can also jump back to re-read or jump forward to find out what happened. The reader is in complete control of a book story’s timeline.
Not only can the reader stop, start and jump around. The reader can savor individual parts; taking them slowly, enjoying the moment. As with all Art, books have style and content. Sometimes the writing style of a book demands slow savoring.
Books (typically) have no visual content. (Some few may be illustrated or have chapter pictures, such as in the Harry Potter books.) The visual content is left to the imagination of the reader.
But book stories take place largely in the reader’s mind. Imagination is a huge component, and the reader fully controls time. The reader brings much of themself into the mix. Because no visuals are provided, the reader also has full viewpoint control.
Plays occur in real-time; once they begin, they proceed until the end. There may be brief pauses for scene changes, and occasionally an intermission. But for the most part plays occur in real-time, just like life.
Plays differ from life in that the visual elements are simulated. Scenery, costumes and props can be presented in various ways, from realistic to abstract. Some plays take place on empty stages, with no costumes and with imaginary props. Other plays strive for the greatest realism possible. And while props and costumes can be entirely authentic, the scenery is necessarily simulated.
The aspects of Performance Art come into play here (read that any way you like). Of particular note, music and sound effects become a part of the mix. Music, especially, has evocative powers that add emotion and texture to a story.
The audience member in a play sees it from a single viewpoint determined by their seat. The play itself is necessarily designed to be viewed from all seats. Ideally, the perception of the play should be the same from any seat.
But one thing all viewpoints have in common is distance and continuity. Even front row seats are many feet, if not yards, from the players. And no matter how fast you run, you can never do the “jump cut” of cinema. But you can choose where in the scene you focus your gaze. Nothing controls where you look.
In summary, plays also take place much in the head, but not as much as books, because some visuals are provided. During a play, the viewer has no control over time; they can only sit back for the ride. Because plays often simulate reality suggestively, the viewer still brings much to the mix.
As visual mediums go, plays exert the least control over your viewpoint. You can change your seat, walk backstage or watch from the “flies” (scaffolding above the stage). More importantly, your viewpoint is continuous and your gaze is under your control.
When you analyze TV shows, it’s helpful to draw a distinction between cinematic TV and studio TV. The former are produced with cinema techniques and are rightfully considered “movies”. Another distinction is theatrical movies shown on TV. These were made as cinema and presented as cinema, so they are obviously not TV. Finally, the effect of commercial breaks is ignored as out of scope for this essay.
The addition of one or more cameras to the mix makes a significant difference in how a story works. Just as a photograph freezes a moment of time and place, a cinegraph freezes the telling of a story. Once frozen, the experience can be repeated endlessly and without variation. Compare this to a play which is slightly different each time performed.
Two things are hugely significant about the addition of a camera. Firstly, your gaze is now controlled by the Artist. Secondly, your viewpoint can be instantly changed by a cut. Therefore, part of the Art here is what you look at, how close you look at it and for how long.
Studio TV shows are shot as if they were small plays and may even include live audiences. Generally single scenes run in real-time with multiple cameras running in synch. In some cases the show is “cut” live; the director switches among the cameras during the performance. In other cases, the synchronized footage is cut later with greater deliberation and care.
If one is present, the studio audience is not the real audience of a TV show. The audience is there, sometimes for publicity, but mainly to provide a live feel. Comedies, in particular, benefit when seen with a crowd; laughter is contagious. (Even with a live audience, studio shows often have laugh tracks to enhance the live feel.)
The real audience is the viewer, and for the viewer, the viewpoint is highly controlled. The camera’s gaze is under the director’s control, as is which camera is live at any moment. And while the studio audience may endure several minutes between scene changes, for the viewer, the change is instant.
Viewpoint and gaze aren’t the only factors under a director’s control in TV. Most TV shows strive to make the scenery, costumes and props as realistic as possible. In fact, generally in TV, lack of realism is considered avant-garde. In terms of its visual aspect, TV doesn’t leave much to the viewer’s imagination.
In summary, TV shows are another jump in making the story external to the audience. The show provides the (typically realistic) visuals and controls the viewpoint. Rewind, slo-mo and freeze-frame put some timeline control back into the viewer’s hands, but a TV show is a fully frozen story to which the viewer contributes little.
The combination of mute reception plus the control and reality of visuals gives TV great power to affect our emotions and, even more dangerously, our minds. Music and sound effects heighten that power, giving TV the power to create new realities, especially given TV’s ability to repeat.
The ability of the storyteller to control all elements of the story is never greater than with cinema. The ratio of effort to create over effort to view is huge. Film makers can spend months, even years, crafting a film that lasts 90 minutes. Usually at least four to six times as much film is shot as is seen. Music, scenery, props and effects are all at their fullest expression in film.
The combination of the full control of cinema along with the common experience of viewing it quietly on the big screening a dark room makes film the most immersive of storytelling techniques. The mobility of the motion picture camera, the variety of lenses and the sensitivity of film all make the cinema camera one of the most powerful storytelling devices ever.
In summary, movies are the most immersive and external forms of story. The creator of a movie has full control of the visual, audible and timeline aspects of the tale.
When viewed in the dark theatre (that is, without a remote control!), movies offer a dream-like and powerful reality. What is perhaps most notable is that the reality is none our own.
Where do Graphic Novels fit in this continuum. They are books in physical form, and share the savorable aspects of books. Yet they are illustrated works, which pushes them up the continuum.
Their visuals can be lifelike or suggestive, but each frame is just a snapshot of sorts. On the other hand, the viewpoint and gaze are under the Artist’s control as much as in cinema.
So they apparently span the continuum from books to movies, having some aspects of both.
Poetry is an almost dream-like mode that may not (often does not) tell a story, per se. To me, poetry is more akin to painting or sculpture.
As a literary form, it requires the most imagination from the reader (and the poet). The reader brings even more to poetry than to a book story. If I had to place it on the story continuum, I would place beyond books, almost into the dream world.