Storytelling Icons

I don’t know if this is age, experience, or truth (likely a combination), but it feels as if storytelling in the new millennium has become superficial and shallow. Many of the movies and TV shows I’ve seen appear to be mere strings of icons so well-worn we don’t even think about them.

It’s as if the vocabulary of storytelling has expanded into LEGO® pieces connected to build colorful plastic stories lacking in nuance and detail. Special pieces (like little people or wheels) make the model a bit more real-seeming, but those same complete parts get used and reused.

And some of them have started to really annoy me…

In storytelling, there is such a thing as a “trope,” which has a classic meaning along the lines of metaphor or analogy, and a modern meaning along the lines of cliché (of “over-used metaphor or analogy”).

If one is interested in storytelling, the TV Tropes site is a fascinating time sink. (It’s a bit over-run with ads, is the one objection. Use a good ad-blocker.)

What I’ve been calling “icons” are a kind of distilled trope (modern meaning). They tend more to be single images or actions than tropes do (tropes can extend to entire characters or plot lines, although there are “iconic” tropes, too).

[It might be better to call them LEGO® bricks, because “iconic” can also mean “singularly great” (an iconic leader), whereas I mean it strictly in the sense of “representative symbol.” The plastic brick thing is appropo, too.]

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Getting down to tass bracks, this all started with one particular icon that started to bug me, because I suddenly asked myself, “Who actually does that?”

I’m referring to the icon of the hero (or villain) starting a conflagration of some kind by lighting a Zippo lighter and then tossing it away.

And the thing is, we see it constantly.

In contrast, there is a storytelling trope involving the Zippo lighter with deep and significant meaning for the character. It’s possible this tossing away icon references that a bit; a metaphorical tossing away something important.

It’s a really silly icon that represents (ironically) both hero-ness and villain-ness, depending on context.

Which is an aspect of many of these icons: They’re so plastic brick-like, that our interpretation of them depends on context. They’re little labels a lazy author tacks on as character traits.

One characteristic of icons is that they’re dumb. Who throws away a Zippo lighter to start a conflagration? (It’s physical evidence, for one thing.)

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No doubt some of this is due to the need to produce enough content to fill all the sources we have these days.

It necessarily leads to assembly line tactics and mass-produced sameness. Content creators are forced to use ready-made icons. (Which explains why TV was always such a wasteland, but doesn’t explain why so many movies are so plastic and empty.)

There is also that the 90/10 rule (90% of everything is crap) always applies, so when there is lots and lots of content, there is also lots and lots of crap.

It may well be my complaints are founded on nothing more than there being so much 90% now. I readily admit there is also the 10% — by no means is it all crap.

And, as I started off saying, this could also be age (which is to say, weariness) and experience (seen a lot of stories). Many of the stories I disdain clearly are loved by many. Clearly we all have different values when it comes to story appreciation.

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In any event, here are some of the other icons that have started to annoy me:

¶ The computer virus that makes the display screen break up.

It’s absurd, and it’s a classic icon, because it’s a visual image that’s utter nonsense, but which is intended to communicate something (that the virus is doing something).

For that to actually happen, the virus would have to corrupt video display memory (which is highly unlikely, especially in a terminal/mainframe context).

Even less likely is when the display breaks up in a way that resembles a bad TV signal (from the old analog days). Makers of the virus would have to go a fair distance out of their way to make that happen.

¶ The hologram that looks like an old B&W TV with big scan lines.

It doesn’t matter how good the surrounding technology is, the hologram looks always looks crude and glitchy. Apparently color isn’t possible let alone decent resolution.

You can maybe understand R2-D2 projecting Princess Leia that way, but you’d certainly expect fixed holographic projectors to work better. (Why in the world would they glitch?)

As with all icons, this is communicating an idea, but the image involved makes poor sense in context. We see the icon and think “hologram” with all the long-distance that implies.

(It’s like the dial tone sound effect when a line disconnects but the character is using a cell phone. It doesn’t work like that; it’s an icon communicating “hung up.”)

((Or like the metal scraping sound effect inserted over removing a knife or sword from a leather scabbard. I mean, seriously, WTF? An iconic sound that means “drawing an edged weapon.”))

¶ Ripping a handful of wires from beneath the dashboard to start a car.

This is increasingly impossible in modern cars. That the hero (or sometimes villain) can do it so casually and easily is ridiculous.

And I love how they always know exactly which wires out of the bundle they often pull from the steering column. Or how easily they get access to the bare wire.

It’s a bit like transporters on Star Trek: a trick to move the story along.

¶ The conversation that takes place across multiple locations.

A character says one thing in one setting, the other character replies in a completely different one, as though the conversation had just stopped for an hour or so and then resumed where it left off.

It looks cool visually, but when you stop to think about what’s going on, it’s really stupid. For me, it’s gotten to the point of being jarring and often lifts me out of the story. I notice it, now, every time.

A key characteristic of icons is that they look good, but make no real sense.

¶ The clear “paper” or tactical board.

This is another “futurism” that has actually offended me (because it’s so stupid) since I first saw it (probably back in some 1970s SF film or TV show).

See-through “paper” sucks balls!

I’ve worked in graphics shops, plus I’ve made many an overhead transparency for teaching, so I am very well acquainted with transparent “paper.”

I can’t say this strongly enough: It. Is. Unusable.

You can’t read text very well when you can see the background behind it. No one would use it on a regular basis. It’s a visually cool thing with “future” implications.

[As an aside, I don’t understand the modern trend for low-contrast text. This blog’s theme would have the text looking like it does in this aside. I manually set nearly every paragraph to full black to make it more readable. I think visual designers have lost their minds, sometimes.]

¶ Pulling a knife (that scares the bound victim), only to cut the bonds.

[sigh] I have gotten so tired of this one. It’s part of a bigger sort of storytelling bullshit, the temporary character misdirection. It’s the trick of making us think a character is zigging one way when they actually zag the other.

Oh, what clever writing! It’s right up there with the jump scare when it comes to cheap and lazy.

A big part of the bullshit comes from how these scenes are usually filmed. The knife wielder not only doesn’t telegraph their intent; in fact, they usually subtly telegraph menace.

Often the knife is a switchblade, or other type of folding knife, that can be opened with a dash of extra menace.

¶ Take a pill and it has an instant effect.

(This drove me crazy on House, M.D.) Now, maybe I’m wrong, I don’t have much experience with taking pills. The ones I have taken took up to 30 minutes to take effect.

But I just don’t see how one can take a pill, swallow it, and then react immediately to its effects.

“You can’t work this case!” “I have to! (It’s personal!)”

Yeah, okay, whatever. The superior always caves, because “it’s personal.” (Isn’t it always?)

I have a lot more respect when the character is, indeed, forced to sit on the sidelines (a plot line I have seen a few times and regarded).

¶ Getting your “phone call” when arrested.

Don’t count on it. It’s not legally required. We just think it is because of this icon.

It’s entirely up to the cops during your arrest. I mention it here because it’s such a common icon (which, as always, just isn’t real).

¶ The blurted confession before being accused (of something else).

Do people actually do this in real life?

In the stories, of course, they are never being accused of what they think they’re guilty of, so the blurted confession always makes their hot water hotter.

Maybe, if this is real, it falls under people being stupid rather than authors. The smart money is to wait and see what the accusation is before shooting off your mouth.

Somewhat similar is:

¶ The mistaken identity with only “But I’m not…” rather than “My name is Soanso.”

The character keeps protesting they’re not person A, but never really step up to say how they’re person B.

I might, for example, just whip out my wallet and hold my driver’s license in front of their face.

(Along the lines of dumb character lines, I’ve written before about, “You gotta believe me!”)

¶ The explanatory cut-away.

A character is asked something, they look off into space remembering (or begin to answer), and we cut away to a past scene that answers the question.

When we return to the present, it’s as if the character has described the past scene in great and precise detail, to which the other characters are now reacting.

Which is actually pretty cool; it’s just getting so common. The TV show, 30 Rock, used it a lot, and it’s been a thing ever since (if not earlier).

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The thing about all these is how common they are. They’re silly plastic bricks we’ve seen so many times we don’t really notice them anymore.

Yet, icons and tropes may be an avoidable outcome of so much storytelling. Perhaps the real pity is that they’ve become so silly and shallow.

We should demand better storytelling!

About Wyrd Smythe

The canonical fool on the hill watching the sunset and the rotation of the planet and thinking what he imagines are large thoughts. View all posts by Wyrd Smythe

5 responses to “Storytelling Icons

  • Wyrd Smythe

    Maybe this is just ennui from having seen and studied so many LEGO® models — many of which were really very good. One just gets tired of seeing art made from the same old pieces.

    That’s why I so highly value shows, like The Good Place or Russian Doll or many others. Creative storytellers finding fresh ways to spin tales. Story Space is all but infinite and these shows demonstrate unexplored areas still exist!

  • SelfAwarePatterns

    The ones I always notice are characters being knocked out casually and repeatedly. It is possible to be knocked out, although it’s extremely difficult to do without accidentally killing the person (unless you’re wearing boxing gloves), and in real life it’s much more serious than the brief inconvenience portrayed in the shows.

    For that matter, characters taking a beating without swelling up or bleeding all over everything. As someone who actually has taken a beating before, I can assure you it’s not something anyone recovers from quickly, even in the prime of life.

    It’s interesting to watch rank and file shows or movies from other countries. Often their tropes are different from ours. They end up looking like nonsensical events that the story characters just accept. Usually the only thing that clues you in that it’s a trope is if it happens more than once.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      “The ones I always notice are characters being knocked out casually and repeatedly.”

      Oh, yeah, that’s a good one! Very true what you say, there!

      Some of that may trace back to the days when TV was so sanitized. Remember how people used to get shot? Often the gun was just a dead prop, no blanks even, so the gun would often be out of frame for the actual shot (that heard-everywhere gun sound effect). The victim would clutch their stomach and fall down. No blood, no wound. A very polite death.

      These days that’s mostly out the window. I’ve been burning through Mr. Robot, and the beatings several characters have gotten always result in closed eyes and nasty wounds and bruises.

      But the traditional hero’s KO punch (while possible) is very hard to pull off, and a hit to the head is, as you say, can cause severe damage. Yeah, that definitely belongs on the list!

      “It’s interesting to watch rank and file shows or movies from other countries.”

      Very true! In my film school days, I went through a foreign film phase, and in the early 2000s, I went through an Asian films phase (especially martial arts films), and I know exactly the sort of thing you’re talking about.

      It always seemed Asian films, compared to Western films, more often had actions and events (and reactions) that clearly made sense culturally, but which seemed very weird or opaque to me. I’ve heard it said no one raised in Western culture can ever hope to understand Asian culture. Not sure I believe that entirely, but Asian films can be very, very puzzling sometimes, especially the older ones that lack a lot of Western influence.

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        That’s been my experience with Asian films as well, not just oriental ones, but Indian ones too. Not that I’ve watched a ton of Indian films, but the ones I have seen seem to have those moments as much as the oriental ones. I also saw it in the one Turkish movie I once tried to watch.

        But I’ve even noticed it in Spanish, Italian, and other western culture movies, although not to the extent of the Asian ones. Heck, even UK shows seem to have it to some extent, although there it’s more nuanced.

        You also see it if you watch old American movies and serials, although those usually have the precursors to the tropes we see today. The mores of the 1930s sometimes seem just as foreign to me as stuff I watch from Japan.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        “Heck, even UK shows seem to have it to some extent, although there it’s more nuanced.”

        Indeed. That often stands out when it comes to humor.

        Very good point about older American movies; very true!

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