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“Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe.”
– H.G. Wells 1866 – 1946
(The Time Machine)
I’ve already stated that we as a species have been consuming written stories for over five-thousand years. Believe it or not, what this means is that readers are pre-programmed in what they expect from a story. Like it or not, you must give readers what they expect or they won’t enjoy your story.
Don’t believe me? Let’s go back to my wonderfully written The Walk.
If you recall, after chapter one you were willing to give the story a little longer to prove its merit. Why? My hypothesis based on what I know of story consumption is this: The story paints a picture. Life is good. When a story starts this way, readers expect something bad to happen.
I’m willing to bet that’s exactly what you were expecting, and why you were willing to give the story at least one more chapter. You were curious as to what horrible thing was going to happen to the man to break his tranquility. You were expecting something to pull the man from the mundane I was describing and shove him, willingly or not, into a more exciting direction that would be the playground for the remainder of the story.
You see, The Walk starts in what’s known as the State of Perfection. [As with themes, it’s not yet time to delve into the specifics of the State of Perfection. Both of these topics will be dealt with in detail soon.] The important thing to grasp here is that I started the story in this State of Perfection which caused you, through no prompting on my part whatsoever, to expect something bad to happen to the man. When it didn’t happen, you started losing interest in the story. Is this because you’re a horrible person whose sole enjoyment comes from the suffering of others? Perhaps. I don’t know you. But now you scare me… just a bit…
Seriously, though. It’s because you, like me and everyone else on this planet, have built-in, subconscious expectations of what a story is going to deliver. Readers don’t think about what these are, or even notice them when they’re included. All they know is that when a writer includes these elements, elements that are invisible to the reader, the reader enjoys the story. Alternately, when these elements are missing readers do notice. Again, readers don’t think about it, nor understand why. All they know is when these invisible elements are missing, they don’t enjoy the story.
Beowulf is great example to help me make my point. First told some thirteen-hundred years ago, it doesn’t get more tried and true than that! Obviously, by the sheer fact that this story has survived all this time, no one can deny the validity that it’s a great story.
About a decade ago, two Beowulf movies came out a year apart. One was an animated version starring Angelina Jolie titled Beowulf. The other was a live action version starring Gerard Butler titled Beowulf and Grendel. I’m not going to go into the virtues of the base story. However, I’ll state that one made $196,393,745 worldwide while the other brought in a very pathetic $92,076. If you know anything about the movie business, you can probably guess that $92K didn’t even cover Gerard Butler’s salary, much less anything else. (Bonus: if you were paying attention just now, you should’ve figured out which movie flopped.)
Why did one movie fail when the other succeeded?
They’re both based on the same story, right? Both are movie versions of a classic tale that has survived hundreds of generations. Why would one succeed and the another fail?
Sure, budget, release schedule, etc. all played a part in how much money each made. However, let’s look past that. The fact is, one earned good reviews from fans and critics while the other received very poor reviews.
But why? If they’re both based off the same wonderful tale, both having the same characters in them, both following the same basic set of events, both were professionally done and looked great. The acting in both was fantastic. Why then did one fail to please audiences?
Simple. The live action version starring Gerard Butler missed giving the audience what it expects from a story. It didn’t fulfill those built-in, subconscious expectations the readers have.
Don’t get me wrong; I’m not talking about the events of the story (the Physical Layer). Again, events do not a story make.
Both had nearly identical events in them. In both, Beowulf is told there’s a monster plaguing a village. He travels across the ocean and takes up the task of dispatching said monster. He does his homework and discovers things about the monster. The monster and Beowulf clash, and both movies end with the monster dead and Beowulf returning home a hero. (For full disclosure, the animated version then continued on into Beowulf’s life. But that’s unimportant for this example.)
With each being so similar, you should really be wondering how one was a failure.
Because Beowulf, or any successful story, isn’t “good” because of the events that happen during the story (the Physical Layer). Stories are “good,” as defined by the reader, only if the reader is emotionally satisfied when they finish reading the story. A reader’s emotional satisfaction comes from the theme (the Invisible Layer).
Each time I teach this subject and go down this path with the two Beowulf movies, I find there are usually a few people who saw Beowulf and Grendel. In the six years I’ve been using this as an example, only once have I found a person who actually liked this movie. More interesting, and one that relates directly to the point I’m attempting to make here, when I ask those who saw this movie but didn’t enjoy it, why they didn’t enjoy it, I always get the same answer.
Across the board, people say, “I don’t know. I just didn’t.”
This may sound condescending, and I don’t mean it that way, but readers, just like the viewers of this movie, normally have no idea why they like or don’t like a story. This isn’t because they’re stupid. It’s because the elements that make a good story are invisible to the reader. And they should be invisible! People read to be entertained, not to think about why they are, or aren’t, entertained.
This is the reason so many new, untrained and unskilled writers produce terrible stories.
By studying story structure and theory, you’ll learn why stories succeed or fail. As someone who wants to make a living telling stories, don’t you think it’s important to know stuff like this?
If you’re curious about my opinion as to why audiences didn’t like Beowulf and Grendel, here they are. In that version of this tried and true tale, even though the events of the story are almost exactly like the original (the Physical Layer), the writers decided to go a different direction in answering the conflict between Beowulf and Grendel (the Invisible Layer).
You see, while there are several themes in the classic story of Beowulf, the one that reigns supreme is the theme of Good vs. Evil. I don’t want to get too deep into themes here, as we shall be spending gobs of time on it in ACT II, but a theme isn’t a topic, it’s a question. Meaning, we need to take our theme of Good vs. Evil and turn it into a question for the reader to ponder. A simplistic version of the theme for Beowulf could be, “Can good defeat evil?”
In the classic tale, and the Angelina Jolie version, this question is posed and answered by the fact that Beowulf shows up and kills the monster. The story says, “Yes, good can defeat evil.” The answering of this question, as simple and as ancient as it is, means the audience leaves emotionally satisfied. The reader became Beowulf (Good), and they killed the monster (Evil).
In Beowulf and Grendel, the writers totally missed the mark with their execution of the Invisible Layer.
First, they made the Grendel character more sympathetic. They delved into the monster’s past, and the audience learned about where Grendel came from, and the plights he was forced to live through before Beowulf arrived intent on taking that life from him. Basically, they humanized Grendel.
This, in-and-of-itself, didn’t ruin their version of this tale. Personally, I found the diversion wonderful. It really opened up the story for me, allowing me to see the opposing point of view. Really cool.
However, this did throw off the balance of the story. In an attempt to play off this diversion, the writers decided that Beowulf should not be the one to kill Grendel. Perhaps this was because they felt that if Beowulf killed the now sympathetic monster it would turn the audience off. Who knows. I was not part of this venture, so anything I say here is merely speculation.
Still, for whatever reason, they decided to have Grendel get caught in a snare. To escape, Grendel chops his own hand off, then runs away. Once he gets away and is alone, he bleeds to death.
I’d normally say “Spoilers!” here, but why bother? I’m banking you aren’t going to go out of your way to see this movie based on the reviews and my breakdown here.
Basically, you have the hero, Beowulf, the “shell” that’s the “reader,” show up, discover he must kill a monster that’s plaguing a village, and do… well… nothing. He shows up, Grendel kills himself, and Beowulf says, “Well, that’s done. Here’s my business card – it says “monster slayer” right there below my name and everyone knows business cards can’t lie. If you end up with any more monster problems, you just give me a call, ya hear?”
In other words, you (Beowulf) showed up to overcome a conflict (Grendel), but you (Beowulf) did nothing. So, you (the person paying for the story) found yourself emotionally unfulfilled once the story ended.
Going deeper to look at the Invisible Layer, the theme posed the question, “Can good defeat evil?” At the end, the story’s answer was, “Um…? I don’t know. Evil killed itself, so… perhaps?”
Perhaps!?! It means the underlying question posed to the audience was left unanswered. Bad! Bad, writer! Go to your room and think about what you’ve done.
Same story. Same characters. Same events. Same Physical Layer. One very minor, yet hugely impactful, difference to the Invisible Layer (the theme).
Again, stories are not a string of events. If this were true, then two nearly identical stories would both be successful. Stories are what the reader feels once they finish the story.
I’ll constantly return to “it’s all about the reader” and themes to beat them like rented mules. Still, as we move forward, you need to always keep these top of mind. Nothing we’re about to discuss will help you make a successful story if you forget that it’s all about the reader, and that means it’s all about answering the underlying theme (the Invisible Layer).
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