Kristine Renee Farley in a screen shot from Hell is Full (Big Biting Pig Productions 2010).
When I teach writing, I ask my students if they’ve told any stories recently. Most of them shake their heads. Then I ask a few questions. I prompt them. Did you talk to your best friend today? To your mom? Did you tell them anything at all? Did you talk about the weird guy sitting next to you? Or the soup you had for lunch that burned your tongue? Or the power going out last night?
They realize then that they have told stories. Many stories. They (and you, and I) tell stories almost every time we open our mouths. Try to go a whole day without telling a story, even to yourself, even in your own head. It’s nearly impossible. People want stories. They crave stories. They can’t help but see the world in terms of stories.
In my opinion, story-making is what sets humans apart from other animals. Something in us makes it possible for us to see ourselves not only as we are, or as we have been, but as we could be. And that is why we need stories — to imagine. We don’t just have stories for recollection, and we don’t just have them for entertainment. We have them because stories help us to understand ourselves, individually and collectively, and to be better humans. And I mean all stories, the small daily ones and the big ones. You tell your version, I tell my version, we look for a truth and that creates meaning for our lives.
Movies tell stories, of course, though this element of movie-making is too often unappreciated by new arrivals. They THINK they are telling a story, and they may well have a plot and characters that do things and move forward. But they don’t ask the hard questions of their story, and so what they end up with is a story — with a small “s” — the same kind my students tell. It’s entertaining, perhaps visually accomplished. Great score, nice special effects. But it’s still a story, when they need to be telling a Story.
This is a hard concept to explain to new writers. Stories don’t have to be big and important to be meaningful. They don’t have to be serious. They don’t have to be long. But they have to be worth the journey. I don’t spend an hour and a half giving my full attention to a story that is no better than a four-year-old’s tale of “and this happened and then this happened and then this happened and they all squirted ketchup everywhere.”
A Story must go somewhere. And it must answer the question “So what?” When we say viewers want to care about the characters, what we are really saying is they want to be told a Story about something difficult and valuable, one that makes them think about themselves, about how they would behave in such circumstances.
We want to see wrongs righted. We want to see people being selfless in some way, connecting to some larger meaning. If there are horrible things happening, we want a protagonist who is horrified. If the protagonist is capable of brutal things, we want some evidence that she can change, or has some redeemable quality.
Viewers flock to movies (and tv shows, and web series, btw) because they want Human Stories. And thirsty consumers that they are, they’ll watch a lot of little stories trying to get to the big, important ones.
And yes, this applies to horror as well. In my opinion, it applies even moreso.
I don’t watch The Walking Dead to see people turn into zombies.
I watch it to see them trying desperately to remain human.
PJ Woodside is the writer and director of Lucid, which features Bill Johnson and will be released in 2013. She is co-producer of Spirit Stalkers and six other movies with Steve Hudgins of Big Biting Pig Productions, and owner of PJ’s Productions. More about PJ here.