That’s all we have, finally, the words, and they had better be the right ones.1
“Content,” as it’s so often called, is more abundant and cheaper than ever.
We have access to more movies and television, more books, more music than ever before. We are glued to our screens. We scroll our feeds every day to see what everyone we know is posting, and we put up our own posts for others to see on their own feeds. All the while, not fully conscious of what all of this is: we are consuming narrative, and providing our own narrative in turn to be consumed.
Perversely, we seem more than happy to ignore the importance of narrative as an actual communicative device. It feels like too many people are ignorant, or all too keen to dismiss the idea, of narrative as a tool to learn about the world and the people in it; or as a coping mechanism for when you are going through hard times; or a way to connect you with your deeper self.
There are surely many reasons for this. Among them, dismissal of genres wholesale, such as fantasy fiction, or preconceptions about entire mediums of storytelling, such as video games. Maybe the longer societal trend of dismissing experts, or our preoccupation with irony and our aversion toward genuine, honest feeling, also have something to do with it. In any case, it’s not uncommon to hear, “It’s just a summer movie. It doesn’t have to mean anything.”
But it means something, anyway, with or without our permission.
Stories Are Never “Just” Stories
No matter how much a person might otherwise possess, they were poor if they did not know stories they could turn to for advice, throughout and till the very end of life.2
I think that we are too quick today to write things off as “just stories.” In writing it may not be very common—but the way we treat film and television, I think, borders on criminal. Those in the writers’ room may have in mind what they’re trying to say, but the consumers of that art seldom dwell consciously on what they’re consuming. A plate is set before them and they eat what is on it without looking or caring for its nourishing value. As long as it has flavor—any flavor—they continue to eat.
This phenomenon certainly isn’t something new. I’m sure this has always been the case, at least from the perspective of certain consumers.3 To use some archaic examples, I doubt the women washing in the rivers or the children listening to the elders consciously knew or actively thought about the functions of the stories and jokes they shared. Even then there must have been stories with little “nutritional” value; sugary sweet desserts that were good fun, but which didn’t stand the test of time, and of which we have little knowledge now.
In any case, it’s telling that those stories which contained the densest nutritional value are the ones that survived as the myths and legends we still learn about today. More than that: we literally used some of them as frameworks for describing the inner workings of our minds. Oedipus, Narcissus, Psyche.4 While some of the modern takes on these myths didn’t necessarily hold much water, the fact that these surviving myths became such a wellspring for so much productive thought speaks to the power of these stories.
A superhero movie is not just a movie about a superhero; nor is it simply an empowerment fantasy. Speculative fiction (SF / fantasy) is not inherently less valuable than “literary” fiction; nor are westerns or thrillers or detective serials.
You learn this when you think about what a story is about. Not the elevator pitch, but the part of the story that sticks with you when you turn the last page, or when the credits roll. Blade Runner looks and sounds cool, but it isn’t merely the aesthetics that made it a cult classic. It remains in the collective science fiction subconscious because of its examination of the nature of humanity, the evils of slavery, and its strong Biblical subtext (among much more).5
When you see a movie, or read a book, or play a game, and come away from it feeling as if there was something not quite right there, like it just didn’t connect with you even though it was so well made; when a movie reaches for its climax and it lands with a sad thud, even though right up to that point everything worked like gangbusters; these point to storytellers who either do not know exactly what they’re trying to say, or know what they want to say but can’t quite work out how to say it—or, worst of all, the storytellers did not think at all of what they were saying, and insisted they never tried to say anything at all.
The Stories We Tell
In a barren culture, one or two fragmentary story-themes play, like a broken record, broadcasting the same notes over and over again.
I want to take a moment and talk about the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Over the past ten years, the MCU has come to dominate our pop culture in ways unprecedented. Toys, games, movies upon movies. And now, unrelated summer blockbusters. The Marvel Method of Storytelling has infected franchises like Jurassic Park and Star Wars, stripping from them what made them meaningful in the first place.8
What’s wrong with this? you might ask. Marvel has obviously found a formula that works, commercially speaking, so what’s the harm in adapting it for other franchises? Movie making is a business, and businesses exist to make money.
Here’s what’s wrong: the core theme(s) of the MCU are reprehensible at worst, and milquetoast at best. And now they’ve come to dominate our summers. These things are internalized; if not by the “rational adults” who know “it’s only a movie,” then by those who lack the depth or breadth of experience to recognize a faulty message and call it out for what it is.
The most common theme and worst offender is the idea that you are fine exactly as you are, and there’s no need for you to change; it’s actually the world that is wrong. This is not present in every MCU film, but it’s there in the majority of them, when they have anything to say at all. As exemplified by Doctor Strange:9
- “I’m smart and good at everything.”
- Character flaw leads to Doctor Strange almost losing everything.
- Strange pursues surgeries and experimental methods to get the use of his hands back
- He learns nothing, and changes nothing about himself in this “journey”
- He gains the use of his hands back, and incredible power with them, all by not changing himself
- “See? Smart and good at everything.”
Aside from the first complication, that near-fatal car accident caused by Strange’s own hubris, none of the rest of the story stems from personal choices Strange makes. The story is simply a bunch of setups and payoffs designed to show us how smart and good at everything Strange is.
The second issue I take umbrage with is less of a theme and more of a motif: the compulsive need to undercut any and every emotional beat with a joke or one-liner. As if the movies themselves are uncomfortable with feeling anything; as if they are allergic to drama or genuine catharsis—that is, growth.10
You see bits of these two patterns spilling into other territories. Star Wars: The Force Awakens suffered, and when The Last Jedi tried to rectify that and provide a narrative with actual character and stakes, there was a relatively small but incredibly vocal and toxic minority who lashed out because of it. And Jurassic Park, reborn as Jurassic World, who thought it could get away with being all spectacle, pulp without flavor, as long as it hung at hat on the fact and pointed at it and said, “This is what I’m doing, see?”
So we have this pervasive theme—”I’m perfectly fine exactly how I am; it’s them that need changing”—broadcast with varying clarity by one of the most popular film franchises in memory, which is then internalized by all too many of those who consume the films. It’s silly to argue that this isn’t the case. Now more than ever we are growing more divided and polarized. Our group is fine—it’s that group that’s causing all our problems and which needs to change, for our benefit. The stories may be a product of this thought process, or they may be a source of it, or maybe it’s a little bit of both, and it’s a feedback loop. The point is, these stories do matter and do play a role.
We can’t entirely blame the creators of these stories for this; I’m not trying to be too harsh on them. After all, the stories we generate and consume are products of ourselves. Maybe in another post we can cover some of the possible reasonings for this.
Ultimately, what I’m interested in here is what gives story meaning, and what makes it resonate and live on.
What Gives Story Meaning
…transcendence of the universal tragedy of man…
A story does not need to be a childhood fable, where the ending consists of some variant of, “and the little kids learned not to wander off the path again,” and then grandpa dusts his palms off on his pants and struts away, leaving the kids agape and brimming with cautionary nightmares. Nor does it need to be some grand exploration of unanswerable questions, or conflicts of opposing themes. It can be either or both of these, or anywhere in between, or neither of them at all, or something else entirely.
I think that in order for a story to have merit, it should do at least one of a few things:
- Kindle the imagination
- Communicate a worldview
- Explore a theme or a question
- Provide catharsis
What these have in common is that each of them, in some manner, serves to enlarge the consumer’s insight and outlook. The best stories do all of the above. The ones lost to natural selection do none.
We’ll explore the first three briefly before moving on to catharsis, which—as you may have guessed—is what this whole post is about. Perhaps in the future these will expand to take over posts of their own.
The creative and spiritual lives of individuals influence the outer world as much as the mythic world influences the individual.
An argument could be made that our imaginations are one of the key components of our humanity. The imagination is what allowed us to craft narrative in the first place. At the core of almost every great invention is an a ha! moment, where the inventor suddenly sees in a way they never saw before.
Good stories nourish and strengthen our imaginations. For a clear-cut example, simply look at the way scientific progress in the mid- to late-twentieth century was influenced by science fiction.
They also serve as tools through which we learn to fill in the gaps between knowledge and the unknown. What creaks in the night, or what lies beyond the forest, terrifies and fascinates us as children; then, what could happen if we won the lottery, or could go back to last year and change that one decision. These are stories we tell ourselves.
There is more remaining to be experienced than will ever be known or told.
Our time alive is finite, and we can only see and hear and taste and touch a finite number of things. By the mere act of consuming a story told by someone clear across the world, we expand our horizons almost exponentially. We learn the differences between our cultures; we submerse our senses in the far-off environments; and ultimately, we learn that at the core of all human experience is a set of universal constants. We all want to love and be loved. We all fear death, or what happens after we die.
Without this assurance of our commonalities and celebration of our differences, it’s easy to grow myopic in your worldview. The foreign becomes the other, then becomes evil. What is unlike you becomes dangerous and is to be cast out. Herd mentality removes the possibility of herd immunity.
Good examples abound in film from around the world. Film is a great communicator, capable of dispensing densely packed information more effectively than almost any other storytelling medium. You learn of other cultures, locales, methods of expression; even the things we take for granted like color perception or the meanings of symbols can be slightly different or entirely changed. And, of course, you see that human drama remains the same everywhere.
Themes and Questions
The unlike is joined together, and from differences results the most beautiful harmony, and all things take place by strife.
How long does it take to truly come home after war? How far can you go in pursuit of something lost before you lose yourself, too? What darkness spreads when secrets are not revealed and truth is left to fester?
Great stories begin with questions. They may serve as cautionary tales—don’t keep secrets—or they may never arrive at a conclusive answer at all. A cohesive story is one that begins with a question, and lets the question (or theme) drive every conflict throughout the story. Each chapter or scene is suffused with the theme and furthers the narrative’s exploration. This is what makes a great story great.
To go back to Marvel: Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 and Thor: Ragnarok are some of the best Marvel movies. Both have clear themes that resonate through every scene in the movie. In Guardians, it’s the trauma caused by familial abuse and the power of found family. In Ragnarok, it’s the whitewashing of history to serve colonial ends and the displaced, marginalized people most affected by this.
Compare these to most other Marvel movies, with mixed messaging at best (as discussed above) and no overt messaging at worst (Thor: The Dark World).
Why Story Should Have Meaning
…I am more on the side of those who must swim the torrents while crying out for help. In all, they are striving hard not to drown before they can reach the safety of the soul’s arms. And most who have been so deeply harmed will tell you that, all the while they are swimming, they feel their own soul is rowing toward them with the strongest, deepest of strokes that can only come from One who loves without limits.
We are not alone in this life. Even without friends nearby, without loved ones in reach, you can open up a book and have a conversation with its author. You can watch a film, and escape to a different world. You can listen to music, and hear your own emotions put to lyrics and melodies by a complete stranger.
The idea of story as a therapeutic device is not a new one, nor is it particularly radical. We’ve all sought to escape at one point in our lives. Escapism, in moderation, can be a healthy outlet for overwhelming feelings or urges.11 It can be useful to set aside what’s troubling you and seek something other in a story.
The hardest problems are not solved by chiseling away at them nonstop. They require focus, then respite, then a return; “you cannot solve a problem in the same state of mind you were in when you created it,”12 so you must find a new state and return to the problem renewed. Stories are the ultimate respite, for reasons outlined above, and the key reason which we’ll delve into below. New perspective and new growth are the keys to becoming a better person.13
Perspective, knowledge, and insight. If life and all its questions were a labyrinthine mansion, these might be keys to the libraries and kitchens. But growth—leaving behind who you were in order to become who you need to be—would be the key to the front door, and a map to the world outside. Transcendence, death and rebirth into glory: this is the ultimate and noblest purpose of story.
…destruction of the world that we have built and in which we live, and ourselves within it. Then a reconstruction, bolder, cleaner, more spacious, and full.
The Book of Leviticus describes a ritual in which a goat was infused with the sin of Israel and then taken to a solitary place in the desert to be set free. By sending the anointed goat into a desert from which there is no return, they cast their sin to the abyss, and were spiritually renewed.
The Ancient Greek playwright Aeschylus described a ritual wherein a piglet was slaughtered and its blood poured over a man, and then the blood was washed away with water. The man was then purged of his sin, the pollutants in his blood purified.
At the same time or even before we performed these rituals, myth and tragedy rose from the ether and explained our human condition to us. Gods and heroes often served the same emotional purpose as sacrifice.
Descent into the underworld, theft of the fire, death and rebirth. These stories did not just represent what were essentially human endeavors on a grander scale. They provided a vessel through which we could experience joys and terrors beyond our own: such dizzying highs that allowed us to come out the other side as new people. Through these narratives, we were reborn.
The power and importance of catharsis encompasses and enhances every other role narrative plays in our lives. Catharsis, the purgation of emotion or sickness and healing through renewal or restoration. Through the power of narrative, you do not even have to be particularly self-aware to grow beyond what you once were. Sometimes, you only have to pay attention, and let yourself feel.
…spirit overriding matter, entropy, glory in rebirth.
In the Amazon rainforest, the canopy is so dense that sunlight only barely reaches the forest floor. There is little or no undergrowth, and standing beneath the trees is like standing in perpetual twilight. Even when it rains, the rainwater struggles to reach the ground. Everything between the earth and sky consumes or stores it before it can hit the dirt.
Occasionally a tree dies and collapses and, in its fall, clears a swath of canopy. Here, life rushes in. On the corpse of the tree, new growth sprouts. Insects and animals bask in the sun and gather precious nutrients. Soon, the canopy is restored again. Through death, the rainforest is rejuvenated.
We spend most of our lives in the twilight beneath the canopy. We are malnourished; strangers to ourselves. The hope, the ultimate hope, is that stories can fell trees. That we are given a chance to see sunlight and rain. In the spaces left behind, we are given the opportunity to grow into something more.
We can be more than we are, and we should be. No one should be content to stay firmly in place. We are not stones in a river. We are the trees, striving for sunlight.
This is why it’s important to pay attention to the stories we write and the stories we consume. When the stories themselves do not know what they’re saying, or if they’re saying the wrong things, we grow anemic and myopic. We become like saplings taken root in the twilight beneath the canopy, cursed to a stunted existence. We think maybe this is just the way it was meant to be, and resign ourselves to the darkness. Maybe sometimes we think of what the sunlight might feel like.
But without meaningful stories—without catharsis—we will never know.
- The rest of the pull quotes in this article all come from the 2004 Commemorative Edition of Hero With a Thousand Faces, with an introduction by Clarissa Pinkola Estes, Ph.D. Putting aside some of the more questionable Freudian psychology, and the overused and tiresome idea of the Hero’s Journey, it really is a good book.
- Because this post is about storytelling in general and not specifically any one medium, I’m using “consumer” to mean all of the following: reader, viewer, listener, gamer, or other. Basically, anyone on the receiving end of a story.
- “Mythology is psychology misread as biology.” – Joseph Campbell
- So much so that there’s an entire Wikipedia page just for the overview of this specific topic: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Themes_in_Blade_Runner
- The same is true for just about any form of communication, really, but the act of storytelling has the ability to crystallize beliefs and communicate them in both very clear and very unclear ways.
- Another, probably easier to explain, example of this belief-exchange can be found in telling jokes. What types of jokes are acceptable, how they are received, how they are modified in retellings all communicate quite a bit about the joke-teller and his audience.
- And they did have meaning. Rewatch the first Jurassic Park, or the first Star Wars, and notice the depth and flavor of the text compared to the newer iterations.
- It’s also present in Spider-Man: Homecoming, and it’s the entire reason for Avengers: Age of Ultron’s existence.
- Peter Quill morphing into a giant Pac-Man in the climactic fight against Ego in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is a great example.
- Everything is good in moderation; even moderation.
- to paraphrase Albert Einstein, who didn’t exactly say these words but is often misquoted as having done so
- You never are a better person. You only ever embark on the journey to being.