Bordwell on “visual storytelling”

David Bordwell makes a good argument that “visual storytelling” isn’t all about the image, but about sound, context, and genre conventions too.

Yet Hitch needed words and music throughout his career. Put aside the talkathons that are Lifeboat, Rope, Under Capricorn, and Dial M for Murder. His silent films, including The Lodger and others, need written intertitles (dialogue-based, expository) to present the drama. The brilliant Albert Hall sequence in the first Man Who Knew Too Much (run here, analyzed here) would lose much of its power without the tight synchronization of shot-changes with the musical score. I yield to no one in my admiration for the climax of Notorious, which cuts rhythmically as the main characters gather in a knot and step slowly down a staircase. But the progress of the drama needs the snatches of dialogue no less than the close-up glances and POV shots, and they get integrated into the implacable beat of descent.

Read on for more evidence, drawing on the talky pleasures of His Girl Friday to the heist sequence of Mission: Impossible to even the celebration of “pure cinema” Rear Window.

Toward a typology of interactive story forms

I’m still thinking about Gone Home and the state of interactive and/or software-enabled storytelling, and yesterday I went down the Wikipedia rabbit hole. Here’s what I found:

Forms

  • “Choose Your Own Adventure” is actually a brand name — the general form is called “gamebook.”
  • Interactive fiction” usually refers to “software simulating environments in which players use text commands to control characters and influence the environment… Some users of the term distinguish between “interactive fiction” that focuses on narrative and “text adventures” that focus on puzzles… As a commercial product, interactive fiction reached its peak in popularity from 1979 to 1986, as a dominant software product marketed for home computers… The term “Interactive Fiction” is sometimes used to describe other forms of storytelling and games, including visual novels, interactive novels, and interactive storytelling.”
  • A “visual novel” is an interactive fiction game, featuring mostly static graphics, most often using anime-style art or occasionally live-action stills (and sometimes video footage). As the name might suggest, they resemble mixed-media novels. In Japanese terminology, a distinction is often made between visual novels proper (abbreviated NVL), which consist predominantly of narration and have very few interactive elements, and adventure games (abbreviated AVG or ADV), which may incorporate problem-solving and other types of gameplay… Non-linear branching storylines are a common trend in visual novels…”
  • Interactive novels “offer readers another unique way to read fiction by choosing a page, a character, or a direction. By following hyperlinked phrases within the novel, readers can find new ways to understand characters. There is no wrong way to read a hypertext interactive novel. Links embedded within the pages are meant to be taken at a reader’s discretion – to allow the reader a choice in the novel’s world.”
  • Interactive storytelling “is a form of digital entertainment in which users create or influence a dramatic storyline through actions, either by issuing commands to the story’s protagonist, or acting as a general director of events in the narrative. Interactive storytelling is a medium where the narrative, and its evolution, can be influenced in real-time by a user. Unlike interactive fiction, there is an open debate about nature of the relationship between interactive storytelling with computer games. Game designer Chris Crawford states that “Interactive storytelling systems are not “Games with Stories”.”

Notes

  • These seem to be contested terms. The article for “interactive fiction” says that the term mainly refers to text-based forms, but acknowledges that visual novels are described as interactive fiction as well.
  • Interesting that in both the case of interactive fiction and visual novels, a distinction has emerged between those which focus on problem-solving/puzzles and those which focus on the narrative.
  • Gone Home was mentioned, presumably as an example, in the article for interactive storytelling — but as I wrote in my last post, one brilliant aspect of Gone Home is that you have control over the plot, not the story. This is a stark contrast to “creat[ing] or influenc[ing] a dramatic storyline.”

Further reading: There is a wiki dedicated to tracing the connections between technical implementation of interactive storytelling and narrative theories. On the theory side, I see a lot of names I recognize — Aristotle, Todorov, Propp, Barthes, Genette, Campbell — but many I don’t. Bremond? Boal? The reading list grows.

The low point

From the best episode of the podcast Scriptnotes, I keep coming back to this nugget from Craig Mazin about the “low point” that often comes at the end of the second act of a screenplay:

The low point isn’t always, “Oh boo-hoo me.” For me, the low point is the character has lost his way. The character is separated from the confidence that they had in the beginning of the movie that this is the way the world is and this is who I should be. They have not yet, however, gotten to a place that they will eventually get to where they have a reformulation of, “This is the way the world is and this is how I think I should be.”

Resources and questions for revising a screenplay

I recently revised my sci-fi thriller screenplay and submitted it to the Nicholl and the Austin Film Festival. Here are some of the questions and resources that helped me as I rewrote.

  • How long does your story last in the story world? I knew my screenplay was 107 pages long, but I had to make a story calendar to figure out we were watching the characters over five days. Before this latest revision, I hadn’t given a thought to whether that number was realistic, or merely convenient for me.
  • Are you missing sluglines? When I was first learning how screenplays worked I thought sluglines were scene markers. Nope — they’re there to help map out different locations, and sometimes even individual shots, to help with readability and production. So if a scene happens half inside, half outside, you’d better have at least two sluglines in it. (Further reading: What is a slug?, Sensible sluglines)
  • If you cut that scene/page/line, what would happen to the story? It doesn’t matter if the sentences in question are beautiful — if the story doesn’t suffer by omitting it, you should probably lose it. There were a couple times I trimmed an eighth of a page this way, and many more phrases here and there.
  • Keeping reading screenplays. One that was particularly valuable for me while working on this current project was Rian Johnson’s Looper. I learned from him that writing the future doesn’t require pretending to be a Flash Gordon product designer. He writes, “Something like a HELICOPTER sweeps overhead” and “…fishes his phone-device from his pocket.” Unless it impacts story, it’s somebody else’s job to figure out what those things look like.
  • Watch John August rewrite. I assume you’re already listening to Scriptnotes. Maybe you’ve read his blog. But you may not have found three screencasts he did a few years ago that I found as valuable as anything else he’s done. Watch over his shoulder as he revises three scenes, each with a different lesson: entering a scene, writing better action, and writing better scene description.
  • Finally, pay attention to what’s good in the material you’ve cut and imagine your story from different points of view. Your next story might be hiding in the corner of this one.

Toward a minimum viable combinatorial narrative machine

I’ve been looking at a lot of experiments in storytelling form lately, and I see three broad types:

  • Traditional linear narrative in which the narrator is control of the reader/viewer’s path
  • Choose Your Own Adventure, in which the reader/viewer chooses among a set of carefully preordained paths
  • Random access, in which the reader/viewer can skip back and forth among a lot of story material with a high degree of freedom, but without experiencing a single, cohesive plot (e.g., I Love Your Work, CLOUDS)

Deciding which form to use involves weighing author control and overall cohesiveness against reader control. But is that a necessary tradeoff?

Would it be possible, I wonder, to create a new structure, which has the sense of unity of traditional linear narrative but some of the flexibility of the others? So that, for example, each time you read/watch/play a story, you start by hitting a “shuffle” button and get the same characters and settings as the time before, but different plots, goals, and themes. Could each combination be a single, cohesive story?

I can’t imagine this being done with text. But I can imagine it being done visually, because it has been done — but only very simply, and only in Russia, and only around 1920. Soviet filmmaker Lev Kuleshov performed an experiment in which he juxtaposed the same footage of a man’s expressionless face with a bowl of soup, a girl in a coffin, and a pretty woman. Depending on the cut, the audience saw the man act hungry, sad, or lustful. In this case, the trade-off between cohesiveness and reader/viewer control was not necessary — in fact, it was the viewer’s participation, her tendency to make sense of events by interpreting them as a story, that made the two clips a meaningful unity in the first place.

So here’s my idea for Kuleshov 2.0: rather than introducing new clips every time to create new stories as Kuleshov did, start out with all the story elements you need and just rearrange each time. The relationship between the clips might have to be a little more ambiguous than in mainstream Hollywood cinema, but as Kuleshov proved, we are a story-seeking people, and given a little help we will fill in gaps where necessary in order to create a narrative.

The mechanics of this narrative machine wouldn’t be the challenge: a “shuffle” button is a simpler mechanic than the “random access” examples linked above. What would be hard is coming up with clips that are both rich and loose enough in their juxtapositions to accommodate story-making in any combination. And that gets progressively harder as you scale: If you two clips to shuffle, you have two possible stories. But if you have three clips, there are six possible stories. Four clips, twenty-four possible stories. It becomes unwieldy quickly.

That’s what I worry about when I read something like this:

The words “combinatorial explosion” have probably never come up in a video game storytelling talk as many times as they did with BioShock creator Ken Levine’s “Narrative Legos.” At the 2014 Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, Levine outlined an ambitious — if vague — idea for endlessly replayable, systems-based stories that he compares to a player-driven episode of Game of Thrones. When a slide deck offhandedly lists “build a web of nearly infinite relationship states” as a prerequisite, you’re in for something that’s at least compelling listening.

What the creator of BioShock is interested in is a game that is a lot more complicated from a mechanics standpoint than my “shuffle” button, but that’s not the thing I’m hung up on. He’s talking about a LOT of elements, resulting in “nearly infinite” relationship states.” Setting aside the question of whether each play-though is equally fun, how do you even ensure that each is sensical? How do you do narrative quality control as the number of story element combinations your machine spits out approaches infinity?

Better to start small, I should think. What’s the minimum viable implementation of a combinatorial narrative machine?

A multitude of drastic things

In an interview in The Dissolve, three filmmakers talk about what it’s like to create interactive films.

They asked us for a script, and we were like, “That’s really hard,” because we wanted it to develop organically. Somehow, we convinced them that was okay. We wrote a broad-strokes break-up scene that just hit beats we thought could be interpreted in different ways, like, “Let’s have her say, ‘I’m going to do something drastic.’ That way, a multitude of drastic things could start playing out onscreen.” —Daniel Scheinert

The script is the most generic version of a breakup you could ever think of. There’s no way you could apply what they’re saying to 60 different actions if it was very specific. —Daniel Kwan

When we were brainstorming ideas over the last few years, that was the one thing he came up with that has become our touchstone of, “Why the fuck am I making interactive movies?” We’ve come back again and again to, “It’s only worth it if we implicate the audience in the story.” If because they’re clicking, they’re more invested, then it’s worth this added distraction. —Daniel Scheinert