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.

Algorithmic storytelling

In 2011, Netscape founder and venture capitalist Marc Andreessen wrote that “software is eating the world” — Amazon ate Borders, Netflix ate Blockbuster, cell phone cameras ate Kodak. Old businesses that stuck around were the ones that integrated software into what they did: Disney bought Pixar for computer animation, automakers turned to building computers on wheels that do everything except steer, and that’s coming.

I’m sensing a similar shift in the art world.

To be clear, software art isn’t going to put older methods of art-making and presentation “out of business.” But the march of software has breached the borders of art. There’s already a gallery, run by Google, called DevArt. And a School for Poetic Computation in New York. And a conference called Leaders in Software and Art. Visual art has embraced code.

So where is the narrative art created and experienced with software?

There are games, which often give you the ability to experience the aspects of a story world in the order and pace you choose. But the goal and major plot turns are the same every time you play. Ditto character development, when there is any. (I vaguely remember hearing of one game that presented a forked path at the end, allowing you to choose whether the character became a good guy or a bad guy. Sort of a visual choose-your-own-adventure book.)

Likewise, with hypertext fiction, all possible paths are mapped out for the reader before she begins.

What I’m thinking of is what is closer to this dispatch by Sean Flynn from the Sundance Film Festival’s New Frontier program:

Doug Aitken’s “The Source (Evolving),” a six-channel video installation featuring 23 evocative, fast-paced conversations about creativity between Aitken and an eclectic cast of artistic pioneers from various disciplines and generations. The installation creates an immersive experience that begins with the viewer standing in the center of a 2,000 square-foot circular pavilion, surrounded on all sides by six looping projections and a cacophony of overlapping sound emanating from each. As the viewer moves toward one of the projections, short walls separating each screen bring the sound of that conversation into focus.

The intention, according to Aitken, is to “allow the viewer to create their own narrative, to splice together a series of ideas” by moving through the space. One could imagine the same material being woven together into a feature-length documentary, but instead the artist chose to present these conversations in a way that is “unmediated and unfiltered,” so that each visitor experiences them in a slightly different order and duration. In this sense, “The Source (Evolving)” might be labeled a “database documentary,” an emerging interactive genre that was on display in a variety of forms at New Frontier.

Notice that, just like a game, people control the order and duration of what they see. But unlike a game, in which there is a most efficient way to proceed through a preordained plot or set of tasks, in this case playing with the order and duration of the parts changes the meaning. There is no fastest way to play this documentary—it’s a different documentary every time you watch it.

The articles continues about another, similar project:

Perhaps most striking about this algorithmic approach to storytelling is that there is no director commentary, no central narrative that ties the women’s lives together, no big documentary lessons to be learned. Harris characterizes it as an “experiment with story DNA,” a tool to unearth “sub-stories” within a larger narrative. In this sense, the experience of navigating “I Love Your Work” places the user in a role akin to the documentary editor sifting through raw footage, looking for a story to emerge. Yet even in the absence of a traditional storyline, we can find voyeuristic pleasure (and meaning) in the opportunity to gaze momentarily into the daily lives of others.

I love that phrase, “algorithmic approach to storytelling.”

I haven’t had a chance to watch any of these yet. I wonder how satisfying they are to watch once the thrill of the experiment wears off. A large part of successful writing, one hears over and over, is assuring the reader you are in control of your story, that you aren’t wasting their time, that your hand is there to guide them, carry them. With algorithmic storytelling, that is no longer true. It might be too extreme to say that the creator hands over her part of the meaning-making project, but improvised narratives with machine collaborators definitely open the door to the reader/viewer reacting with “So what?”

Despite the specter of “So what?”, experiments continue. The Tribeca Film Institute and CERN are hosting a storytelling hackathon to explore storytelling using “visuals and data.” As with the Tribeca documentary examples, the experiments begin with material reflecting the real world. What I want to know is, Where is the fiction? Is it possible to apply algorithmic storytelling to fiction? Or is it that without either the constant guiding hand of the creator or the anchor of historical reality, “So what?” becomes too likely?

UPDATE: Turns out I’m behind the times. In 2008 a novel written by a computer was published. Humans took eight months to write the software, and the software took three days to write the book.

UPDATE 2: Now we are as far back as the 1960s.

Interactivity in storytelling

I’ve been noticing lately some interesting experiments in interactive storytelling. Take a look:

  • Black Crown is an online interactive story that The Verge calls “a strange blend of interactive fiction and a classic choose-your-own-adventure novel.” They also use the term “game.” Interesting that this thing is coming out of Random House UK — publishers can be a progressive bunch.
  • Haunting Melissa is a horror movie that is doled out bit by bit through an iOS app. But the interesting thing to me isn’t the serialized form or the App Store distribution, it’s the fact that the narrative can change a little bit in the rewatching, as TechCrunch explains: “To keep viewers hooked on “Haunting Melissa” even though there isn’t a regular schedule, the creators developed technology to allow them to add dynamic story elements to each chapter. In other words, if viewers re-watch a chapter, they see or hear different things that add new layers to the narrative and help set the atmosphere of the ghost story.”
  • A March Story was a serialized story that used suggestions from the twitterverse about how to fill in certain details, ranging from names to whole sentences, and those details helped guide the evolution of the story. Like Mad Libs, narrative edition.

These examples, in which the reader/viewer is given some measure of control, reminds me of the debate about whether games can ever be Art, or if their interactive nature disqualifies them. Roger Ebert thought that games could not be art even in principle, and one of his reasons was the importance of an single, intentional narrative. Here he is summarizing a debate with filmmaker and game creator Clive Barker:

“I think that Roger Ebert’s problem is that he thinks you can’t have art if there is that amount of malleability in the narrative. In other words, Shakespeare could not have written ‘Romeo and Juliet’ as a game because it could have had a happy ending, you know? If only she hadn’t taken the damn poison. If only he’d have gotten there quicker.”

Well, yes, that is what I think. There was actually a time in history when a version of Romeo and Juliet was performed with a happy ending, and I can’t begin to tell you how much that depressed audiences.

Barker: “Let’s invent a world where the player gets to go through every emotional journey available. That is art. Offering that to people is art.”

Ebert: “If you can go through ‘every emotional journey available,’ doesn’t that devalue each and every one of them? Art seeks to lead you to an inevitable conclusion, not a smorgasbord of choices.

Gamers also recognize the question of control as essential, and in fact deride games that have heavy handed storytelling that leads you along “on rails” without being able to move where you like. Games shouldn’t be like a novel or a movie. But, they say, that doesn’t mean they are not art — just a new art form.

Ebert continues:

I thought about those works of Art that had moved me most deeply. I found most of them had one thing in common: Through them I was able to learn more about the experiences, thoughts and feelings of other people. My empathy was engaged. I could use such lessons to apply to myself and my relationships with others. They could instruct me about life, love, disease and death, principles and morality, humor and tragedy. They might make my life more deep, full and rewarding.

Not a bad definition, I thought. But I was unable to say how music or abstract art could perform those functions, and yet they were Art. Even narrative art didn’t qualify, because I hardly look at paintings for their messages. It’s not what it’s about, but how it’s about it. As Archibald MacLeish wrote: A poem should not mean, but be.

Ebert never settles on a definition of art, but note that the attempts above have to do with the things that art does to him: moves him, instructs him, engages his empathy. Of course no one could accuse Ebert of having been a passive consumer of art, but he seems to presume that one lets art work on you first, and then you emerge (from the movie theater, the gallery, the pages of a novel) primed to respond. I wonder if gamers have the same assumption, or if they see the action/reaction stages of art experience as much more collapsed.

Truth be told, I’m much more on Ebert’s side: I prefer to sit back and focus and let the author/director/artist guide me somewhere, show me something, and let me see out of someone else’s eyes. But I’m not ready to proclaim games and other interactive experience outside the realm of art on principle. I’m wondering, What would a more sophisticated interactive storytelling experience be like? How could we progress beyond a choose-your-own-adventure-type set of a few possible outcomes, paying only lip service to viewer/player empowerment, and still maintain a story that was coherent: ends that paid off beginnings, characters with satisfying arcs of development, etc.

The only way I can think of, and perhaps it wouldn’t work anyway, but the only way I can think of is to give the viewer/player more control over the story than they currently have in any existing narrative game. Recall the Kuleshev experiment, in which several viewers were shown the same few film clips, but in different orders: they constructed a narrative about who was looking at whom, and what they were thinking and feeling. Maybe for narrative storytelling to embrace interactivity fully rather than providing an experience “on rails” or weakly “choose your own adventure” among a set of four a five different plot threads, the author has to simply become a generator of raw story material that the viewer/player assembles into a story.

Would that mean that for it to be great art the viewer as well as the creator would have to be a great artist? Maybe not. We are all storytelling creatures, making sense of our own identities and those of everyone around us by taking some details, discarding others, and assembling them in a sensical way, constantly, quickly, and often unconsciously. Given the best ingredients and the best tools for splicing, the evolution of interactive storytelling might mean the “author” provides potential story material and the viewer/player provides the plot.

This recalls in a way Kenneth Goldsmith’s argument in Uncreative Writing about the promotion of the author from one who writes to one to controls, curates, programs, remixes literary material. In this vision, the artist is being promoted from storyteller to story material generator, or perhaps more catchily “worldbuilder,” creating the material and the tools for someone on the other end to splice together.

I don’t know yet what any of that would actually look like, but we’re not going to find out by debating what’s art and what’s not. We’ll get there by experimenting and then debating about what’s good and what’s not.

The Story

The story. From Mobstr via Ankur Thakkur

A new Development

This Wired article on the return of the show Arrested Development on Netflix is worth reading in its entirety, but I want to pull out these interesting tidbits about narrative form:

Arrested Development is exploring the more playful, outré structural possibilities offered by the new platform on Netflix. Each episode will cover events from a different character’s point of view, like a comedic Rashomon. There will be moments and Easter eggs that will make sense only in retrospect. There will be a suggested viewing sequence, but it will be pos­sible—even rewarding—to watch out of sequence. Cross describes the new structure as being “like if you could mash up a Venn diagram with a nautilus shell. And then put that inside a Möbius strip.”


The new Arrested Development is not just a seven-hour movie. It’s something new—a collection of episodes released altogether that can be remixed and recombined and that gain something from each juxtaposition. Right now that’s a framework only Net­flix can offer. Asked what the show would have been like had Showtime won its bid, Hurwitz says, “I know that ­storytelling-wise, saner ideas might have prevailed.”

House of Cards was an earlier Netflix effort to put its own money into a show and release the entire season at once, and it justifiably got a lot of press, but it was basically a seven-hour movie. From a storytelling standpoint this might be the bigger deal.

Universals, norms, and “rules”

Since my previous post, in which I responded to Richard Brody’s idea that codified story development processes were turning movies into formulaic gruel, I’ve been mulling over different ways to describe story structure. I think it’s helpful to divide these descriptions into three types.


In his book The Storytelling Animal, Jonathan Gottschall refers to a “universal grammar” of storytelling.

As the linguist Noam Chomsky showed, all human languages share some basic structural similarities — a universal grammar. So too, I argue, with story. No matter how far we travel back into literary history, and no matter how deep we plunge into the jungles and badlands of world folklore, we always find the same astonishing things: their stories are just like ours. There is a universal grammar in world fiction, a deep pattern of heroes confronting trouble and struggling to overcome. (p. 55)

This grammar is versatile. Gottschall compares it to the human face: the same deep structural pattern the world over, but enabling great variety. It is composed of the structural feature of conflict — the pattern of “complication, crisis, and resolution” — as well as a handful of universal themes about sex and love, death, the desire for power, etc.

The argument recalls Joseph Campbell’s “monomyth,” in which the hero finds a conflict that requires separation from his home, initiation into an unknown world, and a return with special knowledge or powers. He gets much more specific than Gottschall, but the claim to universality is the same, and Gottschall, consciously or not, even draws on the title of Campbell’s most famous book The Hero with a Thousand Faces when he describes the universal grammar using the metaphor of the human face.

The Hero's Journey
Joseph Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey”

Often when you hear about Campbell today, it’s in the context of advice from a screenwriting “guru” about how to structure your script. But in those instances, the monomyth has been turned into something more like one of the two categories below.


I’m borrowing the term “norm” from the film scholar David Bordwell. Norms aren’t instructions; they are standardized sets of options.

In Hollywood film style, for instance, there are several ways to make spatial arrangement stress an important point: instead of a cut-in to a close-up, we can get a track-in, or a shift in lighting, or a character’s movement into the foreground. A norm is usefully considered as what semiologists call a paradigm—a bounded set of alternatives which at some level serve equivalent functions. (Narration in the Fiction Film, p. 151)

That example is a norm of style, but there are also norms of story construction, and this strikes me as a concept that can be applied to any medium.

Here are some story, plot, and narration norms Bordwell identifies for classical cinema:

  • stories present psychologically defined individuals who struggle to solve a clear-cut problem
  • plots end with a decisive victory or defeat
  • causality is the prime unifying principle, and space and time are arranged to emphasize cause and effect
  • narration tends to be omniscient, highly communicative, and only moderately self-conscious (i.e., the film is free to move around in the fictional world and tell us more than any single character knows, and a film rarely makes a show of the fact that it is a film)

These norms are not universal. Different norms take hold in different parts of the world and in different times. Bordwell identifies other storytelling traditions that are more episodic and elliptical, in which the goal is vague and the end inconclusive.


I reserved the word “rules” for this third type because, unlike the two categories above, these are meant to be prescriptive rather than descriptive. They are most often used by writing instructors, whereas the other two seem to be the province of academics.

Rules are instructions for fulfilling norms. They tend to range from specific to crazily specific. I’m reading a book on screenwriting called Save the Cat by Blake Snyder, in which he says

…the trick is to create heroes who:

  • Offer the most conflict in that situation
  • Have the longest way to go emotionally and…
  • Are the most demographically pleasing!

Those first two rules are ways to fulfill the classical norms of a psychologically defined character with a clear goal. (The third rule is unabashed commercialism.)

He goes on from there to identify which pages certain plot points should happen on: the catalyst on page 12, act break on page 25, b-story starting at 30…

It’s easy to sniff at this stuff from an academic perch, but I’m writing a screenplay right now and it’s been useful.

I’m tempted to always put the word “rules” in quotation marks because I don’t think there are inviolable storytelling rules, but I’ll resist because I think that’s generally understood among writers, as evidenced by the popular saying that you should ‘know the rules so you can know when to break them.’

The Goldilocks approach

I’m feeling somewhat Goldilocks about my list: “rules” feel restrictive and prescriptive. Universals are also problematic: too broad for practical use, and yet there will always be outlying examples that will cause trouble for academics: Gottschall is forced to write off Finnegans Wake and Gertrude Stein’s experiments in writing stories in which “nothing much happens” as failures.

Norms, though, feel just right. I see them being more useful more often to scholars, but I also think practitioners of story (writers, filmmakers, game designers, etc.) would get something out of knowing where the “rules” come from — that they are tried and true ways of fulfilling certain cultural norms, and perhaps sometimes universals, and not the invention of self-appointed experts.

Norms’ usefulness to storytellers might increase in the future as the boundaries between media dissolve: knowing to put the inciting incident on page 12 of a screenplay doesn’t do much good when you’re trying to craft a transmedia experience, but staying focused on presenting a story space with clear cause and effect and highly communicative narration would be essential.

Rules of storytelling and cinematic fast food

Well this is handy: the same week I start a blog about storytelling, Richard Brody of The New Yorker complains about a focus on “storytelling” (he puts it in quotation marks) ruining movies.

Brody refers to “a crisis that is endemic to the modern cinema, that is, in fact, one of the strange, unintended consequences of cinematic modernity: the very notion of “storytelling” and the obsession with characters and whether they’re admirable or likable.”

The problem, he says, is not so much with classical cinema’s relying on narrative, but that story should be “a basis, not a goal […] merely a starting point for a significant work, not a result.” This is worse than simply a missed opportunity: the focus on story not only precludes invention in other aspects of cinema, but saps the energy of story itself. The rules around storytelling have become so stringently normalized that the movies become “a delivery system for a uniform set of emotional juicings, and the result, whether for C.G.I. or for live-action films, is a sort of cyborg cinema, a prefabricated simulacrum of experience and emotion that feels like the nexus of pornography and propaganda.”

That’s my best try at summarizing an argument that I find unconvincing. (I have skipped some speculation about how this state of affairs came to be and what the popularity of such content means for society.) So we have two related problems: an allegedly restrictive list of storytelling “rules” resulting in the cinematic equivalent of fast food; and the focus on those rules precluding invention in other aspects of cinema. And neither of them are real problems.

The rules he cites as examples (which the author of the list, Emma Coats, calls “story basics” rather than rules) are not at all restrictive. Things like making sure the stakes for the main character are high, and giving us a reason to side with him or her. If these rules are ruinously restrictive, then we are writing off all of classical cinema.

There may be an argument to be made that these broad rules are being followed in narrow, unimaginative ways, that a good portion of films being released are formulaic. But I don’t see how this is a problem specific to “modern cinema” unless by modern Brody means since the 1910s. Really inventive films have always been rare.

As to the idea that formulaic films evoke a mere simulacrum of emotion in the audience, the equivalent of audio-visual fast food, Brody expands on that point later in the piece to say that the emotion he primarily refers to is the false relief of the collective feeling of isolation we moderns carry around with us. It’s an interesting and somewhat baffling hypothesis I would like to see supported.

The main problem here is that Brody confuses a focus on story and character with a myopic focus on script. He hints at this when he complains “[W]hen the script has been built with such solidity and has become an object of obsession for a year or more, it becomes not the springboard for filmmaking but its objective, and constrains the filmmaker to be its illustrator.” No argument here. If a director does nothing but cover the script, the movie will probably limp along. But script and story are not the same thing.

Brody thinks that a strong filmmaker approaches a script with an attitude of “creative destruction.” But a director’s inventiveness must be organized around something — a principle or skeleton that ensures a cohesive whole. The theorist Roman Jakobson called this thing “the dominant.” In classical cinema, the dominant is the narrative. (There are filmmaking traditions outside Hollywood — and mostly outside the West entirely — for which the story is not the dominant. But I don’t think Brody’s aim is to get us to write off all of Western cinema.)

Think of a formally daring filmmaker like Welles. His unusual camera positions don’t just look cool — they make a character big or small at certain points in the plot. His lighting evokes moods that echo characterization. His decisions serve the story. A focus on story does not preclude inventiveness; it enables its success by providing both a grounding and an opportunity for embellishment. The key is not to deviate from the script but to go above and beyond it.

Hello world

I’m starting this blog to think out loud about storytelling: techniques and theory, in print and in pixels, as well as the tools and ecosystems that enable it. Day to day, I expect that to mean posts about the future of the book, theories of narrative, transmedia experiences, and all manner of things related to prose fiction and film.

I may (fair warning) also detour into data visualization, user experience design, and the digital humanities, which I think are all tied up with what is going to be most exciting about storytelling in the coming few years.

If you’re a film buff or a bookworm with an analytical bent and an eye to the future, you’re in the right place.