Wednesday, October 2, 2013

What Are Modern Storytelling Techniques

In the discussion of Soylent Green, I mentioned that the film would have benefited from modern storytelling techniques. A question was asked what those were and I think it’s worth discussing.

If you go back and watch a lot of older films, what you will find is that storytelling techniques have changed considerably decade by decade:
● The 1930s, 1940s and early 1950s were still the age of theater. Stories were told with characters walking to center stage and exchanging dialog in melodramatic manner. The stories themselves were told chronologically in short bursts, much like serials where mini-climaxes happened every few minutes. Villains were identified from early on in the film and the entire villainous plot was shared with the audience. The music was always classical and generally meant only for dramatic emphasis... it was always UP!

● The late 1950s and early 1960s saw the introduction of ironic storytelling. Everyone was an anti-hero who was weary of the world and endings were ironic, with the good guy losing the prize he had sought. Scenes were longer and often shot at long distances, interspersed with intense close-ups. Dialog consisted of silence interspersed with soliloquies about the character’s motivation. Sets and costumes reveled in “dirty.” The soundtracks often “mocked” the film or at least ran contrary to the feel of the action. Climaxes still occurred at the end of each group of related scenes and films tended to have multiple climaxes at the end.

● The 1970s, when Soylent Green takes place, was a world in which everything was running down. Sets were dumps. Actors barely moved. Everyone looked depressed and talked about how hopeless the world was today. The pacing of stories was very slow. Directors favored much longer scenes with long, contemplative looks from the characters... staring was the order of the day for acting. Story climaxes tended to be few and far between, often involving a brief moment of action at the opening of the film and then nothing really exciting again until the reveal at the end of the film. These films typically stopped right at the end of the climax. Musically, these films had huge, creative scores that fit with the action much better than scores of prior eras.

● 1980s films were processed. They were characterized by a total lack of creativity in how stories were told: everything was chronological and straightforward, nothing was left to the audience’s interpretation. In fact, things were so controlled that the audience was even shown each character’s reaction to emotional moments so they knew exactly how to understand what was going on – look at a film like Major League to see how a virtual montage is shown of each major character’s reaction to each event. Camera work was simplistic with scenes taking place in fixed sets with the characters roughly gathered around the most relevant character in the scene. In a way, these were a throwback to the 1950s, only the sets were more realistic. Musically, this era was similar to the 1970s when it came to scores, but often inter-worked pop songs into montages as a way to show the passing of time as the hero prepares their scheme or trains or goes through their self-improvement phase.

● The 1990s were really the beginning of the modern era.
So what is the modern era? Well, the modern era is probably the most creative because it allows something that prior eras did not: ambiguity. In modern films, it’s not always clear which character is the good guy or the bad guy or what their motives are. Endings don’t need to wrap everything up. A lot remains implied that in the past would have been spelled out completely. This allows for stronger stories because you can gloss over lengthy exposition and minor subplots to create a streamlined story.

The modern era also has embraced non-chronological storytelling. This allows more complex plots and stronger reveals of information the director wants to keep hidden. A great example is how you don’t find out until the middle of Reservoir Dogs that one of the accomplices is actually an undercover cop.

The modern era also allows both long and short story arcs within the same film or show, which allows the director to tell multiple stories that can wrap up without all needing to be solved at the same moment in the film. That again, helps pacing and helps focus the story. The dialog is more punchy too and is more focused on how people really talk rather than how literature is written. That makes these films feel more natural.

The modern era also has embraced rawness or realness at times, which gives films a visceral feel that is missing from prior eras. It is essentially what the 1960s were trying to achieve, but didn’t. The modern era also is better at using the camera to put the audience into the action (even the shaky cam can be useful at key moments). The modern era is better at using music more opportunistically too to highlight character actions or build moods.

All in all, the modern era has taken the best of non-linearism and grittiness from the 1960, the thoughtfulness of the 1970s, and the consistency of the 1980s and has improved each. The result is some really solid, well-told and very compelling films. Obviously, none of this applies to the tent pole films, which are computer-generated mush, but these are techniques that you see in better films today which were rare or nonexistent in the past. And it is these techniques that could be used to turn a “flat” story like Soylent Green, which is very chronological and plodding, into a much stronger, more visceral feeling, personal film... which would justify remaking that film.


Kit said...

It is often nice to look around and realize that things are much better than what we feared.

Dave Olson said...

Soylent Green was released in the wake of "The Population Bomb" and the Club of Rome's "The Limits of Growth", both of which served as the basis for the modern environmental debate and both of which have been proven wrong. The entire plot of the movie seems like propaganda designed to reinforce these false premises. There's no amount of modern story techniques that can overcome this. Hence, you have Matt Damon's Elysium.

On a side note, large shale gas and oil fields have been found in Australia which are similar to the Bakken Formation in North Dakota. Sort of ruins the plot of the Mad Max franchise, doesn't it?

tryanmax said...

I think non-chronological storytelling is my favorite device. Until I considered it in the frame of your article, I never realized how few movies from before the 90s employed that technique.

That said, it drives me crazy how many movies start with the climax and then jump to "sometime earlier" only to proceed chronologically from there. That's a cheat. Good writing would draw the audience in with compelling inciting action and reveal the climactic turn later. A lot of movies would probably be better--or at least more surprising--without that phony technique.

On a similar note, the thing that drives me crazy about Forrest Gump is that the first 3/5 of the movie are told in flashback from the park bench with the last part told chronologically. That's a weird, awkward arrangement. It should be all flashback, no flashback, or 95/5

Kit said...

"it drives me crazy how many movies start with the climax and then jump to 'sometime earlier' only to proceed chronologically from there. That's a cheat. Good writing would draw the audience in with compelling inciting action and reveal the climactic turn later."

To be fair, that's an old technique. And by old, I mean The Odyssey old. John Milton’s Paradise Lost used it as well.

In Medias Res

AndrewPrice said...

Kit, It is. Most things are actually getting better, but people tend to want to wallow in "it used to be better." So it's nice to remind ourselves sometimes that this is not really the case.

AndrewPrice said...

Dave, It's just a movie and that's how most everyone sees it. As such, it can be improved.

Kit said...

“these are techniques that you see in better films today which were rare or nonexistent in the past.”
What are some examples of recent movies that used these techniques?

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, I love non-chronological storytelling, but it needs to have a purpose. The first couple times they showed you an ending and then ran the film chronologically, it worked... it was fresh and it helped build tension for an opening that didn't have much tension. Unfortunately, it quickly became cliche and now lots of people do it. At this point, it should only be used with a specific purpose in mind instead of as a standard tool.

To me, the most interesting "new" thing is the ambiguity. That is a truly fundamental change in how stories are told and I think it's give us some of our best moments on film.

AndrewPrice said...

Kit, It is, but it wasn't used often in films until probably the 1980s, and even then it was very basic -- 5 second flash opening showing you the peak of tension from the ending, then throw up the words "___ earlier."

AndrewPrice said...

Kit, They're all over the place. Non-chronological: Pulp Fiction, Memento

Ambiguity: Usual Suspects, the ending of The Sopranos.

Musical integration: The Matrix and how the beat matched the firing of guns or the speed of punches.

Using the camera as a character: Almost anything.. shaky cam, when the camera moves through things as if it were flying. Compare any film today to the mounted camera of the past.

Kit said...

Shaky cam can get annoying when not used properly.

"camera moves through things as if it were flying." While earlier directors used this it seems Peter Jackson catapulted this with Lord of the Rings.
Prologue scene

I remember being blown away by the opening battle at Mordor at the tender age of 12.

Kit said...

I should note shaky cam doe snot bother me as much as it bothers other people.

I found the shaky cam in Cloverfield and Battle: Los Angeles tolerable.

AndrewPrice said...

Kit, Any of these techniques can get annoying if not used properly. As for shakycam films, I can't watch Cloverfield. That one is too much.

LOTR is a great example of how the camera moves in and out of areas and among the actors. Another example is again Tarantino and the opening of Reservoir Dogs, where the camera circles the table as the actors speak. Those are things that where almost never done in the past. Or bullet time in The Matrix. In the past, the camera was almost always mounted or sometimes handheld, but mostly stationary. Today, it often moves and controls the scene.

Kit said...

I should've noted I found Battles Los Angeles tolerable (though I loved the movie) while I barely tolerated Cloverfield.

Kit said...

I could still enjoy Cloverfield though. Maybe I'm just of a different generation. ;)

AndrewPrice said...

Kit, It seemed like a great movie, except that I couldn't watch it.

Tennessee Jed said...

Thanks, Andrew. Great explanation. Been a little under the weather and this comment resembles the 80's, but we work with what is available at the moment. :)

AndrewPrice said...

You're welcome, Jed. And no problem. I hope you feel better soon!

Koshcat said...

I was trying to think of examples of each era. Would these fit to what you are talking about:

1930-50: Gone with the Wind
1950-1960: North by Northwest
1960-1970: Five Easy Pieces
1980: Raiders of the Lost Ark
1990: Pup Fiction

AndrewPrice said...

Yes. Or how about these:

1930s-1950s: Maltese Falcon. Shot on soundstage, all action is very much like theater. Melodramatic acting all at center stage.

1950s-1960s: Ocean's Eleven. Still theater-like, and dialog is still stilted, but characters are now allowed to spread out around the room a little. BUT story goes ironically wrong on several occasions. Also early hints of the anti-hero, though these guys are still classic heroes who are just doing something wrong. Music is used to show talent of actors.

1960s-1970s: Planet of the Apes. Lots of long shots of characters walking or looking dramatic. Characters are antiheroes and misanthropes. They constantly prognosticate the collapse of society. Dialog is soliloquies. Everyone looks depressed. Alternatively, The French Connection. Sets are gritty, run-down dumps. All characters act like the world is garbage and can't be saved, but still do their job mainly out of anger. Again, dialog is soliloquies about the views of the antihero main character and many scenes shot from a great distance mixed in with sudden HUGE close ups of things mouths eating or just the eyes of the hero.

1980s: Major League. Film is totally chronological. Sets are on location, but camera is mounted. Nothing artsy at all. Dialog is completely plot-specific and functional. All jokes are explained by characters. Whenever something good or bad happens, the reaction of every character on site is shown in serialized fashion. Music is nondescript score or montage to show time passing.

1990s-present: Pulp Fiction. Non-chronological. Character motivations are not explained. A blatant MacGuffin plus other mysteries are introduced and not solved. Dialog isn't about the plot. Music is used to great effect to drive scenes. Multiple story arcs ending at different times throughout movie.

AndrewPrice said...

BTW, I truly enjoy each of those films, they just have different styles.

Koshcat said...

Got it, although I have to admit I've never seen the original Ocean's Eleven.

Many of the changes not only follow the pulse of the time period but also the technology. Just look how something like Star Trek has changed from the 60's until now. There is no way Shatner would allow so much lens flare.

AndrewPrice said...

Koshcat, They do very much follow the times and the technology. You can almost line these up side by side with a history book and get a solid sense of what each era was like. So in that regards, films really do reflect culture.

What's interesting to me is that the 70s are such an outlier compared to the rest, that "the 60s" really wasn't its' own era -- it was half in the 50s and half in the 70s, that the 80s are an improved 50s, and that the modern era has run for so long -- 20+ years and counting. I wonder what that says about us politically?

Koshcat said...

Not sure but sometimes eras aren't really identified until later. It would be interesting to look back over the last 20 years and see if there is some difference. For example, Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, and Kill Bill all came out of the same director with similarities but they are different. Definitely the last ten years seems to have had more martial arts and fantasy mixed in, such as Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, than the previous 10 years.

AndrewPrice said...

Koshcat, True, but I think there is generally a feeling that times have changed a few years into each new era and that doesn't seem to be the case yet. It will be interesting to look back in 20 years and see how things are looked at then.

If anything, right now I think films are splitting into two categories -- bland corporate films like tent pole films and other formula films and remakes, and then independent films with a raw feel.

Backthrow said...

Speaking of 'flying camera' moves, here's one of the great-grandaddies of that technique, in the early sound film, SVENGALI (1931), which I'm sure was influenced by (and one-upping) the intro scene in King Vidor's THE CROWD (1928). Still pretty impressive, if not as smooth as the computer-controlled (or CGI) versions today. It works well, though, as it's story based; the p.o.v. camera represents Svengali's supernatural will, seeking out and dominating his victim from afar... so it also prefigures Sam Raimi's EVIL DEAD camera work.

While it can be amazing how the camera can go anywhere these days, a lot of the time it is gratuitous 'gee-whiz' gimmickry, swooping around a CGI cityscape or structure, and can actually take me out of the story, if there's no narrative point to it beyond "Hey, look what we can do!".

AndrewPrice said...

Backthrow, True. A lot of the stuff they do today is misused, but some know what they are doing and they give us some incredible films.

Individualist said...


I think that part of what you say is true for certain kinds of movies but I think that comedies are handled differently.

The 70's and late 60's saw a dramatic shift when the movie standards relaxed and films had more cussing and raunchiness. Gone were the Beach Blanket Bingo films where the kids danced and the Bikers were silly.

Now the teenage comedy had cussing, sex, more drinking and drug use as the standard faire. Movies became even cruder as time went on although ironically few comedies were funny as the old with movies. Thus that are good are good but those that are not are terrible.

Think of the difference between these movies:

1950' 60's - Annette Funicello Beach Blanket Bingo movies
late 70's Animal House, Brewster's Millions, Porky's, Silver Streak
80's Breakfast Club, Ferris Buellers Day off, Sandler's earlier work Little Nicky
90's Dude Where's my Car, Wayans films, Sandler;s later work Wedding Singer
000's Harold and Kumar go to White Castle, Hangover,

There is a definite difference in these films but I don't think they follow the same formula being comedies although some of the things you observe may apply.

AndrewPrice said...

Indi, That's a different issue. You're talking about content and I'm talking about style. I'm also not sure I would break these up in this manner. I would say that the 1990s and 2000s are essentially the same era again starting at maybe 1992-1993 through the present. The 1960s wouldn't fit with the 1950s either. 1960s humor was things like In Like Flint.

Individualist said...


I think the switch was in 65 when the standards were changed.

Annette Funnicello moves were 60 - 64 and past that you had the Beatles movies - 66-70

I think the relaxing of the blue laws had a more definite change on comedies than drama or action.

I don't see a lot of the non sequential techniques in romantic comedies but the comedies from the past are still different in feel and structure than today. I don't really have a handle on what the difference is just that it seems to exist.

AndrewPrice said...

Indi, Keep in mind that I'm not saying that these things are used in all movies. I'm just pointing out that these have become common techniques that either didn't exist before or where really rare in the past.

As for changing in 65, not in terms of film techniques, but maybe in terms of content. But that is a different issue. If anything changed at that point, I would say it would be a shift from older people on a stage to younger people in more "real" sets.

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