Wednesday, May 27, 2009

We all have a story

A few days ago I read an article on NPR's website by Glen Weldon titled Question: Who's the Longest Running Fictional Character Ever? (If you don't want me to spoil the answer then read the article before continuing!)

The answer was Superman who has been fighting bad guys with his super strength for 70 years now. The point of the article, it turned out, was to illustrate how Superman is a bad example of an open ended story gone awry. Stories, according to Weldon, are designed to have an end. They are not intended to go on forever or they just have to rewrite their own rules, throw in cheesy gimmicks and end up turning into soap operas - even if the characters can fly and wear spandex.

While I see Weldon's point, I have to say that I don't agree. I have loved to write and tell stories for as long as I can remember, and I think I can safely say that the same applies to Andy and Jason. One aspect of story telling that we have discussed numerous times is how we hate to see a story end. Once we have created a great set of characters and come to the end of a tale, we anxiously await their next series of events.

I even do this when I watch movies or read books. When I really fall in love with the characters in a story and then come to the end, I imagine what life is like for them beyond what I just witnessed. Will they go on to have more adventures? Will the new couple stay together? Is the villain really defeated? And I feel this way every time even though I know that sequels most often disappoint.

I've thought about why this is, and the conclusion I keep coming back to is that each of our lives is a story. Maybe not the kind of story you'd read on the news or turn into a reality TV show, but it's a story nonetheless.

Think of the elements any story needs, they're all a part of our every day lives: good characters who develop over time, a setting, a plot (sometimes many of them), conflict (often more than we really care for), antagonists, protagonists... it's all there. Maybe the only thing that isn't there is a climax and a resolution. Sure, there are major events and turning points in our lives that ultimately get resolved, but unlike a movie or a novel the story doesn't end there.

Now, in some situations I can see Weldon's point. Certain stories are more plot-driven than character-driven and end when the plot comes to a close. Take a fable like The Tortoise and the Hare, for example, no one is really interested in the Hare's back-story, it's the plot that moves things along. And some stories serve to convey a point that is much bigger than book or the film. Take Harper Lee's classic To Kill a Mockingbird, while it contains great characters, the point is to serve as a commentary on racism in the South.

But what about Superman? Or The Adventures of Hatman and Indigo for that matter? While at times these stories may contain a moral or an over-arching point, the heart of the story will always lie with the characters themselves. We long to see what will happen to them, how things will develop, where their lives will take them. And I believe we do this because of an innate belief that our stories are bigger than the events of our lives.

Yes, as Weldon says, this may tempt the author's of these stories to "jump the shark" in order to keep viewers, and this is a sad reality. But I don't believe it changes the fact that we can relate to stories that don't necessarily have an end. It just means that as writers, we need to work even harder to continue telling new and great stories without losing the essence of the characters that made them great in the first place.


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