At Sofia Meetings, you can teach an old dog new Story Tricks
by Marta Bałaga
- It was all about “the empathy formula” during the “Story Structure and Empathy Characters. Why Does It Matter?” webinar. And James Van Der Beek’s crying face
Presented as part of the 17th Sofia Meetings Online – unspooling from 3-8 July and picking up right where its May edition left off – the webinar “Story Structure and Empathy Characters. Why Does It Matter?” made one thing clear. As argued by Cineuropa’s own Domenico La Porta, also known for his work as a story editor, ghost writer and screenwriter, there is something that successful stories share: they follow the rules. Welcome to Fight Club.
He also shared his career path, starting in Sicily (“A region with many stories”), and following stints as a fireman and a lawyer – or Claes Bang’s Dracula, according to the visual aids – La Porta moved onto his real passion: stories. It’s a passion he has been exploring in over 50 narrative projects, from films to VR, and a board game. “I decided to create storytelling tools – first for myself, and then people convinced me I should release them.” Fast-forward a bit, and his Story Tricks will be available in a couple of months. “It’s like playing cards, with each containing a trick that helps you make your story better. I have been using them with every collaborator I’ve had for the last five years.
“When you tell a story, people receive it their own way. But you don’t want your intentions to be distorted, so you take advantage of the natural wiring of the brain, and use archetypes and structure. This is how you ‘hack’ the brain of your audience,” he said, touching upon neuroscience. “We can go weeks without food and days without drinking, but our brain can only survive 35 seconds without creating meaning out of our environment.” This has led neuroscientists to theorise that story is, indeed, a brain hack – making you believe that something is real in terms of emotional response and brain chemistry. “There is information that’s purely factual, which your brain unconsciously turns into a story, turning a square into a circle. It’s distorting it, inventing whatever is missing,” he added, recounting the time when he confused the plot of his beloved 1985 Commodore 64 game Commando with the Arnold Schwarzenegger movie. “I completely invented the story! I didn’t know it was my own invention, which was disturbing.”
Things can get tense, as with 100 people working on a film, everyone needs to be telling the same story. “If you manage that, you have cracked the code of storytelling, making sure the audience receives it intact,” he pointed out, mentioning theories ranging from Carol S Pearson’s six hero archetypes (Innocent, Orphan, Martyr, Wanderer, Warrior, Magician) to Joseph Campbell’s monomyth and the classic “For sale: baby shoes, never worn” – attributed to Ernest Hemingway and known as the shortest story ever. But not to La Porta. “Take the A-B-T template: And, But and Therefore. Here, you only have ‘T’, which results in full distortion. I can tell you ten different stories that won’t communicate their intended message. One way to avoid this is to use story structure. Even the most simplistic will reduce the chance of misinterpretation.” Which is where his 45-card deck steps in. “These elements, because they are more precise and there are more of them, are easier to apply. You just take baby steps with each one until you are done.”
Although physical cards allow one to avoid unnecessary distractions, which the brain is bound to focus on, the structure alone doesn’t make the story good – after all, there is the question of taste to take into account. “Take Joker, for instance – the structure is perfect, but I hate it,” he said, also mentioning the so-called “curse of knowledge” – ie, not remembering how it felt before knowing something. “Once you know that Santa Claus never existed, you don’t remember how you felt when you thought he was real, just the emotional gist that your adult brain recreated. But cinema has to transfer emotions, also the ones you have never felt, and you want them to be precise.” Unlike, say, James Van Der Beek’s crying face. “I know that Dawson is crying. But for the Japanese people, he was having an orgasm! Just like my friend Udo Kier on the poster for Nymphomaniac [+see also:
interview: Louise Vesth
film profile]. But if I hide that title, it could be ‘Udo Kier, dead’. If we don’t share the same codes or don’t know the context, it’s a different story.” So how do you beat the curse of knowledge? By creating empathy for your characters.
“It’s the ability to understand the feelings of someone else: a human being or any character that shares its traits, even if it’s a cloud in a Disney movie.” Or a lamp in the IKEA advert by Spike Jonze. It’s about respecting “the empathy formula”, which Hollywood has been using for years. “They can make us empathise with an arms dealer like Tony Stark or a brat bitten by a spider.” Distilled down to 1+6+2, it consists of one “Early Choice”, with the audience either supporting or following the character, followed by six “Recommendations”, including anything from a sense of humour to weaknesses, or a decision to fight for someone else, like Darth Vader at the end of Return of the Jedi, or to suffer with dignity. “You add as many as you can; it won’t hurt your character.” Subtlety can be fine-tuned with two out of ten “Components”, be it grief, a trait that society respects, or having your character face an internal struggle or be treated unjustly. “Take any character you fell for, especially one you weren’t supposed to, like Hitler in Downfall [+see also:
interview: Bernd Eichinger
interview: Joachim Fest
interview: Oliver Hirschbiegel
film profile] or Javier Bardem in No Country for Old Men, and it matches. Unless you are a total sociopath, but then I can’t do much for you.”
Although more of these elements should be used in a blockbuster than in an arthouse project, you still need empathy for most of your characters. “It’s science, and it’s hard for most writers to accept. There are established rules. When you consciously deny empathy, it’s a problem – I just stop watching. I didn’t invent the formula, but it’s kind of a secret – once you understand it, it might feel like a cheat code sometimes. But it’s challenging in video games, because the user plays the character and has more freedom,” he added, while also addressing the harsh public response to The Last of Us Part II. “I love it! In the first game, you embodied a character that is – spoiler alert – murdered, so you play another, not the one you wanted, and then the murderer later on: really not the one you wanted to play. It’s not pleasant, but it’s a ground-breaking achievement in storytelling, and history will redeem it.” Amen.
If you are interested in the Story Tricks method, there is a form that you can fill in to receive a notification as soon as the cards are available to buy.
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