Four Lessons for Storytellers from Four Movies of 2016

2016 was a pretty good year for movies- at least, it was from my perspective. While there were some notable disappointments (Batman v. Superman being my least favorite film of the year), there were also some great surprises, such as the mysterious and moving Midnight Special. Even the big budget popcorn flick Captain America: Civil War was brimming with character and surprisingly good writing.

Four movies from 2016 really left me thinking about what storytellers across mediums stand to learn by watching them. Be forewarned, this article includes spoilers. I don’t believe that having a story spoiled necessarily ruins the experience of the story- that said, your experience of a movie on your first, unspoiled viewing will be different than your experience of the story on your second- hence why I recommend watching the movies in this article prior to reading.

La La Land

Amazon

La La Land, and the praise for it, comes as little surprise. A visual spectacle, this musical that draws inspiration from and pays homage to old-fashioned movies that just so happens to be about artists trying their hardest to “make it” doing work that they love, and to decide for themselves what defines success- it’s been referred to as Oscar-bait, and understandably so. Critics of a medium tend to love stories about the medium. I’m a video game critic and I love The Stanley Parable and The Beginners Guide– both video games about video games- it’s little surprise that those games are widely regarded as critical darlings. A movie like La La Land– a happy-go-lucky musical with clever writing and callbacks to old Hollywood movies is pretty guaranteed to excite me.

With my biases laid bare and embraced, I now feel comfortable saying that I recommend La La Land to anybody who makes stories, because in many ways it’s a story about embracing your own story. That sounds very cliche and absolutely useless, so allow me to explain by saying that La La Land is optimistic in ways that I’m not used to seeing tackled by the films of modern Hollywood. A lot of comedies are sort of mean spirited and sardonic- that’s something I didn’t see in La La Land, and I appreciated it.

It’s this optimism that takes viewers by the hand as they consider just what success as a creator means- is it playing to a sold-out audience that cheers wildly for work you’re not proud of? Is it slaving to create something that you- and only you- seem to love? Can it be found somewhere in between? If you create things, be they stories or music or anything else and you want to work creatively as a living, La La Land isn’t a movie that’s going to tell you what you want to hear- it’s going to show you what you need to see.

It shouldn’t be a surprise that the lesson from La La Land is that you absolutely should go for what you want as a creator, and be true to your voice- but be aware that it might not come easy, and that it can be just as important to stop and examine the thing you happen to be pursuing as it is to maintain your passion in pursuing it. In so doing, you may discover your intentions for creating art in the first place, and through your expanded understanding improve your work.

Surviving Indie

Steam

If you haven’t heard of Surviving Indie, don’t feel bad- it’s a small independent documentary about game developers that’s available to purchase on Steam. Aesthetically, it’s not a documentary that really stands out. It’s a good documentary in that it’s informative- it’s very niche but, in my opinion well worth a watch if you’re serious about pursuing a risky creative career.

My first impression of Surviving Indie was that the film stands as a counterpoint to other movies about embracing a creative path, such as Indie Game: The Movie or even the aforementioned La La Land. Does it negate the messages in those films? I don’t think so- but what it does do is push in a little reality. Everybody wants to talk about the big indie success stories in every medium, but relatively few people look at what these things are succeeding over. When it comes to the indie developers in this movie, they’ve suffered major failures and difficulties. Faced with the prospect of becoming homeless or abandoning their dreams, these are the developers who chose to live in their cars and local libraries rather than abandon their art.

The lesson for storytellers in Surviving Indie isn’t “chase your dreams no matter where they take you, that’s the lesson from the aptly titled La La Land– it’s that pursuing your creative passions might cost you everything you’re willing to give- and that they might not pay off anytime soon, and that it’s up to you to decide how much your dreams are really worth.

There’s another, less frightening lesson from Surviving Indie, and it’s that there are stories worth telling that are overlooked because they’re not glamorous and exciting. Surviving Indie isn’t a rags-to-riches fairytale, it’s a rags-to-shopping-at-K-Mart story. If you’re telling a story, it’s normal to feel like the thing you’re making has either been done before or wouldn’t appeal to people- what I took away from Surviving Indie is that you should do it anyway, and worry about the market afterwards.

Zootopia

Amazon | Netflix

Generally speaking, I’m not a huge fan of movies with some obvious “lesson” at the end- much of the time, it’s poorly integrated gets in the way of the film’s story. Zootopia is the exception. In case you’ve not heard of it, Zootopia is an animated film set in a world of anthropomorphic mammals- it tells the story of Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin), a rookie cop who teams up with Nick Wild (Jason Bateman), a wily fox, in order to solve a surprisingly complex case.

While the movie itself is entertaining for all ages, what stood out to me about Zootopia was how well it conveyed its messages about prejudice. They weren’t particularly subtle- if you asked young tell you that it’s about not judging people based on where they’re from, and that being different isn’t necessarily wrong- and yet, as an adult viewer, I didn’t feel as though I’d been beaten over the head with the film’s message. The film’s themes were neatly interwoven with its worldbuilding, dialogue and plot into a coherent whole.

The lesson for storytellers from Zootopia is that there is absolutely no reason to water down your story for a younger audience. Zootopia told a story about prejudice, government corruption and- well, spoilers- let’s just say Night Howlers– in a little under two hours. The lesson in the movie didn’t get in the way of the story, and there was no ham-fisted speech about the power of friendship overcoming all- if you’re a storyteller of any sort, I recommend checking out Zootopia for lessons on how to integrate serious themes into your story properly.

Arrival

Amazon

My favorite film from 2016, I’ve saved it for last as this explanation of what other storytellers stand to learn from Arrival is going to spoil things. If you haven’t experienced it, I recommend first watching the film and then reading the short story that the film was based on, Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang. If you somehow haven’t heard of Arrival, what you should know is that it’s a sci-fi film about linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) who is tasked with interpreting an alien language. There’s a lot more to it, but I’m not going to say anything else because that’s all you should know walking into this fantastic movie.

Alright, have you seen it? Read it? Excellent. Now I feel safe to say that the reason why Arrival was my favorite movie of 2016 was because, besides having been sublimely directed and featuring some great acting, the nonlinear structure of the narrative reflected the story’s central plot device, that being the language of the Heptapods.

To be clear, nonlinear storytelling in film and other fiction is nothing new- Away from Her (based on short story The Bear Came Over the Mountain) does it quite well- but what really makes Arrival special is the way that your realization of the film’s intertwined narrative design and plot will come upon you. Having walked into the movie blind, I realized it twice- the first time was when the Dr. Banks awoke from a dream about her daughter, and I thought it was interesting that the film was flicking back and forth between future and past- just like the alien language. It was later in the movie, however, that I realized that her daughter was the future, not the past. Yes, that sentence hurts my head to type.

I’m hoping that you’ve read the short story as well, because if so you’ll realize that while it had rather similar themes to the movie, it went about them in different ways. Arrival was a movie which asked viewers if they’d go through with the future if they knew what it was, whereas Story of Your Life asks if you still have free will if you already know your own future- the lesson for storytellers from each is a little bit different. Personally, I liked Arrival better than its source material for having built upon it, keeping the core of the story intact while boldly introducing new elements. If you ever find yourself tasked with adapting a story for another medium, one big takeaway from Arrival ought be that you shouldn’t be scared to make changes to a story that improve it for the sake of the medium it’s being adapted to.

Regarding Arrival itself, the lesson for storytellers is that the way in which you present your story can be just as important as its contents. If Arrival were entirely about Dr. Banks uncovering the language of the Heptapods while coming to grips with the loss of her daughter, it still would’ve been a fascinating watch- even if it were presented in an entirely linear fashion- but if that were the case, it wouldn’t have made this list.

If you’re writing a story, take into account its structure. Do you happen to be writing a story about memory itself, or time travel? If so, does your story need a completely linear narrative? Perhaps you’re writing about coming to terms with loss- can you think of a story element you can take away from readers or viewers at the start of your story, and then restore it to them towards the story’s end? There’s a lot more to storytelling than dialogue, setting and pacing- when your presentation reflects the story you seek to tell, it may resonate with your audience in ways which are fresh and original.

These are just a few of my opinions on lessons that storytellers stand to learn from 2016’s movies- what do you think? Am I wrong, boring or grasping at straws? Do you agree with my ideas? Were there other lessons from other movies that you’d like to share? Let us know in the comments below, and be sure to follow @1RuleBeCool on Twitter for more game and movie editorials; follow me for my own views.

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