Storytellers thread - You gotta have heart

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Storytellers thread - You gotta have heart

Post by Og » Sat Oct 28, 2006 5:38 am

We've all read a good story or seen a good movie before but still come away disappointed. Sometimes these things are otherwise wonderfully constructed and executed, but still there's that j’nai se qua missing. That certain something. We say the story lacked heart.

My question is a two parter:

1. ANYONE: What makes a story lack heart for you?

2. WRITERS: What techniques do you use to make sure you keep the heart in your work?
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Re: Storytellers thread - You gotta have heart

Post by jdalton » Sun Oct 29, 2006 11:33 pm

Og wrote:ANYONE: What makes a story lack heart for you?
I'm not sure if this is what you mean, but for me the most important thing in a well-told story is what I call a "sense of justice." At a superficial level you could take this to mean the good guys win and the bad guys get what's comin', but it's more complex than that- a movie can have a flawless sense of justice and have all the best characters die- like half of Shakespeare's plays for instance. It's a hard thing to put into words succinctly, but I guess it means that at the end of the story you can nod your head and feel satisfied that enough things turned out the way they should, if not the way that's best for the protagonists, or the way they might in real life.

I hated Kill Bill for its total lack of justice. I forced myself to watch to the end of the second half in the hope that Bee's daughter would kill her in revenge for Bee killing her father, thus balancing the karma of all the previous death (by the Greek definition of karma, not the Indian one), but no. Justice was not done in that movie. I also forgot how young her daughter would have to be.

EDIT: That's probably not what you mean, is it? Never mind.
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Post by Og » Mon Oct 30, 2006 7:38 am

Well, that's certainly part of it. A sense of justice, as a point of construction, is absolutely something I'd consider one of the elements of heart. I think it goes to the overall construction, alongside other elements such as the strength of the characters, and the arc of the story. Also, production values can come into play, say, in a comic or a film.

And just think of the power of a well-done soundtrack in a piece of audiovisual media. Music may not even have anything to do with what you are watching on the screen. It can be an absolute counterpoint to what you are watching, yet it can really set that hook in your heart. (Think of the scenes of combat you've seen with no foley, and a soundtrack that was eerily serene as bullets and bombs perform their grisly work, a grim ballet in slow motion.)

I'd define "heart" as that aggregate of elements that moves you emotionally. I've seen films with great, funny, appealing characters but a story that left me untouched (Hellboy), and I've seen indisputibly well-constructed and universally acclaimed films that didn't connect to me emotionally (Crash).

But I've also seen films that had very unlikeable characters that moved me (Sideways). And I've seen films that seemed more unintentional, like a series of slice-of-life vignettes that really touched me emotionally. Is this because the films in question speak to something I can relate to? Not necessarily. Napoleon Dynamite captured exactly what it was like for me in high school, and therefore I found it very relatable, but Lost in Translation is a film that really resonated with me despite the fact that its specifics were beyond anything in my experience.

I'm using films here instead of novels or graphic novels, because I think there is a greater chance we've all seen these films, rather than quoting obscure literary and GN references. Anyway, that's my longwinded explanation of what I'm thinking about for this thread.

What about the rest of you? What elements do you feel play into the heart of a film?

And how would you go about keeping the heart in your story (this is a comics forum, so let's hear about the ways you could do it in a comic or graphic novel).
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Post by chasecorbeau » Mon Oct 30, 2006 9:43 pm

You keep the heart in it by writing from the heart in the first place. Your intellect is there for the sake of filling in the details, not writing the plot.

Part of the reason I started writing was to get over a very emotionally and otherwise abusive relationship. I had major problems developing deep relationships with people (on a friendship or sexual level) for a long time after that and put all my bottled up emotions into stories about characters that have nothing to do with me and who live in a completely different time and place.

So maybe the question shouldn't be, "How can I keep the heart in this plot line," but rather, "Why am I writing this?"
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Post by chasecorbeau » Wed Nov 01, 2006 8:05 pm

I hope I didn't just kill this thread... XD
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Post by Josh-Ulrich » Wed Nov 01, 2006 8:45 pm

chasecorbeau wrote:I hope I didn't just kill this thread... XD
Yes, you did... now get back to work on Crowfeathers! I need my demon, cowboy fix!

j/k ;)


but seriously... keep working...




.... do it

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Post by Josh-Ulrich » Wed Nov 01, 2006 8:56 pm

Since I hijacked the thread, I should at least reply sincerely.

I think a story that has heart, is one that feels human. Essentially, most people want to do good, want to do the right thing, but we fail... often. And I think a good movie conveys that to different extents. I think a film should at least portray a desire for what is right, or what should be, even if it is not achieved. A story should leave hope, leave us at least guessing that there could be more, that not all is lost.

To me, when a story lacks heart, it shuts down the human aspect. It's cold, like a robot that has no emotions. It doesn't care if the right thing is done at all, and it will kill off anyone it pleases, much like a lot of horror films, Cabin Fever for example. That was the worst movie I've ever seen, even for a horror film.

Somebody else could probably say it better, but that's kinda how I feel about the subject.

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Post by jdalton » Thu Nov 02, 2006 1:50 am

chasecorbeau wrote:You keep the heart in it by writing from the heart in the first place.
I think that's pretty much it, yeah. This is why so many good writers are angsty or chronically depressed or otherwise tragic figures (and it has to be real angst- plain old middle class teenage "I listen to Marilyn Manson because I hate everything" angst isn't enough!) Some aspiring writers will even go to the extreme of putting themselves in bad situations just so they have something to write about later!

Not that I'm actually recommending anyone do that. At least not any really bad situations.
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Post by Og » Thu Nov 02, 2006 7:44 am

Nah, you didn't kill the thread. As for me, I'd been pretty vocal on the thread, and thought I should shut up and let someone else talk for a minute. :)

But your points are valid, especially this one: So maybe the question shouldn't be, "How can I keep the heart in this plot line," but rather, "Why am I writing this?"

It's a great question to ask, and shines a light on the creator's motivation. But sometimes you don't like what you see.
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Post by Dresden Codak » Thu Nov 02, 2006 12:25 pm

I hate writing from the heart. When I write from the heart, things quickly become confused and bogged with oversentimentality. When I write from the brain, everything stays crystal clear and I'm free to dance about and construct a story that locks together like pre-Harry Potter Legos. You can still create compelling characters and have a moving story, but you attack it from a different direction.

Is one approach better? I don't think so; I think it has more to do with how the writer processes information. I have to analyze and process everything from a very structured standpoint, sometimes even literally applying the scientific method to how characters would interact with each other and their environment. From a Jungian psychological standpoint the least developed portion of my personality is emotion, so when I draw directly from that I'm not able to drum up any coherency. Conversely, there are those out there who can write directly from their emotional content and create some really amazing stuff.

Different strokes for different folks.
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Post by briantaylor » Fri Nov 03, 2006 5:02 pm

For me it's more of a balancing act.

I think my best work comes totally from the heart initally. As I'm trying to figure a story out, I'll try to have each scene based on a mental image that has a strong emotional connection to me. It has to resonate with me on sort of an intuitive level. This lets me know I'm on the right path. I kind of "feel" the story out and write it this way. But then later, I'll go back and revise the story by analyzing everything analytically. This way I can make sure the story works on kind of a "common-sense" level as well.

I think that a lack of heart in a story is usually due to a story being too "cold" emotionally. I agree with the above statement regarding storytelling "justice" or whatever it was. Maybe I'm old fashioned, but I still like likeable characters, relatable situations and traditional happy endings. It's funny that we has human beings have such a hard time recreating authentic, human stories in our writing.

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Post by jdalton » Fri Nov 03, 2006 8:18 pm

briantaylor wrote:I agree with the above statement regarding storytelling "justice" or whatever it was. Maybe I'm old fashioned, but I still like likeable characters, relatable situations and traditional happy endings.
Well this is officially now off-topic, but justice doesn't mean it has to end well or have likeable characters! Different cultural/literary traditions have a slightly different "sense of justice," but just to suggest an example of a tragic (but entirely just) story, take this one.

Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, whatever else you want to say about it, was my first introduction to Chinese justice in literature. The two romantic relationships in the story both end badly with one member dying in a seemingly unneccessary manner, leaving the other partner alive and without purpose. But if Xiaolong or Master Li (I forget his first name) were to survive, this would be unjust by the standards of classical Chinese literature! Master Li has forgone his chance at enlightenment- he'd rather fall in love and die with his spiritual life unfulfilled. And so he does. Xiaolong has broken every bond of family, class, and propriety in the name of her own desires and it would be unjust for her to win in the end- even if everyone watching the movie secretly wants her to. Nobody gets away with anything they don't deserve. We are sad that they have died, but if we understand why on some level, the ending is satisfying. A story from a different tradition, of course, could have a completely different ending and still be "just." But it would probably have a different beginning and middle to set up that ending, too.
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Post by Og » Sat Nov 04, 2006 2:28 pm

Well, you guys certainly have given this a lot of thought, and I appreciate all your comments.

So, I'll tell you now, the thing that got me thinking about this - someone was talking about an animated storybook / short by someone whose work I respect, and they said that it lacked heart.

Now, I haven't seen the film in question except for a short clip at the company's website. It's OK, nothing great. But it just got me to thinking about what that elusive quality is that people call heart - what's got it, what doesn't, and how to make sure you don't lose it on the way to the shelves or the screen.
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Post by geckochan » Mon Nov 06, 2006 4:43 pm

jdalton: Funnily enough, I found the ending to Crouching Tiger very unsatisfying. mostly because it seemed a comepletely pointless action. Then again, the illogical can be a major sticking point for me in stories.

Hmm, let's see. The wording of the question makes me recoil a bit, because something having "heart" has become the sort of phrase that feels saccharine and insincere. Which I know is ironic, because that's the opposite of what you mean. But I do feel that sentimantality is something to watch out for, and the stories that are *trying* to make you cry or are filled with melodramatic musical cues to guide your emotions are the ones that have the least heart to me.
Stories that show some restraint, that let people think for themselves, and are engaged with what life and people can really be like (whether through literal realism or fantastical metaphor) I would consider to be things with heart. They don't have to be uplifting - they can be devastating, but are seldom totally negative in view point (they're not the ones that are too bitter or cynical, and leave you feeling kind of gross).
Kore-eda's "Nobody Knows" is devastating and hard to watch, but I think has a lot of heart, as does "Grave of the Fireflies". Other films I'd classify as having a lot of heart are "Babette's Feast" and "Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind" or "After Life".

One more note - this is not an attribute I would consider every movie or novel I like as having, nor do I think it's completely necessary for a story to be successful. Some novel's like Joyce's "Ulysses", or movies like "Ghost in the Shell" I wouldn't say really move me, but I still consider them genius and count them among my favourites.
My two cents. ^_^

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Post by MG » Mon Nov 06, 2006 6:55 pm

This is something I've often struggled with, but it's been my experience that as far as "heart" and storytelling in general goes, the key is character development. If readers don't identify with and care about the characters, the whole thing is pointless.

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