What We Talk About When We Talk About Storytelling

When we talk about storytelling, what people most commonly tend to think of is writing. What happens in the story? What do people say? What do they do?

It makes sense. The word “storytelling” brings to mind somebody sitting around a fire and physically telling a story. The words that they say are fundamental to that story. But storytelling is not limited to the mere facts, actions, and words of a story. It’s also in how the story is told. For the campfire storyteller, voice, pace, and gesture are as crucial to telling a story as the choice of words. Likewise, in entertainment media, there are dozens of tools at storytellers’ disposal, not all of which might leap out to audiences as such. These tools are often considered “style”. But in storytelling, style is also substance. How a story is presented affects how we interpret that story – even if is (and it is, often) on a subconscious level. 

Whether we’re talking about film, TV, theatre, video games, or even music or literature, the tools of the storyteller are much broader than simply “what happens next”. And so, we need to take these things into account when discussing works in these mediums. A Wikipedia summary of a text is not a text, and a recap of events is not a review. At the risk of merely describing the different craft departments on any given project, allow me to offer a brief overview of such crafts, before I embark on maintaining a website devoted to analysing them.

The craft of directing can be seen as directing the cast and crew, but it’s equally true that the director directs the audience. Blocking of characters and (in screen mediums) shots can imply much to support the text, whether simply making action legible or exploring the subtleties of relationships between characters. Working in tandem with a cinematographer, the director frames shots to literally direct the audience toward certain elements (or away from others), and can create emotional responses and storytelling implications through shot choices alone. This goes hand-in-hand with editing, itself a potent tool to create pace and juxtapose images and sound, to emphasise whatever the storytellers wish to emphasise. There’s a functionality to these crafts, a grammar to their usage, and it’s a deep rabbit hole for analysis.

Performance seems an obvious one, but even the storytelling value of performance is often underrated. A good actor can communicate what their character is thinking with a mere look, potentially rendering swathes of dialogue unnecessary, and they can imbue dialogue with greater specificity and meaning through how they deliver it. How a character carries themselves, speaks, emotes, walks, even breathes gives us tiny subliminal cues as to who they are and what they want. And a really good actor will think (and perform) not only in terms of their own character, but of what they’re adding to the grander story they’re telling. Leading roles and supporting roles require slightly different skillsets, and they’re not just defined by how much screen time someone has, but by their relationship to other characters, story, and theme.

Regardless of what we’d like to think, a character’s physical appearance does a lot of work telling us who they are. Casting directors, costume designers, makeup artists, and hairstylists make their careers out of this. Sometimes – especially with characters appearing briefly – we’re meant to draw conclusions about them straight away. Other times, those conceptions are meant to be made, only to be shattered later. And sometimes, we’re meant to be intrigued by something about the character and pay closer attention. But at all times, a character’s appearance informs us as to who they are, what they do, what their situation is, and how they relate to the world around them. In real life, such judgements may be unfair, but in storytelling, sometimes a particular type of hat, or haircut, or facial structure goes a long way to establishing who a character is before they even open their mouth.

Likewise, the spaces people inhabit tell us a lot too. Art directors and set decorators go out of their way to make every detail reflect something about the story – the characters who occupy the space, the events that have transpired there, the values of who’s in charge there, and more. A well-designed set (or game level) can make a character feel small, or powerful, or out of place, or at home – or it can tell a story all of its own.

Music is one of the tools that is most frequently called out for being “manipulative” – as if literally everything we’re discussing here isn’t calculated to manipulate the audience in some way, and as if stories themselves aren’t designed to manipulate audiences to feel something. And indeed, it goes a long way to creating the emotional ups and downs of a story, and even to support plot points. But sound design can do just as much to create feelings of comfort, fear, or excitement; the psychological power of sound is far greater than that of imagery in doing so.

Even interactive game mechanics factor into storytelling. The way in which we interact with a game world innately presents the values of that world, and of the story being told inside it, and subconsciously creates emotion in the player’s mind. Shooting zombies in the head brings up different feelings to patting a dog on the head (or at least, I would hope so), and it definitely communicates different values. And this is to say nothing of the craft of narrative design, in which player choice factors into and can directly affect stories – or at least give the impression of doing so, which experientially amounts to the same thing when done well.

Every department on every set and in every studio in the world is part of this, whether it’s obvious or not. Visual effects artists take great care to make sure that the effects don’t just impress, but deploy story beats. Lighting in stage and screen can create mood and environment, make implications about characters, and more. Colour grading can do the same. Even producers, for all the shit that gets talked about them by fans, can be key elements in the creative process, orchestrating productions and balancing all the various cooks in the proverbial kitchen. The list goes on and on. So when we talk about storytelling, we’re talking about everything. “Serving the story” isn’t just a catchphrase thrown around in PR interviews; it’s the reason for any of these crafts to exist.

That’s what I talk about when I talk about storytelling. Once you start seeing the Matrix of how all these crafts work together in service of their common narrative goal, films can be rewarding to watch on a whole new level. While there’s nothing wrong with (and there’s something to be said for) just absorbing works intuitively, greater appreciation of what goes into those works can enhance the appreciation of the works themselves. It’s one thing to know you like something; it’s a whole other thing to know why you like it.

(Plus, you learn to give credit to the people who deserve it, instead of attributing everything to the director. Let’s not do that.)