Thoughts On: Paterson (2016)
A week in the life of a bus driver who writes poetry.
It took me a long time to get around to seeing Paterson, but this is a wonderful film – one I’m really glad I saw. In short, this is a brilliantly realised ode to the everyday, the unassuming, the monotonous and the mundane with great characters. There is honestly little more to say than exactly that; Paterson takes a realist approach to story and instead of finding the dramatic in the everyday, as films such as Cathy Come Home, Toni, Kes and Bicycle Thieves do, it daringly picks the everyday and an every-man that isn’t surrounded by a ‘cinematic plot’ with explosions of conflict and finds simple, touching poetry.
What Paterson then had me further consider was a question I’ve been pondering since hearing, for the who-knows-how-many-th time, the age-old adage, “Story is everything”. Anyone who creates anything will have heard this and took it to heart, always trying to keep it in mind as they write, paint, film, dance… anything. However, what exactly does it mean? At face value, it means that aesthetics, technology and other flowery things that go into storytelling aren’t the primary. So, when speaking to filmmakers or writers, this means that what you shoot or write on isn’t everything. It’s instead all about… story?
This is where I run into trouble. I know story is where my focus should be, but, ‘story’ is an abstract idea. When we look at a film, we see an embodiment of a story; it is the intangible thing that exists between a screen, filmmaker and audience. A story is told… and that’s it. How else can we define it? Where am I really supposed to put my focus?
One of the worst answers you’ll get from many screenwriting books is an idea that story is somehow structure – a plot that a character walks through. This would lead you to assume that there is a paradigm or ‘beat sheet’ to be followed.
In such, story becomes something an audience expects; they want set-ups, debates, finales and so on. There are many problems with this, however. The primary one comes with a question tantamount to, “what came first, the chicken or the egg?”; “what came first, the story or the beat sheet?”. The truth is that the story did – and indifferently to the beat sheet, which, when you analyse this paradigm, reduces it to arbitrary mush. However, this is a subject we went into a lot of depth in within this post here.
The major redundancy of an idea such as ‘story is structure with well-constructed characters following it’, comes with the fact that this is an equally abstract idea as ‘story is everything’. What is structure when it can be reduce to a universal term? What are well-constructed characters? We could delve unfathomably deep into these questions, never coming up with a truly satisfying answer. This is simply because specificity is the killer and maker of art. To create anything requires a specific vision put down in specific words, unchanging frames and dried paint; you can only create something when it is specified to be just as such: something. Add to this the idea that, when art in general is specified to be exactly one thing, it becomes pointless. When you take the broad idea of cinema and define it to be one, or a handful of, archetypes, then why should we still be making films? They’ve all already been made, right?
There is an argument against this, one that suggest that there may be archetypal stories, but recognising them as such is perfectly fine as long as you embrace that they are all somehow different. However, understanding that there are archetypal structures, characters and so on, never constructs a specific story off its own accord; it takes further specificity – which is a creator’s job. And so we arrive again to the idea that specifying art to be one strict thing is redundant; you’ll inevitably have to take all specifications and bend them into something new and personal (unless you entirely plagiarise a story). This all says that a beat sheet isn’t really going to help you write your screenplay.
This then brings us back to the start, asking, what are stories and how do we tell them? We don’t need over-specification as it becomes useless, but we do need some kind of an answer. To find this, the best place to start looking would be the motivation for something such as a beat sheet; a device that analyses popular films in order to derive a winning formula that will appeal to the average person. The primary question someone like Blake Snyder would be asking as he constructs this is, what do people want? In fact, this is all we are asking when we look for advice when it concerns any creative output: what do people want and how can I supply them that?
This is the route to which we can answer the question, ‘what is story’. All we have to ask is, why do people like them and why do we want to tell them?
Stories are entertaining and enlightening. This is cinema, this is storytelling; it is a mediation between artistic communication and entertainment. So, what we are asking for when we want stories is simply, what have you got to say that is intriguing and/or insightful; what can I learn from you and will I have a good time hearing your thoughts?
The answer to, ‘what is story’, then becomes: story is anything that is interesting, intriguing, entertaining or insightful. However, I’m sure this is not a very comforting answer and that there are many who would ask, “well, what is entertaining, what is interesting, what is intriguing?”. The answer is: I really can’t specify – and I shouldn’t need to. As a storyteller, it is your job to develop that muscle or sense of what is worth saying. This is why I’ve always been so enthralled by stand-up comics.
Just as you may ask a filmmaker, ‘what is story’, you may also ask a comic, ‘what is funny’. And the best answer you’ll probably get from the vast majority of them is: what the fuck do I know? This is because comedy is a full-body thing; you can’t just say funny things, you can’t just do funny stuff, you have to somehow be entirely funny when you’re required to be – something that you have to work on and develop.
So, just like being funny is an abstract and weird notion, so is being good at telling stories; it’s all about being worth listening to. But, I won’t leave things at that as from this point you may as well scroll back up to the beat sheet and read that a few more times over.
The beat sheet wants to tell you that there is a popular formula, one that needs big, emphatic beats and set-pieces. However, and this is why this film is relevant today, Paterson says otherwise. This is not to say that Paterson won’t fit the beat sheet, you’ll understand my argument for this by considering the beat sheet somewhat metaphorically and by reading the post on Save The Cat! Instead, what Paterson says best is that, if story is just interesting things happening, then that spectrum is a wide one. Whilst Star Wars may be a worthwhile story, one that is interesting, intriguing, such and so on, well, so are realist films in which drama is found in the everyday, working class person’s life. Moreover, even when there isn’t such a strong sense of conflict and antagonism, you can still find a worthwhile story – something like Paterson.
What this allows us to conclude is that stories are just reams of information. This information is no different than telling a loved one about your day; “I got to work and so-and-so has new shoes that they wouldn’t stop complaining about. Then we had a meeting, but nothing much happened there. Lunch was good and I fell asleep at my desk again. But, yeah, then I came home on the train and this old woman sitting next to me smelt so strongly of… I don’t know what it was, but it was nice”. The difference between the ream of information you tell your loved one and that you’d put down in a screenplay is simply the end point. Stories have to have a point, and the stronger and more poignant this is, the better the story becomes. For instance, the story of the day at work could be about senses of smell and small moments that brighten the day. But, this of course could be better if these themes were expanded upon, making the fractions of your narrative more interesting – the story worthwhile, interesting and intriguing.
This expansion can be done with two approaches; the qualitative and the quantitative. Qualitative stories are like those seen in Paterson; they contain very little happening, but those little happenings mean a lot and build to a poignant point. Quantitative stories are more dense with many happenings and events and so often don’t have such a profound or intricate end-point – as simple blockbusters like Star Wars arguably don’t. And such sets the distinction between this kind of story…
… and this kind of story:
A beat sheet disingenuously asks the question, ‘what do people want’, whereas a film such as Paterson has the right sense of specificity that isn’t very concerned with deriving a winning formula, rather telling a good story – whatever that is.
So, to conclude, story is an abstract idea. However, we can say that it is just information, and that the best stories have the most worthwhile information within them. Whether there’s a lot of information, or just a little of that information that does the job, good stories are just this. So, as you write your stories and are lost, maybe consider this, asking yourself if this moment, this sentence, this detail is worthwhile, qualitatively, quantitatively and in the grander scheme of your narrative.
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