What is story? According to Robert McKee, it's a quest. Whether the main character is looking for love, redemption, or the villain that will destroy the world, it's a quest for something. Like in the Karate Kid (1984), it's the search for enlightenment. Love that movie.
In the beginning of my own writing journey, I went to many different sources to learn what story was. The first big lesson came from a Japanese film maker named Akira Kurosawa, who made what many consider one of the best films, The Seven Samurai. Diving deep into the learning process, I decided to buy the Criterion version because it included about five hours of commentary from academics and experts of his work.
Excited to watch, I sat down, threw the DVD in, and said, "What tha hell?" On the surface, the story was about villagers who are threatened by raiders that steal their food every harvest, so they go to hire Ronin to defend them. Problem is that they have no way of paying. This is a good film?
After watching the commentary, I received a really good education of how Kurosawa told story, the layers he lathered in each scene, and how many of today's film makers take from him without even knowing it. Or maybe they do and I don't know it.
Continuing my education of what story is, I went to a writing conference in San Francisco, and one of the lecturers taught how to break down a large three act story into tiny parts, something that severely helped me complete my books. So following him on Facebook, I came across the following article that I will paste in completion. See the cliffnotes below for a summary:
"Gravity: REALLY good. But. Arguably, strictly speaking, by a VERY strict Aristotlean definition, not actually a "story". Please understand me -- I'm not going to spend a lot of time below responding to comments like "but it IS", or "but it's so GOOD"...I said that above, I refer u to the first sentence of this post...it's something REALLY good...and it IS a "story" by the layman's definition thereof, a relation of events via mimesis (that's one effete layman) but maybe not a "story" by strict Aristotlean standards...there is no personified antagonist...the forces against the heroine do not/cannot embody opposing values...and therefore the conflicting values of hero and villain cannot yield "theme" by synthesis, or at best only simplistic theme. What's the themeof Gravity? Survive!!! Basically, that to survive is worth fighting for? Also, most (3 of 4, look it up) revelations in stories are twists about the antagonist, and with gravity as your bad guy, we can't really learn your best friend is working with gravity to betray you, that gravity planned to betray U all along or that this whole thing was part of gravity's plan for world domination or to steal your husband, etc.
Therefore, all it has to wow us is ascendingly larger spectacle. And it does an incredible job with that. And is wise to only try to sustain 90 mts.
But this has always been the issue with your "man against nature" story (which arguably didn't exist when Aristotle wrote his Poetics). And most people still call them stories...so, tell me what a dope I am below, but I will cling to the hope that what I really am is a scholar drawing an obscure distinction that will matter only to Poindexters like me, or perhaps even only this Poindexter, me. And Aristotle. Again, it was a REALLY good thing, but maybe not a "story" thing. And I could write one of whatever it is."
I wanted to paste the whole thing so you could see that I wasn't bullshitting you. The basic gist is this: The bad guy is not a person, so there can't be any real twists, or the exchanging of opposing values or ideals.
Clearly, this guy has never heard of the phrase, "You are your own worst enemy."
The spectacle he talked about was the special effects director Alfonso Cuarón used. And it was pretty freakin' awesome, especially with 3D glasses. Sandra Bullock plays Dr. Ryan Stone, who is trying to do some repairs on a space telescope when satellite debris from an explosion destroys the shuttle, complicating her trip back to Earth. Now, along with Mathew Kowalski, played by George Clooney, they must find a new way back.
Warning: Spoilers are comin'! Spoilers are comin'!
Kowalski asks Stone what kinda music she listens to. She states that it doesn't matter. She gets off of work, gets in her car, and drives so she doesn't have to think (about the daughter she'd lost through a freak accident of no fault of her own). And that is what the story is about. Letting go of the past. At this point, I knew that Stone would have to confront her own mortality, death, hitting rock bottom before she would let go of her past, and move on with her future, which required a really clever way of getting back home. The space that she created when letting go of her past, allowed the solution to appear, and as such she grows from this and becomes the woman she's meant to be.
Essentially, Stone was her own worst enemy. Once she got out of her own way, she was able to think clearly enough for a solution to appear.
Now, if this expert in story doesn't think that the ability to move on from one's past, or that letting things go instead of holding on to things is worthy of story, then he's a freakin' idiot.
I used to have a life coaching business before giving it up to write. And the one thing I always tried to teach is let things go and don't argue for your own limitations.
One of the fundamental mistakes that traditional therapists make is the exploration of the past. I'm not belittling the past or saying that it isn't important. But why hold on to it? Here's an extreme example:
A woman was molested as a child and develops an inability to trust men and form intimate relationships. What's the problem? A little mistrust of men is healthy for a woman. No. The man who will love her is not the man who molested her as a child, but often, in her mind, he is.
Let's take that same situation and go to another extreme: this same woman gets in a car accident and forgets her past from amnesia. Will her past now haunt her and prevent her from forming intimate relationships? No.
The key difference is her letting go of the past, which must happen internally.
If we look at this from a general point of view, most of our hang ups in life were formed some time in our past, DUH, but the mistake is we carry it with us, baggage. If we were to truly let go of the baggage, we'd be a much happier people.
McKee also said that story must have change. Whether we exit a scene or end a story, something must have changed, good or bad. And, as storytellers, we know that the change in the character must happen inside. Yes, external circumstances may be the catalyst, but for the person to grow, become the person they're meant to be, that change must be realized from within, that the character finally sees the light. All change comes from within, or happens within. Therefore, you don't need an actual person to be the antagonist.
A great example of this is another Japanese movie called TWILIGHT SAMURAI. I absolutely love this movie. There is no bad guy. The samurai in question just thought so little of himself that he didn't think he deserved anything better than what he had. Things change when a woman he'd been in love with, still is, comes back into his life. Always about the women. And he decides that he does want more out of life and does something about it, becoming the person he should be.
I always caution people about experts, that experts don't know everything, and I count myself in that group, meaning take what I say with many grains of salt. And this guy makes his living by traveling the country and teaching writers what story is. That doesn't mean he knows everything about story, or is even open to what story can be. He even missed the title having layers of meaning. Gravity doesn't just pertain to the weightlessness of space, but can point to the gravity of carrying baggage, the gravity of losing someone special like a child, and the weightlessness of finally losing that baggage and being free to be who you really are. I'm sure the director had other layers of meaning, but that's for him to know and for us to discuss.
Aristotle? Come on, pal. There's got to be some evolution here.