Storytelling. Scripts. Cultural Narratives. The use of screenplay techniques outside entertainment in fields like advertising, persuasion and propaganda. After all, it was tied to narrative in a major way. As literary critic Peter Brookonce said, “Narrative seems to have become accepted as the only form of knowledge and speech that regulates human affairs.”
It’s appropriate to contemplate thoughts from Peter Brooks. In his mid 80s, Brooks is one of the nation’s leading literary critics and theorists who has been Sterling Professor Emeritus of Comparative Literature at Yale University and Mellon Scholar in the Department of Comparative Literature and Center for Human Values at Princeton University. Brooks is an interdisciplinary scholar whose work cuts across French and English literature, law, and psychoanalysis. He was influenced by fellow Yale scholar Paul de Man to whom his book Reading for the Plot (1984) is dedicated.
His latest book is titled Seduced by Story: The Use and Abused of Narrative (2022). In the Forward he writes
Back in 1984, I published a book called Reading for the Plot, which recorded my discovery of the crucial importance of narrative, of storytelling, and how we can understand it. The opening sentences of that book: Our lives are ceaselessly intertwined with narrative, with the stories that we tell and hear told, those we dream or imagine or would like to tell, all of which are reworked in that story of our own lives that we narrate to ourselves in an episodic, sometimes semiconscious, but virtually uninterrupted monologue. We live immersed in narrative, recounting and reassessing the meaning of our past actions, anticipating the outcome of our future projects, situating ourselves at the intersection of several stories not yet completed. I still believe that, but here I want to record my somewhat disabused sense of what has happened to “narrative” in our culture in the decades since that book. It’s a curious story.
It’s interesting a person who has devoted his life to studying narratives and storytelling is suggesting “human affairs” has been “seduced” by narrative and story. But this is exactly what Brooks argues in a brilliant book of literary and social criticism. Offering insights from a lofty perspective of the most important developments during his lifetime from 1938. There is no better one qualified to provide this criticism. He has witnessed the beginnings (Act I) of so many stories and narratives during his lifetime. And also, he’s witnessed the endings (Act III) of so many stories and narratives.
It’s wise advice from someone who by his understanding of the nature of narrative and storytelling has somehow placed himself outside the “seduction” of story in his book Seduced by Story. In effect, Brooks seems some type of McLuhanesque figure with his knowledge of that “medium” called “narration” and “storytelling.” Mcluhan was far enough outside the environment of the times that he was able to draw a distinction between messages and mediums. By created the two he was placing himself outside the content of one into the context of two. This is the level that Brooks has studied narrative and storytelling in culture.
In Seduced by Story, even Brooks is astonished at the power stories have over us today. We all have our own stories about this. Whether they are political stories. Marketing stories of brands. Stories in pitches to investors in startup businesses. The world seems filled with stories everywhere. Perhaps they are a new type of medium the McLuhans talked about?
In the opening pages of Seduced by Story, Brooks talks about the wave or “narrative turn” in psychology, philosophy, medicine and economics writing
Gradually we learned that we were part of a larger movement to understand the uses of the narratives that surround us, from the everyday to the transcendent. But we never envisaged nor hoped for the kind of narrative takeover of reality we appear to be witnessing in the early twenty-first century, where even public civic discourse supposedly dedicated to reasoned analysis seems to have been taken hostage. This narrative takeover—what it means, how to think about it, and how to provide a more intelligent account of what narrative is and does—motivates me here.
As Brooks notes, narrative was once under-studied but “is now the object of fine analytic discrimination. Meanwhile, the plethoric spread of narrative in public life has gone forward, taking no apparent account of the analysts, though one senses that the two developments cannot be unrelated in some large cultural sense.” Brooks notes that French philosopher Jean-François Lyotard claimed in our postmodernist moment the “grand narratives that sustained whole societies, the narrative of emancipation especially, have lost their force. We are left with many mini narratives everywhere.”
Brooks notes that narratives and stories are everywhere. Like pesky insects around a picnic. “I look at the package containing the cookies I just bought and find it wants to tell me ‘Our Story.’ I go to order furniture online and I encounter a tab labeled, again, ‘Our Story’. This story was rather interesting but long.
Steve Conine and Niraj Shah met as high school students attending a summer program at Cornell University. They both went on to study engineering at Cornell and quickly struck up a friendship while they were freshmen living in the same dorm. During their final semester of college, Steve and Niraj both enrolled in a class on entrepreneurism which sparked a business plan that turned into their first company and, ultimately, became the foundation for founding and building several businesses in the technology sector.” (Not clear why this story is supposed to foster confidence in the purchaser.)
He mentions many other products many are familiar with like
At Tom’s of Maine, it’s called “The Backstory”: “Tom and Kate Chappell moved to Maine from Philadelphia in 1968, looking for a healthier, simpler life for their growing family. They discovered the benefits of natural and unprocessed food and started looking for the same qualities in personal care products. But all they found were labels listing artificial flavors, fragrances, sweeteners, colors and preservatives. So they decided to create their own.” J. Crew offers “Our Story” as well. Also Procter & Gamble. Johnson & Johnson has an elaborate and illustrated “Our Stories” in several chapters. Snapchat in 2015 introduced a feature called “Our Story” that aggregates individuals participating in a particular event.
Brooks mentions several interesting events in culture related to stories as they started their rise to prominence and power. For example, he notes former journalist David Gergen (as adviser to President Ronald Reagan) created the crucial notion of the “story of the day,” which would be presented ready-made to the media to feed on, comment on, disseminate. Brooks notes that “That continues, in more and more virulent form, as rulers judge that controlling the media narrative is what governing is all about.” He notes he read in the New York Times “The nation needs a better story about the drivers of economic growth.” Writing to the corporate world in Whoever Tells the Best Story Wins, he repeats author Annette Simmons claims: “The really important issues of this world are ultimately decided by the story that grabs the most attention and is repeated most often.” Brooks says that this seems truer with every passing day, as Twitter and the meme dominate the presentation of reality. Simmons goes on to maintain that “every problem in the world can be addressed—solved, made bearable, even eliminated—with better storytelling.”
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The powers of narrative and storytelling continued to grow through the 80s and 90s and into the first decades of the 21stcentury. Stories in effect were what McLuhan would have called the messages transmitted today via electric medium of the Internet.
There is much wisdom in the first chapter of the book. Brooks has much to say about storytelling in the modern world. For instance, in the corporation. He says it best
Every person has a story to tell, and the corporate person has understood, with a vengeance, that it must stake its identity, persuasion, and profits on telling a story, however bizarre or banal. Corporate reports have turned from the statistical to the narrative mode. And in the wake of the corporation are political candidates and parties, the military, the tourism industry, universities, hospitals, bakeries—even accounting firms. Salmon, the sociologist, has identified what he calls a “nouvel ordre narratif,” or NON: a new narrative order that dominates in business and politics. He notes that such a corporation as Enron, which famously went bust in 2001, seems to have been built uniquely on stories—fictions, in fact—that had little to do with the company’s balance sheet but rather with a kind of imaginary accounting that generated stories of impending great wealth. According to Salmon, the new attention to narrative in philosophy and ethics and literary theory and history writing came to affect corporate management, and then the military, which needed positive narratives to undergird the dubious wars it was made to wage.
Brooks says that our present world of pervasive storytelling was under-written and preceded by a well-recognized narrative turn in several serious fields of thought. As he says
History, which some decades back seemed to have set aside storytelling in favor of demographic and social analyses of selected moments and places, appears to have returned to full-throated storytelling. Philosophy, especially moral philosophy (though perhaps still dominated by logical and linguistic analysis), also found strong advocates for narrative, such as Paul Ricoeur, Richard Rorty, Alasdair MacIntyre, and Charles Taylor. They make implicit or explicit claims that human institutions and behaviors can be grasped only through stories. In economics, too, which might seem exempt from narrative thinking, the likes of D. N. McCloskey and the Nobel-winning Robert Shiller have argued for narrative as part of the discipline. In psychology, Jerome Bruner stressed that young children initially learn not though “scientific” experimentation.
Anyway, one gets the themes of the fascinating new book about this “medium” of narrative surrounding us all today. The “seduction of story” Brooks talks about is of our entire culture today. Engulfed in narrative, story-telling way of seeing and telling life today. Perhaps a world view?
Readers of Hollywood Safari need not concern themselves with reasons for this “seduction of stories” in the world discussed by Peter Brooks in Seduced by Story. More importantly, they need to be aware of the fact screenwriting has the closest connection to creating narrative and storytelling in our modern world. Few even slightly informed on the situation would argue against the proposition of a potential franchise type reach out of simply groups interesting in screenwriting. Or really, the sources of modern storytelling and narrative.
It seems that it needs to have a far greater reach than English, Cinema or Theater Arts Departments at Universities. One thought is to attempt attachment of the theories of screenwriting to various disciplines at universities. Certainly, the Psychology Department is a key target. Perhaps the Anthropology Department. Or the History Department. But beyond this, perhaps the area of AI. Or the area of private and public industries.
I think that a basic tour of the theories of screenwriting – like provided in Hollywood Safari – has great value in showing our readers a map of a particular territory out there. The territory of the entertainment market. Inside LA. But hopefully, by suggestions in this article, looking outside the movie business for clients of one’s screenwriting abilities. Looking outside this market. And perhaps seeing it in a new way.
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The screenwriting form is becoming the preferred literary form for writing storytelling and narrative today. Those with screenwriting knowledge have a much greater world than they might ever envision before them. If only they could see this. The fact that screenwriting theory was the technique and structure of much that happened in culture today. And the territory for screenwriting outside the entertainment business and into the private sector in presentations of the story of an entrepreneurs or start-ups vision in the world. The structure behind pitch decks to VCs. The structure behind commercials today or Internet videos.
Both by writing for inside the Hollywood Safari market in LA. And, by writing for outside the Hollywood Safarimarket. In effect, becoming a type of outreach cheerleader for the art and craft of screenwriting into worlds outside just entertainment. But also into advertising, persuasion and propaganda. When one thinks of it, like Brooks observes, we are controlled by the narrative, storytelling power driving culture today.
It seems logical that screenwriting theory should be creating scripts, narratives, stories for the millions of battles fought each day outside of Hollywood. Not in the entertainment industry. But many other industries that have great need for screenwriting use in their business strategy of creating the most effective corporate narrative and story. The fact that creating a corporate narrative and story has risen to the top method for branding products today. There is a great need for storytellers in corporate America it seems to me. Corporate Storyteller or Symbologist or Mythologist. What is the value of applying screenwriting techniques to other areas such as certain businesses in the world. Maybe old businesses. For so many years they have been doing so much right. But, doing all of this, quietly right without much of a story to all the others out there today.
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There is an undiscovered need for screenwriters in all areas of culture today. This relates to what Peter Brooks points out in the beginning of his new book Seduced by Story. He doesn’t mention screenwriters, yet describes a growing need for the consideration of the writing of scripts for many aspects of culture. Many are being writing by those with a passing knowledge of the art and craft of screenwriting. Hopefully, Hollywood Safari will give readers more than this normal passing knowledge of screenwriting theory. This is our major purpose.
In many ways, to help our readers see the big elephant in the room today. I am reminded of the story by John Godfrey Saxes “The Blind Men and the Elephant.” In the story six blind men go to see an elephant and touch parts of the elephant attempting to understand what they are touching. The first touched the side of the elephant and felt it was a wall. The second touched the tusk and felt it was a spear. The third touched the trunk and thought it was a snake. The fourth touched the knee of the elephant and thought it was a tree. The fifth touched the ear and thought it was a fan. Finally, the sixth touched the tail and thought it was a rope. As the end of the story says, “Though each was partly in the right, all were in the wrong!”
Screenwriters are like the blind men in the story and screenwriting theory is the elephant. Most touch the great elephant by bringing a particular theory with them yet being blind to the other theories. As Robert Ornstein said in The Psychology of Consciousness (1972) about the story, “Each person standing at one part of the elephant can make his own limited, analytic assessment of the situation … Without the development of an over-all perspective, we remain lost in our individual investigations. Such a perspective is a province of another mode of knowledge and cannot be achieved in the same way that individual parts are explored. It does not arise out of a linear sum of independent observations.”
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It was true in 1972 and is true today. So many entering the world of screenwriting and trying to see some sense to the landscape. But so many entering from one perspective ending up just seeing the perspective from their one entry point into screenwriting. Various screenplay writing brands in Hollywood have stiff prices and paying these often ties one into the theory. A matter of economics more than anything else.
This slim little book is really one created from a browser in Berkeley bookstores of the late 70s into the late 80s. As well as a rabid reader of screenwriting books. I admit, it might have entered that category of obsession. But I’ve never analyzed it. Always knew it was there. This was enough.
Many screenwriters are of course congregated in LA today. Most of the successful ones have a story of connection to a screenwriting guru that captured their attention and seduced them to some attachment to his or her brand of story creation.
Using the techniques described by Peter Brooks in his brilliant Seduced by Story. It has much relevance to screenwriting just as many areas in the world have a relevance to screenwriting. Just as modern experience is perhaps best expressed via the new literature that is really a shorthand of screenwriting. In effect, might it have become the form and structure many think about the world today and then express how they think about the world to others? In the form of a story or a narrative? This is a subtextual message of Brooks in his brilliant new book. He never mentions screenwriting outright. He doesn’t have to. It’s theory surrounds any discussion of it on the Internet.