I had the great pleasure of spending three hours with Durham College video students last month. My brief was storytelling 101. My premise, Aristotle rules! Aristotle says a good story is mimetic, based on the stuff of life. He identifies six story elements in order of importance.
Plot is tops. He is for causal links. Show, don’t tell. And, omg, no deus ex machina endings please.
He puts Thought, which means big ideas, second, followed by Character, Setting and Diction. For my video students the bad news was that Spectacle is last. Stories can live without pictures. I said don’t worry about it.
In his 335 BCE “The Poetics” Aristotle kicks Plato’s bottom side. The latter banned storytellers from his utopia, “The Republic”. Plato thought storytellers stirred the people up too much.
When Aristotle writes about his favourite story type, the tragedy, he praises the cathartic powers of storytellers and in doing so makes the ultimate argument for the value of art.
A tragedy is ”an imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude; in language embellished with each kind of artistic ornament, the several kinds being found in separate parts of the play; in the form of action, not of narrative; through pity and fear effecting the proper purgation of these emotions”.
He finds two other story types, epic and comedy but misses the dream structure we call a romance. A story is an epic if the hero defeats the enemy and restores harmony. In comedies two heroes fight, then fall in love and get married. The tragic hero is defeated but ennobled by his or her fall. A tragedy ends when the hero dies or goes into exile. A romance is a mixture of all of the above.
Everything said about stories since Aristotle is more or less an add-on to the house he built.
With this solid background the students turned to some tales told by the most exquisite storytellers of our post-literate, anti-heroic times.
“I like Ike”, the first national TV ad (from 1952) for a presidential candidate is an epic. The students didn’t know that Eisenhower won the War but got that he was a hero and with him leading an ever-growing (all white) parade, with a few donkeys (Democrats) going the wrong way, the sun would shine, once again, on the White House.
I like Ike
Dwight D. Eisenhower, 1952
The students knew the ascending young hero riding the correlative in the “Escalator”.
Justin Trudeau, Sept. 2015
The Romance story type is not common in political ads. Its use in “Yes we can” made for one of the most powerful ads of our times,
Yes We Can
Barak Obama in New Hampshire Feb. 2008
There are no tragedies. In politics tragic heroes don’t sell
Funny comedy is rare in political ads. Too many people won’t get the humour. But, if you are a Republican running in a heavily Democrat county, comedy can be helpful. Ask Gerald’s wife.
Please Re-Elect Gerald
2016, Travis County Commissioner Gerald Daugherty
Hilary Clinton’s beautifully crafted ad is a classic comedy.
Hillary Clinton, Sept. 2016
Once again an epic hero wins the day. Alas.
Donald J. Trump, Sept. 2016
With the beginning, middle (muddle) and ending done, but not necessarily in that order, the class concluded. Bells rang. The clock was unbeaten.
Written by Jim Goss on June 9, 2017.