We know what a story is, what it means to hear a story, and what it means to tell one. We use stories in everyday life to pass time, convey information, and establish an identity and a sense of self. Stories help us locate ourselves in a particular place, family, and community, and we use stories to escape these worlds in which our stories have placed us. We use stories to remember; they are a form of basic intelligence. We use stories to survive, to imagine the future, and for a host of instrumental everyday purposes. We indulge stories because they bring us pleasure. We have never been without them; stories are part of our human inheritance.
We are surrounded by stories and are now beginning to formally recognize and make a place for them in both the academic disciplines and in the professions. Today, there is a growing recognition that lawyers are story-tellers. In the most basic sense, we listen to the stories of our clients and then translate them into a form in which legal action can be taken and in which legal action in turn will become part of the story. It is not just lawyers, but judges, too, who are in the story-telling business. It's not much of a stretch to see the judicial opinion as a story. Lawyers have always been story-tellers. Drama is central to the craft of the courtroom lawyer and represents the main attraction of lawyers in contemporary popular culture.
If we lawyers are in the story-telling business, and our work proceeds from a life of experiences with stories, then, paradoxically, we know a great deal about stories even as we are oblivious to them.
One might begin to study stories, their structure and how they work, by reflecting on our own lives as a story and about legal education itself as a kind of story. But first, consider the following:
These questions suggest, I trust, that you have a large store of what might be called tacit story knowledge. Stories are not only the great delight of children but important for adults as a way of knowing the world and marshalling the resources and character to act in the world as it appears to us.
The narrative and story aspects of film make them, in a sense, familiar and understandable. We know and interpret what we see in films as stories, the same kind of stories we know from everyday life, stories we heard as children, stories that bring us pleasure and stories that create fear, stories we will entertain and those we seem to deny. In reading a story, our interpretation begins by saying (or knowing without saying): "This is a story I am hearing." We must then decide what kind of story it is: inviting/frightening/puzzling/boring. We know what kind of story it is first by our emotional and subjective reaction to it. The story has a place in our psyche or it does not; we are open or closed to the story. This initial reaction to the story is important and provides valuable information but it is often information buried deep beneath its subjective surface.
N1. "[W]e come back, in one way or another, to the fundamental perception that stories teach us—and teach us in ways, at levels nothing else does." [Frank McConnell, Storytelling and Mythmaking: Images From Film and Literature 3 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979)]
N2. "We all do it [storytelling] naturally. Some of us are better at it than others." [David Mamet, Bambi vs. Godzilla: On the Nature, Purpose, and Practice of the Movie Business 89 New York: Random House/Vintage Books, 2008)]
N3. "Popular films have their own principles, patterns, and structures. These deal not so much with style and technique as with the psychology of storytelling, which ultimately is the psychology of contemporary human beings." [Howard Suber, The Power of Film xxiv (Studio City, California: Michael Wiese Productions, 2006)]
N4. "The legal storyteller must have a sophisticated understanding of mass communication in order to grasp how truth, law, and justice are constructed in the popular imagination. Only then can she effectively tell her story before a particular lay audience. On this view, law cannot be isolated from the influences of the visual mass media and the shifting styles and content of popular cultural storytelling. In practice, it hasn't been.” [Richard K. Sherwin, Picturing Justice: Images of Law & Lawyers in the Visual Media, 30 U. S.F. L. Rev. 892 (1996)]
"The reality that counts most,” in the legal world, according to Sherwin, “is the one that people carry around in their heads; the popular images, stock stories and character types, the familiar plot lines and recurring scenarios.”  “If persuasion is a matter of tapping into the reality that people carry around in their heads and of emulating the habits of perception and styles of thought that come with extensive exposure to mass-mediated popular culture, where else would one turn but to the screen?” [Id.]
"Appealing to the lay public’s narrative tastes requires tapping into prevailing cultural beliefs and expectations about what constitutes good storytelling. . . . [P]opular narrative conventions supply courtroom advocates with crucial information about persuasive story forms and content for lay judgments about truth and justice.” [Id.]
A Story is a Promise
The screenwriting consultant, Bill Johnson, has noted that stories have been with us for a long time and for that reason alone we might want to understand them. As Johnson puts it, "[f]rom prehistoric times when our ancestors gathered around fires in caves, storytellers have been aware of how arranging events in a story-like way held the attention of an audience." It's the attention of an audience that we need to convey information of importance to others, to learn information from others that we might need; an audience is sometimes simply a way to entertain and be entertained. The important point is that all of this has been going on from prehistoric times. Our movie watching is a contemporary form of gathering around the fire to listen to a story.
Johnson defines story as the use of words and images to create life-like characters and events that will capture an audience's attention. And how is this done? By presenting the action of a story as "revolving around resolving some human need: to feel loved, to be in control of one's life and fate, to be able to avenge wrongs, overcome obstacles, discover and understand the meaning and purpose of life."
Is it possible that we might actually watch movies to save our lives? I got this seemingly preposterous notion from Frank McConnell's introduction to Storytelling and Mythmaking: Images From Film and Literature (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979). McConnell begins his book this way: "This book is about film and literature as kinds of story-telling. It argues that stories matter, and matter deeply, because they are the best way to save our lives." (3). Other commentators don't put the point quite so strongly, but lend support to the notion. Johnson lends support to McConnell's statement, which initially seems a bit preposterous in the argument that audiences are captured by films because they present and make apparent life's meaning and purpose. This is the way Johnson puts it:
Reading Johnson's A Story is a Promise (5th ed., 2011), we get a better view of story from the screenwriter's perspective, why we become ready captives of film stories, and how the stories work at a structural level. Using this insider's view, we can become a better reader of lawyer films.
the Foundation of Storytelling
Johnson links the story's premise to "every other element of storytelling"; indeed, the premise is sufficiently important for the screenwriter that each element of the film—characters, plot, conflict, story movement, resolution—are related back to the story's premise. The premise, according to Johnson, is the "foundation" of storytelling. A premise could be compared to a house foundation. It supports a well-constructed story. It is not meant to be artistic or original so much as clear and direct about setting out a story's core dramatic issue and what manifests its movement toward fulfillment.
If the story premise is foundational, as Johnson argues, then we might go so far as to say, the premise points to the archetypal dimension of the story. I'll have more to say about archetypes as we proceed.
The interesting thing about Hollywood screenwriting is that these folks are working mightily to figure out how to do the most basic sort of thing—tell a story, tell it well, and make it sufficiently compelling that we'll sit for two hours and do nothing but pay attention to the story and, if it's told well enough, go tell our friends they'll lead an impoverished life if they too don't go see the film. Just to keep it all interesting, fundamental, and out of the reach of academics, there is a stack of money to be made for those who get it right. David Siegel, like Chris Vogler, Bill Johnson, Robert McKee and a host of others want to tell us the secret magic of film stories.
The Narrative Impulse: Telling Stories
Donald Williams, a Jungian analyst in Boulder, Colorado, has a work in progress he titles "The Educated Heart," in which he comments on stories and how they work:
When we tell our stories, we want to create a vivid and continuous dream in the listener's heart and mind. As John Gardner says, this dream is the aim of all fiction, all stories. As an analyst, therefore, I look for the language, details, memories, events, and metaphors that make [the patient's] story precise and vivid. I watch for the distractions, defenses, and narrative flaws that break the continuity of the dream. We all, as I said earlier, have a unique, compelling, and coherent story to tell. When psychotherapy works, the patient can tell her or his story with narrative competence and create a powerful, vivid, and continuous dream in the analyst's mind.
Williams contends that
we create our lives and the world with the stories we hear and tell. In other words, we maintain our world primarily in conversation—inner dialogues, face to face conversations, and a vast series of conversations we carry on through books, newspapers, films, magazines, television interviews, electronic mail, Compuserve forums, and paintings worth a thousand words." Williams goes on to point out that, "For most of us, the stories we depend upon work like morality plays (Seek this above all; avoid that at your peril. . .), like manuals for adulthood (Here's how to. . .), or like private prayers to soothe and protect us (Now I lay me down to sleep. . .). Well-ordered fictions can be reliable maps and compasses (You are here, there's a road there. . .) and sometimes cosmologies (In the beginning. . .). We could not make death or birth, love or tragedy, human experiences without stories. We would not recognize, experience, or understand the meaning of loyalty, friendship, sacrifice, wonder, grief, or desire without good stories. We will always need new stories and the retelling of old stories.
Williams takes up stories as a psychotherapist; psychotherapy is fundamentally a matter of telling and listening to stories. We might take Williams a step further: In what sense are our stories, even those not told to a therapist, meant to be therapeutic? What stories have you found to be therapeutic? Therapy, if you look to its Greek roots, means to attend, or treat. Today, we use therapy to mean both in the sense of the treatment of disease or disorder by an expert and by other means that we devise. In what sense, then, can we speak of the film story as therapeutic?
Williams makes, in passing, a point about the truth that we might want to examine: "The old truths can no longer authorize our lives. Today, all truths are suspect." How do lawyer films confirm Donald Williams's observation?
Cole writes about what happens in films and to film characters by talking about life, philosophy, and psychology. The interesting thing about Cole's essays is that he says so little about film, leaving it to the writer/viewer to make the translation. Cole is a film story consultant interested in the "human condition" and how it is portrayed in films. Cole may be a "script doctor" but he talks about the script as if it were life itself. [Prelude to Meaning] [Meaning Transformation: Creating Characters with Attitude] [Roles We Play] [How Do You Relate to Life?] [Meaning Making] [Meaning and Plurality] [Free Will] [Guilt, Forgiveness, and Justice] [Character Growth—Change, Maturing] [The Process of Change] [Chasing Shadows and Using Symbols] [Life Stories] [Life Story: cont'd]
The Coming Age of Story: "[P] people everywhere have begun to realize just how important story is and the key role it was meant to play in our lives."
Presents a book-length text which explores basic story structures for creative writers. The authors outline four primary narrative perspectives (which they call "throughlines") found in stories: Objective Story, Main Character, Obstacles Character, and the Subjective Story.
Misc. Web Resources
The Secret A Writer Needs To Know To Write A Great Story
Without This Story Tool A Screenplay Doesn't Work
How Do You Tell A Great Story?
Martin Scorsese on Story vs. Plot
The Write Stuff: What Makes a Good Novel?
Screenwrite the Story
Screenwriting Web Resources
Footnote: "We human beings delight in drama." [David Mamet, Bambi vs. Godzilla: On the Nature, Purpose, and Practice of the Movie Business 63 (New York: Random House/Vintage Books, 2008)]