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The way of telling a story

The question of how to tell an important story in an effective and entertaining way, and how films have tackled this issue, is a puzzle that does not have a straightforward solution.

These days, Korean children learn how to write Korean script before enrolling in elementary school, with some learning up to three different languages, typically including English. If a student learns to write in Korean by the first grade, they may start composing short stories or poems over the coming years, but it will likely take decades for that student to be capable of composing an epic novel. Put simply, there is a considerable difference between knowing how to write and producing great literature, just as understanding how to operate a camera and filming a movie are two entirely different concepts.

However, people tend to lose their ability to discern between amateurism and professionalism when approaching new technology; hence, early adopters become similar to a person who wants to hold a concert three weeks after learning how to play the violin. Being able to compose comprehensible verse in a language and using it to construct entire worlds are two different matters. As such, today’s users in integrative technology can be compared to a child who wants to write an epic novel because he or she capable of writing competently and without grammatical errors. While filled with the energy of countless participants, the integrative technology platforms of today pose a certain danger, as they have dismantled systems that at one time served to ensure professionalism.

As far as the “telling” aspect of today’s storytelling is concerned, the expertise and skill with which people use language is increasingly degrading.

So, how do you tell a story? This conundrum is comparable to the segment of The Little Prince where the title character shares a drawing of a snake that has eaten an elephant, accompanied by the following explanation:

I showed my masterpiece to the grown-ups, and asked them whether the drawing frightened them. But they answered: “Frighten? Why should anyone be frightened by a hat?” My drawing was not a picture of a hat. It was a picture of a boa constrictor digesting an elephant.

The picture is a depiction of a dream the little prince had where, after being chased by an elephant to the edge of a cliff, just as the prince resigns himself to a fate of being trampled, a giant boa constrictor appears and devours the elephant. As the snake slowly moves off into the plains to digest his meal, the little prince awakens. Not wanting to lose the mental image, he quickly draws his recollection to great personal satisfaction, but when he shows his picture to the adults in the story, they are unable to discern its subject.

In short, the prince has dreamed of something fantastic and has expressed his vision in a drawing, but the people who look at it cannot understand it and remain unimpressed.

The story premise he had created was surely a good one; a boa constrictor eating an elephant is not a plot one could create without a rich imagination. So, why did the story fail to move its audience? There was a gap between the story’s intention and its reception; the prince encoded his vision in the form of a snake, but when the audience decoded it, the snake appeared as a hat. Even while making different claims, both the encoders and the consumers of content are supposedly addressing the same message.

The concept of seeing the same thing, however, is more complex than it might appear. Even if two parties perceive the same meaning from a message, the way they might decode it may be completely different: To properly draw a snake I saw in my dreams, I need a certain level of professional skill, and the people who view it require a certain level of cultural sophistication. The book’s readers will already know that the prince’s drawing is of a snake because they are familiar with the story of The Little Prince. In a film, however, it is the director’s responsibility to make decisions about storytelling while conscious that some audience members will have read the story and others will not. In the prince’s case, simply being good at drawing is not everything.

And, similarly, if a writer creates something alone at home, no responsibility is demanded, but when capital investment is involved in a film, the director must utilize it so as to best express the original work; that is where a director’s skill lies. Success is not dependent on his or her spontaneous inspirations, but largely on the ability to communicate with the audience through a precise process of encoding and decoding.

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This article is from the free online course:

Transmedia Storytelling

Sungkyunkwan University (SKKU)