Besides being a singer-songwriter/composer and a pop culture writer, I am also a teacher of arts and music subjects. Which comes in handy as I find myself thinking in terms of breaking down story and music concepts in order to write about an appreciation of music, film, TV and comic books.
Thus, PoP Theory is a feature where we examine what goes into what makes a story or a song, good and effective. Sure, opinions are subjective but where arguments are made based on established principles, then hopefully, the reader will be able to at least understand my basis for making particular claims about specific stories and songs.
When I address the elements of a good and effective story, typically I am analysing a story from these four perspectives viz. characters, plot, substance and performances.
The persons, animals, beings, creatures or things in a story who though action or dialogue move the story in some way. A main character has greater influence over a story than a supporting character and is usually the most important reason why an audience will invest its emotions and attention into a story.
What I tend to look out for in a story is the development of the characters and the consistency of those characters within the context of the story. These relate primarily to the personalities of the characters as revealed by their words and actions, in their behaviour and choices and their interaction with each other.
Therefore, while I expect characters to act consistently within the context of personalities established from the beginning of the story, any deviations from these personalities can only come about as part of the character arc, which I explain below. If not, then, the characterisations can be said to be sloppy and the result of poor writing.
The character arc allows the characters to change – either for the better or for the worse – due to challenging circumstances set out in the plot. There must be a correlation between the character arc and the plot. All these factors should come together to present characters that the audience can relate to and connect with.
A good example of a strong character arc is that of Walter White in the Breaking Bad series.
The plot of a story is basically the logical sequence of events. “Logical” is a key factor here as cause-and-effect needs to be prevalent. Meaning that one event should lead to another and the subsequent event is the result of the foregoing one. When this logic fails, this is where plot holes or gaps appear, which weaken the impact of the story. Of course, you often hear people say that real life is seldom “logical” so why must stories be?
Well, this is due to the idea of suspension of disbelief. Note that this has nothing to do with whether the story contains fantastical elements or not. All stories are not real – even those based on a “true story”. Thus, the audience needs to believe that what they read or see can and does happen in the story, meaning disbelief is suspended for the time being. If not, then the audience is ‘taken out’ of the story and loses engagement. That is the biggest sin of any story.
Here’s where we talk about the meat between the sandwich of characters and plot. Basically, the question we are asking is – what is the story about? Concepts like theme, tone and style are applicable in this respect. These substantial aspects will serve to distinguish the story in question from other stories, even if the other elements are similar.
The theme of a story, of course, is the underlying message, the “big idea” that runs through the story. In essence, the theme of the story expresses the writer’s belief or opinion regarding specific subject/s raised during the story. The theme of a story will exert a heavy influence on the characters and the plot and will often drive these elements.
Tone connotes an emotional presentation and may include contrasting expressions like light and dark. Typically, one or the other may be prevalent during the course of the story though there may be a mixture of both but the danger with that approach is that the audience might find such shifts in tone jarring and hard to understand. MCU movies – like Thor : Ragnarok – often walk a tightrope between silly and serious but manage to get the balance right, most of the time.
Style, on the other hand, involves decisions and choices made by the creators in respect of mechanical and technical aspects of the medium. Take for instance, the movie Birdman, a film that is presented as one continuous shot and is distinctive for that reason. Or the director may choose to present the film in black and white, like in Roma. Typically, stylistic choices will be determined by themes, as well.
This is where we need to make distinctions regarding this final secondary element as it might apply differently to different media. Arguably, this is totally irrelevant for books while comic books would operate differently from film and TV.
Thus, for comic books, we might drill down to the performances of the writer, artist, letterer and colourist, if needs be as part of our assessment. Whereas, for film and TV, we might focus on the performances of the actors, the directors and other key technical personnel for example, the cinematographer, the editor, the composer, the costume designer, the art designer et al.
If you have made it this far, I really appreciate your perseverance. I trust you appreciate that this is a superficial introduction to some of the concepts I delve into whenever I share my thoughts and feelings about pop culture in the form of film, TV and comic books. Will share about song analysis the next time we delve into more PoP Theory!
Do let me know what you think of what I have shared here at Power of Pop Facebook page.
… still there’s more …