The Siren Song of a Good Story - Homer style
Most of us know the story of the Sirens; how, to resist the lure of their song, Odysseus blocked his ears with wax and ordered his sailors to lash him to his ship’s mast. But what was it that had lured so many sailors onto the rocks?
I always imagined it was a magical quality of their voices or the tunes, until I spotted this in the introduction to Katherine Wilson’s fantastic recent translation of the Odyssey. The lure was something grounded in human desire. They offered Odysseus the complete story of his life.
Odysseus was lost in every sense, battered by the whims of gods when, as Wilson says, they offered “a complete understanding of what happened in the war, and what it meant”. Making his life makes sense would have been utterly irresistible to a tortured soul. Homer understood the power of a completely structured story. It's also very attractive to someone turning on the TV, or deciding whether to stick with the latest Netflix doc series.
One of the most useful ways of thinking about a complete narrative is to understand how it’s not a conversation.
When you tell a story face-to-face among friends, there is always room for people to join in, ask you to elaborate on a point that they find interesting, challenge you and joke along. It’s at the heart of a conversation; everyone sharing points of view about the world to understand the bigger picture. But a story in a recorded medium - film or TV, graphic novel or novel - leaves no room for any questions. The answer to every possible question has to exist in the work. That’s what is meant by a complete story.
The job of a complete story is to provide the audience with the answer to a problem that they could not fully explore in their own lives. As a storyteller, you have to present the story in every way, in every context, so the reader or viewer has no more questions to ask. No more holes, no “what ifs”. That structure is what you want to build before you go on a shoot, and make sure you create in the edit.
There’s another side of this, of course. And it’s where having this knowledge of story structure is so powerful. You can design your story to have holes in it. You can create gaps in the storytelling that force the audience to ask “what about....”? That’s propaganda, forcing the audience to complete the narrative in only one possible way. Or you could take that desire to fill those gaps in the story and send them to social media to discuss what’s missing, and turn it back into a conversation, which is incredibly powerful when it’s in your control.