The Element of Surprise: A Storyteller’s Secret Weapon
Roses are red,
Violets are red,
Shit, the garden’s on fire!
‘Storytelling is joketelling.’ So says one of Pixar’s key creative lieutenants, Andrew Stanton, in his TED talk of 2012. The weapons of all great jokes: leading us to believe the rabbit will jump out of one hat then watching it explode out of another – that golden element of shock, awe, and the unexpected, are exactly the same as the ingredients of any story worth its salt since time immemorial. In an age where technology can seemingly accomplish anything, the cheapest, most awe-inspiring special effect of all is still the humble surprise. People haven’t changed much since the modern forms of storytelling were born: most are still waiting to be shocked, mystified, and amazed, just as they were when they were children, when the most mundane bedtime stories left them filled with wonder. When we expect a story to turn left and it actually turns right, the world feels just a little different. Suddenly, two hours of film, or four hundred pages of a novel, could contain anything. That’s a golden moment.
A healthy dose of surprise and the presence of the unexpected can lift even the poorest story’s standing. Deep Blue Sea is not a work normally held up as a shining example of cinematic excellence, but buried within the corny dialogue and shoddy effects work there lies a moment of surprise which remains burned in my brain to this day. I’ll never forget the time, late at night after a heady period of channel-surfing, that I came across this pretty laughable film, with Samuel L. Jackson’s obvious battle scarred alpha male leading the other delinquents out of danger. So far, so Hollywood.
And then Samuel L. Jackson gets eaten by a shark.
I couldn’t quite believe they’d killed him off. He was the lead, surely?! That moment made me pay attention, it injected those bloody ridiculous CGI sharks with some genuine menace, and suddenly my toilet break didn’t seem so urgent. If they can kill Mace Windu, what else can they do?! It sticks out of my recollection of good old Deep Blue Sea, like a shining diamond in a steaming pile of horseshit. And that moment, for me, elevated the film. It might have been critically gnarled up like the Great White’s prey, but, dammit, that one pure, undiluted moment of shock, it was worth the two hours of shlock. It convinced me, just for a few moments, that anything was possible in the ridiculous, sharks-with-Stephen-Hawking-IQ world of this film. That’s impressive, and it’s what stories must truly be about, surely? When we as the audience think we know everything about the world, with our IPhones and twenty-four-hour news cycle and instant coverage, can there be any more beautiful moment in a story than the one which shakes you out of your all-knowing malaise and makes you believe, even for a second, that there’s still some mystery left in the world?
Stanton addresses this in his talk, saying ‘if things go static, stories die, because life is never static.’ Life rarely runs in straight lines, surprise is around every corner. When you walk down the street, you’re surprised; you never see exactly what you expect; you’ll see someone too fat, too thin, too this, too that. You’ll see two people holding hands that look like they come from different worlds. You’ll see a new takeaway opening on a corner you’ve wandered past for years. Surprise, the unknown, is all around us, but due to the way human beings live now, our lives are built to streamline through, to desperately try and cut through surprise, mystery, or ignorance. All the information in the world is available from a computer screen. We train our psyches to cover all bases, leave nothing to chance, have everything available at the touch of a button, the click of a mouse. But no matter how hard we try, life remains a true mystery, it is perpetually unpredictable. Which is why the best stories are never predictable.
As Stanton says, a ‘static’ story is a dead one, because it is fundamentally different to the way our lives are constructed. The road between A and B is never a straightforward one, in fact we often seem to find ourselves traversing wearily through the rest of the alphabet, head-butting all the way to Z and back, before we finally reach the coveted B. The world exists not in solid blocks of black and white but a kind of messy, all pervading ocean of grey. No one is all good or all bad; I’m sure the worst tyrant is capable of a moment of pure benevolence and sweetness; likewise, Mother Teresa probably had days when she barked at her underlings ‘just bugger off and leave me alone will you?!’, or words to that effect. Sometimes people laugh, sometimes people cry, in fact many probably do both on certain days. Life is a lot stranger, and less easy to compartmentalise, than we think. It is a composite of laughter, tears, confusion, love and pain; in fact, I think most people’s days are a kind of soup of all of these. The unexpected is everywhere, everyday, which is why the stories that tap into it not only ring the truest, but entertain us the most.
Stanton’s employers, Pixar, are masters of this. Watch any Pixar film, and there’ll be a moment you didn’t expect, when the story seems fresh and new and untouched, but still timeless. In Stanton’s own Wall-E, for example, when the character shows his new love EVE the leaf he discovered amongst the wreckage of Earth, we think we know where things may be going; she may be unimpressed, or she may change her mind about our little hero. What we don’t expect is what actually happens, which is that she takes the plant and suddenly shuts down. We realize a larger plot point is at work. Suddenly the story’s framework is shaken, and we are led kicking and screaming down a different path entirely. The tone changes from that point on, and the audience has no choice but to submit and go along with it. The ride we thought we were on becomes something quite different. That’s a special moment in any story.
Likewise, Pixar can throw us curveballs in the very conception of their stories; Up, for instance, is a story about an old man, about to be evicted, who makes his house fly by tying thousands of balloons to it, somehow ends up in Peru, with a little boy scout along for the ride, and they encounter a pack of talking dogs, a rare species of bird and an old explorer who has been scavenging in the jungle for years. This is a mad cocktail of flavours: the mundane, the fantastical, the heartwarming and the mysterious. A true original, and one which mimics the rhythms by which human beings live every day of their lives. Our days are often mundane, sometimes fantastical, occasionally heartwarming and always mysterious. Pixar spins a golden tale full of surprise with Up, and the crazy scenarios the film dreams of sound like the opening line of a joke, leaving the audience to sit in suspense to see what kind of punch-line will be revealed. Once again, storytelling is joke-telling.
Take Breaking Bad, a television show which has permeated the public’s viewing consciousness like few others. Many reasons have been held up as the biggest factor in the show’s success: Bryan Cranston’s spectacular performance as Walter Whyte, his Shakespearean descent from plodding schoolteacher to drug kingpin, the show’s failure to ever produce a truly weak episode. I have a theory that the success of Breaking Bad is primarily down to none of these, although each has played its part, and instead rests in something far more simple, and far more timeless. It is that the show never does what you expect it to do. It actively shuns predictability at every turn. At no point is the viewer allowed to rest on their laurels, which is the inevitable highway to fatigue with any story.
Like life itself, the show is constantly twisting, turning, and twisting again. It is playful in its production. There is a moment in the second series when we see Walter’s DEA agent brother-in-law holding up a picture of Walter with a wanted sign above it, and then a second later the camera changes angles and we realize that he’s announcing a collection for Walter’s cancer fund, and the wanted sign is relating to someone else. A beautifully simple, but incredibly effective, ruse. The show is full of moments like this, turning suddenly left-field in moments both incidental and profound. It wrong-foots you at every turn, and leads its viewer a merry chase through a potent mixture of red herrings, misunderstandings, and sudden plunges in the opposite direction, and all built on the simplest, cheapest storytelling device available: the humble art of surprise.
The show’s composition, as with its execution, is a bundle of elements, tones, and directions. It could have been a mess, but like Walter’s meth, it proves to be a perfect cocktail. The audience is offered a variety of differing angles into Walter Whyte’s world; his depressing life as a chemistry teacher, his family’s difficulties in caring for their son who is living with Cerebral Palsy, these things are enough for a drama in and of itself. But then we have Walt’s drug cooking, his ever-deepening involvement with the criminal underbelly of his city, his ordeal of living with cancer. All of these elements alone could make an accomplished piece of drama, but putting them together makes for a sometimes surreal, offbeat, never-before-seen product. It is mundanity fused with the fantastical, and then combined with any number of ten-a-penny American cop shows. It is a masterclass in audience manipulation, a consistently surprising composite, and as such it is never static. Just like life itself.
I often think film-makers, and storytellers in general, don’t get enough recognition. It’s hard to think of a creative work that has absolutely no elements of innovation, no surprise, nothing new in its DNA. Even in the dumbest action flick, there will generally be some element that is fresh and innovative waiting to be discovered, although it may be small and solitary. However, the truth is that telling a story is hard work, and some achieve the aim better than others. The stories that falter are the ones that are knowable from the beginning, the ones with no magic, or suspense. The ones with no hunger for the new or the unexpected are ultimately dead, as Stanton says, because they are static. The ones that succeed, however, turn us into children again. A child’s imagination sees no limitations, and if the story is fresh and surprising enough, neither will we as adults. Any good story will destroy limitations. The stories that capture the strangeness, the shock of being human, those are the superior examples of storytelling in our world. And why are stories themselves so important? The celebrated author Philip Pullman puts it rather more eloquently than I ever could: ‘Stories are the most important thing in the world. Without stories, we wouldn’t be human beings at all.’
What do you think? Leave a comment.