Creating meaning with two consecutive story units
Summary: Human brains can't help but look for patterns, even when nothing's there. Storytellers can leverage this tendency, juxtaposing images in order to create rich and layered meaning.
“Structure is the presentation of images in such a way an audience is forced to work out the relationship between them.”
— John Yorke (Yorke, Loc 2087)
“It is context that bestows meaning.”
— Lisa Cron (Cron, Page 19)
When I was a child, I would sometimes sit and watch the static on my family's analog television set. As I stared at the field of flickering, salt-and-pepper noise, I would begin to see geometric patterns emerge. They would form, move slowly across the screen, and, after a few seconds, dissolve . . . only to be replaced by other patterns.
Of course, there were not really any patterns there. What my eyes saw was completely random, the result of electromagnetic noise. But my brain took those fuzzy, dancing dots of light and couldn’t help but try to make sense of them. In the chaos it sought meaning, optimistically picking out likely patterns and building from there.
Our minds are incredible, pattern-seeking machines.
Context creates meaning
Storytelling liberally exploits this “pattern hunger” in us. In a sense, all of storytelling is simply juxtaposing things together in order to hack our brains into creating meaning.
One of the clearest ways to visualize this is through a film editing technique named for Russian director Lev Kuleshov, who is credited with demonstrating it. (Yorke, Loc 2089)
Kuleshov edited together alternate shots of an actor staring and a bowl of soup, the actor staring and a coffin, and the actor staring and a girl.
According to one of Kuleshov’s colleagues:
“[Audiences] raved about the acting of the artist. They pointed out the heavy pensiveness of his mood over the forgotten soup, were touched and moved by the deep sorrow with which he looked on the dead woman, and admired the light, happy smile with which he surveyed the girl at play.” (Yorke, Loc 4845)
The catch? Kuleshov had used the exact same shot of the actor in all three cases.
What he and others before him had discovered was that audiences projected different meanings on to an image, simply by how it was juxtaposed with other images.
Story theorists Melanie Anne Phillips and Chris Huntley illustrate the idea well:
“A slap followed by a scream might seem as if someone were crying out because of hit. A scream followed by a slap, however, might seem as if someone was hysterical and hit to bring him to his senses. The order in which events occur changes their . . . meaning.” (Phillips, Loc 1783) (Emphasis mine.)
Context creates meaning.
Why does it work?
It turns out this juxtaposition-based meaning-making is fundamental to how our brains operate.
When our minds “gaze at the flickering static” of the world and create meaning, they do this through detecting and evaluating similarities and differences. We see edges, for example, where regions of lights and darks come together. Within each region, the shading is similar (light or dark). Where they meet, we detect the difference between them. Our brains evaluate the features and say, “Aha! This is an edge.”
When edges form familiar patterns, we recognize them as objects. A large, flat surface supported by four vertical posts becomes a table. A clear, reflective cylinder resting on top becomes a drinking glass.
And, what’s true in our recognition of physical objects is also true in our recognition of abstracts like social dynamics, emotional valence, threat, desire, and all the rest. Contrasts help us see the “edges.”
Two beats is all you need
There are many ways to create meaning through context. When it comes to story structure, the most basic method is to create a contrast between two consecutive beats. First one thing happened, then another.
In Kuleshov’s demonstration, for example, the audience saw first a shot of the actor staring into the camera, then a shot of a coffin. Audience members were “touched and moved by the deep sorrow with which [the actor] looked on.” (Yorke, Loc 4845) They had taken the two sequential images and created a narrative connection between them . . . one which didn’t exist in either image on its own.
Let’s look at a more complex example from Steven Spielberg’s 1993 film, Jurassic Park.
At the midpoint of the film, the Tyrannosaurus Rex escapes its paddock. There are two sets of characters in the scene, Lex and Timmy, children, and Dr. Grant and Dr. Malcolm, scientists. The children are in one car and the scientists in another.
As the collossal predator inspects the two vehicles, Dr. Grant instructs Dr. Malcolm not to move. Grant has studied these animals, and he understands that the T-Rex’s vision is movement-based. If he and Dr. Malcolm don’t move, they will be safe. That’s the first beat.
Then comes the second beat. To their horror, the scientists watch as the children in the other car try to scare off the dinosaur by vigorously moving their flashlight around. Sure enough, the T-Rex notices the movement and snaps its attention to the children’s car.
The kids are now in mortal peril. The scene, already boiling with tension, reaches fever pitch.
Spielberg and his writers masterfully employ these two beats to juxtapose the relative situations of the scientists and the children. Both sets of characters face the imminent threat of being eaten, but the similarity ends there.
Dr. Grant is an adult, competent, and in possession of knowledge that could save his life. The children are young, vulnerable, and ignorant. Dr. Grant acts on his knowledge, increasing his likelihood of survival. The children act in their ignorance, drawing the attention of the predator.
In audience members’ minds, this contrast between the relative situations of the two groups creates a powerful sense of dread and urgency. A narrative connection is born. Something must be done to save the children. Otherwise, they will die.
But that’s not all. Another nuance is created by the context: It is Dr. Grant who is equipped with the necessary knowledge to do something about it. The onus is on him to act.
By placing the two beats together exactly as they did, Spielberg and his writers created a perfect setup such that audiences intuitively understand something that none of the individual images, on their own, communicate.
Examining the technique
This kind of two-beat contrast applies to story more broadly than just dinosaur blockbusters. It’s so fundamental that you can see it in nearly every form and class of story.
The technique isn’t bound by genre.
For example, you can see it play out in George Lucas’ 1977 space opera, Star Wars: A New Hope, when Luke discovers that his family has been murdered by the Empire (beat A) and then decides to go with Obi Wan on a quest (beat B).
But you can see it applied just as effectively in Curtiz’s 1942 drama, Casablanca, when, storming out of the casino to tell his pianist to stop playing “As Time Goes By,” bar owner Rick runs into Ilsa (beat A) and then, breaking his personal rule never to dine with patrons, sits down at a table with her and her husband (beat B).
In both cases, the beats thus juxtaposed create a narrative. In Luke’s case, it explains the motivation behind his decision. In Rick’s, it hints that there’s something significant between Rick and Ilsa.
The technique can work on higher levels of story structure than just individual beats. It can apply just as well to scenes and sequences (and, perhaps, even whole acts, depending on how you define them).
For example, take Jane Austen’s 1813 novel, Pride and Prejudice, and consider the sequence of Elizabeth’s visit to Pemberley, which is followed by the sequence of the discovery of Lydia’s elopement with Wickham.
In the first sequence, Elizabeth visits Darcy’s estate at Pemberley, thinking he is away. She runs into him there, and, to her surprise, he behaves like a perfect gentleman. He is eager to please her and her extended family — in spite of their poor social standing. This is a stark change in his behavior as compared to his apparent prejudice earlier in the novel. She begins to warm up to him, thinking that perhaps she misjudged him.
In the second sequence, Elizabeth learns that her sister has run away with a soldier. With the mores of her day, this act by Lydia is social suicide. It brings shame not only to herself but also to her family and anyone with whom they associate closely. In a dramatic scene, Darcy finds out and Elizabeth rushes home. She is left in shame, smarting from the sting of the knowledge that, because of Lydia’s indecency, Darcy can now never associate with her again. He cannot so damage his reputation.
The contrast in the direction of emotional valence between the two sequences creates a powerful reversal. The first sequence allows Elizabeth and Darcy (who have spent the whole story so far sparring and misunderstanding one another) to finally discover that they could like each other. With the switch from negative to positive, audiences are treated to a burgeoning sense of hope for the relationship. The second sequence dashes that hope. Now that the barrier of mutual regard is no longer a problem, the incompatibility of their social situations rears its ugly head in triumphant glory, turning the positive to a deep negative.
Juxtaposed as they are, the meaning that these two sequences convey is to create the story’s “all is lost” moment. Yes, Elizabeth and Darcy could, in fact, have been great for one another. But now, it can never be.
In Elizabeth’s mind (and the audience’s), the reversal has one more, most important effect: in suffering the realization that Darcy is gone forever, Elizabeth first begins to discern that perhaps he was the man she could have loved after all. It’s a significant moment for her character story, a realization that she could have had what she wanted but didn’t see it for her pride. And now, it is too late.
Both explicit and implicit
In some cases, the connection between the two beats can be made explicit. In Star Wars: A New Hope, when Luke returns to Obi Wan after discovering his family’s murder, Luke literally says, “There’s nothing left for me here.” His words explicitly underscore the motivational link between the Empire’s actions and his decision to join his new mentor.
In other cases, the connection is implied. When the children draw the attention of the T-Rex in Jurassic Park, neither Dr. Grant nor Dr. Malcolm need to say, “The children are now in danger.” The pure juxtaposition of the two beats makes the situation abundantly clear.
Both causal and non-causal
Comparisons can be effective both when there’s a causal relationship between the beats and also when there isn’t.
For example, when Luke decides to go with Obi Wan, it’s clear that the first beat causes the second. Luke discovers that the Empire murdered his family, and this makes him decide to join Obi Wan. In this structure, the first beat points toward the second.
On the other hand, when the T-Rex escapes in Jurassic Park, Dr. Grant’s actions don’t cause the children’s. Rather, the two beats simply compare the relative positions of the characters. The two beats, together, point toward something else.
Story structure is rich and varied, and there are as many different techniques as there are forms and combinations of forms. But, one of the most basic and most powerful is simple comparison and contrast. It works because of how our brains work. We can’t help but look for meaning, and story uses this to great advantage.
In the future, we may look at how comparison plays out over non-consecutive structural units, but for today, it’s enough to say that storytellers can create powerful layers of meaning by juxtaposing things next to each other.
This happened, then this happened . . . and this is what it meant.
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