I will often advise people to focus their story on a single character if they have a big idea to sell. We want to understand an idea, we want to connect to the humanity of a story and that becomes hard when we’re dealing with large topiccs. The tale of an individual is often what makes a subject relatable.
I’m currently catching up on some television shows that I missed earlier in the year. The latest is HBO’s The Leftovers. A post 9/11 series that deals with what happens to a community after a life changing event. I waited until I was ready to watch as I’d heard it was pretty harrowing. The people that told me this were not wrong. It’s a dark, dark tale. It deals with large ideas: grief, knowledge, existence, religion, philosophy, mortality… To begin with I thought the series might not survive the bleakness of the subject: how would humanity cope if a third of the population were ‘taken’ with no explanation? Like I said: the dark stuff. What would keep someone watching?
Of course the answer is the stories of the individuals. The stories of human connectivity.
Brilliant storytelling makes us question our assumptions. The Leftovers has several scenes that are difficult to watch, but every one feels placed for a reason. There to challenge our one perspectives and opinions. The violence in these scenes is difficult but not gratuitous or sensational. I found myself turning away from them not necessarily because of the acts themselves but because of the way those acts made me feel in the context of the story. One individual storyline had me feeling disgust at the actions of a character one second and then dropped me straight into a world of guilt as that character met an horrific end.
The series contains some strong storycraft. One episode in particular that stands out is Guest. Here is a well executed example of a single character storyline telling the tale of the many, the big idea. In the episode we experience the world through the eyes of Nora, a character who has lost three members of her family in the event. We see her desire to escape from her situation, her attempt to make human connections, her routine of denial.
The television makers craft details in the episode that give us the broader emotional context. Nora continues to shop for the family that she lost in the event, throwing away un-opened boxes of serial, gallons of milk, joints of meat and replacing them weekly with new products. The main focus of the storyline is on an incident where Nora’s identity is stolen at a conference regarding the event itself or, as they call it, The Departure. We’re left wondering how much of this incident and indeed Nora’s world is paranoia, how much is alcohol/drug related and how much is truth. The doubt placed in our mind creates the exact experience the show is trying to explore in the broader story world: if people you love are taken with no reason or explanation, how would you find answers?
If we were in any doubt about how the people in the story world were feeling up to this point in the series, by the end of this episode we have clarity. The details provided allow our storytelling brain to the make the broader connections of the subject. We don’t need to be told how to think or feel about the situation, we are shown through the individuals and the detailed action.
The series is littered with similar examples. Its creators Lindelof and Perrotta could have easily told their story as an epic, but instead have given us brilliant examples of how the story of one is often the best way to tell the story of us all.