Why Levity Matters in Modern Storytelling
If hope and despair are two sides of the same coin.
Every story relies on two key elements; its purpose and how it is conveyed. Despite the seemingly pivotal role of the first component, it is in fact the latter that holds greater weight.
The nature of understanding is fickle at best, leading a work to provide any myriad of interpretations. While some might conclude upon the author’s intended message, finding a common ground, others may reach less than satisfactory results. This could be due to a disagreement in opinion or lack of empathetic connection to the piece. Simply put, a story cannot be meaningfully grasped if it is not felt in some capacity; hence, the importance of shaping the desired perspective.
With this in mind however, a trend in current media can be considered potentially troubling.
Among today’s most frequently discussed TV shows are those that shed light on subjects once considered taboo, such as mental health, racial discrimination, sexual harassment, etc. By providing media representation, viewers are able to gain greater awareness, leading to discussion and potential advocacy for positive change.
Given the topics at hand, it thus becomes critical that their portrayal resonates with the audience for the correct reasons. Yet, three popular TV shows, The Handmaid’s Tale, Westworld and 13 Reasons Why, all use a polarizing choice when conveying their given themes; the often on-screen display of graphic content that at times leads to mixed audience reaction.
It is at this point of writing that I pause in any further mention of controversial imagery, for this article is not intended to be a crtitique of that particular production decision. Rather, after merely establishing the groundwork to the following content, I will be focusing on an alternate perspective as proposed by the title; the impact of levity in storytelling.
There is a novel titled Keeper’n Me by Richard Wagamese. It details the life of Garnet Raven, who was taken from his family at the Ojibway Indian reserve, only to return twenty years later. As a young and conflicted individual, he learns to reconnect to his once forsaken heritage. This story is both moving and immensely relevant for several reasons.
Many are aware of governmental efforts to achieve reconciliation with the Indigenous peoples. In addition to constituting protective laws and issuing formal apologies, post-colonial literature has also acquired greater recognition, particularly through its implementation in school curriculums. These books examine topics from Aboriginal culture to residential schools through a variety of viewpoints.
Rather than utilize the most complex diction, Wagamese’s writing involves simple albeit poignant phrasing. It touches upon the core of Aboriginal ideologies, conceptualizing family and nature, whilst simultaneously applying them to a universal context.
Funny how something as simple as a drum can unlock the universe for you once you get taught how to look at it (213).
The most impactful aspect however is the positivity that accompanies his outlook. While it would be easy to have characters who are overwhelmed by tragedy, Garnet and his relatives are able to rise above it. Humour and honesty allow them to confront the rift between their past and the present, ultimately leading to acceptance.
Sure, lotsa us gettin’ caught up in that big shiny world, chasin’ them complicated kindsa livin’, but there’s always believers around to catch them when they fall, kinda help ‘em back to simplicity again. You can have all that too, don’t get me wrong, it’s okay to have all that, as long as you got a simple faith workin’ in your life (167).
One revelation I had while reading this novel was that, in the back of my mind, I was expecting the plot to worsen. Not necessarily in terms of quality, but rather the overall events.
It has become such a trend for stories to require a costly fall or imbalance of fairness, as though it would be incomplete if the protagonist did not endure recurring agony. Subconsciously, a part of me was surprised that the characters were allowed to not only have happiness but to celebrate it, due to a recurring notion instilled by previous works that joy is only allowed to be temporary.
Whether it be a screenplay, novel, TV show or even lyrics, these mediums act as vessels to the story itself. The idea of this comparison is that the platform itself isn’t the cause for misinterpretation. In the three aforementioned TV shows, intense and cruel scenes were plainly shown; the equivalent of this in a novel would be a particularly explicit passage with dubious content. Likewise, as Wagamese’s story focuses on the benefits of traditional Indigenous teachings, in a movie this may be depicted via positive interaction between individuals of Aboriginal descent.
Where the difference occurs is in thematic portrayal. While Keeper’n Me could have easily been a dark, gritty novel about a displaced protagonist succumbing to alcoholism and drugs, it instead features an almost always upbeat character who is able to reclaim his ancestry. In a similar example, instead of a TV show depicting a shooting and proceeding to justify the trauma that lead to the shooter’s actions, the show could focus on how aid and recovery are provided for the victims.
To summarize, there is the factor of knowing one’s audience that at times is overlooked. When writing a book or directing a film or any number of creative activities, it is paramount to remember:
- Who is the content being shown to?
- Why is the content being shown?
- How will the content impact them?
If the answer to the second question is anything along the lines of “shock value” for the sole purpose of drawing attention, chances are high that the third answer will be a negative outcome.
Writing for the people far outweighs merely writing for the plot; this is particularly true when the target audience is a community who has already endured previous tribulations. To be frank, a person can only witness so much horrifying content till it either leads to despondency or desensitization, especially when it is becoming common in supposed entertainment.
The MacGuffin that storytellers are looking for is hope. From joy to comedy to resilience, anything so as long as the viewer or reader can think to themselves, “I can make it, if I believe too”. As quoted from Keeper’n Me:
Something inside us keeps those embers glowing and it just takes a good guide to lead us back there and teach us how to stoke them up again (308).
To all the fellow storytellers, there is always a chance to be that guide, to offer a solution worthy of aspiration instead of pain. There is always the opportunity to create stories for a better future.