Narratives and Stories

This was originally posted on my old blog on 25 April 2017.

The film When Harry met Sally is famous for That Orgasm Scene, where Meg Ryan’s Sally proves to Billy Crystal’s Harry that women can fake it, by faking it right there in a restaurant. I remember the film for something much quieter, but to my mind a much more profound message. The film is interspersed with different couples filmed in the same setting, what looked like an old-fashioned sitting room with couch. Their stories are mildly interesting, but not gripping, and in some cases a little boring. Then we see this wonderful story told of a developing relationship between two people, the ups, the downs, the close call, then finally the elation of them making it, kissing, getting together. As the camera zooms out of the kissing scene, a voiceover begins of this couple describing what we just witnessed, and the scene fades to them sitting on the same old-fashioned couch, telling us the story of how they met. It sounds just as plain, mildly interesting, borderline boring as the other stories we’d been told by couples on that couch.

The profound lesson that stuck with me from this romantic comedy was that people’s boring lives can be deeply interesting if you just listen in the right way, or, there is a story behind every face you see. As I progress in my media studies, I realise this lesson can be inverted: the most exciting stories can be boring if you don’t tell them right.

Media organisations have long ago discovered this lesson. Facts are boring, even quite dramatic and exciting facts. You have to use the same techniques used in storytelling to keep your audience gripped.

It’s one thing to say: “Today the USA dropped a big bomb in Syria.” People may pay attention for a few seconds. It’s another altogether to create a story, with a gripping opening declaration,  footage of an authority figure reading a carefully crafted statement, followed by an excited summary punctuated with impressive footage of explosions and missiles launching: “We just dropped a big, beautiful bomb”, framing the event as “we” to drag in your audience as participants in this elated story of not only sticking it to the people “we” bombed, but also to every enemy “we” have across the world.

The video clip (up to 2:08) is a beautiful example of modern news framing: you have a narrator telling the story of how America got the upper hand, showed the world who’s boss. His facial expression and tone of voice brims with elation: bombing Syria is a wonderful thing! Footage edited together to show the story the narrator is telling, literally creating a fiction surrounding the event that makes it sound heroic.

Footage shown during the narration is completely unrelated to the event. It is told from one point of view only – the triumphant American aggressor’s – and is almost wholly fabricated: virtually nothing was known at the time other than that this bomb was dropped in Syria, allegedly to destroy a tunnel network.

In this way, news becomes something other than news. It is no longer intended to inform us of events, instead, it is entertainment and indoctrination. Fox News especially has created a fictional world in which real people live, and which has real consequences for everyone.