Cue Emotional Music

A nifty short documentary about long documentarian Ken Burns, talking about stories and craft. A few random thoughts to lead off:

  • Ken Burns’ hair, man. Wow. Is it still salt & pepper if your hair is entirely pepper and your beard is entirely salt?
  • Ken Burns is smart.
  • I love the “1+1=3” idea, because it begins sounding very deep, and then you have that moment where you go “Wait, that doesn’t make any sense!” and then he immediately follows up by, in fact, making it make sense. Stories are a place where the sum of the parts are greater than the whole. It’s a very nicely done metaphor, and paced in a way that lets it hits home nicely. Which leads me to the bigger musing:

I’m of two minds as to whether asking a “master” storyteller (or someone who identifies as a storyteller in general) about what makes a good story is something that is really the best approach. On the one hand, we get the 1+1=3 thing, which I like, but on the other hand we also get the story about his mother being sick his whole childhood and how maybe him doing historical documentaries about dead people is all an attempt to bring her back to life. Which, don’t get me wrong. That is incredibly effecting and when he brings it all back to storytelling at the end and the emotional music swells and everything, I honestly got a little choked up. But I also think that Ken Burns is a man who hears emotional music swelling at every moment of his life. He is intimately familiar with the structure of an emotional-music swell, and the structure of storytelling in general, and because of that he has structured his story about storytelling into just that: a story. It’s got pacing, it’s got beats, it’s got just the right moments for a slow-zoom-in-on-a-picture kind effect overlay. Those rhythms are ingrained in who he is and how he talks, and then, for added abstraction, it’s edited and compiled by people who have very obviously studied his work intently.

Is that helpful for learning about story? I’m not sure. It’s effective, of course, but it also runs the same risk that a lot of Ken Burns’ stuff can run: inflating every single fact or thought or idea to the nth degree, until it’s all just so significant and deep and moving but really might not mean as much as we want it to. The best illustration, of course, being the storied history of Black Nasa:

I think this is one of the things that makes it so difficult for writers and storytellers to talk about craft. We think about structure and flow and meaning a lot, to an obsessive degree, and so even when we try to explain it we’re looking for the epiphany moment, or the emotional sting, or the big culmination where All Is Revealed and everyone listening feels that something has been  illuminated. But is that really teaching? Or is it just recycling a bunch of the same ideas in new packages, so that everyone can tell us how smart we are? (By the way: if you like this post, don’t forget to leave a comment below!)

Of course, there’s no way around this for anyone: we all tell stories, all the time, whether we mean to or not. I just think that Ken Burns is particularly better at it than most people, to the degree where I find it hard to trust him sometimes, even when I agree with him. Maybe it’s about making sure we stay skeptical as audience members, and demand the truth behind the emotional music. And maybe it’s also about making sure that we, as storytellers, don’t go so far up our own storyholes that we lose the ability to just come right out and state our beliefs as simply and un-gilded as possible.

Word Count on this post: 646 (and two videos!). I’ve obviously got a bit of work to do on that last one.

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