I recently came across a book on storytelling entitled, The Myth Gap, What Happens When Evidence and Arguments Aren’t Enough? by Alex Evans.
Storytelling is something I’m interested in. I want my images to have a story–with a beginning, a middle, and an end. There is a contradiction in what I want to accomplish because generally, fine artwork has to stand by itself. A painting, for example, has to stand by itself. A photograph has to be complete unto itself. If a photographer creates a “body of work” comprising of say 20 images, these images are usually tied together by a recurring motif, a technique, or a concept. It would not be a “story” in the same sense as a novel or a movie.
But what I want is both: a photograph that can stand alone, but at the same time, it must fit within a larger sequence that has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Hence my interest in storytelling.
So every time I come across a book about how to tell a story, I read it as it might help the approach I’m trying to do.
Evans says that we need myths more than ever. He brings up an example of climate change supporters who are losing the battle of public opinion because they are presenting facts and evidence. People do not decide simply based on facts and evidence. They decide based on the stories they tell themselves.
There is a particular story that’s worked in the past: mythology.
Five Components of Myth
According to Alex Evans, for a mythological story to be successful in creating a mind shift in people, it has to have 5 components.
- A larger definition of Us
- A longer definition of Now
- A better definition of a “good life”
- A chance for redemption
- A view of a world restored
A Larger Definition of Us
Mythology is a negative word these days. To say something is a myth is to say that it’s not true, it’s fake news, it’s a lie. This negative connotation is unfortunate as myths have united groups of people for millennia.
Joseph Campbell refers to mythology as “public dreams.” More than ever before, we need a shared dream that will unite us. We need a mythology where it’s no longer black vs white, Christianity vs Islam, or poor vs rich. We need a mythology that covers a larger definition of us–as in the entire planet Earth “Us.”
We don’t have this new mythology yet. No one has created it.
A Longer Definition of Now
We continue to think in the old ways. And the “we” in this previous sentence is not only you or me who are alive right now. The “we” must include future generations. It’s our sons and daughter, and their sons and daughters, and their sons and daughters after that. The mythology of the new century is timeless. It should encompass not just now, but tomorrow as well.
A Better Definition of A Good Life
A mythology must paint a picture of what a good life means. Is the definition of a good life a big house, all the gadgets money can buy, and all the leisure time in the world? What is the definition of a good life? A mythology must give a definition of what this means.
A Chance At Redemption
If the world is going the wrong way, the mythological story must show a path to redemption. How do people atone for their part in the damage that they are inflicting on the environment? If the story does not illustrate how that could be done, it will not create a mind shift in people. I recently saw a movie where it was unclear how the main character could achieve redemption. The movie felt unfinished and unsatisfying. It would be the same for a mythological story.
A View of the World Restored
If the world is made right again, the mythology must then paint what that world would look like. This is an important ingredient. If missing, then it would be like movies with open-ended endings that you might as well not have watched. “Nothing happened in that movie!”
The Five Elements in my Artwork
I like the framework that Alex Evans discusses in his book. How can I build these five components into my artwork?
In photography, there is this idea of an “Everyman” i.e. that the person depicted in a photograph is a stand-in for all men and women. This goes toward the first component, a larger definition of Us. It is a contradiction, isn’t it, that something so specific as a person, can be viewed as a universal person? But every artist must transcend this for their work to be interesting to other people.
In terms of a longer definition of Now, can I do this using color?
I’ve always thought that the color blue represented eternity and permanence. What is true today, was true in the past, and will continue to be true in the future. I think this is a great idea to explore. It could also be in the way I compose my images: what is foreground, middle-ground, and background. The depth shown in the images represents time and the longer definition of Now.
As to the chance for redemption, that would have to be carried by the story itself. Towards the end, there would have to be a way for the person to save himself.
And lastly, at the end of every story, the hero comes home and returns to her Ordinary World, but now it’s different. She has changed. She will then help others to change by inspiring them to go on their own quests. Thus, we have a picture of a world restored.
If you are interested in mythology and exploring why stories are better than presenting facts and figures, I recommend reading Alex Evans’s book The Myth Gap, What Happens When Evidence and Arguments Aren’t Enough? His framework will be another tool in my approach to creating stories in my artwork.