Tuesday, April 23, 2013

On telling stories and throwing bricks

A brick joke is a seemingly underwhelming joke that, unbeknownst to the listener, serves as a setup for a punchline that is told much later. It got its name from the stereotypical form of two otherwise unrelated jokes connected only by their endings. In the first joke, a brick is tossed away, and in the second, it appears out of nowhere and lands.

Lately, I've been thinking about storytelling in terms of juggling bricks. If you consider a story to be a series of setups and payoffs, a "brick" would be any plot thread or element that plays a certain role in the story, "throwing" it would mean introducing it and "catching" would stand in for it playing its role in the story. Take for example the classic example of Chekhov's Gun: The rifle on the mantle. When it's first shown, the writer takes a metaphorical brick, writes "gun" on it and chucks it in the air. Later, when somebody grabs the rifle and shoots it, the brick falls down, the writer catches it and puts it aside.

So am I just describing basic storytelling in different terms? Well, yes, I am. I'm describing an abstract concept in concrete terms of everyday objects, makng it easier for the human brain to understand and work with it. The brick-juggling metaphor can tell you how to tell a story.

A good story, the idea goes, is like a good brick-juggling performance. The juggler should be doing something at all times - a scene which doesn't move the plot forwards, either as setup or payoff, should be cut. There should always be at least one brick in the air - if you resolve all plot elements in the middle of the story, you might as well cut the story in half. Letting the brick fall on the ground and break - abandoning plot threads without resolution - is viewed as sloppy, while catching bricks that were never thrown - pulling plot resolutions out of your own ass - is just weird. And the more intricate the juggler gets with how he handles each individual brick, the more interesting the performance gets. If you just throw twenty bricks, one by one, and then catch them, the audience will get bored quickly. Better get creative - bounce bricks back up, throw some sneakily, that sort of thing. Often, a performance is the most enjoyable when you can watch it again, knowing well what to expect, and still be surprised at tricks you didn't notice the first time.

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