Effective Storytelling

Today’s a day when I’m up to my back teeth in stuff to do, and sadly – because I haven’t yet managed to perfect the art of bilocation – something has to give. That thing will have to be the blog, unfortunately, which will, perforce, be barely more than a thought.

It’ll be a good thought, though. It’s one I came up with all my by own self, too.

Image: takenfilm.wikia.com Taken (2008), dir: Pierre Morel, EuropaCorp Distribution.

Image: takenfilm.wikia.com
Taken (2008), dir: Pierre Morel, EuropaCorp Distribution.

Have y’all seen the film Taken, released back in 2008 and starring Ireland’s finest, Liam Neeson? I’m going to assume you have, because it seems as though this relatively low-budget affair took over the world a few years back, pretty much becoming the movie, spawning goodness knows how many memes and jokes and so on. It’s a pretty good movie, I think – but then I enjoy most anything with Liam Neeson in it, so that’s no surprise.

Anyway. The point of all this is in the image I’ve used above, taken from an early scene in the film. You may remember it as being the scene wherein Mills, whom we’ve watched paying for a birthday present for his teenage daughter in instalments, wraps up said present in brightly coloured paper. I think this scene – just those few tiny seconds when Mills is wrapping the present – is one of the best examples of characterisation I’ve ever seen on the big (or small) screen.

Why, you might ask? It’s just a big bloke with some naff wrapping paper, surely? But no.

I love that the director chose to show us – even if it’s only for a second – the precision and painstaking exactitude with which Liam Neeson’s character wraps the present. You could literally shave on the edge he creates in the paper, and it all lines up exactly. You see him checking the ‘line of sight’, to make sure it’s neat, and you see the small grin of satisfaction when it’s all done. I think this scene is a particularly neat piece of visual storytelling because, at this point in the film, all we know about the character is that he has a teenager whose birthday is coming up, and that he’s short of cash.

But this present-wrapping scene tells us everything else we need to know.

Precision, exactness, attention to detail – just from watching him wrap a present we can infer that our Mr Mills is, or was, a military man and/or a person with high levels of concentration and focus. Now, of course, as movie watchers we’re familiar with Liam Neeson and the types of characters he plays – he doesn’t go in for playing poets much, let’s say. All his characters are butt-kicking types. But just put that aside for a moment and appreciate the sheer storytelling power contained in this tiny scene. I think it’s genius, and it shows how tiny details, seemingly innocuous, when skilfully utilised, can tell your story for you. Something we can all learn from, oui? Oui.

(And if this post-ette gives you a reason to re-watch Taken, then my real work here is done).

4 thoughts on “Effective Storytelling

      1. Christopher

        Oh boy. Showing and telling, and which to use, is a question that I’ve asked a lot, actually. I completely agree that oftentimes showing is the proper way to go, but I don’t actually like the rule in general. I think it needs a bit more nuance. Here’s where I break that down: http://thereandblogagain.com/2014/01/01/tell-dont-show-2/

        But more to the point of your post, that’s a cool point. I always enjoy it when storytellers use simple things to communicate something fundamental about their characters.

      2. SJ O'Hart Post author

        Well, yes. Showing not telling is simplistic – worse than that is showing *and* telling, which I hate. I much prefer to be given details about a character’s reactions, feelings, expressions and so on than to be told ‘Joe was angry’ or ‘Joe was sad.’ I’m reading a book right now which spends several hundred words telling the reader how much of a terrible person another character is, instead of showing it through her actions and/or the reactions of those around her. I admit to being annoyed by that!

        I’m glad you enjoyed the point of the post, though I do agree the ‘show don’t tell’ rule isn’t a ‘catch-all.’

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