Modern Storytellers Should Learn From the "Iliad"

Modern Storytellers Should Learn From the "Iliad"

Good storytelling stands the test of time.

If you’ve never read the “Iliad,” or you used Sparknotes to bluff your way through a literature class, you’re missing out on one of the greatest stories ever told.

The “Iliad” is well over a thousand year old, but it’s far more than a historical document. It’s the furthest thing from dull. In fact, if modern stories took some notes on the “Iliad,” they’d be a good deal more interesting. Here are a few things modern storytellers should pay attention to.

The Beginning

Conventional wisdom dictates that a story should begin at, well, the beginning, but that’s not what Homer did. The ‘Iliad’ features a literary device called in medias res, Latin for “in the midst of things.” The ‘Iliad’ tells the story of the Trojan War, but the war has already been raging for nine years by the time the epic begins.

The biggest advantage of in medias res is that the story starts at an interesting moment and grabs the audience immediately. Rather than wasting the audience’s time, the essential backstory can be filled in by dialogue or flashbacks. It also makes the story more convincing. We feel as though we’re stepping into a well-developed world, rather than a hastily cobbled together set.

Many biopics and documentaries are harmed by the impulse to tell the whole story of a person’s life, from birth to death, rather than focusing on just the interesting parts. Spreading a story over several decades will usually make for a disjointed mess, whereas focusing on a specific compact sequence of events makes for a much more compelling story. Martin Scorsese’s “No Direction Home,” a documentary about Bob Dylan, was extremely effective because it only covered about five years of Dylan’s lengthy music career.

Superhero movies could also benefit from employing in medias res. For example, 2002’s “Spider-Man” was a huge hit, and made the character’s iconic origin even more well-known to the general public. So,when the series was rebooted in 2012 with “The Amazing Spider-Man,” the filmmakers could have safely assumed that most of the audience knew the basics of the character’s origin. Instead, they spent much of the movie retracing the same story, trapping their film in the shadow of its predecessor.

Good vs. Evil

Most war stories give little thought to remaining even-handed. One side is depicted as righteous and just, and their opponents are portrayed as evil, or even subhuman. There’s nothing wrong with simple, escapist entertainment, but too much black and white conflict is a bad thing. It plays to our worst tendencies as human beings, to assume that we are always good and those we don’t agree with are therefore evil. Few wars in history have truly been about good vs. evil.

The ‘Iliad’ depicts conflict in a far more believable, complex manner. Despite being Greek himself, Homer is very fair in his assessment of the Greeks and the Trojans. There are heroes, villains, and cowards on both sides, and neither side is entirely right in its goals or methods. This captures the real tragedy of war: even in the best case scenario, decent people will die for no reason.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about one-dimensionally evil villains, which are far too common in stories. Treating an entire organization, nation, etc. as a villainous monolith is an even bigger problem. This is particularly difficult for Hollywood movies to correct, as war films usually have to borrow equipment and vehicles from the U.S. military, who consequently get to review the script and demand changes.

As a result, Americans are usually portrayed as totally good, and their enemies are totally evil. The government has found this to be a great recruitment tool, which is why your tax dollars are going to contribute to the next “Transformers” movie. The only real way around this issue is to focus on war in historical or fantasy settings, which perhaps explains why “Blackwater,” the season two finale of “Game of Thrones,” is one of the best depictions of war in recent memory.

Surprise is Overrated

Unlike many modern storytellers, Homer doesn’t care at all about surprising his audience. Most major deaths in the “Iliad” are repeatedly prophesied beforehand. The are no twists in the story, and nothing takes you by surprise. The impact of a character’s death is not really defined by how surprising it is, but by how much the audience sympathizes with that character. Knowing the fate of a likable character can make it even more tragic, and makes fate seem even more cruel and unrelenting.

We’ve come to think that stories must be surprising to be good, but that’s a relatively recent development. I don’t like spoilers by any means, but they don’t really ruin a good story. Besides, I’m sure there’s a movie that you’ve watched dozens of times that gets old. A twist only works once, if at all, but a compelling story lasts indefinitely. The obsession with surprising the audience can lead to weak storytelling. If a story development is completely unforeseeable, that’s probably because it doesn’t make sense. Surprises can be fun, but they shouldn’t come at the cost of good writing.

If a twist is well-written, the conclusion to the story will be satisfying even if the audience knows the twist ahead of time. This is where most M. Night Shyamalan movies fail (if for some reason you care, I’m about to spoil “Signs”). Once you realize the aliens can be killed with water, the story becomes ridiculous. They might even be taken out by a well-timed sneeze to the face, or a heavy dew. Why did they come to our planet, which is mostly water, without even putting on clothes? Sure, you probably didn’t see it coming the first time, but it causes the whole story to fall apart in retrospect.
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