If this article was a story, it might begin like this: There once lived a little man with a problem. He had lived his whole life surrounded by stories. He had been told stories when he was a child, and later he read stories and saw them in movies and on TV.
He had heard stories in songs, seen them in dance, played them in games and been amazed at stories being used to sell him everything from shoes to breakfast cereal.
He began to suspect that something is wrong. How many times can you read about an innocent young person becoming empowered to rise against an overpowering enemy? How often can you hear about a man and a woman, reluctant at first, suddenly finding themselves falling in love? Or is it another protagonist who has lost his memory and sets out to find himself?
Are we being told the same stories over and over, in new packaging and through the latest technology? If you’ve read a hundred novels and seen a hundred films, have you seen it all?
THE HERO’S JOURNEY
At this point, it is time for the little man, our hero, to set out on a journey of discovery. At least it would be, if we decided to go by the theory of the monomyth, constructed by anthropologist Joseph Campbell in 1949. Campbell believed that every story refers back to a single monomyth, in which the hero embarks on a journey and encounters helpful or opposing characters on his way.
The first helpful encounter in this story is Outi J. Hakola, university lecturer at the University of Helsinki. As a researcher of cultural studies, Hakola has taught Campbell’s theory to her students. However, she is not particularly enthused.
“For a cultural researcher, the monomyth is a problematic concept, as it erases cultural differences. Focusing on a single monomyth means we ignore a vast spectrum of cultures.”
All mythologies in the world have similar elements. Hakola still finds their differences more interesting, and the ways different myths have been interpreted at different times.
THE RETURN OF SPIDER-MAN
Hakola brings up an example from her field, North American popular culture.
“The story of Spider-Man is told and retold on the silver screen. It’s a clear metaphor for a teenager approaching adulthood: Peter Parker’s body undergoes strange changes, and as a result, he must reinvent himself and become Spider-Man."
But why must the story be told over and over again? Because the world around us keeps changing, says the researcher. The story of Spider-Man is intended to appeal to teenagers, but the interpretation has to move with the times.
Or is it a case of Hollywood cashing in on a familiar story?
“That’s probably part of it. These days, most big budget films are based on familiar characters or franchises. That makes them easier to sell.”
Playing it safe also means predictability.
“If I’m watching a film, an episode of a TV show, or even a reality show, I can usually tell how it will end before too long," Hakola states.
THE WAY WE THINK
But perhaps repetition is more of a problem of Western popular culture. After all, high-brow literature and film has surprising narratives – if you can understand what’s happening in the first place. One field which keeps pushing the limits of narrative is avant-garde literature, which is Vesa Haapala’s research field.
Surely Haapala, a university lecturer, will be able to crush the notion that stories repeat themselves, assumes the little man. But no such luck, Haapala finds it highly possible that ultimately we keep retelling the same stories.
“Of course, we do have alternative literature which questions the primacy of narrative, makes it difficult to parse or offers several alternative plot lines.”
But stories are resilient. While abstract paintings have become as commonplace as their representational counterparts, literature and film still rely heavily on narrative. And, in fact, largely on the well-known core stories which have been around for millennia.
Our need to perceive the world through stories may be a fundamental part of the way we think, believes Haapala.
“We turn everything into narratives, even our own lives. We say that life is a journey, that it has a direction and a goal. But that’s just one way of looking at life.”
Even still, the story may surprise us. As an example, Haapala points to Cormac McCarthy’s works, many of which have been put to film.
Haapala particularly likes the book Blood Meridian – and readers, consider this your spoiler alert. The end of the book breaks with the traditions of narrative: the underdog protagonist does not conquer the overpowering enemy, but is vanquished.
“It has a pretty clear message that evil can overcome. The message is true, but surprising, as the book in no way suggests it will end in tragedy.”
Almost as peculiar is McCarthy’s novel No Country for Old Men, which inspired the movie that won the Oscar for best film in 2008. In it, the protagonist dies unexpectedly, and the story never really comes to a satisfying conclusion.
This means that a different, surprising story is possible, but why does it leave us feeling cheated? Let’s ask a professional storyteller.
THE SETTING THAT MOVES US
Scriptwriter Pekko Pesonen welcomes his guest in his office in Kalasatama. The walls are covered with posters from familiar Finnish films – all stories written by Pesonen: The Mine, Beauty and the Bastard, Lapland Odyssey.
Pesonen writes stories for a living. He does not believe that all plot twists have been used up. He focuses on another question: what kinds of stories do we find interesting?
“A good story has to have something to grab onto and psychological resonance. There has to be something that the viewers recognise in themselves."
Sometimes making that happen is hard work. Pesonen brings up the film Onnenonkija, which premiered in 2015. He had worked on the story of the dishonest style blogger for eight years.
“I kept trying to write a black comedy. I just couldn’t make it work.”
Ultimately Pesonen decided to spin the story around one more time. He turned the protagonist from a crook to a sympathetic character and the film into a traditional romantic comedy, in which the main couple endures many complications and ends up together.
“That clarified the theme and the message, but the story wound up a little ordinary," Pesonen explains.
THE IMAGINARY OFFICIAL
Relatable stories are the lifeblood of movies. Making films is expensive, and it’s not easy to find an audience or funding for an experimental movie that flouts the rules of narrative.
Pesonen mentions the script he wrote for The Mine, the film about the corruption surrounding the Talvivaara mine. To turn the facts into a story, Pesonen had to invent a young official to be the protagonist, a character with no factual counterpart.
“He let us tell the story of corruption in the mining industry through the medium of drama."
At the end of the interview, Pesonen hands over a list he found from Philip Parker’s book The Art & Science of Screenwriting, in which he lists ten stories suitable for film.
“I think I just work with three or four of those,” Pesonen laughs.
The little man is briefly excited. Has he found his answer? Are there only ten stories in the world?
10 stories, after Philip Parker
The character needs love.
The character’s unrecognised virtue is at last recognised.
The character has a fatal flaw.
The character has a debt that must be paid.
A trap is set.
The character has a gift which is taken away.
The character cannot be kept down.
8. RITE OF PASSAGE
The character must learn a new way to live.
9. THE WANDERER
The character arrives in a new place.
A challenge is issued to the character.
Heta Pyrhönen, professor of comparative literature at the University of Helsinki, sniffs at Parker's list. She believes the whole idea is naïve.
“Of course it’s possible to classify stories on a very general level, for example like this. But what’s the point?”
Even though there may only be a few core stories, there are an infinite number of interpretations and variations. According to Pyrhönen, telling a story is like playing jazz. Each version is different.
Let’s take the story of the machines that rise up against humans as an example. The story can be seen as a variation of the story of Prometheus, or its later iteration, of Doctor Frankenstein and his monster – humans create something they cannot control – but the plot has been changed to suit the needs of our time.
TIME CHANGES THE PERSPECTIVE
Any work of art is always a reflection of its time, but interpretations also change over time. Pyrhönen takes the story of Bluebeard as an example – the fairy tale of the knight who keeps murdering his curious wives one after the other.
“For us, it’s a story of a monster and the heroine who ultimately defeats him. But in the 19th century, it was considered a morality tale, a story about what happens to nosy women.”
Bluebeard was not a villain – he duly warned his brides to not go looking in the basement. The crime was the woman's fault for not knowing her place. Later feminist writers have used this fairy tale in their novels, depicting Bluebeard as a representation of the worst side of the patriarchy.
Similarly the works of William Shakespeare or Fyodor Dostoyevsky are interesting not only as skilfully crafted creations, but also because of the myriad perspectives they allow.
“For example, these days Jane Austen is read as a romance writer, even though from a contemporary perspective her works were comedies of manners. The concept of love in Austen’s books is different from our own. In her time, a marriage was considered to be a happy one if the spouses were able to fulfil the expectations associated with their respective roles.”
Strong emotions were not part of the equation. And we will never know how happy the marriage between Elizabeth Bennett and Mr Darcy ultimately became.
Heroism has changed since Bluebeard. Women and minorities are taking over more prominent positions in our stories. One example is the increasingly popular detective story – a genre that remains profitable while overall book sales falter. Stieg Larsson's hugely successful thrillers feature a woman as their superhero.
“We are witnessing an interesting process of redefining the roles and boundaries of humans and animals. This will lead to new kinds of stories,” believes Professor Pyrhönen.
She disagrees with the idea that too much reading could make a person unable to be surprised by a book.
“I’m certainly frequently surprised. There’s always new variations to old stories. For example, Chester Himes’ detective novels, set in Harlem in the 1950s and 1960s, went further and further from the conventions of the genre as the series progressed. In the last instalment, no crimes were solved at all. This was new.”
Dear readers, this story will not end in a major plot twist. This is because even though journalism tells stories, it is based on reality. And reality does not always arrange itself into aesthetically pleasing stories, even though journalists – and their audiences – would often like it to.
To paraphrase Heta Pyrhönen:
“In reality, the end of all stories is that everybody dies."
But those of us who live can look forward to a new chapter.
War for a new generation
War literature is back in the spotlight in Finland, this time through the works of a younger generation of authors. For example, the novels of Katja Kettu, Tommi Kinnunen, Jenni Linturi and Minna Rytisalo take place against the backdrop of the Second World War, although largely away from the front.
This time, women can be something other than members of the auxiliary corps or mothers on the home front, and children have experiences of war as well.
We may soon also see a new perspective on war on the silver screen. Director Aku Louhimies has begun a major undertaking, the filmatisation of Väinö Linna's The Unknown Soldier, set to premier in October 2017.
According to literature researcher Vesa Karonen, this is a natural cycle: the new generation is appropriating the war narrative.
“War has been a feature of Finnish literature ever since The Tales of Ensign Stål in the mid-19th century. Generally, the focus has been on the most recent war. As we have been lucky enough to not end up in new wars, we are now witnessing the third generation express their views on the events of the second World War.”
The new generation gives room for new kinds of voices. Immediately after the war, anyone writing about it was expected to have been there himself, but this requirement has not applied to the following generations. This means that perspectives are changing.
Panu Väänänen, editor at the non-fiction publisher Docendo, says that no such increase in military topics is apparent in non-fiction literature.
“Interest has remained stable for years."
The only non-fiction book about war to make it into the top 20 bestseller list during the past few years is Ville Kivimäki’s Broken Minds, which won the Finlandia award for non-fiction literature in 2013. Väänänen found its new kind of approach, focusing on psychological trauma, very welcome.
“In general, I’m waiting for more diversity in terms of topics. Internationally, a major trend in non-fiction literature is narrative structure. We could easily find such narratives in history, for example, from the Second Northern War or the wars from the times of Imperial Russia.”
This article was published in Finnish in the Y/10/16 issue of Yliopisto magazine.