Joss Whedon on What Makes a Story–It’s All in the Characters

The museum world has been obsessed with the idea of story and narrative, and I have to admit that I am not exactly sure why. The theme of this year’s recent annual American Alliance of Museums conference was The Power of Story, and many sessions explored ways that narrative and storytelling can be at the heart of making museums more compelling to visitors.

I presented at that conference as well, in a session about the role of narrative in games. I was conflicted on this topic because I don’t believe that narrative is what makes a good game; rather, a good game mechanic is key. But I can not deny that the narrative we wove into our own mobile game at the Getty did invigorate the gameplay and made the game infinitely more compelling than it was with no narrative (read more about it here).

But why? What exactly is it about narrative and story that has the power to invigorate our ideas, concepts, objects? I haven’t seen anyone try to pull this apart (please let me know if you have). In my own mind, I have tried to pull apart narrative into its elements—plot, conflict, climax, resolution—in order to identify key elements to transfer this metaphor into new forms of work. Are these the elements of a compelling story, and thus a compelling visitor experience? I have been thinking about this for months, and have felt unsatisfied.

This morning, I listed to an NPR interview with Joss Whedon that gave me some clarity. In the interview, Whedon talks about his recently released film Much Ado About Nothing, filmed in black and white, in just 2 weeks at his house in . At the end of the interview, Renee Montagne asked Whedon if there is a link between his work on Much Ado and his work on the latest Avengers movie (Much Ado was shot on a 2-week break in between work on  Avengers). Whedon said that work on this film made him realize what he is doing in all of his work: “I am just trying to draw the life out of every character…. If these things aren’t based in character, then it don’t’ matter how ‘splody it gets, it is not going to hold you—it’s not interesting. That is the basis of everything.”

Character—that is the basis of everything. Now that makes sense to me. Why? I’ll need to think about that a bit more….

Still from Joss Whedon's new film "Much Ado About Nothing"

Still from Joss Whedon’s new film Much Ado About Nothing.
What’s the secret to the success of this story? The characters.

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