Monday, March 5, 2012

Narrative Snapshots: Foreshadowing Memoir and Jesse Rosten's 2011

How do you write a life? How do you fit all the snapshots of memory into a memoir? Most days, I'm not sure. But this video by Jesse Rosten gives a hint at the interest and complexity we live with each day, every year. As writers, we work toward organizing these snapshots, arranging them into a coherent narrative to share not only with other readers, but also with our future selves.

What I love most about this video is the way it breaks so many of the "rules." The snapshots zip by as the music does it's own thing. Even so, you see patterns emerge. In the "random" echoes of iPhone images, you see which people and events were worth a few extra images, you see what the director found important in his own life.

I believe we can learn a great deal from directors like Rosten.  It's possible you've seen some of his other work making its way across Facebook and the world of social media.  His Fotoshop by Adobé video is a hilarious take on celebrities who use digital editing to present the "natural" beauty which so torments women today - and it's the type of parody which could only come from a videographer who shoots commercials for a living:

Note the way he builds up foreshadowing: there are the lovely faces of the women, and then the "intriguing" female voice talking about what these women do in order to achieve this beauty.  He pays a lot of attention here both to words and to images, promoting a specific emotional response in the audience.  For his Fotoshop by Adobé, the parody arises in the fact that he has met all the creative "standards" for convincing a woman to buy a "product" which will help her look "beautiful" - and yet the women who are the exemplars of these standards of "beauty" can't meet these standards without a little help from a computer.

In our writing, we need to be aware of how language is used to shape the responses of our audiences.  We carefully control the flow of information in order to build tension.  In this video, we aren't told up-front that it's a parody - instead, Rosten fosters curiosity and wonder in his audiences by flashing something that people desire: beautiful and confident women, the type of people most women want to become and who men want to date (and then some).  He's playing on the cultural norms which lead us to fix our attention on movies and commercials which are, for the most part, divorced from the true realities of beauty.

In writing memoir, we use similar techniques to build the reader's interest in our own lives.  You don't want to start a memoir with "my childhood sucked."  Not only would it sound like your whining - you'd be giving away the story.  The reader wouldn't even need to keep reading.

Instead, you need to first present an image which readers would be drawn to.  In The Liar's Club, Mary Karr begins with a scene from her childhood when she and her sister were taken from their home by the family doctor and the sheriff.  In The Bill from My Father, Bernard Cooper starts by showing an awkward conversation with his father - a conversation which ends with the father tells his adult son to "Get out of my house."

This is the reason why Rosten's 2011 as seen on my iPhone video works so well.  Although the images are quick and nearly impossible to hold on to, they hint at larger stories.  We see images of roads, babies, even a Civil War reenactment.  We never know what's actually happening, but our curiosity is fixed.  We want to know.  And if there was a video describing these events in-depth, we'd watch it.

This, then, is the power of foreshadowing: it provides just the right glimpse of reality to make us want to know more.  And this is why a filmmaker like Rosten - a man who makes ads for a living - is ideally suited to illustrate this process.  Advertisements follow exactly the same concept: someone selling a product provides just enough of an image of that product to make us want to know how that product will fit in our lives.  To make us want it enough that we're willing to part with our cash in order to introduce the narrative of that product into the narrative our everyday.

You can see this even more intensely in Rosten's Commercial for Win-River Casino - it makes gambling appear disturbingly attractive.  The line "It could happen to you!" coupled with those slow-motion smiles of wondrous disbelief lead us to imagine the "what if..." of massive winnings at the card table.  Never mind the statistics of loss-to-earnings: we want to see this happen in our lives.  And people part with thousands and even millions of dollars a year simply to test this possibility:

Yes: it truly is disturbing, the power of foreshadowing.  Which is all the more reason to use it in your writing.

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