Updated: Jan 19
I’ve noticed in the last few years that movies (and stories in general) have had a bit of a problem as of late. Things are just starting to get stale and repetitive, most stories feel like they play out the same way with little to no real variation. Every time I watch a new release, I can’t help but think to myself “I feel like I’ve experienced this story before” and that’s because I probably have.
Every story will follow some sort of underdog across a Hero’s Journey like scenario where he or she has to defeat some sort of evil. Whether it’s a completely fictional one like with superhero movies, or something closer to the real world like the case with a lot of recent films with political agendas. None of these movies and stories are particularly bad, but none of them really stand out. They all feel too safe.
There’s no experimentation, breaking of structure, characters and philosophies that go against and make us question a lot of what we believe. Instead, they all follow the same basic formula that is the three act structure which makes it feels like the limits of what a story can and should be were reached a while ago, and nothing new will ever raise the bar for what can be done.
That’s not to say that all stories in recent years are like this, in fact, some of my favorite narratives of all time have come out in the last ten or so years. Your name, Breaking Bad, Persona 5. These stories are all great and, in my opinion, more than push the line for what can be done with a story. However, I feel like the overwhelming majority play way to similarly, and because these are the stories that make money, experimenting and trying something new is viewed as something too risky to actually pursue.
And in the case of more experimental indie films, those stories end up feeling more like abstract art than an actual story because of how much they throw conventional story telling out the window. They’re great in their own right but they don’t feel like stories with genuine characters.
A lot of what comes out nowadays just feels like the same old same old, and I feel like I can predict everything that happens in some way or another in the first twenty minutes of experiencing the story.
Which is why I think it’s important to look back at years prior and see all the stories that do break structure and push the line of what a story can and should be. These are the narratives that tackle characters and problems a lot of storytellers nowadays don’t really write about. They destroy the three act structure and gives us something new and interesting. While at the same time writing usually non-linear tales that develop characters in different ways than traditionally done.
Now, I want to clarify that this isn’t a list of the best stories or even my personal favorites. But simply the ones that I think we can learn the from the most, mainly from a storytelling perspective.
A lot of these stories would probably not be made today either because of the sensitive subject matter, experimental structure, or because mainstreams audiences would just find them to be too boring.
Nevertheless, these stories are timeless, and I think we should all experience them at least once to see just what the human mind can come up with. These are stories all should experience.
1984 by George Orwell
I’ll start with a story that I think is absolutely key that you know about even if you’re not a huge fan of storytelling. 1984 by George Orwell is a book that has stood the test of time for over 80 years now, yet people are still talking about it to this day. And this is because a lot of the ideas and concepts present in the novel are ones that are still important for our real world today.
In its core, the story of 1984 is about control, communism, and the way government forces completely destroy human rights and free will for the sake of their own agenda. Oceania, the world of 1984, while completely fictional is also one rooted in reality. The many symbols of Big Brother scattered through the walls of the streets are reminiscent to old communistic propaganda. The way that every person is closely monitored so that they don’t insult or betray the government. It’s all something that seems fictional but isn’t much of a hyperbole when compared to its real world inspirations.
1984 is a story that will transport you into what it’s like living in societies like this. Societies that are still active to this day. Countries like China and North Korea still treat their citizens like the ones from the book. It’s horrible and if previously you didn’t know of some of the real horrors our world has to offer, then this book will most definitely open your eyes.
Of course, this type of dystopic society where free will and human rights are destroyed is something pretty common in a lot of popular novels. Including stories like Fahrenheit 451 and The Giver. Now, while I can’t speak for Fahrenheit since I haven’t read it yet, if it’s anything like The Giver, then I can definitely explain what makes 1984 the superior dystopic tale in my opinion.
Simply put, The Giver as a portrayal of oppression and lack of free will, is simply too optimistic and movie like. Without getting into spoilers, the main character Jonas acts as a sort of hero or beacon to defeat oppression and somewhat ends up getting what he really wants in the end. The problem with this though is that it’s simply too optimistic for the society it’s pretending to represent. Yes, The Giver is a story so it will follow a story-based structure, however, something like this is simply not realistic, somebody like Jonas in the way he’s portrayed in the novel would not exist in the real world because life just isn’t that fair.
In comparison, 1984 gives a way darker, and consequently, way more accurate depiction of the same themes. Main character Winston Smith isn’t a hero or even an important person, he’s just some guy. And because he’s a nobody, it makes the portrayal of the universe of Oceania extremely realistic and accurate to how it is in real life.
It might not be the most optimistic portrayal, but (especially in stories like this) I think that this realism is extremely necessary as it doesn’t sugar coat how things are in our real world.
And it’s not just the real life importance that makes the story so great. Winston Smith, the protagonist of 1984 is easily one of the best realized characters in all of fiction. He’s a character who you slowly get more and more intimate with as the story goes on. Especially as you learn more of his past and what he thinks like through flashbacks and long conversations with his co-workers. Yet he also has desires and goals. Things he has to push down in order to keep Big Brother happy. The way he reacts to the universe around him and the way he interacts with others feel very realistic and he genuinely feels like he could be a real person. All while not forcing him to constantly pursue some sort of problem or goal. It’s all completely natural. George Orwell simply lets you go into the life of Winston. It’s extremely non-linear, yet you never lose engagement because of how well the world and characters are realized.
Out of all the stories present on this list, I think 1984 is the most essential not only because of its real life importance, but also because of its superb writing. People are still throwing phrases and quotes from the book around to this day to criticize real world events. And the book almost singlehandedly coined the term “Orwellian” and yes, that’s an actual word. Please check this one out if you can’t with any of the other stories.
1984 has been adapted for film twice, once in 1956 and again in (funnily enough) 1984. Now, I’ve only seen the criminally faithful to the book version from 1984 with John Hurt. While it’s faithfulness to the book does mean you get an experience really close to the original source material, in my opinion, 1984 just isn’t a novel that translates well to other mediums, and because of that the film suffers. It’s still pretty good, the performances are great, the set-design feels very distinct and pretty close to how I imagine the book. But I would not at all call it a replacement. Though, it was fun to watch after having read the novel.
You can stream both film adaptations of 1984 on Amazon Prime Video.
A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole
Unlike 1984, A Confederacy of Dunces isn’t a novel that has a lot of historical importance or is even that well known. But that’s exactly one of the reasons why you should read it.
I mentioned this previously in my Chimer Ant Arc post, but I think that some of the best stories are ones that forget about the linearity imposed by the three act structure. Instead, they let you go and experience this world run by these characters without any bullshit surrounding it. While I do understand why conflict is necessary for creating engagement, at the same time, there are ways to create conflict in alternate ways than the ones present on the three act structure. And A Confederacy of Dunces is one of the key example books that prove my point.
In its core, the novel is a story about characters, and the constant troubles they find themselves getting into. It’s very non-linear and the narrative is constantly bouncing around between a multitude of perspectives. Now, there are definitely stories that have done things like this before, but among many other things, what makes this book stand out in comparison is that almost every single character in A Confederacy of Dunces is a complete fucking asshole.
The main character is one Ignatius J. Reilly an overweight, unemployed, thirty year old man who lives with his mother. He’s racist, sexist, homophobic, narcissistic, just a total piece of shit human being, and that’s what makes the character so compelling. His interactions with the world are absolutely hilarious, whether it’s him refusing to sell someone a hot dog cause he wants to eat them all himself, or the many impossible to understand tangents he goes on when writing the book that will supposedly bring him fame. You’re not meant to like Ignatius or root for him, but instead, laugh at his ignorance and stupidity. And the problems he gets himself into while very different from the sort of conflict you would see in something like the three act structure, are still just as engaging.
As a whole, there’s not much of a problem or conflict present in the story and overall, the book breaks many golden rules and key elements in storytelling while still remaining engaging and fun to read. No character learns any lesson, they all stay horrible even at the end. There’s no sense of continuation or linearity, heck, you could probably read the chapters in whatever order you want and not be too lost as to what’s going on. A lot of the problems introduced are never solved and generally, through the course of the whole novel, it feels like literally anything can happen.
Even with all of this, the book never stops being engaging, the ridiculousness of the situations never stops being funny. And you’re always looking forward to seeing what kind of dumb bullshit Ignatius is going to do next.
It’s a great story that shows just how far good character writing and dialogue can take you and is a perfect example of a story that goes off and does its own thing, disregarding traditional structure while still accomplishing everything a story should.
I highly recommend reading this one as it’s one of my favorite books. You can find it here: https://www.amazon.com/Confederacy-Dunces-John-Kennedy-Toole/dp/0802130208.
Now, to my absolute shock, A Confederacy of Dunces has never been adapted into any sort of feature film or miniseries or TV show or something. Though not from a lack of trying. Filmmakers have been trying to adapt the book into a film for a long time, but as of writing this, there’s no plans for a motion picture release any time soon.
This means that the only way to experience the story is from the original book.
Twelve Angry Men
Good characters is something that is absolutely crucial for all stories to have. Both protagonist and antagonistic. The characters are the reason why we connect with stories as much as we do and without the vast majority of narratives would not have a leg to stand on.
Twelve Angry Men released in 1957 and was directed by Sidney Lumet. And it’s by far one of the best examples of amazing character written and development in film. With a concept that’s simple yet endless in its potential to explore the people involved.
A young man is accused of murdering his father and after a long trial, a jury of twelve men has to decide whether the kid is guilty or not. All of them vote guilty except for one, a man who just wants to have a conversation before sending someone to the electric chair.
As mentioned before, the characters in Twelve Angry Men are outstanding. From the lead played by Henry Fonda who plays a character who’s both empathetic and reasonable while also willing to listen to those around him with opposing views. To characters like Juror #3 who works somewhat like the antagonist of the movie, while still having many sympathetic qualities to him making him more of a relatable villain.
You really feel like the characters in Twelve Angry Men are real people, and that’s without learning the names of most of them. It’s a masterwork in character writing.
And it’s not just the characters that make the story great. Twelve Angry Men is also a masterwork in subverting expectations and creating engagement. From early on in the film, there are many unexpected moments that made me jump from my seat when I first watched them. Almost every sequence has something to reveal, and it never feels forced like in other works.
This creates some of the best engagement I’ve seen in fiction, no scene is wasted and everything that happens is there to build towards something. I don’t want to spoil too much, but the surprises in the movie are some of the best I’ve ever seen. And Twelve Angry Men does this without ever losing sight of its characters or more emotional moments.
Every single moment in the film has some sort of purpose and every single interaction is there for a reason. And all of this leads to one of the most satisfying conclusions I have ever seen in a story that perfectly ties everything together and closes any loose ends.
I really want to talk more about this movie but honestly, I can’t really say much without spoiling it. So, if you’re even a casual film viewer, I highly recommend checking this one out, it’s a timeless classic in my opinion with unforgettable characters and a narrative that keeps on giving with every scene.
Twelve Angry Men is available for streaming on Amazon Prime Video
Star Wars Saga
If you’ve been reading my blog posts for a while, you’d now that I talk a lot about story structure and how some of the best writers break it. Now, this doesn’t necessarily mean that I dislike traditional story structure or that I think it doesn’t work, I just think the stories that stand out the most are the ones that try something new.
Now, with that said, the Star Wars films are movies that have not only (in my opinion) perfected the three act structure but are also storytelling at its damn peak. For me, it doesn’t get much better than this, the original Star Wars trilogy is the near perfect story.
It does everything a narrative should do; it has amazing and well realized characters to the point where you feel like they’re real life people. You grow this very deep connection with characters like Luke and Han over the course of all the films and the movies always expand on them in great ways.
The way the protagonists and antagonists contrast each other is near perfect. And the relationship between the two is something that will make you want to keep coming back.
And conflict is introduced to every scene near flawlessly, with sections like the destruction of the first Death Star being filled with natural tension, set up, and special effects that were way ahead of their time.
Star Wars is also a master in world building, going far and beyond what your normal science fiction universe would have. The Jedi order, the force, lightsabers, all of these things aren’t just there to look cool, they serve an actual purpose in the story and serve to expand the characters and narrative.
Each planet in Star Wars also feels unique and distinct, with sets and props so ahead of their time that they actually feel real. Seeing Luke explore all of these places makes you feel like you’re actually in the cold environments of Hoth, or the heat of the desserts in Tatooine.