Transcript below the break.
This little metaphor came about as I was in the middle of writing a close read of the Star Wars Rebels episode “Twin Suns.” Over the first three parts of the close read, I had been looking at the parallels to other Star Wars media, the symbolic images provided, and the way the episode fits into the Classical Monomyth of Joseph Campbell.
Essentially, I had buried my head so deep into the literary analysis, I needed to come back up to breathe. I needed just to step back and acknowledge that for all the parallels and references and symbolism, “Twin Suns” also just simply functions on the surface level. It functions on the very basic level of being another Ezra Bridger Adventure™. The kid gets drawn into a conflict. Learns a lesson. Returns home wiser.
And functioning on that very basic level is so important.
Because a story is like a database.
I don’t know how many of you are familiar with databases (though I suspect many of you are, moreso than you realize), but stay with me here. A database is essentially a repository of, well, data. Very useful. Very powerful. Issue is, a database structure tends to look something like a flow chart that doesn’t have any particular flow, with crows feet, circles atop lines,and numerical repetitions.
To the person who built the database, or to others intimately familiar with databases, this means something, and they can draw out the information they need by typing in the right commands. To the general user, however, this means absolutely nothing. There might be data in here that is beneficial to them, but it’s unreadable and therefore useless.
That’s where the user interface comes in.
The user interface is what you see when you shop online at Amazon or eBay. It’s what you see when you log in to Netflix. (See, told you you were more familiar with databases than you thought). The user interface is what takes all of this and translates it into something you can understand and interact with.
Knowing the backend might help you use the database better – boolean search terms, specific filters available to you – but a good user interface won’t require that knowledge for someone to simply start using it. And no matter how intricate and perfectly structured your database is, it’s useless to others without a good, functional user interface.
It’s the same thing with stories. Instead of all these tables, relationships, and keywords, we have things like symbolism, three or five act structures, character archetypes. You can have a twist in the heroic archetype, in a unique take on the three act structure, all drenched in symbolic imagery, but the manner in which you present that story, the user interface if you will, will determine how the audience, your general users, respond to it.
In her video essay on the treatment of women characters in the live action Transformers movies, Lindsay Ellis notes how the first movie’s screenplay has a distinct sympathetic bent to its treatment of women characters, even giving Mikaela an arc that fits with the themes of the movie, but the user interface for the screenplay, the actual movie itself, literally frames her more as an object than a person, thus specifically directing our perception of her:
“People didn’t notice that there was indeed more than meets the eye, because the camera was sending a different message than the script was.”
“The text says one thing, the camera says another, and because this is a visual medium, what the audience remembers is what the camera tells them.” (Lindsay Ellis, The Whole Plate)
No matter what symbolisms or themes lay beneath, if the user interface, if that top layer of storytelling is incomprehensible, the viewer can’t access those themes. A story must function on the most basic level, regardless of how simple or complex it’s underlying structure is. Otherwise, the structure is as good as useless to its intended audience. And the deep, complex stories that get immortalized in our culture, become so because they are first and foremost accessible.
Functioning on that very basic level is so very important, especially if you have something to tell the world.