It’s not every day that one of the tenets of good storytelling is proven wrong, but Richard Linklater’s magnum opus “Boyhood” does just that. “Boyhood” chronicles the life of Mason Jr. from age 5 to 18, the film famous for taking 12 years to film, to use the same principal actors for its entire production. (It’s a great film, go watch it).
However what makes “Boyhood” so mind-blowing is its lacks a defined beginning, middle and end.
Let me explain, for those who slept through high school English class. Freytag’s pyramid is one of the ways for how a story is supposed to be structured. Stories don’t have to follow Freytag to the letter, but stories without an arc either have misleading beginnings (deceiving the reader) have nothing happen in the middle (boring the reader) and/or have a weak anti-climatic ending (disappointing the reader) or it was written by Richard Linklater.
By breaking one of these fundamental rules (and succeeding) Boyhood is able to re-teach us the definition of narrative.
Taking the story of Hamlet as an example, the beginning we establish that Hamlet’s mom, Gertrude, has married his uncle, Claudius who is kinged following the death of Hamlet’s father. We are introduced to his romantic life, his friends, and the inciting incident when he learns from his ghost dad that he needs to kill his uncle because his ghost dad wants to be the one to start the real ass-whupping on ghost Claudius. Thus begins the most convoluted attempt at revenge possible.
Boyhood begins with six-year old Mason Jr. staring at clouds. We learn about his relationship with his older sister, the struggles his single-mom faces raising them, and of his father’ attempt to bond with his kids. However while there are problems in Mason Jr.s life (i.e. his mom’s struggling to provide for them) there is no inciting incident to start the overarching plot.
Back to Hamlet, the middle portion of the play races around establishing Hamlet’s attempts to expose and kill Claudius and his inevitable screwups i.e. killing the counselor, Polonius, not killing Claudius when he had the chance, driving his girlfriend to suicide, all culminating to a duel to the death with Laertes, Polonius’s son, in the presence of all the main characters.
“Boyhood” doesn’t build on an escalation of connected scenes, but on the character growth, both mentally and physically, of the principal characters through the moments in their lives i.e. when the childish antagonism of Mason and his sister, Mason Sr. remarrying and birthing another child. True there are mini-arcs such as the marriage and divorce of Mason’s mother’s second husband. But said arcs are not the defining focus that makes up Masons growth in his life.
Hamlet ends spectacularly, with an epic sword fight between him and Laertes and the death of every principal character (except Hamlet’s friend, Horatio because someone has to survive to tell the story). Having the main character die is one of the most effective ways of ending the story short of saying a witty quip after blowing up the villains lair with the sexy girl on one hand and a martini in the other.
“Boyhood” ends with Mason Jr arriving at college, chatting up a girl. Then it ends, in a smash-cut to black. Yet it doesn’t feel like an ending, only another scene of Mason’s life because we have been led by the story of Mason’s life and it is far from over.
What it means for us
A 100% rating on Metacritic says one thing, that the work is great. And by this success, Richard Linklater has hit on, maybe not the future, but another definition for narratives.
Life as Mason puts it is about how “the moment seizes us”. “Boyhood” is about life’s moments, moments that never develop to be more important than the other but as another step leading to serve the narrative as a whole.
Companies that talk about crafting their company “narrative” or creating stories for their customers should realize that any company growth, any development of a customer relationship, is not thinking about singular events as the defining moments of success. It’s working to make the many small (positive) moments that build up and maintain a sustained narrative that will appeal to their customers.
Take for example Order of the Stick, a webcomic that Kickstarted more than $1 million out of an original goal of only $50 thousand. It wasn’t luck, or having the right donation/reward ratio, that were the cause of Burlew’s success, but nine years of creating high-quality page after page, delighting his readers to keep on reading and inviting their friends to be invested in his story. Even after Burlew’s success, he didn’t rest on his laurels but continues creating his story, and selling hard print copies.
“Boyhood” is the hallmark of the modern-day narrative, this “sustained narrative” if you will, so when the moments are seizing us, can we seize them back?