S2_E24 – How to Use Rituals and Traditions to Reveal Deeper Meaning in Story
Last week, we started talking about how one of the best tools you’ll ever learn how to use in story is to establish and pattern and then break it. When you do this, it immediately adds deeper meaning to the story, reveals character progression and/or a change in character relationships, adds energy to the narrative, and does all of this in a visual way. It’s a wonderful tool to master.
This week, I’m expanding on that to explore the use of Ritual and Tradition in story. This is another fabulous tool that you can use to reveal character information, and help us understand who a character is at their core. Show us your character’s rituals or traditions. And notice from the outset what you’re setting yourself up to be able to do, because what is a ritual or a tradition if not an established pattern? So, this can also be used to show a deviation down the road, but it doesn't have to deviate from the pattern in order to successfully be used to reveal a great deal about that character. We glean a lot of significant knowledge from the rituals and traditions that our character performs, from who they are at their core, to what the status is of their current relationships, with God, themselves, and others.
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WHAT'S NEXT? Join us next Thursday for another layer to this technique. Here, we’ve talked about establishing a pattern and breaking it. Next week, we’ll see this applied in a variety of different ways so that you can get an idea of how helpful this tool can be.
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THE STORYTELLER’S MISSION WITH ZENA DELL LOWE
S2 E24. How to Use Rituals and Traditions to Reveal Deeper Meaning in Story
Published February 10, 2022
INTRO: Hello, and welcome to The Storyteller's Mission with Zena Dell Lowe, a podcast for artists and storytellers about changing the world for the better through story.
TOPIC INTRODUCTION: On the last episode, I introduced to you one of the major techniques or tools that I believe you can use to help you master the art of showing rather than telling. And the idea is to create visual cues for your audience, so that your audience can interpret either internal emotional growth of the character, or evolving character relationships between that character and other characters in your story. And the principle, of course, that all of this hinges on, is the idea of establishing a pattern and then breaking it. That's all. You establish a pattern in your story and then you break it. And when you do that, you immediately create meaning, interest, energy, and excitement in your story.
MAIN FOCUS: So last time, I was breaking down examples of how to do that. And I want to continue that, to give you plenty of examples, so you can see how this works in motion. For example, I want to dive into more how you can show this in terms of character relationships, the evolution of those relationships, throughout the story.
So again, how do you do that? You start by establishing some sort of pattern between two characters, or more characters if it's necessary. And then later, you break that pattern, which is going to show that the relationship has come to a different place. So for example, maybe you have two buddies that are laughing it up, drinking partying, they're at a football game. They're yelling, they're cheering when their team scores. I mean, they're having the time of their lives. They're completely in sync. They do things -- they have handshakes or cheers that they yell out at the same time. They clearly have patterns, even within this pattern, right? That they are regularly engaged in. This is something they've done 1000 times and they are buddies, buddies, buddies to the core.
But then let's say that one of these buddies has something significant happen to him. Now, that could happen at the game itself -- maybe he gets jumped by somebody and he gets the crap beat out of him or something. Or, it could be something that has nothing to do with the established pattern of going to the games with his buddy. Maybe he goes off to war, or maybe he witnesses some sort of crime, or maybe something terrible, a tragedy, happens in his family or to somebody he knows, or it could be any number of things. It doesn't matter where it happens. It doesn't matter. The point is, there's some sort of crucible that he goes through. And that event changes him.
So now, the next time he engages in this established pattern, it's different than it was before. So here he is, with his buddy, they're back at the game together. But the guy who has had the significant thing happen to him can't engage in the antics the way he used to. And guess what? That causes a rift in their relationship. In fact, you can keep showing this. You can keep having the guy try to engage, try to re involve himself in the pattern that's been established. Maybe he even wants to be into it like he was, but he just isn't. And however many times you need to re show that, you do, until that significant rift erupts. And the two people blow up at each other. Because when one person violates the pattern, it bothers the other person. It makes them angry, because people don't like change, right? It makes us upset. Why can't we just go back to having things the way they were? And yet sometimes, it's impossible to go back. So at some point, they are forced to acknowledge that things will never return to the way they used to be. Things are forever changed. And at this point, either the relationship evolves and accepts that new status, or it completely destroys their bro ship. They have nothing in common anymore. They can no longer tolerate the same kinds of things. One of them has changed and the other hasn't. And therefore, the status of that relationship has to change.
Now, again, they could still stay friends, but it changes the type of friendship, or, they are no longer going to be friends because they no longer want the same things. You can do whatever is essential or necessary for your story. But the key is, it has to change in some way because the pattern has been broken. And once the pattern is broken, it means the characters and their relationships have moved positions, and can no longer go back to the way things were.
Now, this is a huge principle in show don't tell and in character evolution, this principle of establishing a pattern and then breaking it. And by the way, this is one reason why it's so infuriating when you have sequels of films or even stories that you've read or watched where the characters evolve, and the character relationships evolve, over the course of the story. To the point that the story resolves, right? And it ends. But then somehow, in the sequel, they're back where they were. And yet in story world, that should never happen. In story world, if you have a relationship go from one sort of arrangement to a new one, then you need to continue the relationship from that place. Don't go back and rehash out the growth they've already been through. That's cheap, and makes us mad, because the character already went through that. And so if you make them go through it again, and the relationships have to go through that again, then it's like, "Well, why did we go through the first story in the first place?" Because they've already had to have learned those lessons; they've already had to come to that new place. And the new story needs to start at wherever that equilibrium has been established. And that's the new pattern, then, that needs to be established and broken if the relationships need to evolve and grow again.
Okay, so here's another thing. If you learn how to master this technique of establishing a pattern and then breaking it, what you'll find are, there are all sorts of types of patterns that you can establish. I mean, my goodness, there are just all sorts of patterns. In fact, people are ritualistic. We, ourselves, in our everyday lives, we have patterns all over the place that we may or may not even be aware of. So, this is a tool that you can use simply by looking over, "What would your character's patterns be?" And if you can find them, you can use them and exploit them to a significant degree in terms of helping the audience see evolution of those characters. And when you do this, what's wonderful is now you don't have to think nearly as much in terms of fancy writing, for lack of a better way of putting it. For example, you don't have to try to create some sort of profound image or metaphor to convey your meaning through. I mean, you can do that, of course. And it's great when you do do that if it's used effectively. But really, you're just showing deviations to character behavior, which then we, the audience, get to interpret and figure out what that means in terms of how the character has changed and evolved so far in the story. And that is fun for us. It involves us. So, rather than telling us or describing some sort of profound metaphor through language, now you're showing behavior, and you're actually involving the audience to an even deeper and more profound degree. So it's a fantastic tool, a fantastic tool that we need to continue to unpack.
Okay, so here's another visible cue that you can use to reveal character information and help us understand who a character is through the expedient of establishing a pattern and then breaking it. And that is, you show us particular rituals or traditions?
What sorts of rituals or traditions does your character engage in? And notice from the outset what you're setting yourself up to be able to do as the writer, because what is a ritual or tradition if not an established pattern that you can also deviate from down the road to show growth or change or evolution? However, it doesn't necessarily have to be deviated to do that. And that's what's so wonderful about this particular type of pattern that's being established. Because the pattern itself is significant. The ritual or tradition itself is sufficient to convey knowledge about the character on a deeper level.
For example, what can we assume about a character who goes to confession once a week? Lots of stuff, right? That particular habit or ritual says something to us about the kind of character that person is. That ritual alone is sufficient to convey a deeper level of meaning. However, you also have the option to then deviate from that pattern in some way over the course of the story, to further use it as an indication of growth in one way or another for the character. Maybe it's positive growth, or maybe it's negative growth, but either way, it becomes a clear indication of internal emotional development.
For example, maybe that character stops going to mass because they've grown so discouraged or disheartened over the course of the telling. Maybe they just think that the world is so bad, and that they're so bad, that there's no longer any point to going. Nothing ever changes, nothing they do matters. There's no point in asking for forgiveness. They've lost hope in God or the church or their own significance, or whatever. So a character who, at the beginning of a story, never misses confession come hell or high water, and then start skipping it -- a little here, a little there -- or all at once just stops going. Whoa! To us, the audience, that's huge. It means something. It conveys meaning on a deeper level that saves us from having to write a bunch of words and tell the audience what it means. The audience gets to figure that out for themselves.
Or maybe you have that character who only goes to confession once a week because they have a blase attitude toward their own sin. Maybe, as the story unfolds, they increase the frequency of their visits to the priest. Maybe they don't just go once a week anymore. Now they go every single day. In which case, maybe that's an indication that they're relying solely on God, or they've increased their faith. Or maybe it means that they're learning more about the heinousness of their own sin. Or maybe it means that they're committing certain types of sin, that if they died before their next confession, they believe they're going to go to hell. So that shows a character who's deeply conflicted since, obviously, they believe deeply in God and heaven and hell, but apparently not enough to stop participating in a particular kind of activity that may or may not include committing heinous crimes or habitual sin. So that could be a complex character, to be sure.
The point is that when the pattern changes in frequency, it means something.
So you can establish the ritual and tradition by itself, which will tell us a great deal about your character at the get go. And then you have the choice of deviating from that pattern to reveal more information or character evolution or growth, or whatever the case may be. Nevertheless, just establishing the pattern itself can give us a great deal of information about that character.
Okay, so again, the rituals that a character goes through tells us who they are. It gives us insight into what they're like at their core, which is always what we're trying to accomplish in story. We're trying to show the audience who they really are deep down, not just what's going on on the surface. So, maybe the ritual is a morning ritual that your character goes through every single day, but it's for a specific purpose in mind. For example, the training sequence in Rocky. So there we see an established ritual or morning routine that he goes through. He's training for the big fight, but he's not ready. And so we get to see the evolution of his character as he continues training, as he continues committing himself to the discipline and the exercises that it takes to prepare his mind, body and soul for the big day that everything rests on. His entire life is based on this one moment. And he's putting everything in it. He's pursuing his goal relentlessly.
And so as we see the evolution of the ritual, then, the slight minutiae and tiny changes and deviations along the way, it's communicating to us, the audience, how well he's improved. So in this case, it's not a radical departure from the norm all at once. We show the evolution of his health and his readiness by incremental improvements. He gets a little bit further up those stairs every time, until, after time and time and time and discipline again and again and again, he finally gets the victory of reaching the top of the steps. And, "Ah!" Rocky's got his arms in the air and we're cheering right along with him because we feel the victory. Rocky is ready, and it's time for the big fight. And so those slow, incremental minutiae changes have accomplished for us in a visual way the message that Rocky is now ready to face the fight of his life.
Okay. Well, perhaps you're showing a ritual or tradition that impacts more than just your main character. Maybe it's something that impacts multiple characters in your story. For example, maybe it's a family tradition. Maybe you have a story where your main character goes home for some holiday. And now we get to see new insights into that character because of who he is in contrast to his family's long held traditions, or perhaps it helps us to understand him better once we see where he came from or what the traditions of his family were.
One example that comes to mind is from the film Zoolander. And you've got Ben Stiller's character who's a model, not a very smart one, who's all into fashion and Blue Steel, and he goes home, where the rest of his family are miners. And of course, he's on a path of self discovery, right? That's what he's pursuing. "Who am I?" he asks, and then he goes home to find his roots, only to discover he doesn't belong here. He gets new insight into himself because of the contrast between his family's traditions and rituals and work and job, and himself and what he does, right? So you can show a lot about a character through the family traditions that he keeps or doesn't keep.
But even certain traditions that the family engages in says a lot about the character himself. And just like we saw before, it helps establish and quickly reveal character relationships. We understand why Zoolander is totally outcast from his father and rejected from his family. But then we also get to see the role that our character plays in their family. And we get to see how his attitude either reflects or contrasts with his family's attitude. We also get to see how individual family members feel about each other, or about the main character or about the rituals themselves. You can show so much simply by establishing the traditions and rituals of a family.
One tradition I participated in when I was married occurred at Thanksgiving. And the tradition was that we would each get two dried kernels of corn, and we would go around the table and each share two things that we were grateful for that year. That was the tradition. And everybody usually rolled their eyes and mumbled and grumbled, like, "Oh, geez, here we go again." And they all pretended to do it in order to honor the family matriarch, not because they themselves wanted to participate, of course, because that would be cheesy. But in truth, by the end of that ritual, or tradition, there would hardly be a dry eye in the house. It was always a very meaningful and powerful time. So what does that reveal about the character? How does that show and not tell?
Well, in this case, it establishes, perhaps, that, if our character is one of the ones that rolls their eyes, really, secretly, they love this, right? Maybe it shows that they secretly enjoy these sorts of cheesy rituals, they just pretend not to, like everybody else, something that can be comedic or not, whatever the case may be depending on what you want to show that they have to change over the course of the telling. But also, it helps establish the family itself. What kind of family does our main character come from? because we learn a lot about our character according to their family of origin. In this case, it establishes that the family prioritizes things that are actually important, like expressing gratitude or taking the time to listen to each other about the things that are important in the other's lives. (Thank you, Lulu.) It establishes a pattern of a close knit family that maybe has a spiritual base, even without ever having to say it. You don't have to show them praying. You can just show them engaging in this ritual instead, which might be more interesting and less preachy. It might show a family that many of us find attractive, one that we would like to emulate ourselves, one that maybe we've been secretly longing for our whole lives, one that has respect for each other, where it's safe and welcoming and warm and inviting and loving. Maybe a family that respects the family matriarch compared to some other type of family in the story. There's just simply a lot of things that simply showing this particular family tradition can reveal about the character, about their relationships, or about their wounds or about other characters and what they have to overcome or accomplish over the course of the telling.
It also establishes where your characters fit within that unit. If you put your characters in the midst of that particular tradition, where does your character fit? What does it reveal about them? Where are their values? Are they the one, when it's their turn to express gratitude, who says, "Nothing. I can't think of a thing." Because they're selfish, and they need to change? Or maybe because they know that the rest of them are just faking it. They're a bunch of charlatans and Pharisees who are pretending to be spiritual, and our character can't stand their hypocrisy. Or maybe it gives us an indication of just how rough it is in their life right now. I mean, maybe our character even wants to express thanks. But instead, he just breaks down crying because he can't give thanks given all that's transpired. He's losing his faith. And he knows that. And he doesn't know how to stop the downward spiral. He wants to be grateful, but he just can't.
The point is, that tradition means something. And moreover, the tradition is an avenue to help reveal something about the internal emotional state of your character and who they are at their core.
CALL TO ACTION: Okay. So I have more to dive into on this topic, which we will explore next week. In the meantime, I want to thank you for listening to The Storyteller's Mission. And I would like to ask you, if you listen to this podcast on a particular app that allows for you to rate and review the show, Would you take the time to just do that? That would be so wonderful. We need that. It helps get the word out to more people. People actually read the reviews, believe it or not, and so that would mean a lot to us.
OUTRO: In the meantime, thank you for listening to The Storyteller's Mission with Zena Dell Lowe. May you go forth inspired to change the world for the better through story.