4 Ways Animals Can Improve Your Story

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by John Bucher (@johnkbucher)

The relationship between animals and storytelling goes back to the very beginning. The narratives of early humans were often about the animals they hunted, the animals they feared, and the animals they worshipped. It’s not surprising that the initial days of storytelling through film are filled with connections to animals as well. Perhaps the most significant of these connections is The Horse in Motion by Eadweard Muybridge, one of the first films ever made. The result of a bet made by Leland Stanford, former governor of California, Muybridge photographed a horse galloping at high rates of speed and proved that there were moments when all four horse’s feet were off the ground.

In Ang Lee’s Life of Pi, Pi asks a novelist which of his stories the man prefers. “The one with the tiger. It’s a better story,” the man says. “So it is with God,” Pi replies with a smile. There’s something magical about the inclusion of animals in our stories. They can act as transcendent metaphors. They can create symbolism in otherwise straightforward stories. Their presence and interaction with us can teach us much about what it means to be human.

Here are four uses of animals in the narrative that can add additional layers to your story.

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1. ANIMALS AS SYMBOLS

The use of animals in The Life of Pi could likely fill it’s own book. However, one of the most significant is the tiger on the boat with Pi. The tiger can be seen as representative of the wild nature of the mystery of faith and religion that is juxtaposed against science in the story. The film uses several animals to invoke this theme. We are challenged to consider that while science explains how the universe works, it fails to explain why.

In Inside Llewyn Davis, the cat that Llewyn chases throughout the film symbolizes the success that seems to continually elude him. In The Sopranos, the migrating geese by Tony’s pool symbolize his feelings about losses in his family. Every character in The Royal Tenenbaums has an animal associated with them. The philandering Royal Tenenbaum is symbolized by the havelina hung on his wall. When Royal is kicked out of the house, the havelina head comes down. It is restored to the wall when he returns home near the end of the film. Buckley, Mordecai, and Sparkplug are all symbols in the film for the deepest inner workings of the characters they accompany. In The Wizard of Oz, animal symbols are given an ironic twist when the Lion, traditionally a symbol of courage and strength in storytelling, proves to be a coward.

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2. ANIMALS AS US

When stories are centered around animals that take on human qualities, it often allows us to see things about ourselves that we might not otherwise consider. Taking a story out of our literal world and into a world where animals speak and interact as we do can give us just enough separation from ourselves that our eyes can be truly opened. The Muppets make us laugh, but we can deeply relate to Kermit’s longing for Miss Piggy. The loss of Bambi’s mother has brought more than one moviegoer to tears. This is not necessarily because we love animals so dearly, but more likely because we remember our own losses. Babe, A Bug’s Life, The Lion King, Rango, Alvin and the Chipmunks, and The Fantastic Mr. Fox all allow us to look at ourselves through a different lens and see the animals featured in the stories as ourselves.
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3. ANIMALS AS THE ENEMY

While animals have often been symbols of heroism that we project onto ourselves – see Batman, Spiderman, Wolverine and many others for examples – animals are sometimes also seen as our sworn enemies. Jaws still keeps many beach goers from setting foot in the water. Snakes have a rich ancient tradition of representing evil, but in Anaconda, the fear serpents can strike in us is imposingly amplified. Arachnophobia is a war between humans and spiders. Congo and Rise of the Planet of the Apes pit us against primates. And Deep Blue Sea, Lake Placid, and the upcoming In the Heart of the Sea highlight the enemies we could encounter in the depths of the waters.

Perhaps the most memorable of all stories about man versus beast is King Kong. In every version of the film, a common trope of animals as enemies is demonstrated – the revelation that they are actually just misunderstood creatures. This, of course, is an important universal question at the heart of humanity. Are those things we fear truly deserving of our distress or are they simply things we have failed to rightly understand?

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4. ANIMALS AS FRIENDS

There is a rich tradition of stories that speak of animals being loyal companions. Seeing this theme reinforced reminds us of the animals who have meant so much to us in our own lives. These stories often center around a character who is having trouble fitting in – a symbolic “fish out of water.” An animal shows up, befriends our struggling hero and gives them the confidence they need to face the challenges ahead of them. Free Willy, Air Bud, The Black Stallion, Black Beauty, and Beethoven all utilize animals as meaningful friends to humans. Ace Ventura: Pet Detective accomplishes the same in a much more humorous fashion. Even the great Tom Hanks has chosen to tell a story of this sort –Turner and Hooch. Very little set up has to be given in a story before we understand the relationship regarding a person and how much an animal means to them.

From Drive and Silence of the Lambs, to Big Fish and Old Yeller, animals have meaning in stories because animals have meaning to us. Using them in our storytelling can help us communicate to an audience less clumsily and more figuratively. As animals have been useful to us in the world since the dawn of time, they continue to be in the worlds we construct in our minds.

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John Bucher is a writer, speaker, and story consultant based out of Los Angeles. He is the author of several books including The Inside Out Story and the upcoming Secrets of Short Visual Storytelling. He has written for entities ranging from HBO to International Ambassadors. He teaches at The LA Film Studies Center and has conducted story seminars on five continents. He can be reached on Twitter @johnkbucher and through his blog, welcometothesideshow.org.

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