A Story is a Promise
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is a Promise & The Spirit of Storytelling book cover
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Ideas and Stories -- A Review of Toto le Hero

by Bill Johnson
A photo of Bill Johnson, author of A Story is a Promise and the Spirit of Storytelling.

Just like a series of events can be arranged to have a particular resolution, a story can create the effect of dramatic movement through its presentation of ideas. This essay explores that process through a review of the film Toto le Hero. This thoughtful story creates a deeply felt experience of fulfillment through its presentation of characters and ideas.

Briefly, Toto le Hero is the story of Thomas. As a young boy, Thomas comes to believe he was switched at birth with the boy next door, the well-off Alfred. Thomas's life becomes a dual experience of the "reality" of Thomas's life versus the "reality" of Thomas's fantasies based on what might have been if he'd been raised as Alfred.

I would say the premise for this heartfelt, beautifully told story is:

Only through a direct experience of life can we fulfill our dreams.

It is around this premise that the dramatic action of the story revolves. To act out this premise, the story constantly intercuts from different stages of Thomas's life that offer commentary about his present circumstances and actions.

A story can be presented in this way because no story is ever literal -- or linear -- in a life-like way. A story is the assembling of descriptions of events, dialogue, character actions, thoughts and feelings, environments, ideas, all arranged to create a particular dramatic effect. The fact that the story of Toto le hero does not happen in a chronological order does not detract from the fact that the events of the story move it very clearly forward along a dramatic path toward the resolution and fulfillment of its premise. The dramatic path this story sets out to explore is rich with ideas that makes this film an example of how ideas can be used in the service telling a story.

Thomas, through his memories and dreams, recreates his experiences to generate the fulfillment he has not found in life. In this story, however, the question arises: can Thomas move from experiencing life only through dreams and memories to finally gaining what he desires by taking action in the real world?

Therefore, no matter where we are in relationship to Thomas's age, the story is always moving dramatically forward toward the resolution of its narrative question. Will Thomas be able to act, or will he remain enmeshed in his fantasies? The story answers the narrative question it has set up in a dramatic, fulfilling way.

To set up this question, we are shown scenes of the elderly Thomas interspersing his fantasies onto reality. When a nurse offers him a pill, what we see is an enraged Thomas forcing the pills down her throat. Then we're offered the reality of the situation: the meek Thomas obediently downing the pill. This exchange moves the story forward because it shows the depth to which Thomas lives through his fantasies. The deeper issue the story explores through this exchange is the idea of a life as it is felt emotionally versus the actual experience.

It is not the issue in this story, or any other, that we have a straight forward telling of Thomas's life from his birth through to his death, but that through how this story arranges its elements through cross-cutting we come to a much richer feeling for Thomas's life. Through the story's cross-cutting, the story's audience is led to experience in a direct, potent way the dramatic "truth" about Thomas's life, that he has lived much of his life via his fantasies and memories. Further, through being shown the many painful episodes of Thomas's life, we're led to understand why Thomas felt that a life of fantasies was more desirable than experiencing life directly.

To create an effect of movement around its ideas, the creator of Toto le Hero had a clear perception of how every scene in the story moved the story itself forward toward its resolution and fulfillment. Every scene in this story generates states of emotions around actions while tying them to the ideas the story explores. Thomas, for example, is shown living in his fantasies. He laughs out loud when they especially please him. He goes from his fantasies to his memories and back. Through his alter-ego, Toto le hero, a secret agent, Thomas rescues his father and shoots the man, Alfred, who has twice taken the love of his life: Alice his sister, and Evelyne, who appears to be an older version of Alice. But when Thomas was offered a real relationship with Evelyne, a seeming replica of Alice, Thomas has not the strength of will to pursue the relationship. In one of the films many dramatic, heartfelt moments, we find that Thomas allowed Evelyne to slip out of his life. Thomas, he of the vivid fantasies and memories, could not grasp what life offered to him. The comforting fantasies held too deep a pull.

The essay concludes...

The storyteller of Toto le hero wanted us to be both entertained by the action and outcome of the story as well as prodded by its presentation of ideas to think about our own lives, our own fantasies. In contrast, a simple story could offer a story that offers a fulfilling experience of love. An artist, however, offers not only the experience of love, but probes and explores the thoughts and feelings and needs we experience when we think of the idea of love.

Because of the depth of its examination of life and the ideas it explores, Toto le Hero is both a story and a work of art. It sets out not just to entertain, but to illuminate a particular facet of life. Every element of the movie is carefully designed and arranged to create the story's quality of illumination.

Ideas -- like feelings, events, issues, dialogue -- must be at the service of making the story dramatic and story-like. Both the storyteller and the artist who wish to examine the deeper issues of life must be able to perceive what ideas advance their stories toward a concrete and visible fulfillment.

For the storyteller who wishes to be an artist, or even for the storyteller who desires to tell a simple story, the relationship of a story's ideas to the story must be perceived. That is a fundamental aspect of the art of storytelling.

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