Storytelling is a profound expression of the human soul. It has the ability to interpret our greatest joys as well as our deepest sorrows. It allows us to express ourselves in a unique manner that connects to the souls around us. As an art form, storytelling can encompass countless mediums and talents. I think it’s safe to say that every art form is capable of telling a story, and we can learn valuable lessons from all of them. But lately, I’ve been wanting to talk about some hard storytelling lessons that I’ve learned through my own personal mistakes and experiences in writing. And I’m going to use the art of filmmaking to illustrate these ideas since it’s the medium I’ve studied the most throughout my lifetime, and the medium that I can most easily apply to other forms of storytelling. Today I wanted to talk about a concept that has seemed to become a problem in the filmmaking industry, and also one that I believe has been incredibly misunderstood: The concept of nostalgia.
In a world of sequels, prequels, reboots, remakes, and spin-offs, the concept of nostalgia has garnered a bit of a negative reputation. These days, nostalgia is unfortunately seen as a cheap trick, a false feeling that’s built on the foundations of our rose-colored memories and recycled to sell movie tickets. But I personally believe that this is because nostalgia has become misused by Hollywood, and therefore vilified by the masses. I personally believe that it’s all about perspective on this one. In fact, I propose that nostalgia can be a powerful tool to craft amazing stories, and doesn’t have to be a trick used by studios to shirk their work or responsibility. Nostalgia, if applied properly, shouldn’t be an easy thing to use. In fact, nostalgia should take hard work to apply.
To understand what I mean by this, we must first understand what nostalgia truly is. And it all comes down to the perspective of what we experience, versus what we remember of those experiences. Psychologist Daniel Kahneman refers to this as the “Focusing Illusion”. He says that what this means is we have two “selves”: our experiencing self, which is our self that is in the here and now and is experiencing life as it goes by, and our remembering self which is how we remember these experiences after they have happened.
Kahneman explains “the remembering self is a storyteller. And that really starts with the basic response of our memory. It starts immediately. We don’t only tell stories when we set out to tell stories. Our memory tells us stories. What we get to keep from our experiences is a story.”
This means that, whether we like it or not, our experiences inform the stories we remember and resonate with. This, in essence, is what nostalgia is. It is a powerful memory which is created by something good that we experienced in our past. It’s a story of what we remember that we log away in our minds until something triggers it. It is our remembering self, taking away the best parts of our experience and filing them in our subconscious to bring to the forefront when reminded…even when we least expect it. And this is why nostalgia is so powerful. Because the audience’s memory already contains an entirely fleshed-out story to conjure up with only the slightest reminder, before a new storyteller even says a word of their own devising. Now of course, this requires some responsibility on the part of the storyteller to not abuse the power of remembrance in his/her audience. More on that later.
It’s also important to note that nostalgia can be nearly subconscious, and has the power to trigger emotions connected to memories we never knew that we had. This is why even certain smells or tastes can make us cry without us even being able understand why. That’s how powerful the stories of nostalgia are. The psychology of storytelling’s impact on the subconcious mind is a truly fascinating concept and I would love to delve deeper into it sometime. However, for right now, I just wanted to focus on how nostalgia has become misused and how we can maybe fix these problems in going forward.
Kahneman continues “What defines a story are changes, significant moments, and endings. And endings are very, very important.”
Now I believe this statement explains the problem with nostalgia in today’s storytelling landscape. The problem with nostalgia as it is used today, is that it seems to be the only thing the storyteller uses. There’s a reason why sometimes a movie’s ending can ruin the whole film (or in the case of Avengers Endgame, elevate it). It’s because a bad or lazy ending is felt by the audience, and often remembered the most out of the whole experience. It’s the feeling the audience walks away with as they leave the theater, and if that’s not a good feeling, it could jeopardize the whole film.
But it’s not just endings that can cause a problem. Your audience knows when they’re being shortchanged. They may not know how, but believe me, they still know! An audience can sense when a plot is shallow, or when their memories are being manipulated to create a screen for lazy showmanship. The truth is that, in modern Hollywood, there is often no substance to back up the feeling of nostalgia, and the audience knows it. I usually try not to be harsh with my criticism when it comes to storytelling, but the truth is that nostalgia is often used simply as a misdirection to hide a weak story, rather than a tool to enrich one. In this form, the experience of nostalgia is hollow and is therefore often rejected as fake or manipulative. It is easily conjured up in the minds of an audience, but it is also quickly forgotten. It feels empty and cheap, because it does not create anything new for the memory.
But there’s good news! This also unlocks the secret to using nostalgia properly in storytelling going forward. They key is this: nostalgia, if used properly, should not just remind you of good memories from your past, but it should also create new ones!
A great example of how nostalgia can be used properly is found in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Like any fandom, there is a significant amount of nostalgia for the characters and brands of this franchise amongst its audience. Entire generations grew up with memories of reading the comics, playing with the toys, or watching the tv shows and they carry that with them into the theater. This brand has nostalgia in spades. Of course, Marvel could easily ride on those memories and let their audiences childhood experiences carry the films and sell their tickets…but for the most part they don’t. It’s because they realized one very important thing: that nostalgia is ultimately unfulfilling without putting substance behind it…The reason why Marvel’s Cinematic Universe has become the highest-grossing franchise in history is because they focus on making good stories first. Then, only after they have created something of genuine substance as a foundation, do they insert nostalgia to heighten the experience. They create something new to give the audience first, and then they reinforce it with their audience’s memories. They use nostalgia, and their audience’s previously made “memory stories” as a tool to enrich an already well-crafted story.
There are many examples of this, but let’s use Black Panther to illustrate my point. There are comparatively few people who watch Black Panther and walk away saying “Wow, the image of Wakanda reminded me so much of Jack Kirby’s drawings from the comics!” Of course, you are more likely to hear people say “Wakanda felt like a real place with real people and authentic culture!”
And the truth is that the filmmakers absolutely do reference Jack Kirby’s famous drawings, and they absolutely do have them in mind when making the movie…but that’s not the point. Ryan Coogler crafted a beautiful story inspired by the comics that was deeply personal and close to his heart first. Only then, after he felt like had expressed his message properly, did he add the nostalgic factor as icing on the cake.
He used the nostalgia of the comics to make an already amazing story, even better. Not only do fans walk away with the joyful feeling of reliving their childhood and experiencing the joy of their wonderful memories, but they also create brand new ones to bring with them into future experiences. The nostalgia reinforces the experience. That is the true power of nostalgia.
For contrast, you can look at a film like The Rise of Skywalker. Among a multitude of storytelling issues, Rise of Skywalker struggles with its identity. It doesn’t really know what kind of story it wants to tell. It has a bit of a shaky foundation, and to cover this up, they rely on a great deal of nostalgia to carry the movie. Nostalgic music cues, familiar imagery, and self-referential scriptwriting are bombarded at the viewer in hopes that they will make up for a lack of clear vision. It’s an admirable attempt from J.J. Abrams to try and salvage the mess he was left to work with, but in the end, it just didn’t work. Even if you love this movie, there is no denying that the average audience member felt cheated. It feels empty to them, because they don’t walk away with anything new. They are simply reminded of a past good experience (the stories they grew up with) and are in the same place they were when they entered the theater. They have nothing new to remember, and nothing new to be nostalgic about going forward. All you have is the old memory and this feels like “sameness” which can leave you with a hollow sense of disappointment.
And just to clarify, nostalgia doesn’t have to be defined by memories of a specific franchise or a character that you grew up with. It can be abstract memories or simple life experiences that resonate with you. But as a storyteller, if you’re going to use this form of nostalgia, it has to be authentic and flow from a uniquely personal place. For instance, in the story of Peter Pan, author J.M. Barrie based a good deal of the plot on wonderfully innocent childhood memories from his own life and the lives of the people around him. He delved deep into childhood memories of fighting imaginary pirates, pretending to be heroes that could fly like fairies, or dreams of adventures in the woods. Because these were deeply authentic storytelling efforts on Barrie’s part, they deeply resonated with his audience on the story’s debut in 1904. People who watched the play, had their own similar happy childhood memories, and this caused an already memorable story to become even better. The story would skyrocket in popularity, becoming one of the most popular tales of all time. This wasn’t the only factor in its success of course, but it certainly added to its charm.
The truth of the matter is that a memory, of any kind, is an incredibly powerful thing. Nostalgia is simply one useful manifestation of memory, and as such it carries a great amount of influence on the audience…and requires a great deal of responsibility not to misuse.
At the end of the day, nostalgia is a powerful tool that can be used to both positive and negative effect. Like any tool, it all depends on who’s using it and how they choose to apply it.
Thank you for reading!
The Power of Nostalgia and How It’s Been Misused (Lessons in Storytelling)