How A LEGO Video Can Teach Us What A Story Is, And Isn't

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 8.442% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

Here is a seven-minute video showing us several colored balls making their way through a gigantic LEGO-built factory.

The thing is, this seven-minute video is actually a story, expertly contrived to keep our attention all the way through it.  And yet let’s think about everything it lacks that we’re told we need:

  • Dialogue and characterization.  These are blue and orange balls.  They have no motivation as they work their way through the factory.  They don’t care.
  • Emotional progression.  Again, you know, they’re balls.
  • An antagonist.  There is no evil counter-machine trying to keep the balls from their destination.
  • Passion.  The balls have no intent; shoved around by external forces, they are literally as passive as you can get.

Yet there are two elements, both at the beginning, that take this absurdly large machine and hook us so we follow the balls through to the end: first off, the camera pans up and over the length of the machine, showing us how huge it is, and then showing us that there is an end to it after a U-turn in the middle.  This is the literary equivalent of a flash-forward; we now how how and approximately when it will end, but we do not know how we will get there. Without that, we’d most likely think, “This is cool,” but we’d be able to turn off the video at any time; with it, we want to see how it ends.
Likewise, we’re given someone to root for, or at least follow: the handful of differently-colored balls tossed into the machine at the beginning of the journey.  Without a specific set of balls to follow, we’d most likely get lost in the welter of tiny soccer balls, interested in the machine but unable to follow its many machinations.  With the balls, we we now have a protagonist to see how the machine affects an individual.
Those two elements make it into a story, which allows the third element to kick in strongly and lock everything down: there is a clear sense of progression and surprise.  Now that we know the machine has an end, we can see how the balls are kicked by various mechanisms up and down the machine, which is a constant sense of challenge: oh, they’re here?  How does this bit work?  How do we get from this tray up to that high level?  And sure enough, every ten to twenty seconds we’re shown some new and ingenious solution to get the balls out of their dilemma.  And because after about two minutes we become positive that nothing will ever repeat quite the same way twice, we watch to the end.
And as we watch all that, our minds are filled with hidden questions about the backstory behind this: who built this?  How long did it take him?  What kind of a house does he have, that he has all of this clean space to work in?  Why did s/he decide to do this?
The end result is a satisfying story with almost none of the traditional markers.  Which just shows how flexible a story is.  Sometimes, all you need is a literal plot device to kick your leads along, and it can be riveting.

2 Comments

  1. Christina
    Sep 24, 2012

    I think what surprised me the most was how emotionally invested I became in hoping that the two differently-coloured balls (the red and the blue one) weren’t separated throughout the machine. I saw them as a pair; when they got too far apart I was sad, and when they were “reunited” I was happy.
    Interesting how we try so hard to personify anonymous objects like that, isn’t it?

  2. alexander
    Oct 3, 2012

    That is a wonderful statement on story, and what is really required. Thanks for the insight on the video.

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