Titanic and the power of storytelling

by Rajesh Setty on November 6, 2009

“The universe is made of stories, not atoms.”
Muriel Rukeysertitanic

“Did you see James Cameron’s brilliant movie Titanic?”

Whenever I ask this question, nine out of ten times I get a “Yes.”

I have a follow up question after that.

“Before you saw the movie, did you know that the ship, the Titanic, was going to sink completely in the end?”

The answer, nine out of ten times – “Yes.”

In other words, millions of people spent time watching a three-hour movie about a ship knowing in advance that the ship would sink. It takes about 90 minutes from the time the ship gets into trouble until it sinks completely.

James Cameron begins the film in 1996, as a treasure hunter and his team search for a diamond necklace called the “Heart of the Ocean,” which was lost aboard the Titanic when it sank. So, if you somehow went to the movie without knowing that the Titanic was doomed to sink, you learned that fact within the first ten minutes of the film.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t have anything against Titanic. In fact, I think Titanic was a brilliantly made movie, and I totally enjoyed it.

Now, why were people watching this movie even after knowing what the main action was in advance?

One reason, of course, is curiosity. People wanted to find out what really happened with the Titanic before it sank. That part was a mystery for many people.

The second reason is the power of storytelling in play.  James Cameron and his team did a brilliant job of narrating the Titanic story, in all its glory and tragedy, for more than three hours in a spellbinding fashion. They created a compelling story and fascinating characters that drew us in to the story. We saw the ship through the eyes of Rose and Jack, and we were drawn into their world.

The audience knew that the ship was going to sink, so there was no suspense there. But what they didn’t know was “what happened to Rose DeWitt on the night Titanic went down” In fact, the audience knew that she survived so the suspense was all about the events that unfolded in her life until the time the ship went down. Soon after she starts narrating her story, a “conflict” is introduced. Young Rose (who was traveling in First Class) falls in love with a drifter called Jack Dawson (who was traveling in Third Class) and obviously Rose’s family is not happy about it. The audience is now left to imagine how their love story ended. Was it a happy ending? Was it a sad ending? Did Jack survive? If so where is he? Lots of questions and therefore lots of reasons for the audience to continue to pay attention.

Even though everyone expected the film’s climax (ship sinking), the audience was not aware of the events leading to the climax in the life of Rose Dewitt. That’s what kept the audience glued to the seats.

Hats off to them and hats off James Cameron, his team, and to the power of storytelling in general!

The real question is:

How are you using the power of storytelling in your life and/or in your business?

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