The Best Stories

By September 26, 2012Media, Storytelling

Stories are the lifeblood of the human experience. They motivate our actions and desires, circumscribe our beliefs and relationships, and as such are monumentally important to how we construct the reality of our selves and our world.

Everything we do, are, and interact with in any way can be projected onto a narrative. This is something obvious enough that we more or less take it for granted, but I think it’s worth considering what makes a story great, what traits or characteristics the “best” stories share, and where the future might lead us in this regard. We are always capable of challenging prevailing attitudes and definitions, of inventing new ways of expressing our experience. The story—the eternal, original, archetypal narrative—may always guide us, but the boundaries of what a great story consists of will no doubt continue to stretch and change.

The best stories have no endings.

The best stories live indefinitely in our imaginations, provoke continued curiosity and empathy, impel us to create further iterations, extensions, revisions, deepening ideas and observations through out own interpretive faculties. They dwell subconsciously within us, shaping our perceptions and interactions, guiding our ideas, our morals, our worldviews and the horizons of what we know to be possible. This means that to write a great story is to wield a large amount of power. The best stories don’t hype up brand, rehash genre tropes, or suffocate us with dogma and ideology. They don’t merely teach, or merely entertain; in fact, they never serve only a single function. Rather, the best stories speak to us eternal truths, and, however imperfectly, reflect our thoughts and our perceptions, our feelings and our dreams. Not just reflect, but amplify and extract: the best stories purify our common threads of humanity, mirror them back to us in strange and fascinating ways.

Today, traditional media are still the dominant means through which the best stories are told. Cinema and television, journalism and novels, magazines, theater, essays—all have brilliant things to offer us. But I think it’s important to be aware of, and open to, the new—and even the yet-to-be-invented—avenues of storytelling. If we shut these out, whether due to fear of fad-hopping, denial of emerging (and shifting) power, or simple ignorance, we risk missing the stories that capture our current situation—and our future. Thus one of the topmost questions in my mind is: what are some of the most exciting ways the best stories of the cutting-edge present (and future!) are being (or will be!) told?

What follows is a brief brainstorm, running the gamut from concrete-present-reality to thought-experiment:

  • Experiential stories: I have a vague vision of hybrid models related to games but not bound by the need for game logic and user-agency/user-autonomy; this will involve thinking of new methods of immersion, ways by which people can experience a more direct or more holistic representation of a story—whatever that may mean.
  • Hard-coded or technologically determined: Our goal should not be substituting technology for empathy and humanity, but rather better using it to represent our experience as we merge with our technology to an ever-greater degree; possibilities here include leveraging analytics and data science to reveal narratives on a previously underexplored scope or scale.
  • Post-narrative: Alright, this is a bit heretical—what is a story without a narrative?—but it’s worth considering what a post-narrative story might look like (even if only as a chance to refocus our terminology and assumptions). In thinking whether the post-narrative story is or is not a possible construct we might entertain subverting, extending, or otherwise re-imagining things such as sequentiality, determinism, modularity, and interdependence.
  • Communally authored: This is also tough to process within the traditional model of the story (whence comes the vision? is the author truly dead?) but incredibly important to consider. Although stories are typically both created by and directed at an assumed individual, we should be on the lookout for mass-scale or distributed storytelling, where the collision or cross-pollination of a multiplicity of experiences might make for a quite fertile intersection.
  • More raw, less filtered or refined: How can we rethink the editing and publishing process even further? Might there be new ways for direct, timely, unedited stories to matter? Beyond blogs, beyond Google News, beyond Twitter—how can we avoid haphazard content but not lose vitality and efficacy to the time- and labor-drain of creating? (Lifestreaming: Implies raw and unfiltered, but filtering necessary for it to be interesting/relevant…a bit of a paradox here that could stand to be poked and prodded a bit further…)
  • Cross-platform: Here live stories that start out in one medium, jump to others, return (or not), keep people guessing, contain constant surprises, evolve and self-mutate, and end up in unexpected places. These stories have a high rate of failure (often veering into overwrought or nonsensical territory), but if approached correctly, can confound and delight.
  • Unintentional or hidden: Stories are everywhere, even if we frequently do not or cannot (as yet) recognize them as such. Through narrative lens, we very well may be better able to understand—and better equipped to teach—things ranging from complex organic processes to cosmological mysteries to cultural evolution. I’d venture anything that can be encapsulated by non-random process or wrapped in terms of human motivation can be molded into a story. This is just one of many important ways we can alter our angle of approach in order to refresh our ways of thinking.

I realize several of the above points touch on concepts frequently encountered in the context of “transmedia”, one of the most frequently encountered new-media conceptual frameworks, the goals of which include revolutionizing storytelling through creative amalgamation of myriad formats. The idea of transmedia fascinates me, but seems to also be generally underdeveloped and, from what I’ve seen currently (despite a handful of shining examples to the contrary) frequently lacking sophistication and heart. Or rather, transmedia tends to have great aspirations, but more often than not fails to reach its goals.

Frequently, what I see labeled “transmedia” seems more an exercise in information transfer—from traditionally constructed narrative building blocks, to phone, screen, or a layer in the physical world—than a transformative act of coming up with anything truly new. In other words, this often seems a question of formatting, where the repurposing or translation between platforms adds a lateral level of complexity but fails to truly deepen the essential meaning of a story.

Transmedia as a blanket term has lost a bit of its luster for me, but I still think the idea of telling stories in new ways through underexplored mediums has tremendous room for play and experimentation. But transmedia itself is not enough. We need to push in new directions not only with media, but with the most basic aspects and definitions of storytelling: relationships between storyteller and audience, modes of creating narrative, and more.

There are certain things on which it’s worth expending long, hard, deep thoughts. As pertains to storytelling, such things include the structural underpinnings (architecture) and true content of stories, the subtle ways by which these structures and contents can alter and expand the potential for greater meaning and comment on reality (by inventing/expanding it) in ways we haven’t thought of before, and the interplay between cognitive parts and imaginative parcels heretofore unseen.

[addendum]: In my experience so far, it seems Modernist and Postmodern literature and film (true of other arts as well, but it’s these I’m most familiar with) has done more to expand our conceptualization of “The Story” than much of what’s being presently produced. Marcel Proust, Franz Kafka, Italo Calvino, Jorge Luis Borges; Luis Buñuel, Jean-Luc Godard, Chris Marker, Quentin Tarantino, David Lynch…all have done more in one medium than most are capable of in a large handful. It could be that media multiplicity has a diluting effect on narrative—perhaps single-medium works are more immersive, more capable of constructing a rich, self-contained world or reality…but of course this is mere speculation, and I’m eager to discover stories told in any and all possible ways.

 

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