The secret to storytelling in the 21st century
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When writers sit down to work on a script, sometimes the first step is the hardest. Where to begin?
(Let's assume for argument's sake that you've already checked your email, washed your hair, closed all 47 browser tabs and eaten a tasty snack. You're ready to work.)
Where to begin?
Well, you could start by thinking about your characters, or your plot, maybe your theme...and those are all good places to start.
But sometimes, the best way to start is by pulling back to 30,000 feet, and thinking about the medium you're working in...the vehicle you're using to deliver your story.
Because every storytelling medium lends itself to certain kinds of experiences. It's all about finding the right fit for the story you want to tell.
What the hell am I talking about, you ask? Well, I'll tell you.
Let's start with books, wonderful delicious can't-live-without-em books. Think about some of your favorite novels. Maybe you love Harry Potter, or Lord of the Rings, or Alice in Wonderland. What were they about? Did they feature characters that you followed throughout the story? Did you get to know that character inside and out - their hopes and dreams and fears? How they felt, how they thought?
Novels can take us inside the mind of a character, and leave us there for chapters at a time. Books are a great medium for exploring a character's inner world. We get to walk in their shoes, see life through their eyes.
Books are an internal medium. If you want to plumb a character's deepest depths, the written page is the place for you.
Let's say, instead, that you want to make things blow up real good. Then your name must be Michael Bay and you should go make some dumbass movies!
Explosions look amazing on a screen that's 40 feet high.
While I'm at it:
Stupid stuff makes me laugh!
It's not just about things that go boom. It's about anything visual. And good-looking actors look REALLY good when they're looming over you in all their superhero glory.
We do get to know these characters - but we can't read their minds, like we can in a book. Instead, we have to rely on what they tell us, and (more importantly) show us.
Actors that can make us feel things with just a look are actors that thrive on film.
Films are a visual medium. If your story needs to be seen in order to be felt, then movies are the place for you.
So we've covered books and films. What about interactive stories - the kinds we tell with computers, for consoles or VR or AR? What kinds of stories work best there?
Let's break it down in order to figure it out.
In other mediums, the artists create the story, and then they present the story, fully baked, to the audience. The book is in print; the film is in the can.
For better or worse, the writer is fully responsible for the final product.
But with interactive projects, the story doesn't really come to life until the end user gets involved. The audience drives the action.
And Action is the right word to use here because it's all about doing things. Not watching the action, like you do during a film, but taking action. Doing it yourself.
These kinds of storytelling projects are a perfect fit with what CMU professor Jesse Schell calls below-the-neck verbs: running, jumping, flying, punching.
Interactive stories are a great kinetic medium. They trick your mind into feeling like the action is really happening - to you, by you, and because of you. It's all about you, rockstar!
It's great, it's exciting -- and it's limited. There is only so much you can do as a storyteller with verbs like "run" and "punch" and "shoot." Sometimes, as a writer, you want to bring more to the table.
But here's the thing: the medium is still evolving. We have no idea what it will look like in 10, 20, 30 years. But it's a safe bet that it will look (and feel) a lot different than it does now.
In his mindblowing GDC talk, "The Future Of Storytelling," Jesse Schell shares a prediction from another professor, Chris Swain at USC. Swain took a look at the early days of silent film, and how critics at the time dismissed films as dumb, silly, just for kids, will never amount to anything.
But then, Swain says, films learned to talk. And they went on to become the dominant storytelling medium of the 20th century.
Well what about interactive stories, like the kind we see in games? They know how to talk. They talk all the time! They probably talk too much! What are they waiting for?
Swain argues that these kinds of stories don't need to learn how to talk -- they need to learn how to LISTEN.
And when they CAN listen - when they are able to respond to us in ways that feel honest and real, then the kinds of stories we tell in this medium will change too. They'll stop being so much about below-the-neck verbs. They'll start being more about above-the-neck verbs, where our better angels live. They'll become stories that connect with us in a new way, that make us feel seen and heard and understood.
So is this a real possibility? Could technology ever relate to us on a human level?
It's possible. We're already learning to converse with machines. Did you ask Siri a question today? Did she give you an answer? Was it a good one?
Do you think technology will continue to improve?
The idea of stories and characters coming to life in this way freaks some people out. It's easy to see the creep factor in all this - shades of Terminator and Ex Machina, where the machines outsmart us and eventually take over and we lose our humanity and oh no Armaggedon!
But people were also freaked out by books, back in the day. Same with movies. Anything new is going to be seen as suspicious by some.
It's not good, and it's not bad. It's just a vehicle. The story, literally, is what you make it. It can be garbage -- or it can be something magical and new, something we've never seen before, in quite this way.
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