((This is part 2 of a 3 part thinkywritything on storytelling. Part 1 is here.))
“You’re looking for narrative, [you] interrogate witnesses, personal evidence, establish a timeline, build a story, day after day.” – Rust, True Detective
I feel like lately my narratives have been running together in a confusing melange. I watch an episode of Game of Thrones, read a chapter from a book, go to work, talk to a coworker about his weekend plans, have an IM conversation with a friend, play an RPG, solve a complex work problem, try to figure out the narratives of my relationship, or my health.
I have a hard drive full of half finished story ideas, game ideas, jokes, thoughts and they all idle there unfinished, and a netflix queue of TV shows half written. I’m going to try to close one of these narratives by executing on an idea that’s been bouncing around in my head for a 3-parter about telling stories, I’ve already shown the first about the beginning of stories, and now we’re into the meat of it. All we’ve got left is one about narrative and one about endings. I think it makes more sense, narratively, to end at the end, so I started at the beginning, but low like with all trilogies we’re stuck in that middle book.
I know where this is going, and I know where it started, but I have to take you on some turns before I get there. Hell, maybe I don’t even HAVE to, but I’m going to. But to get into the meat of storytelling we need to double-back again to the beginning.
For me, the beginning is with two men on polar opposites of the spectrum. Their names are Mark Lewis and Cary Trivanovich and I’ve had the opportunity to have some fantastic workshops and conversations with both of them. Mark Lewis is a professional storyteller whose main act is called “Word Pictures” and goes into how to tell a story that touches all the senses but just through using your voice (and maybe your hands a bit), while Cary Trivanovich is a mime, who can tell some amazing stories with just the physicality of his body and no words at all. One of my favorite of Mr. Trivanovich’s pieces is as follows:
Mark Lewis has tons of wonderful stories, and if you have 8 minutes to spend (and I’d encourage you to spend them, and not click the below link when you have a short attention span)
Both of these men do the kind of storytelling that is only barely able to be captured online and some of the magic is lost, but it doesn’t require much more than a voice or their body, and there’s something magical about being able to tell a complete story, start to finish, in under 10 minutes, and having it be just as moving as an epic story you might read. Different, but still good.
But I’ve noticed that with Reddit, 20 minute episodes of things available to binge watch on Netflix and rapid fire Youube videos we’re losing the thread of the story being told, and we’re replacing craftsmanship with short jabs. This is best illuminated in comedies like Family Guy and American Dad with quick cut aways and one liners. We’re replacing blogs with status updates, and status updates with bite size 140 character tweets.
All those forms of media are great, but as a result I worry that we are training ourselves out of our expectations. We click on an 8 minute YouTube link and if there isn’t gunfire in the first 20 seconds or something hugely noteworthy we click on because we have the tyranny of choice, forcing us on to something better. We like the trailers better than the movies.
There is a weird opposite side of this, which happens with things we love too much. There are tons of novel series which have gone on for 5, 7, 10 books that probably could have finished in 3, and while it’s the author’s imperative to choose the type of story they wish to tell, it’s also their responsibility to craft a narrative that tells a story. I find myself more and more looking for single books rather than series, because it doesn’t leave so many dangling narratives in my head. It lets the mind come to a conclusion.
Instead, I am left wondering what’s going to happen next to Drizzt, Stark, Kvothe, Arya, Kaladin, Dresden, Alice and Elliot, and Cithrin Bel Sarcour. There is a nagging lack of conclusion in my mind like a cabinet door left unopened.
You can’t have a great ending without an ending. But I’m not quite ready to speak of endings yet, and we’ve already talked about beginnings. Now we have to talk about that murky middle ground where things tend to go awry. We are deep into Heroes Season 3 with no hope in sight.
In the heroes journey this is the step, I think, after entering the Belly of the Beast, where the hero has faced his greatest threats and now begins their transformation and transitory steps. We have seen all the pieces on the board and gauged our opponents strategy and gotten to work. This is the second and third quarters, important but not necessarily critical.
I think these portions of a story can tend to fall flat because of the pacing with which books are released. If you read the opening to a story you didn’t do much anticipating for it, but after you’ve read the 2nd book you’re now anxious to hear that conclusion to the story. This is the promise I spoke about in the beginning. You’ve earned your audience now and this is when they are in the true depth of your power.
For whatever reason though, rather than this being the strongest portion of a story it is often the weakest. Year 2 of a 3 year relationship. Levels 25-35 out of 50. It is often filler content. Your 3rd year at a job. It’s not the exciting launch or the crashing conclusion but the middle of the story and yet in the middle of the narrative is where we can see some of the most heartfelt decisions of our characters and some of the most meaningful choices.
The problem is when your character makes the right choice for the 15th time, after they’ve set themselves on this course, they’re no longer being tested, and we lose sight of the magic of those choices, or the difficulty of them. But the true trials and hardships of a story begin. Even writing a story, I think we spend the majority of the time in this narrative phase. We come up with a beginning and an ending, we have strong ideas and then we get to a point where what’s left is to sit down and write.
There’s a narrative about this and creation that I enjoy specifically about game design.
“I have heard that a friend of Frank Herbert (author of Dune) asked Herbert to author the friend’s idea and split the profits 50/50. Herbert refused, even though the guy was a good friend — Herbert’s reply was basically that ideas are easy; the writing is the hard part. Think about it for a minute — would YOU want to have a friend come up to you, tell you a few sentences, then have you spend months hunched over a keyboard turning his few sentences into the Great American Novel? I doubt it. If you did spend months writing that book, would you want to give half of the money to that guy? I don’t think so.” – http://www.sloperama.com/advice/idea.html
So what does this mean? What lesson can we take about this home with us and how can we use it to craft our own stories. I would say that personally it’s made me reflect more on how and where I chose to end something that I write, and I’ve felt bad just with this short open ended series of writing because I’ve not finished it. Because I don’t yet have an ending.
I don’t wonder how much of the mental clutter we have in our lives is a result of this constant stream of unended stories in our mind, some of which will never reach a conclusion. The 8 book series we’ll never get around to reading, or the TV show cancelled after only 1 season without an ending. All these things are left dangling in our minds, and it’s something that our tribal storytelling didn’t worry about. We used to have endings to these stories, not the strange dangling lack of closure that we find around us with so much. Personally I find the weight of these growing more and more on me. I hesitate to pick up a book because I don’t want to begin another unended narrative. I have enough of those with failed friendships and lost loves that inviting more of them into my life seems like a mistake.
But now and then I still take a chance, and cease to refuse the call to adventure, and most of the time I’m glad that I did.