There’s no doubt that the mass media is changing a lot. Things like cellphones, social networking sites, blogging (hello!) and free online video hosting have had powerful effects. Are they crippling effects, however? Are they going to smash traditional storytelling into pieces?
No, of course not.
Scott Brown has just published a rather amusing piece at Wired called Why Hollywood Needs a New Model for Storytelling. He demonstrates the effects of increased multimedia interactivity with a parodic version of Die Hard:
John McClane, NYC cop, arrives in LA to reconcile with his estranged wife—but we already know all about their failing marriage from the ARG we’ve been obsessed with for the six months leading up to the movie’s release. (McClane’s potemkin Tumblr blog was especially illuminating.) With exposition rendered obsolete, we open instead on a Sprite commercial, which transitions seamlessly into furious gunplay.
We don’t even see McClane in the flesh, but our handsets are buzzing with his real-time thumb-tweets: “in the air duct. smelz like dead trrist in here lol.” The film then rewinds to McClane Googling “terrorists” to read up on his adversaries. We then flash-cut to the baddies’ POV, which we’re familiar with (and sympathetic to) thanks to the addictive Xbox hit Die Hard: Hard Out There for a Terrorist.
And so on.
Of course, he doesn’t point out one crucial thing. This story still has a very standard, linear and logical model – it just happens to be spread across multiple media. It isn’t that the story lacks any exposition, for example, it’s just that this is related via the ARG, not the main movie spine. A story without any exposition at all would be one step further from the formula, I suppose, but he isn’t even positing that.
So, to have these moments missed from the movie, I guess we could say that the movie is just bad storytelling, even if the story is told well across the mixed-media array.
I’m put in mind of something that has happened to me too often. I’ve been walking around a gallery looking at pictures, none of which mean anything much… until I read their titles. Then there’s a connection, or an irony, between text and image from which the meaning is forged. I’d argue that, in cases like this, the picture in isolation is bad storytelling, that it needs the outside supplement.
But traditional storytelling isn’t something humans invented arbitrarily, it’s something we found out about. That is to say, a story resonates with us because of how it relates to human nature and human nature isn’t a choice. That’s all the term really means: a story formatted to connect clearly and resonantly with human nature. Not even all of the IT advances in the world are going to change that.
As for this notion about McClane not appearing on screen but his narrative being updated via Tweets, well… Hollywood has been practicing clever, elided storytelling for decades – essentially since the very beginning. Who can forget Ninotchka’s hat, for example? Ernst Lubitsch even boosted his fame by mastering the technique, with the coining of the phrases “The Lubitsch touch”. Not exactly a groundbreaking feature of any “New Model”, then.
All the argument comes down to, really, is attention span. It’s a question of whether or not audiences can persist in focusing upon one medium, or if they need the narrative scattered and delivered via a whole range of media, in installments of various sizes and maybe even relevance. Again, I point you back to basic truths of human nature – there are people out there who sit through Wagner’s entire Ring Cycle in succession (perhaps even more who’d do the same for Peter Jackson’s). We aren’t evolving away from this, we can still do it.
So… we obviously don’t need a new model for storytelling. But do we want one?