This week, a group of storytelling pioneers is gathering in New York City for a future-of-storytelling summit. Their focus will be on new media, and the way it enables some surprising opportunities for interactivity. But a story is more than the mode of its telling, so the future is likely to be even more remarkable than these experts predict.
Beneath the medium of a story are the gears that drive it. A new form of analysis is emerging that promises to reveal more of that engine, so we can better understand why some tales grip us. If it succeeds, it would fuel new creative forms, more powerful stories, and make us less vulnerable to manipulation by governments and companies.
The focus on new media is understandable, because it enables novel relationships. Consider a scenario proposed by Latitude Research, a firm that envisions new intersections of content and technology: Many unconnected people are reading the same book simultaneously, all aiming to reach a particular scene — say, a dance ball — by a certain date. On that day, the readers dress up and attend the ball that they are reading about, held somewhere in their city.
This sort of potential is becoming big business. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg believes immersion in virtual spaces will advance the way we build social narrative. The company recently acquired the startup virtual-reality firm Oculus for $2 billion.
But the excitement surrounding these innovations can miss some important aspects of what we love about stories. New media alone simply changes the mode of the same old tales, whereas the focus on interactivity overlooks a successful tale’s central feature: We often ask storytellers to thrill us in ways that we cannot manage ourselves.
This is where a new method of analysis could help, by modeling narrative as a river of transforming situations and searching for the forces that propel them forward. Tracking these forces is difficult, because they are usually invisible and spread among many factors.
Thanks to new media and technologies, however, some are now becoming more conspicuous.
Consider an example from the action blockbuster genre. The 2007 “Transformers” movie had a “fractional” structure that deliberately left gaps in the story, to make it more tantalizing. Computer-generated imagery in that film extended the notion visually, changing the way battle scenes unfolded.
In CGI, a “camera” is an invented perspective, which means the director can point it anywhere. Despite this, the camera in Transformers “saw” and “understood” very little of the fight scenes. It faced the wrong directions, came too close, and jumped from view to view, as if its operator did not know what would happen next. Suddenly a fiction invented for 8-year-old toy consumers became engaging for adults.
This style of visual confusion has since been extended further, to the level of plot. At the beginning of the blockbuster World War Z, a family suddenly flees in panic, but neither they nor the audience know from what. The camera and the protagonists are both anchorless, and the effect is arresting.
Coming technologies will make it possible to see the architecture behind the thrill, along with the way the audience appropriates it afterward. The result could be a greater awareness of why certain tales influence us.
Stories already help us decide with whom to fall in love, which politicians to support, where to live, and which goods and services to buy. A deeper understanding of the narratives we consume could improve our quality of life, as it did in the case of food safety.
Only a few generations ago, food corporations could tell any story and be believed. Trans fats were celebrated as a food of the future; cigarettes were advertised for their health benefits.
Corporations and legislators believed that consumers were too lazy and unsophisticated to understand the underlying science.
Today food is labeled in detail. Schools teach children how to interpret this information.
Not everyone cares, but the Internet allows anyone to delve as deeply as they wish. None of this was imaginable even 30 years ago, but we are all better off, including the food industry.
Soon the same transparency might be possible for consumed narrative. What advantage might such awareness bring?
Consider a future in which smart objects (phones, computers and so forth) monitor the dynamics of the narratives you inhabit, in the same way that they will monitor your physical health.
In private, your phone will advise you why a call to a friend ended badly. Your computer will offer new ways to relate information, in order to improve your work. In a quiet moment, you will ask to see these systems’ inner workings, so that you can view your own ideas nested within those of your family, workplace, or any other environment in which you hope they will find a foothold.
You will know when a personal narrative is working well for you, or when it is controlling you instead.
Stories remade with new media and methods may fit us more closely than we can currently imagine, in ways that seem almost like companionship.
It is an exciting prospect — all the more so because we are still at the beginning of the tale.
Beth Cardier, a fiction writer, holds a Ph.D. in narrative structure from the University of Melbourne. H.T. Goranson, formerly a senior scientist with the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, is building a next-generation AI system for the entertainment industry. © 2014 Project Syndicate/Institute for Human Sciences (www.project-syndicate.org)
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.