Illustration by Matias Vigliano, nicked from Wired.
In his latest column for Wired, Scott Brown rings the death knell for storytelling. â€œHollywood, vendor of Story in its most denatured form, is most at riskâ€ he writes. â€œThe film industry is slowly but steadily being forced to part with quaint artifacts like the “hero’s journey,” Joseph Campbell’s so-called Monomyth.â€
I think Brown is dead wrong.
Networked storytelling is going to become more and more prominent, I agree. But the death of the hero journey? Pure fantasy.
First off, the traditional story format is not at risk, at all. Hollywood had its biggest ever year domestically in 2008, despite the deluge of digital content now competing for our attention (not to mention pirates, who may even be helping). The biggest selling film was The Dark Knight, a Cambell-esque monomyth of the highest order and pretty much all the Oscar nominees â€“ Slumdog, Benjamin Button, Milk, The Wrestler etc etc are all hero myths of one sort or another.
Brown gives a tongue-in-cheek example of what might replace traditional story structure:
â€œDie Hard will look like this: John McClane, NYC cop, arrives in LA to reconcile with his estranged wifeâ€”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. This is all part of the Action-Happening Plateau, an intensifying mass of things and stuff leading up to the Mymaxtm.
â€œThe Mymax is not a lame old Freytag climax but a hot Escher mess of narrative possibilities suggested by you, the audience. With a mere click of your handset (and a charge of 99 cents), you furnish a Youclusiontm to your liking. This is how McClane somehow ends up defeating terroristsâ€”and winning American Idolâ€”with his ultrasonic melisma. McClane and Holly then celebrate by making a sex tape. (Awww!)â€
That doesnâ€™t sound like a good movie, it sounds like a bad video game with a Sprite commercial in it. No one will pay 99 cents to finish a movie like this, because by that point no one will be left in the theater.
The reality is that new tech and transmedia are making traditional storytelling stronger. The point Brown misses is that the fundamentals of storytelling havenâ€™t changed much with new tech, which is why Joseph Campbellâ€™s work on ancient myth has been so relevant to screenwriting all these years. Not to get all Robert McGee, but story is not about the media through which you experience it as much as itâ€™s about conveying a sense of meaning and/or truth that audiences can relate to.
The media we use to tell stories is changing, no doubt about it. But from what Iâ€™ve seen so far, film and TV writers seem to be using new technology and media platforms to extend the traditional model of storytelling further, not replace it.
Take Cloverfield for example. The viral video that kicked it off? A very traditional act one set-up sequence, inciting incident included. What was different was where it was broadcast and how. Those crazy websites about seemingly unrelated stuff that kept everyone guessing – Tagruato Corporation, Slusho, MySpace pages for characters etc? All part of the back story. Screenwriters have always written elaborate back stories to develop character and plot, whatâ€™s new is these pieces of writing didnâ€™t have a viable commercial outlet before.
Or look at Heroes â€“ story arcs stretch across different formats, creating a totally new kind of immersion experience, but they are still just story arcs. In days gone by some of these might have been left on the cutting room floor, but now they can be revenue-generating graphic novels instead. Thatâ€™s awesome, but fundamentally itâ€™s still traditional, myth-driven storytelling.
Networked storytelling is a cool new part of the equation for sure – involving audiences can add value in a million ways. But the bottom line is new tech and new media platforms are making traditional storytelling more complete. Transmedia is allowing content creators to take monomyths to dizzy new heights, to tell monomyths in stereo. Our method of telling stories is as old as we are, and has worked for different cultures and generations for thousands of years. Itâ€™s going to take more than a half-baked twitter feed to change it.