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Brooke Shaffer

Author, Ski Patroller, and Pasta-Eater Extraordinaire

Storytelling Media

Welcome to the first post and video since finishing the Villains and Antagonists series! Aren't you glad to be out of that thicket? I know I am.

So, what exciting things are we getting into next? Well, logically, you might expect a Heroes and Protagonists series. Unfortunately, my brain is a little fried from having to find and define motifs, never mind characters to fit them well, so I decided that the next series is going to be on World Building. That is going to be ridiculously long, just as a forewarning, so it may not be as continuous as the Villains series was.

But before that, I decided that today I'm going to do a one-off on storytelling media. How do we tell stories, and what are the pros and cons of each method?

Humans have been telling stories since the dawn of time. We hear stories as babies, sometimes even in utero, and we begin to tell stories just as soon as we can talk and make ourselves understood. Traditionally, there are two ways to convey a story: oral-audio and visual.

These methods haven't changed, but for this, I'm going to adapt them into more modern categories.

 

  1. Visual, Imaginative

  2. Visual, Presentation

  3. Visual, Interactive

  4. Oral-Audio

 

Now keep in mind that a single story can be presented in multiple ways. Les Miserables for example may be read in book form, listened to as an audiobook, watched as a movie or TV show, or experienced as a stage performance. While the story overall is the same, each method of delivery invokes a different perspective and understanding in the audience.

 

  1. Visual, Imaginative

 

This is just a really fancy name I came up with to encompass books and literature, things that you read and have to experience in your own mind, maybe helped along by illustrations here and there.

The advantage to this method is the inclusion of details, history, and exposition that wouldn't be possible in other visual media. Using Les Mis as the example, if you read the unabridged edition, there are literally pages, almost whole chapters, detailing art and history and culture, which can make the story as a whole a little more accessible to someone who may not understand the intricacies or significance of certain portions of the story. If you tried to do that in a movie, you'd end up with a fourteen hour documentary on the history of France before you ever got to the actual story at hand, and even then it would be constantly interrupted by more documentaries.

That's not to say that the abridged edition is lacking in any way when it comes to story, and those seeking simply to generally expand their literary horizons would do just fine with it.

On the other hand, imaginative media demand an imaginative audience. Those who tend to be less creative and more, ironically enough, by-the-book, may not do well in a situation where he has to constantly conjure up fiction in his mind. A house may be easy enough to imagine, but if its location and layout is central to a story, yet the reader is left only to imagine this setting with only the vaguest of descriptive anchors, it can be very frustrating and very much a turn off.

However, the pendulum can quickly swing the other way, if too much detail is given. Refer back to the unabridged Les Mis where the history of everything is given. That, too, can be exhausting.

It really is a balance.

Visual imaginative stories are also good for guiding the audience through the minds of the characters. While presentation and interactive media may give the audience a visual of someone being frustrated, the imaginative media of a novel instead allows the audience to see and understand the characters' specific thoughts. This in turn can feed an imagination of a character being frustrated or thoughtful or whatever, but it also builds into the characters themselves as we become them, reading and thinking their thoughts with them, understanding their inner motivations.

 

  1. Visual, Presentation

 

This category involves movies and TV shows, isolated stage performances, things where you see what the creator intends you to see. You know how things are laid out, what the people look like, and so on. These visuals can be manipulated in order to trick the mind until the big reveal later.

Arguably the biggest benefit to a Visual Presentation is the ability to establish spatial orientation, both when characters are moving about the house or in a tricky action sequence. It's not much fun to read, “Joe punched Bob. Bob punched Joe back. Joe ducked and kicked Bob.” But turn it into a visual performance and you can certainly evoke a reaction in the audience and really show the blood, sweat, and tears the heroes are sacrificing to save the day. There is also a benefit of observing the broader landscape of an action sequence. Sure, you may only see one of the extras for a few seconds, and his whole sequence may be that he dies, but the level of visual complexity helps to bolster what can sometimes feel as a stagnant, singular experience in a novel.

Another benefit, especially in the age of CGI is the ability to create, well, anything. Science fiction no longer relies on static illustrations or cheap tricks, but monsters and aliens can be brought to life, as realistic and terrifying as any common beast. Characters with scars or other disfigurements can be rendered precisely. Battle scenes can be made to look unbelievable—or perhaps too believable, according to some veterans—without the need for ridiculous acting as people pretend to be shot.

When trying to understand the student rebellion in Les Mis, having the visual of the students with their backs to the wall, fighting the French army with only a makeshift barricade between them, really sets the stage more perfectly, I think, than either a stage or trying to conjure up something in mind. The death of Gavroche is also more poignant because you can see his face and the faces of the rest of the students as innocence is murdered.

The biggest drawback to the Visual Presentation is that, because most humans are primarily visual, it can chip away at individual interpretation and creative thinking. Anyone who sees Les Mis the movie first is probably not going to see anything else in their mind when they read the book. As a sort of aside, consider how Legos used to come in massive tubs to fuel the imagination. Anymore, they're primarily just pre-designed sets based on pop culture. This is where creative storytelling can come into play, intentionally leaving select elements ambiguous and open to interpretation, thereby preserving the imagination of the story rather than spoon-feeding the audience.

 

  1. Visual, Interactive

 

The stories in this category tend to fall into two media: stage performances where the audience may be engaged to some degree, or simply a fully-immersive play where everything that isn't an audience seat is part of the set, and video games. I consider the two different subsets of the same category, so I will address them individually.

First, the interactive play. I admit, I don't go to a lot of theater events, though I will watch them on TV if I can catch them in time. It's even harder to find these kinds of immersive plays. The one that actually comes to mind is a Christmas “play” called, creatively enough, The Christmas Journey. It's less of a stage performance and more of a tour as groups of people are guided and narrated through different scenes of the Christmas story, from Creation to Bethlehem to the Cross. In each scene, the actors interact with and talk to the audience, including singing, dancing, and collecting taxes. It is an immersive experience.

I've also been through self-guided tours through historical sites and even regular guided tours, but I don't consider them the same thing. There is a difference between narration of history as a documentary and an immersive experience with a plot.

The downside to the immersive play usually comes in the form of personality clashes. If you don't want to go to a normal play but are forced to, you sit there grumpily in your seat and scowl. But if you've got actors singing and dancing with you and trying to collect taxes, it can be overwhelming, a sensory overload for someone who may already be high-strung from a bad day.

And then we come to video games. I'm not going to lie, even for being an author, I think the greatest storytelling medium out there in the world right now is video games. I believe it to be utterly superior for the simple fact that video games have moved away from simply bouncing from one level to another to another and expanded into massive, beautiful, interactive worlds that you can spend hundreds or thousands of hours exploring.

Talk to any gamer and there is bound to be some story of them trying to beat a particular boss battle and it taking them two, ten, fifty, a hundred tries (looking at you, Sister Friede). Or maybe trying to navigate a particularly treacherous level (*cough*Enter the Matrix car chase*cough*). The immersion into the fictional world and literally being the one to drive the story forward is absolutely unparalleled, and it's never the same thing twice. Some games even have multiple possible endings depending on the choices the player makes, and in order to experience all the endings, you have to play the game multiple times, increasing the immersion into the fiction. This may be compounded by online multiplayer (though I wouldn't know since I don't do that kind of gaming). It can feel like an entirely second life that you're living.

Like any storytelling medium, video games have their fair share of bad plots, crummy characters, and eye-rolling plot twists. This can be made worse by poor game mechanics. And if there is any downside, it's that some of the larger, longer games can become exhausting. If you have the play the game five times in order to meet some achievement, that can be thousands of hours and even months or years of gameplay, whereas a book might be a few days or weeks, a movie is a few hours, and so on.

 

  1. Oral-Audio

 

These stories, as far as the medium goes, are pretty straightforward. They are stories that are simply spoken and heard with no visual element. In modern day, these would be your audiobooks.

I've personally never been a fan of audiobooks, no matter how great the narrator is, though I like music and I have always enjoyed it when other people read aloud, all the way from my kindergarten teacher reading Boxcar Children during naptime, up to college English when we had to read passages for later study. I don't know, maybe I'm weird. Can someone explain it to me?

But, having to record my own audiobooks, I find that there are a few distinct advantages and differences for the oral-audio storytelling. The first advantage is the ability to hear accents. I don't know about you, but when I read, I always read in my own voice, no matter what a book says about a character having a particular accent. Now then, movies and theater may also have accent trainers to help their actors, but I would then tie it into the second advantage or difference, and that is the ability to imagine.

Books require high levels of imagination, everything from spatial orientation to accents. Audiobooks do, too, but I find that the imagination needed is a little different. If I read a story in the newspaper and then hear that same story from someone else, even though the event is the same, I conjure up two different sequences of events in my mind. I envision different things when I read Les Mis and when I hear it narrated.

There's probably some technical jargon that goes with it, but I think it comes down to how we process information based on input, and how we remember things based on that input.

If there is any drawback to oral-audio, I would submit two. First, unless it is a recorded instance, stories can change over time. It's called the telephone game. The second is that because humans are primarily visual (not all, but most), it can be difficult to train your attention on the story for long periods of time. It's hard to just sit and listen. When doing other tasks, like driving, jogging, working, etc., our attention is split and details can be missed. This can also create a slightly different story for the listener than what is actually being narrated.

 

So that's my take on different methods of storytelling. I hope it was a little insightful, maybe even a little useful.

Next we'll be getting into World Building. Huzzah. See you there.

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