Being a Storyteller in the Age of Narrative Collapse

Last week I mentioned that the Wired opinion article “Why Living in the Present Is a Disorder” held enough inspiration for a series of articles; this post is another in the same vein. This week, however, I want to focus on the idea of narrative collapse:

Narrative Collapse is what happens when we no longer have time in which to tell a story. …the inability to tell stories over time has yielded new forms — like video games and fantasy role-playing — which tell stories in the present tense.  … The audience is voluntarily surrendering authority to the storyteller as long as he isn’t abusing it. Really, we just want the narrative to keep going.”

When I originally read this comment I knew exactly what Rushkoff meant; I’ve been playing video games, MMORPGs, and role-playing games (RPGs) for almost two decades now. For me these have all been about building and maintaining a community of friends. The games provide an activity that serves as a starting point and rally point for connection. (In other words,  I don’t play D&D/Pathfinder, The Old Republic, or The Secret World (or City of Heroes, which unfortunately no longer exists) because I particularly enjoy the game or the story the game tells. I play because it gives me a chance to interact with friends in a structured way. I don’t mean to say that I don’t enjoy the games or the stories they tell; however, that part is minor compared to the pleasure I get from having a group of folks that I enjoy being with. The fun part — the real payoff — is having a mutually agreeable reason to  hang out with people I like and get to know them better. So it makes perfect sense to me that such games would encourage the sort of “present tense” storytelling nature that Rushkoff describes — the whole point is to be present and connected to your friends!

I run into trouble, however, when I follow that train of thought into more traditional forms of storytelling as Rushkoff does:

Think Game of Thrones. In the old days, this sort of show might be considered bad writing. It doesn’t really seem to be moving toward a crisis or climax, it has no true protagonist, and it’s structured less like a TV show or a movie than a soap opera. Yet it really does capture the qualities of a fantasy role-playing game or massive multiplayer online world. Even the opening titles sequence conveys this presentist style: we move over a map, as if exploring the various worlds on the game board. Almost all the families have good justifications for “winning” the throne, and I don’t think anyone wants a particular family to totally win and end the story.”

While I haven’t yet written a novel, I’ve been seriously exploring the possibility. The idea of applying the same kind of narrative collapse to TV and novels is kind of frightening. What does it mean when the most popular forms of entertainment most closely resemble soap operas or games with no end? What does it mean if the goal is the comforting reassurance that we can drop in on an episode — any episode — and immediately know the characters, the conflicts, and the action? Is this a world where development and growth is punished? What happens to foreshadowing, or character development? Does the entire exercise just become the storytelling equivalent of The Song That Never Ends?

If you’ve ever heard the song, or played an RPG, you know that they do indeed eventually end. Life intervenes, distractions mount, and eventually we move on to other pastures. I have never participated in an MMORPG or RPG that has ended because the story was over; in all cases, I’ve either lost interest (for whatever reason), consciously quit,  or ended up abandoned as others lost interest or quit. Does narrative collapse mean that the story doesn’t end until the audience is done with it, bored or distracted by life and other forms of entertainment? What happens when the viewers, or readers, or players, no longer want what you’re offering?

And yet, at the same time, I realize that opportunities provided by self-publishing and micropress publishing mean that perhaps the story need never end, as long as you have a small core of devoted fans. Robert Jordan wrote 14 books in the same series, and I firmly believe that he could have written 14 more and sold all of them well. Fans of Star Wars have such an insatiable appetite for material that they easily support dozens of authors and story lines across a wide variety of characters and settings. What happens when I feel like I’m tapped out for a given narrative, but the fans want more? As someone who enjoys telling stories, it’s hard to think that other folks might lose interest in the world before I do; it’s almost more scary to face the possibility that people might want more of a setting than I’m interested in providing. (Perhaps there’s some way to emulate Joss Whedon’s ability to carry fans from one narrative to the next.)

What do you think? If you’re a storyteller (of any kind — author, screenwriter, game designer, et) do you worry about this idea of “narrative collapse”? How has it affected how you think about telling your story? Does it even matter, or am I making mountains out of mole hills? Let me know your thoughts in the comments!

Your Thoughts