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I love stories. I think about them a lot. I'm not sure if I'm an expert in the field, nor am I sure if I'll ever master it, but it's always been an interest of mine. My mom has a story about me that sums this up best - in kindergarden we were once asked to write a really short narrative about an apple that falls out of a tree. The other kids, to a head, wrote a few lines. I wrote an epic, or the 5 year old equivalent of one, longer and more elaborate than my teacher had seen before and probably since. It likely wasn't very good, and there's a downside to being very longwinded and verbose, but that kid who wrote the epic of the apple that fell out of the tree is me in a nutshell, and always will be.
Here's a few of my thoughts on storytelling, and why I find it important.
We've been telling each other stories since the dawn of time. Carl Jung's writings and the more modern psychological research on recurring archetypal characters in fiction (they even appear in subconscious dream states) makes it pretty clear that storytelling might be part of our DNA as a species, a sub strait that underpins everything we do, say, want and think. We react to heroic arcs, narrative based conflicts and journeys in a primal way, which explains how writers have gotten away with reusing the hero's journey as many times as they have.
The thing that compounds this is that humans were also drawing stories before we had language (ancient cave paintings being relatively conclusive proof of this). Somehow, I stumbled into possibly the oldest and most primal profession of them all (no, not sleeping with people for money). Stories shape how we see things as a society. In a way, every individual is the hero of their own story, mentally going through endless arcs until they die - there may be psychological evidence for this too. This shit is deeeeep, man.
I also believe that storytelling makes all fields better. It makes visual designers better, because it gives them the best possible anchoring point when producing concepts or visuals for a project. It makes pitching and presentations better (education as a whole), because knowing how to sandwich and package information in the form of contextual story makes it easier to grasp and understand. More complex fields like STEM subjects are easier for laymen to understand if the people working in them can articulate their ideas with simple narratives. Good storytelling skills make everyone smarter and thus, everything better.
The reason I'm saying all this, and the reason I think about all this is that I want to make sure that what I'm dedicating myself to is worthwhile. Just like how debaters and philosophers dedicate themselves to the search for truth, I have to be really sure that telling stories for a living is a good idea.
Considering the other side of the equation, story does have a dark side. Mastering it means mastering a form of very effective and elaborate lying. It's deception by definition, because fiction is not real or true in the literal sense. You literally have to work to get people to suspend their disbelief for two whole hours in a feature film.
This power of fictional deception needs to be used with caution, because deception also attracts the exact same kind of people that should not have this power. It's totally possible to slip shitty messaging into fiction in an attempt to coerce an audience into thinking a certain way, or believing in a certain set of ideas. I do not want to go this way. I plan on constructing my stories to challenge people's ideas, engage their critical thinking processes and elevate people's expectations of quality in storytelling. Getting people to think, instead of telling them what to think, in other words.
However, while storytelling is deception, parts of fiction can be very true and meaningful - the deepest themes of the best stories ever written (what does it mean to be human, man vs his own nature, the fundamental betterment of oneself and one's group through relationships with others, etc.) are accessible to all people. These themes are fundamental to who we all are. That's how important story is, and why lowering the quality of stories told in our broader cultural lexicon is damaging us in the most basic way possible. The power to articulate ideas, and knowing how to improve ones' ability to do so through engagement with others is one of the few actual freedoms we have.
There's also a secondary danger in storytelling that I (and all of us) need to be aware of, and that's escapism. Too much escapism (which can take the form of video games, animated shows, any form of story) can cause people, in extreme cases, to lose their grip of reality, or give them an outlet to run away from their real world problems that need attention. Sure, everyone needs a break from the world, that's all well and fine. But you've probably seen people become dangerously obsessed with their favourite stories, to the neglect of what is actually important. Many fictional properties have pushed this as a hidden message - Ready Player One has this as an overt theme. Evangelion is more subtle, though this turned into the ultimate irony as it grew massively popular and the creator's message (deal with your problems instead of burying yourself in escapist entertainment) was lost in the tide of people that, you guessed it, buried themselves in his escapist entertainment. As much as I'd like people to be enraptured by the stories I tell, it's always important to keep at least one eye on what is real. Fictional narratives, characters and stories are 100% not real, even if their themes are deep, meaningful, true and real in an esoteric sense.
Most of all though, and this is definitely a driving force behind my work now, the greatest evil being committed in the world of storytelling is the seemingly systematic destruction of the iconic franchises and great tales of the last 40-50 years. An endless parade of remakes, reimaginings, reboots, 'spiritual successors' and other crap that're all objectively worse than the originals are being pushed out of entertainment companies like there's no tomorrow, like there's an actual race to the bottom. It's not a good thing, because this is causing expectations of quality to lower among audiences. A possible endpoint of this is an Idiocracy situation, where people in the not so distant future might not be aware that the entertainment they're consuming is complete horseshit, as it continues to rob them of their ability to think critically and understand the world.
What I'm saying is that storytelling is a language (one we've been developing for a very long time, and one that now has various subdialects like film, TV, animation, even music) but there are a lot of ways that language can be degraded over a very short period of time until its very difficult to communicate anything meaningful. Modern storytelling may be getting closer and closer to this possibility, especially if individual creators don't step up even more than they already have and fight to preserve this art.
And then there's political agendas, like people are trying to intentionally date their stories with the current paradigms of the day (people 50 years from now won't give a fuck about or possibly even understand what people yap about today). Having an agenda outside of telling a well constructed, meaningful and functional story automatically degrades the quality of the story, and is the opposite of profound. Any focus on this kind of stuff erodes the objective logic and rules of storytelling - because these are the engines that make stories go. Neglect them, give them the wrong kind of fuel or straight up ignore them, and you get bad writing, which you don't to be deliberately feeding to anyone.
Just to be clear, having politics in stories is absolutely fine, but they have to belong to, make sense within, and not break the fictional world by being shoehorned in there to make some kind of weak point about the current day paradigm. This is especially important because if you try this crap, you're very likely attacking the segment of your audience that doesn't necessarily agree with your views (directly or indirectly, it doesn't really matter). All stories are political in one way or another, as all interactions between two or more human beings can inherently be called 'political'. Rather than try to push a specific, superficial, dated message in stories, a much better, more timeless and more effective approach is to attempt to communicate a universal truth about ourselves and about the world - that's where story becomes a powerful tool for communicating what really matters.
So why am I talking about all these negatives around storytelling, and are they even negatives at all? Why does any of this stuff matter?
In short, it's important because we see the world through the lens of narrative. The higher quality narratives that we take in, the better we're able to see and understand the world for what it really is. We're better equipped to critically examine our lives and discover real truths, and debate each others' ideas to find the best ones, instead of living in pure ignorance driven by hobbled, overly simplistic narratives that turn people into mindless machines. Telling better stories, and pushing the medium forward in a non-destructive way is good for us. Deconstruction can also be good, pulling apart genres and assumptions about the conventions of storytelling is a great way to come up with legitimately new and original narratives, but de-struction can easily happen if deconstruction isn't handled properly, in good faith. You have to want your audience to love what you're doing, even if you shine an ugly truth about themselves back at them. People react well to that kind of honesty in storytellers.
And with all this theoretical stuff said, what am I actually doing to further my goal of telling stories?
You may find me writing madly until 3am when a new story idea hits me, or endlessly bashing my head against the wall to work out plot issues and develop believable characters who act how they want to act (and having to change large parts of the story as a result if something no longer fits), or developing smaller ideas in case my larger ones fall flat. I've done a sizeable amount of visual work already on my central story idea - which will be revealed soon - because EVERYTHING in this world needs to be designed, and fit cohesively in with everything else in a believable manner. IP development takes a long time, but I believe the results are worth it. I've also explored alternative story ideas which may be brought into being after the first is launched.
Outside of raw story and world development, even in the fanart I create, I try to at least allude to something meaningful about that world, like putting two characters together that have some kind of relationship. Sometimes all you have to do is literally illustrate a specific scene, and people absolutely dig it because it triggers things they felt at the time, good or bad. I use each illustration piece as a way to hone this technique, almost like doing a very long and rendered storyboard. Sometimes I even dip into other universes and try my hand at creating narratives within them too (such as Star Wars), but this is an exercise and nothing more. I don't own the Star Wars universe, and I have my own ideas to pursue.
All of this is preparing me for the day (and its a day that's fast approaching), where I step away from the outside things I love, and directly into the worlds that have been sitting in my head for so damn long to fully flesh them out, so other people can finally go there too. Storytellers are universe builders, we quite literally create worlds and characters that are designed to be as believable as possible. Even with all the dangers I've mentioned that come with that, I find that when a story truly grabs me and pulls me in, its a beautiful thing.
The other main thing I do, outside of writing, honing my abilities to design, create and otherwise visualize these things that don't exist, is also taking in as many stories and narratives that I can on a daily basis, in all forms. Learning philosophy, history, and as much about the world as I can is also hugely helpful in a cross-pollinating kind of way, as unrelated information can trigger new ideas or influence a narrative to move in a new and unexpected direction. It's equal parts random chance and calculated, specific knowledge about the structure of stories that produce the best ones, you need that element of subjectivity and freshness in there somewhere too.
Finally, there's the outside influence element that can be brought in as heavy artillery in a case where you've really messed up a narrative, or you simply need a fresh perspective or a new lens. You, as the creator of your own universe, can often get trapped inside it and miss the forest for the trees. Its very easy to miss obvious (or not so obvious) structural issues if you're all wrapped up in minutia. Having a battery of your peers to attack your narratives, find their weak points and help close them is an invaluable tool, maybe the most important of all. A story is only an idea, after all, and like all other ideas in that marketplace of ideas, it can be made better. Stories are told for other people, after all, might as well take advantage of your own personal intelligent crowd of friends, especially if you can find friends that have the same passion for storytelling as you do.
I think that's about enough of my thoughts on storytelling, for now. My thoughts on some, or all of this might change in the course of my learning and growing around the subject of story - but one thing that won't change is my dedication to the pursuit of this very, very important art form.
I'll be sharing my worlds with you all, very soon.