Storytelling Across Platforms

The first stories were told orally, in the light of flickering fires. Over the centuries, storytelling has continued to evolve into a wide variety of formats. One of these formats–movies–has been our topic this past month. Another format will be our focus in August.

Storytellers-both ancient and modern-often act out parts of their stories. Dramatization evolved into theatrical arts, such as stand-up comedy and plays. The widespread use of home radio created radio dramas. The invention of film evolved plays into movies. The creation of television evolved plays into TV shows. Or, consider cave paintings. Sometimes, when viewed in sequence, they depict events, such as hunts. When images are married to the written word, comic books, manga, and graphic novels are their descendants.

Yet TV didn’t kill plays, and comic books didn’t eliminate novels. Radio dramas might be rarer today, but audiobooks continue to sell. All these different forms of storytelling have survived and thrived side by side. The reason for their proliferation is that different forms of storytelling appeal to different people.

We all have different learning styles: visual, auditory, tactile, or some mixture of methods. I have a friend, vision impaired and legally blind, who finds it much easier to enjoy television-listening to the story and watching the screen through a special magnifier-than to read a printed book with his devices. I have another friend-a published novelist-who doesn’t read novels for entertainment. She learned her storytelling skills from movies and television and applied them to the written word. Personally, I have prosopagnosia-the inability to distinguish between faces-which makes TV and movies challenging for me, since I often struggle to tell the characters apart. As a result, my novel and comic book library vastly outstrips my DVD library.

Or, sometimes we want a specific experience with our story. There’s the summer popcorn spectacle of going to see a movie with a group of friends. There’s the dinner and the theatre date that marks a special occasion. There’s curling up under the covers with a good book on a stormy winter day. There’s the sick day spent in a video game marathon. None of these experiences are the same, but all of them are centered around a story.

The keys to good storytelling are common across all these different forms. These keys include: suspense, strong characterization, eliciting emotion from the audience, interesting plots, conflict and resolution, theme, mood, and more. Techniques vary – for example, in a novel, the author can write out the character’s thoughts, whereas in a movie, the director must choose between using camera work and the actor’s gestures to convey those thoughts, or using a voice-over narration to relate the thoughts to the audience-but story elements remain. That’s why the lessons we learn from other forms of media can be applied to novel and short story writing. That’s also why people are hired to write scripts that become movies, TV shows and video games; because you can’t just turn a group of actors and a camera crew loose and expect a coherent story to create itself.

This past month we’ve talked about storytelling lessons we’ve learned from movies. Next month, we’ll be taking a look at storytelling in one of its newest forms: games, both video and otherwise. We’re fortunate to live in an era where we have so many different options for enjoying, and creating, our stories.

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