Being Scared of Narrative

One of the things about panel picking at SXSW is that pretty much everyone comes up with a cute name for their panel. And, oftentimes, the cute name doesn’t entirely reflect what’s happening in the session, so –  on a bad day – there’s a lot of room for disappointment. Particularly on a sunny Sunday morning.

I turned up to “Interactive Narrative: Creating the Future of Storytelling” with high hopes. I’m not quite sure why I thought it would be so good, because it’s exactly the kind of session that generally makes steam come out of my ears – but their use of the word “storytelling” made me optimistic. It’s a nice word, full of Ronseal appeal, that feels much better than “transmedia”, which I’d heard too many times in the previous few days.

If you wanted a quick primer on how to make a linear text narrative into an all-singing-and-dancing socialised application, then this was the presentation for you. (I’ve linked to it above. Have a look. It’s good. Or see Hugh Garry’s Storify summary.) But it didn’t really talk about the future of storytelling, its past or the theory. It didn’t talk about the fact that stories are inherently social, because they get passed  from person to person and changed with every telling, or the fact that a good storyteller has to leave some room for the audiences’ imaginations to take flight (the purest form of interactivity ever made). Instead, it explained how to make pictures that people can colour in, so they feel a part of the construction, and how to get them to like the story on Facebook. But it seems to me that the *real* way to get people to like things on Facebook isn’t to provide a button to let them do so (although, obviously, that helps), but just to make really good things that are irresistible: things you can’t stop yourself talking about and sharing with your friends, stories that you tick over in your brain as you try to understand and interpret what they mean. Things you just can’t stop ‘interacting’ with.

So what if we added fewer buttons and made better things? Writing good stories is difficult and experiencing good stories is amazing; there’s no more difficult ‘platform’ to write for than peoples’ imaginations, and if we get that right, the rest will follow. We’re right to be intimidated by narrative – it’s not the kind of thing to be reduced to a 45-minute “how to” session at a conference or something you should can get a handle on by following a 10-Point Plan.

Narrative used to be a word rarely used outside of literary-theory classes. I’m a big fan of language change – words ought to grow and take on new meanings – but in this case, on a conceptual level, the meaning hasn’t changed at all – it’s just that we’re trying to narrow the concept and make it easy to understand. I suppose what I’m saying is that ‘Interactive Narrative’ is a tautology – all narratives are interactive – and that we should feel overwhelmed and amazed by its potential. Let’s not try and tame it by introducing equations for “social aspects” and appropriately formatted images, let’s be scared of narrative and do battle to make amazing things. I’m going to be resolutely unfashionable and finish with a quote from Roland Barthes – but I think he’s right:

Narrative is first and foremost a prodigious variety of genres, themselves distributed amongst different substances – as though any material were fit to receive men’s stories … narrative is present in myth, legend, fable, tale, novella, epic, history, tragedy, drama, comedy, mime, painting … stained glass windows, cinema, comics, news item[s], conversation … in every age, in every place, in every society … narrative is international, transhistorical: it is simply there, like life itself.

From “Introduction to the Structural Analysis of Narratives”, Image, Music, Text (emphasis mine)

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