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Everyone is a student of Storytelling

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Tuesday, October 20, 2015
 
Stories From Cuneiform to Smartphones

Is evolving technology changing what we consider a good story?

New York Times writer Terrence  Rafferty thinks that at least among television viewers, the concept of plot is changing. Just a few decades ago, he writes, we liked TV entertainment that let us settle down once a week to watch characters we like doing something we like seeing them do.  We wanted big stars, some action and a mystery. We enjoyed Jim Rockford, played by James Garner, pursuing the clues and figuring out the crime.

Today's audiences, especially the younger ones, have different expectations about the story line, Rafferty write.  They can time shift, binge-watch and view on multiple platforms, Rafferty  quotes entertainment critic Matt Zoller Seitz, who suggests heavily packed plots and "narrative profligacy" are the preferred model for today's scripted TV.  Seitz thinks that's because today's viewers are more sophisticated and more impatient. "In the age of recaps, Facebook instant reactions and live tweeting, everyone is a student of storytelling," Seitz writes" They know the tropes and tricks because they're a constant, often humorous topic of online chatter."

Rafferty says that makes TV more like a game than mere passive entertainment. Viewers guess what will happen and when, and share their predictions instantly on social media, then register glee or chagrin. He says TV writers are struggling to keep up, with varying success.  By way of example, he writes that lots of viewers complained about the second season of HBO's True Detective, and the angriest dissatisfaction was that the plot was impossible to follow.  Rafferty says plots in shows like "Humans," "Mr. Robot," and "Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D" make viewers feel as though following the narrative is a test.  If they feel they are failing the test, they get frustrated and irritable.

Rafferty says binge-watching allows for densely packed plots along with an overarching story line that has a beginning, middle and end. Such shows can be devoured all at once like a novel, and there is less need for periodic social testing.  Binge-able series may become  TV's preferred mode of storytelling, Rafferty writes. But then again, maybe not.  "Whatever happens with TV storytelling," he writes, "it's probably going to be hard to follow."

Do new expectations for TV stories extend to stories in other arenas? Do people read War and Peace on Smatphones? Technology and social media writer Clive Thompson read it on his IPhone and wrote an interesting essay about the experience. It's futuristic, and oddly, echoes from the deep past. He notes that in eighteenth century books published in octavo format, the view of each page was very much like what you see on a smartphone screen. 

Even mare startling was his discovery about cuneiform  tablets humans started using about 5,000 years ago, which encoded transactions of merchandise and possessions, and even The Epic of Gilgamesh, the most ancient existing piece of literature preserved in permanent language. It's about the same weight and shape as an early mobile phone. "Humanity's crazy adventure with writing began with something small in our hands," Thompson writes, "waiting for the text speak to us, trying to still our minds long enough to listen the voice of another.  That part, it seems, hasn't changed." 

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