This project comprises a series of narrative experiments, observations, and inquiries that are designed to showcase narrative systems as they exist today. It asserts, as a basic premise, that narratives exist in order to communicate meaning through any combination of abstract and concrete means. Viewed this way, narratives are machines that both comprise and transmit units of meaning.
The Danger of a Single Story
The first step toward telling global stories—stories that are designed for a global, rather than a local, regional, or national audience—is building a unified language for universal conversation. This language, I argue, is less about a literal linguistic context—although this matters—than it is about a mutual respect of the unknown, the perceived, the believed, and the portrayed.
The Internet is ripe with video narratives about storytelling that are worthy of our attention, for example, although to cite these as resources can become problematic from the perspective of the academic. In this piece, I reference many such sources, and believe these will not only enlighten users, readers, and viewers, but serve as necessary cornerstones for arguments expressed herein. I believe there is no better place to start than with novelist Chimamanda Adichie, a Nigerian author whose talk, The Dangers of a Single Story, reflects the need today for stories that reflect global perspectives, desires, and characters.
While travelling in Guadalajara, she realized that she had been so immersed in the media coverage of Mexicans that they had become a single story: “The Abject Immigrant.” She discovered, quite suddenly, that “when you show a people as one thing, over and over again, [that] is what they become.” She recalled an Igbo word, like our economic and political worlds, stories too are defined by the principles of Nkali. How they are told, who tells them when they are told, how many stories are told, are really dependent on power. Power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person.
In the history of stories, characters have manifested in many ways. They have been represented by beams of light, rivers, statues that only move when they aren’t being observed, talking ants, paper air planes, sea sponges, talking toasters, and nuns who sing and dance in unison.
Character typologies, we must agree, are as diverse as they have ever been; users (readers, viewers, consumers) of narrative experiences now have access – because of two centuries of unimaginable growth in communication technologies – to stories from, by, and about people whose actions, belief systems, and own identities force us all to reflect, question, and imagine. We’d all hope this brave new world, which was not long ago a brave new horizon, has done more good than harm to our ways of life. Yes, we have access to more information than we ever have before. People still try to control what we can and can’t see, and those subversive narrative consumers among us still sometimes ask the question: what aren’t I seeing? Yet we continue to move forward, each year understanding a little bit more of the stories behind the experiences of others, reflecting more deeply, and taking actions to adapt to a world of so many voices and interfaces.
Our world has so many stories that one would be forgiven for opting to not consume the same story twice. Such is the great charade, or the great tragedy, of our networked world: while we can access more stories from more places, we are liable to think that once we’ve heard a story, we’ve heard it as it was really intended. In her The Dangers of a Single Story, novelist Chimamanda Adichie reflects deeply on the ways that prejudice and fear can be stoked by the fires of misinformation, which today travel more quickly than they ever have. One would be forgiven for thinking that the way a story is packaged reflects the story itself—where it came from, or whom it came from, and through whose many hands the story has been modified ever since.
But through complexity comes simplicity. The complication of the narrative ecosystem has created, surprisingly, some of the most simplistic narrative forms to emerge on a global scale in centuries, yet whose exact technical mechanisms are some of the most complex in our history. Who wants to travel to experience a story when we can experience it right here, wherever we happen to be? Who wants to pay more money for an experience that requires more physical and emotional commitment on our part? Shouldn’t we be paying more to do less?
Stories as Written, Stories as Designed
When we say that a writer writes, we use the term to encompass all the extraliterary activities that account for the creative act of writing. Writing is actually very little of what a writer does. It is the accumulation of other activities: outlining, iteration, discovery, highlighting, arguing, questioning, and ultimately, designing. The writer might examine the cultural heritage of his characters, their emotional or spiritual conditions, or how they interact with other characters to move forward the story’s plot. For these reasons, I do not distinguish between the writer and designer, except in so far as a writer typically presents a story artifact whose physical form, at least from the writer’s desk, is almost entirely linguistic, with all visual, sensory, or auditory elements of the story expressed through language.
Adichie reminds us of the danger of the single story; the ways that simple stories portray, engender, and envelop the reader in viewpoint mentalities can be subversive if left unsupported or without reflection time. Alternative points of view are required, in other words, for a realistic, valuable, and robust world to be portrayed. Stories, which seek to portray such worlds, benefit then from multiple tellers, viewpoints, and camera angles. This means getting in the head of characters, which is of course possible in many traditional literary forms.
Does this mean we can’t have a single narrator? Does it mean that every story must, to be fair to everyone, include one person of every perceivable viewpoint? Stories aren’t fair. Perspectives aren’t fair. Fair isn’t possible with one person interacting with a media artifact, or with a thousand. We try to get as close to fair as possible. But we’ll I don’t expect we’ll ever truly reach it. Nonetheless, we try to see things from everyone’s point of view. As storytellers, this means portraying perspectives that we don’t enjoy or with which we don’t agree. Sometimes, the characters we portray—often intimately and with a deal of compassion—are the sort of nightmares. But we are responsible nonetheless.
Designers of interactive and mixed media—a term preferable in my opinion to transmedia, which implies a particular transitional action that is actually always happening regardless of what media you’re working in—are afforded a unique opportunity in that they can tell the same story from seven different lenses, or tell seven different stories from forty different lenses. What matters is that the camera changes. It doesn’t have to go from Character 1 POV to Character to POV to a farshot of the world from an isometric perspective. But it does have to change.
Stories are powerful psychological tools as much as they are social and artistic artifacts. They communicate, transmit, and affect prejudice—after all, they’re where our prejudices come from—as well as serving to simulate (remotely) worldviews, perspectives, but people write stories. They aren’t natural like fruit are natural. Stories evolved and changed. But people made them. Or experienced them.
The linear way in which we think can be attributed in large part to our stories. It is certainly how graphic and comic narrative artists have structured our understanding of visual language.[i] Without verbal language, the presentation of facts in an orderly and necessarily straightforward way would still be necessary for any sufficiently effective communicative form to take root. Without verbal language, stories still exist—stories are not just linguistic, but auditory, sensory, tactile; a good paperback novel, which traditionally includes no built-in auditory mechanism, can present today’s users with a deeply unique, pleasant, and engrossing narrative experience that is able to make us completely, and subversively selectively, not hear the doorbell, the phone ring (or buzz, more commonly).
They didn’t make kettles the way they are because they thought the sound would lift us out of our addictive narrative experiences and remind us of the world. They made them like that because—well, the first one was probably an accident—but one assumes the concept lacks any particular reflection on the nature of our leisure time. It wouldn’t be relevant in the kettle’s design. Its jarring sound takes us out of any experience, pleasant or unpleasant, and calls us to action by providing a sound so incredibly unpleasant that we must act to end it. (In game design, this might be called a sort of quest). This sort of primal design philosophy—the one of sirens, alarms, and push notifications—is objectively disempowering to the user. The user should be able to control what experiences he has when. He desires control over their duration, volume, color schemes, velocity, and emotional design considerations. In this sense, we share responsibility and power with our devices, whose interruptions we tend to accept in exchange for their services.
One of my greatest frustrations and disappointments—when I look at the way that I live—is that by accessing “modern essential” services, such as Google Maps or Email, I must necessarily agree to provide data to the service provider. One kind of data would be appropriate here—the kind that says how much I used, the one that treats information like any other utility resource and tells providers the volume they’ll need to provide and the volume they’ll need to take in—for practical and operational purposes. But to put it as plainly as I believe I am able, we don’t send clean water back to the sanitation plant. The water we pay for is ours. The waste we produce is theirs, or maybe all of ours. But the deal is a simple one. Water for money. And when you’re done with the water, send it back and we’ll make more.
The water we send back to the sanitation facility doesn’t contain an immediately available ”footprint” that tells them who we are and what we did to make it, so it is in no way like data that we give back to service providers. But data is a requirement. My data, your data, everybody’s data. Your name, phone number, email, bank account information, Skype User ID (and every other user ID) replace your state ID for almost every required transaction. This is because they are—almost all of them—conducted primarily on intelligent devices.
Global Narrative Structures
Kurt Vonnegut lectured on story structure, which I will call “narrative structure” here, to show that quantitative frameworks can enhance our understanding of narrative elements. Yet by the time of his death, Vonnegut had yet to see a world in which quantitative and qualitative approaches truly intertwined. In his “Shape of Stories” lecture series, he describes story structure simply on an X-Y axis, with fortune on the Y and Time on the X, and the diagram existing in reference to what’s outside of it—the hero (Vonnegut, 1987).[ii] For multi-hero stories, this framework would have to be changed just modestly.
I believe that a range of approaches are necessary in order to appropriately examine complex and global narrative systems. This means defining their assemblages, as Vonnegut seems to suggest, but also much more. In terms of systems-thinking, we must also look at the individual constructs of visio-linguistic systems. A word is a system. We call this system diction. It embodies letters, which assembled together take meaning and become words. A sentence is a system, too. We call that system semantics. It embodies words, which assembled together take more complex, higher-level meaning and become sentences. A rock is a system. It embodies the intersection of physical, chemical, and gravitational forces, which together tell us how a rock works, where it comes from, and what we can do with it.
Ownership of Global Narratives
Global narratives have no owners, nor should they. They have spread worldwide effectively in order to communicate without border or boundary.
Narrative Relativity & Quantitative Narratives
I believe that the world operates by mathematical laws first, and by all other laws second. I believe that there is nothing that cannot be described using numbers and words, and that centrally, we cannot understand anything sufficiently complex unless we can describe it using both. A pie, after all, is not the accumulation of its ingredients alone, but a balancing act of chemicals and chain reactions under a set of ideal, designed circumstances. I have, in exploring narrative forms and genres, often felt confounded by the broad definitions placed on inherently unique pieces whose effect and impact on audiences, or users, is almost nothing like that of its compatriot pieces, sharing the same genre or form classification, but little else.
To understand how narratives fit either side-by-side or in combination, we must be able to describe narrative events in systematic, universal ways that resonate meaningfully regardless of culture or purpose.