Sean P Carlin

Writer of things that go bump in the night

Journey’s End: Rushkoff and the Collapse of Narrative

And now for something completely different:  How about a magic trick?

Think of your favorite story—book or movie.  (Hell, say it aloud, if you’re inclined—I can’t hear you.)  If you’ve got several candidates, just pick one quickly, at random.

Got one firmly in mind?

Betcha I can tell you how the plot unfolds.

Here goes:  The protagonist is faced with an unforeseen crisis that upends the status quo, and, after some initial resistance, accepts the call to adventure.  Through a series of trials and setbacks in which both allies and enemies are made, our hero finds the strength to rise to the challenge and, in doing so, achieves personal catharsis (what we in Hollywood call the “character arc”), returning once again to an ordinary state of affairs… a little bit wiser for his troubles.  The End.

How’d I do?

It’s a little general, I’ll grant you—I probably wouldn’t wow them in Vegas with that act—but, at your story’s most basic structural level, that pretty much sums it up, no?

An old master taught me that one—Aristotle—and, to be sure, that versatile template is indeed the wand by which magic is conjured:  the epic poetry of Homer; the plays of Shakespeare; the cinema of George Lucas.

“This way of organizing stories—Joseph Campbell’s ‘heroic journey’—is now our way of understanding the world.  This may have happened because the linear structure is essentially true to life, or we may have simply gotten so accustomed to it that it now informs the way we look at events and problems that emerge” (Douglas Rushkoff, Present Shock:  When Everything Happens Now, [New York:  Penguin Group, 2013], 20).

Consider the remarkable durability of the hero’s journey schema:  It has transcended technological innovation, serving as the fundamental architectural foundation of narrativity through medium after medium, mechanism after mechanism, be it spoken word, stage, printing press, or celluloid.  It has been the bedrock of Western storytelling for millennia—one of the reasons, per Rushkoff, “civilizations and their values can persist over centuries” (ibid., 16).

And—speaking of matters existential—what if its time were over?

What if, like a natural resource that had been abused or overtaxed—an aquifer poisoned by industrial runoff; soil stripped of fertility through overexploitation—the Aristotelian story model has been catastrophically depleted?

Is that possible?

If so, what would that mean for us as a culture?  And what would it mean for us as storytellers?

The end of the road for the monomyth?

The end of the road for the “monomyth”?

 

THE PRESENT TENSE

Those are some of the thought-provoking questions raised in media theorist Douglas Rushkoff’s fascinating—even thrilling—book Present Shock:  When Everything Happens Now.  An analysis of modern digital technology and the ways in which it encourages us to be multiple places at once yet never truly present in any single location or moment—fracturing our attention to the point in which long-term goals are surrendered to an everlasting state of now by devices in our pockets that ping nonstop with “urgent” alerts about what’s happening elsewhere—Rushkoff spends a considerable part of his treatise on the collapse of traditional narrative as one of the five consequences of a “presentist culture.”

“The story mechanics [Aristotle] discovered are very important for us to understand, as they are still in use by governments, corporations, religions, and educators today as they attempt to teach us and influence our behaviors” (ibid., 19).

A narrative unfolds over time, and carries us to a logical, conclusive endpoint; Rushkoff, in essence, asserts that our conventional sense of continuity—of linear narrativity—got disrupted by seismic events like 9/11 and the Information Age (“The new inventions and phenomena that were popping up all around us just didn’t fit into the stories we were using to understand our circumstances” [ibid., 15]), as well as hijacked by advertisers and politicians that manipulated us to the point of disillusionment with false premises and promises.  (That is a gross oversimplification of but one aspect of Rushkoff’s elegant thesis, and I encourage anyone interested in further exploration of the subject to read Present Shock, or at very least check out this brief video lecture Rushkoff conducted for PSFK.)

With a narrative arc that is possibly no longer compatible “with a presentist culture” (ibid., 39), as Rushkoff posits, what’s arisen in its place is a sort of “postnarrative” approach to storytelling (bear with me on this one because it’s a very cool, eye-opening notion), in which there are either no stakes or consequences (he cites The Simpsons as an example), the viewing experience itself supplants linear plot progression as the entire point of the program (Beavis and Butt-head, Mystery Science Theater 3000), or, the movement’s current permutation:  sprawling ensemble shows like Lost, Game of Thrones, and The Walking Dead, which “are less about what will happen next, or how the story will end, than about figuring out what is actually going on right now—and enjoying the world of the fiction, itself” (ibid., 32).

“And like a fantasy role-playing game, [Game of Thrones] is not about creating satisfying resolutions, but rather about keeping the adventure alive and as many threads going as possible.  There is plot—there are many plots—but there is no overarching story, no end.  There are so many plots, in fact, that an ending tying everything up seems inconceivable, even beside the point” (ibid., 34).

That is postnarrative storytelling in a nutshell.  To be clear:  It isn’t necessarily that it’s epic in scope and ensemble-driven—Lord of the Rings was that, and that’s a classically structured hero’s journey if ever there was one—it’s that it adheres to an altogether different organizational pattern and corresponding set of audience expectations than the mythic arc that has given shape to virtually every story since Classical Antiquity.  There’s no moral.  There’s no conclusion.  There’s no catharsis in The End because there is no end built into the overall design of the narrative experience.  In short:  This isn’t your great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather’s campfire yarn.

 

AGE OF AVENGERS

Nothing, in my view, better exemplifies the prevalence of postnarrative storytelling than the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  Here we have a world in which fancifully futuristic technologies like flying aircraft carriers coexist without question or irony alongside an anachronistic, seventies-era depiction of a crime-ridden Hell’s Kitchen (which, in reality, is a gentrified Manhattan neighborhood that hasn’t even gone by that sinister sobriquet since I can recall, and I’m a native New Yorker who worked in that area during the early nineties).  With a dozen films (plus three television series) and counting, Marvel has orchestrated something never before accomplished (but soon to be often imitated):  an interconnected, cross-pollinated, shared fictive continuity across multiple media—most notably feature films, which had, up until very recently, been a stalwart of self-contained storytelling.  Even George Lucas’ classic Star Wars trilogy, which was a fairly novel cinematic experiment at the time in that it told one grand, epic story over the course of three movies, was, ultimately, a finite experience—a closed narrative with a beginning, middle, and end (though Hollywood has seen fit to retroactively fix that), but the same can’t be said of the MCU:  It just keeps expanding—like the actual universe—introducing more and more and more costumed heroes with each installment, interweaving various cosmic conflicts into increasingly grander confrontational spectacles.  Sure, there will be Civil Wars and Infinity Wars that will be won (and lost), but what’s the ultimate endgame to all of it?

Only this:  further expansion.  Further “hyperlinked” world-building in which characters come and go in each other’s stories, the seeds of the current clash watered in the last one—and planted in the one before that.  It’s a burgeoning jungle that takes on a life of its own, with no discernible beginning (since the heroes were all introduced individually in their own movies, making all of them and none of them the first) and certainly no end.

The MCU will continue to branch upwards and outwards for as long as such progression is sustainable.  And when the shared continuity does inevitably grow so unwieldy as to become alienating to fans old and new alike, the “history” of Marvel’s cinematic universe, like the comic books that inspired it, will undoubtedly be subject to periodic “hard reset”:  It will simply cease to be one day, only to reemerge in a new form in which earlier events may be incorporated, modified, or altogether ignored at the storytellers’ discretion.  (Fox’s X-Men series, trailing behind Marvel at only seven movies so far, initiated something of a “soft reset” with last year’s time-tripping Days of Future Past, addressing continuity lapses when it served the story, and casually disregarding them—the death of Professor X in The Last Stand—when it didn’t, only to culminate in an alteration of the timeline in which the series is set, so as to allow the ongoing prequels to forge their own path unencumbered by the plot developments of movies produced earlier but chronologically positioned later; J. J. Abrams’ Star Trek employed a similar stratagem.)  All forward momentum in the MCU will come to a halt at that point in favor of jumping into an “alternate universe” in which the tangled complexities of a hopelessly convoluted present will be wiped clean like a whiteboard at the end of class; origins and relationships may be reshaped and retold, lessons magically unlearned, all sense of cause-and-consequence—and its pesky inconveniences—banished from canon.

Heroes for a postnarrative world (note the lack of focal point)

Heroes for a postnarrative world (note the artwork’s lack of focal point)

That’s a staggering notion that certainly makes me reevaluate what’s happening in contemporary Hollywood (to say nothing of Washington and Madison Avenue and elsewhere:  “Narrativity is just the first of many things obsolesced by presentism, and the sense of trauma at losing linearity just the first of five main forms of present shock” [ibid., 66]).  This is not the movie franchising of my youth—placing James Bond or Indiana Jones in an all-new, unrelated adventure each time out; this is something very different than the old paradigm by which I’d previously assessed the MCU and its shared-universe prototype.

I’ve openly bemoaned the rise of the “mega-franchise,” as it’s been called, as a corporate cash grab to maximize the profit potential of existing IPs at the expense of creating new narratives—new adventures with new heroes for a correspondingly new generation—but what if the true issue (the undisputed systemic dysfunction of Hollywood notwithstanding) is, as Rushkoff suggests, that those classic “tropes and values don’t resonate in a postnarrative world” (ibid., 40)?  What if the immense popularity of a tentacled media franchise like the MCU, as well as that of the top-rated series of both basic (The Walking Dead) and premium cable (Game of Thrones), is indicative of a cultural value shift—a worldview that departs radically from the sequential arc that’s stood for over 2,000 years in favor of a new set of storytelling standards in which “[n]arrativity is replaced by something more like putting together a puzzle by making connections and recognizing patterns” (ibid., 34), and the practice of “connecting dots” over extracting value becomes the raison d’être for story?  What would a tectonic expressional divergence like that mean?

“[T]he questions that they’re asking on those kinds of shows and these bizarre post-apocalyptic movies are the questions of our time:  What is this about?  What is it for?  Why am I here?  When you no longer have these great, overarching narratives, like the one where you’ll go to college and get a job and then retire, it’s almost like we’re in that plateau of middle age, where we say, ‘Now what?’”—Rushkoff (Molly Soat, “Digital Disruption and the Death of Storytelling,” Marketing News, April 2015, 44)

 

WE DON’T NEED ANOTHER HERO

That’s a lot to digest.

Assuming you’ve had a chance to do so, are you now feverishly rethinking all the projects you’re working on?  Have you discovered, perhaps, that you’re a postnarrative writer and just never knew it, or are you an adherent to the Aristotelian school who’s now questioning his relevance in a postnarrative landscape?

I told you this was eye-opening.

(It’s even got me wondering if perhaps the reason George R. R. Martin is having such a difficult time completing his Song of Ice and Fire “trilogy”—as it was originally planned to be before branching off seemingly of its own accord and spiraling out of his hands—is because he has failed to acknowledge that unlike the literary opus that inspired it, The Lord of the Rings, his is an ever-widening fictive composition and therefore does not narrow to the inevitability of a conclusion as it progresses.  That would certainly explain why the ending of Lost—and Seinfeld, for that matter—failed to satisfy the show’s hardcore fan base [including Martin himself]:  Viewers had unconsciously ascribed classical-narrative expectations—i.e., a value assignment, or moral—to a series designed to exist in presentist perpetuity only.  Such a quandary will be a challenge for Martin—as well as Game of Thrones showrunners David Benioff and D. B. Weiss—and any writers whose postnarrative works inspire rabid fan followings.  It seems to me the mistake Lost showrunner Damon Lindelof made—a lesson thus far unheeded by Martin—wasn’t his perceived failure to adequately pay off the series’ myriad plotlines, for that would have been both impossible and ultimately irrelevant, but rather his repeatedly publicly reinforcing the viewership’s mistaken notion that all of the mysteries and motifs were building to a grand, meaningful climax in which questions would be answered and some spectacular catharsis awarded to the legions of faithful obsessives; Sopranos fans, on the other hand, couldn’t even hazard a guess one way or the other as to how that was going to end—Does Tony live?  Does he die?  Something else altogether?—because series creator David Chase never conditioned them to expect much in the way of conclusion or catharsis—and never provided it, either.  Martin, at least, has an out:  Novel series can go on forever—subsequent authors can resume the work left unfinished by, say, the untimely death of those who initiated it—but television shows must come to an end at some point; let’s hope Benioff and Weiss have a better sense of how to handle the postnarrative problem when it comes time to call it a day for Game of Thrones.  Perhaps that is why The Simpsons is in its twenty-sixth season with no end in sight:  The narrative has simply become self-perpetuating, and, unlike flesh-and-blood actors, animated characters don’t “age out” of parts or get antsy to pursue new show-business opportunities.)

As I examine my own works-in-progress, it’s apparent that my sensibilities run rather rigidly traditional.  Though Walking Dead is my current favorite show on television, and I consider The Avengers one of the finest superhero films ever made (it takes the bronze behind Donner’s two-part Superman saga and Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, far more classically traditionalist narratives), my personal artistic inclinations—and perhaps this is the influence of Lucas on my work—lean conventional.  I even recently parted ways with a creative advisor who was pushing me to develop novels that would operate as open-ended exercises in cinematic world-building rather than the self-contained literary narratives that inspired my imagination, like my current project, Escape from Rikers Island, which is, at heart, an old-fashioned Monster in the House–jailbreak yarn mash-up—hardly the stuff of highbrow literature or art-house cinema, but nonetheless out-of-sync, as I can identify it now, with my former counsel’s postnarrative proclivities.

So, have I made the right choice, or consigned myself—and my work—to irrelevance?  Let’s turn once again to Rushkoff:

“There’s still room for traditional stories.  It’s just that we have to almost consciously reintegrate those stories and understand that they’re just one way of seeing the world….  But I do think that as we get a little bit more comfortable, or maybe as we get uncomfortable in a purely digital world, we will start to ache again for these more prescriptive narratives and, hopefully, turn to trustworthy storytellers to do it” (ibid.; emphasis added).

Such a return to form is, in my estimation, already underway.  This past May, Marvel’s Avengers:  Age of Ultron steamrolled the international box office, but it wasn’t the film everyone was talking about; no, that honor went to George Miller’s Mad Max:  Fury Road, a classically structured Golden Fleece adventure set firmly in the Joseph Campbell mode (note the way the Road of Trials was an actual road, and the Road Back quite literally a road back).  Audiences have been inspired by its old-fashioned approach to stunt work and story structure, and even its contemporary social resonance:  Far from just a car-chase film (though it operates spectacularly as that) or even a meditation on a world bereft of resources (that’s in there, too), Fury Road is, against expectation, a champion of feminist ideals—part of a growing trend of action thrillers, along with TV’s postnarrative Orphan Black, appropriating an aesthetic that has traditionally catered to male values, such as they are, to serve as a vehicle for issues of women’s rights.

And there’s more evidence yet:  As Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert move on from the satirical news format they pioneered, Stewart’s protégé John Oliver is ushering it to its next evolutionary phase with HBO’s Last Week Tonight.  Unbeholden to the segmented time restrictions of advertiser-sponsored television, Oliver has opted to exploit the advantages of HBO’s subscriber-based model by taking an approach to reporting that is at once radical and old-fashioned—a subversion of the subversion.  Eschewing sensationalist content for subjects often overlooked by mainstream media (paid family leave and standardized testing, anyone?), he nonetheless spellbinds his audience by taking them through a contextualized, nuanced narrative—sometimes as lengthy as twenty minutes (imagine that in this age of fractured attention spans!)—that illustrates how a particular issue came to be, the forces that have exacerbated it, and the consequences of lack of intervention on the matter.  Oliver’s stories are not without a substantial dose of personal opinion, to be sure, but he seems to understand that the values he is attempting to assert are more persuasive in a narrative framework, versus the moment-to-moment shouting matches that have come to define cable “news.”  Oliver has made both comedy and journalism relevant anew by doing something truly revolutionary:  restoring their long-abandoned sense of narrative.

 

MASTER OF THE TWO WORLDS

In the Ordinary World of our existence, we tell stories—we are writers.  And now, as fate would have it, we stand at the precipice of our own hero’s journey—and nothing less than the mode of storytelling that has perpetuated civilization for two millennia is at stake.

This is, however, not a battle—it is not a zero-sum game.  It is a recognition that with all the change the Information Age has wrought, our collective sense of narrative—once as seemingly stable and everlasting as the climate itself—has not gone unaffected.  And narrativity will continue to evolve in an increasingly digital world; it will be our responsibility to track those changes and question their meaning.  The definition of story has expanded in the era of new media, but the need for it—for the sense it makes of events both elapsed and unfolding—persists.

“Indeed, the more technologized and interconnected we become, the more dependent we are on the artist for orientation and pattern recognition” (Rushkoff, Present Shock, 232).

In true postnarrative fashion, I don’t have a tidy conclusion—a takeaway elixir—to this post.  I can only suggest this:  Traditional and postnarrative stories can coexist—they can reflect equal and competing truths about us as a culture—but it is crucial that we consciously acknowledge their differences, in both form and function, just as I’ve suggested we do with the ten different Save the Cat! genres.  So, if you’re inclined to accept Rushkoff’s reasoning, then perhaps heed his advice:  Tell honest stories.  No matter the type of fiction you aspire to write—the old kind or new—be a trustworthy storyteller.

But, what does that mean, exactly?

All I know is what it means for me.

As I became increasingly dispirited over the last few years with Hollywood’s current preference for recycling branded licenses over developing original material, something occurred to me:  Even if I could beat the odds and land a spot in screenwriting’s top one percent (the dozen or so scribes whose names appear under the “Written by” credit of nearly every studio movie released), the best I could hope for is a career writing sequels to reboots of yesteryear’s franchises.  And that, to me, isn’t creating stories—it’s milking corporate assets (even when it’s done well, as it often, to be perfectly fair, is).  I came to Hollywood to do what my heroes had done—recast the influences of my youth in my own image—but those opportunities don’t exist in the industry’s present (corporate) form.  So, I left for more hospitable pastures—publishing—where I eagerly embraced the possibilities that mode of storytelling has to offer.

And when it was suggested that I take what I deemed to be a cynical approach to that—producing works that were essentially spec screenplays masquerading as novels—I rejected that ploy.  That, to me, is how I’ve practiced honesty in my approach to storytelling.  I had to go with what feels right to me—with what reflects my view of the world—and I’ve vowed to realize those stories with all the craft at my command.

Because I have long advocated mastery of storytelling craft through this blog, and Douglas Rushkoff’s identification of the postnarrative is but a new facet of that noble discipline.  I know, in the months and years to come, it will reshape my understanding of story as I further process what it means, and reconsider all I know about the craft in its light—because everything looks a little different to me in the wake of his astonishing dissertation.  And in a world in which everything happens now, I’ve never been more galvanized to see where we take this story next.

13 Comments

  1. I’ve got to say, Sean, you’ve given me a lot of food for thought with this post. I think my own tastes are also more traditional, like yours, though… I think that I also have a pronounced fondness for a bit of post-modern spectacle. Think of it as wanting the story to stay in the “Fun and Games” part of the beat sheet for a lot longer than the traditional narrative would allow. Sometimes I just want the story to be enjoyable for that reason, not because it follows a structure or has any of the ‘traditional’ marks of a good story.

    I think that, in broad terms, we’re definitely in a transition period. In older times, it wasn’t necessary to explain or integrate the traditional narrative or a lot of the symbolism of the culture, because it was shared. Nowadays, between more information and- I’d argue- less cultural interconnectedness, the threads have become frayed, and some snap altogether. There’s also a sense of feeling entitled to pick and choose one’s own connections. Comic books are actually a great example of this. How many times have we heard someone say, “Oh, I only follow this one title,” and even if there are tie-in events and what-not, the person doesn’t care and doesn’t follow. I think we’ll probably see a fair bit more of that, as time goes on. People choose the narratives that they want, and reject the ones that they either don’t want or- just as importantly in a presentist world- the ones they don’t have the time to follow up on.

    In a way, though, I think I’m in agreement with you. This sounds like the start of a new Hero’s Journey for writers and storytellers like us. My own passion is uncovering the old meanings and the roots of our stories and giving them new life, and I think that’ll be valuable in this context. Much like your goal to recast the influences of your youth in your own image, I think. So… yeah. I’ll be keeping my eyes open, and I’ll definitely be rethinking things in light of that dissertation, but I’m not at all worried about it. ‘Galvanized’ is definitely a good word for how I feel.

    • Ben,

      Thanks so much for reading the piece — I realize this one requires a bit more time and attention than your average blog post — and for taking the time to leave such an exceptionally thoughtful comment.

      You’ve struck upon a very interesting notion worthy of further consideration: that the postnarrative story essentially exists in a perpetual stage of Fun and Games. I think that’s exactly right: Postnarrativity isn’t about setup (the conflicts that fuel both Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead are, for the most part, mere backstory), and it isn’t, as the piece establishes, about resolution; it’s about what’s happening right now — the quandaries and complications, the “fun and games,” as Blake Snyder so cogently put it. The world of the fiction itself, in all its complexity and dimension, takes precedence over any narrative linearity, same as a videogame or RPG (which also get covered in Rushkoff’s book, by the way); the point of the experience is to exist in — to enjoy — “the moment.” And that, Rushkoff argues, is reflective of the condition of present shock we as a culture now find ourselves in — a persistent state of now in which the past is reduced to truncated prologue and the future to irrelevance. So, when you use craft to peel back the layers of postnarrative stories to their skeletal infrastructure, you are all of a sudden confronted with these very profound existential questions/revelations: Was linearity something I took for granted, like the earth under my feet? What psychological effect has its collapse had on me that I may not have been consciously aware of? Is there any way to get it back? And do I still even need it?

      I think it’s going to be very important in the years to come for storytellers to not only learn more about the postnarrative model, but even codify it the way that Campbell and Christopher Vogler and Blake Snyder did for the Aristotelian arc — to study its variations and identify its subsets and archetypes as they continue to develop (much the way you just noted that it seems to operate within the confines of what’s known as the Fun and Games of the classical template). I think scholars will do that — myself included — and that Rushkoff has really opened the door to something that’s going to give storytellers the tools to consciously recognize the forms and functions of both paradigms, and apply them to write, as he implores, honest stories. By identifying postnarrativity, Rushkoff has given us a whole new frontier to explore — set us off on a new “hero’s journey,” if you like. It’s not something to worry about, only something — as the custodians of narrativity — of which to be cognizant.

      Sean

      • Thanks for the reply back, Sean. And you know, I was actually thinking of the RPG/video game comparison when I made my “Fun and Games” comment. There’s always a story there, yeah, but there’s also always the spectacle, always the emphasis on how the story impacts your character (and by extension, you.) I think that we’ve had several different ‘strains’ of storytelling in different mediums, whereas before we only had the one, and I think we’re seeing some convergence there. Which is going to make a massive narrative mess as everybody figures out what’s going on, but as you say, there’s going to be exploration and codification of it, as we figure out what works, what doesn’t, and how to fit the pieces together. Which I’m all for, by the by- while I’m okay with the traditional narrative, sometimes it is awful constraining, and this might offer tools to expand and change the narrative.

        I hesitate to call myself a scholar, though! *laughs*

        You also raise some interesting points about the questions that get raised when you get to the skeleton of the story (or perhaps a better phrase would be ‘when you open the postmodern can of worms, mm?) I think, just on my own, that the comparison with video games and what not is a lot more insightful than I realized. One of the big things about the traditional narrative was that it was pretty much universal. You could agree with the conclusions of the story or not, but the basic narrative crossed boundaries. In the future, I think we’re going to see a lot more emphasis on what the reader’s experience is, and chances are about 50/50 that we get either a broader base of readers as people get comfortable with the idea of changing their expectations to fit into the narrative of the story they’re choosing at that moment… or a much narrower one as people choose their favorite niches and don’t go beyond them.

        I dunno, this is one of those posts where it’s going to take some time for me to muse it over, and even more to decide what it means to me and my writing. Which, as an aside, is not something that happens to me often, so you should definitely feel proud of yourself on that account, mm?

    • Ben, your thoughts bring up another good point. It was once considered a well-rounded education to require exposure to a wide range of writing. Whether the individual particularly enjoyed it or not, the educated had a sense of appreciation across an eclectic spectrum of not only writing, but art, cinema, etc. People read and watched and viewed much that didn’t align with personal tastes, simply as a matter of being cosmopolitan, cultured and appreciative of others’ perspectives in the world. But today, we have fostered that the idea of a completely customizable life experience is a good thing. I don’t believe it is. It not only breeds egocentrism and lack of community, but makes our worlds ironically small with the vastness of self-indulgent options.

      • Thanks for the reply, Erik, and my apologies for the delay in getting back to you- for some reason, I didn’t get notifications for this post.

        It’s a bit funny that you raise that point, because when I was talking to another friend about this thesis, she had your insight but applied it the opposite way. That is, her contention was that the hoi polloi might have this applied to them, or as a marketing reality that might be true, but that it wouldn’t impact the appreciative readers, because they’d reach across genres. It was more complicated than that, but you get the idea.

        I find myself wondering about that. On one hand, having a wide range of different tastes and narrative options available might make people go out of their comfort zones almost as a matter of course. On the other, as I mentioned to Sean, I’d put even money on the opposite, of more people choosing the customized narratives that fit them, and not going beyond it. And to an extent, I almost lean toward that as being the way it’ll go, because once there’s a certain level of customization available… well, that’s the name of the game in the presentist era, people filter information and choose that which best fits them, by and large. There’s only so much time and energy to go beyond that, after all.

        Which means we’ll likely see an expansion of subcommunities, kind of like what I see in my gamer communities. There’ll be some overlap, sure, and some people playing whatever, but most people will have a ‘home tribe’ that they go back to and that they most identify with. It’ll make those communities stronger and more interconnected, but conversely, it’ll make the cross-community ties likely much weaker.

        As for whether it’s a good thing or not… I’m on two minds. I do think full customization is an essentially egocentric thing, yeah, but… I’ll be completely honest and say I won’t shed many tears for certain narratives getting rolled back or challenged. Or to get the opportunity to settle more into ones that I like, rather than ones that I can appreciate the artistry of but don’t personally enjoy.

        So… yeah, I find myself of two minds about just about everything on this topic. *laughs* But I do thank you for your thoughts, and ah, I see you have a blog of your own! I’ll have to take a look and see what I think, mm?

        • Ben, you’ll find on my own blog and in all matters, my goal is never to get people to think a certain way, but merely to get them to think. And that you are doing. So, in my opinion, mission accomplished all around (mostly attributed to Sean’s thought-provoking post).

          • I can’t take credit: It’s really Present Shock as a whole that’s thought-provoking, but I’m glad this post has served to promote discussion of at least the one aspect of Rushkoff’s multifaceted thesis.

  2. I always enjoy reading your posts, Sean. However, I found myself thinking more deeply about this one in particular, and on several different fronts.

    I have expressed what you said here to others in my own way, but this added further clarity in the development of ideas. One of the reasons I find “Game of Thrones” compelling (and why I watch it “despite” elements that are usually turn-offs to me) is that there are no “safe characters.” In most movies or novels, you know who the “untouchables” and the “expendables” are. Not so with GOT. Characters we come to love and respect die senselessly. Characters whose level of depravity and cruelty would seem to warrant horrific comeuppance die quickly — or not at all. You even find yourself kind of rooting for the villain at times and being irritated with the “good guys.”

    I noticed the trend even 20 years ago creeping in, though I wouldn’t have been able to express it as fully and in such terms as you have here. I remember when hints at a sequel were a new thing (e.g., the dino DNA vial is dropped and covered in mud, etc.). By now, it’s expected that either internal loose ends will be left, or there will be a post-credits trailer with some hint as to “what’s next.”

    Your explanation of the shift to a postnarrative approach certainly brought the pieces together on these things, as well as giving solid food for thought for writers. Currently, I’m known for non-fiction writing, mainly in the Self Improvement / Lifestyle / Advice categories, in which my storytelling tends to be more immediate, real-life material. But I do also write fiction; and these thoughts will definitely be in mind as I turn my storytelling attentions there. I may not choose to depart wholly from narrative writing, but I can’t help but be influenced, given the new thoughts on the matter.

    Thanks for investing your thought, energy and time into offering consistently quality material like this. Though today’s society expects it, as a writer myself, I am always keenly aware and appreciative of the fact that so much hard work is given away for free.

    • Erik,

      As I said to Ben, thank you for spending the time to read this lengthy piece and leave such an insightful comment; it is very much appreciated, my friend.

      To echo your remark, part of what makes Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead so thrilling is the unpredictability of the plots from moment to moment: One can simply never be sure who will live and who will die, or when/how such death is coming, since it often arrives without ceremony. In a traditional narrative that drives toward a climax — and accompanying catharsis — it’s more or less a foregone conclusion that the protagonist will reach the finish line intact (there are notable exceptions, of course). But postnarrativity removes that safety net: Since there is no resolution — no “tomorrow” — we’re left to exist in a perpetual state of presentist anxiety. (Just ask Tony Soprano.) That certainly creates a heightened sense of excitement — a need to look for “clues in every corner” as viewers of Lost did so fanatically — though it does create a newfangled challenge, as I demonstrated in the piece above, when it comes time to drop the curtain on one of those shows. But, I think that as we study the postnarrative model further, inventive (and satisfying) new variations will emerge from the minds of gifted writers who find innovative ways to exploit it.

      You raise a great point: It used to be that dangling plot threads — like the mud-entombed Barbasol can in Jurassic Park — were either regarded as sloppy screenwriting or shameless sequel bait; now, of course, it’s become de rigueur to tease the next (direct or indirect) franchise installment via some post-credit tag or what have you. Hell, audiences are almost disappointed nowadays if a film doesn’t incorporate a “hyperlink”! It’s just more evidence of the prevalence of postnarrativity as a new way of seeing/understanding the world around us; it’s neither a good nor bad thing — it just is.

      I’d been struggling recently myself to identify the Save the Cat! categories of a number of television series, including Orphan Black and The Last Man on Earth; it was really nagging at me because I’d never before had a problem with those sort of genre classification exercises. It simply hadn’t occurred to me — such are the limitations of my own analytical acumen — that those stories didn’t adhere to a compatible narrative arc with the one I’d taken for granted — that the underlying “hero’s journey” framework had been replaced right under my nose with a new expressional permutation. So, when I had a chance to digest Rushkoff’s thesis, I thought, “I’ve got to share this. This changes everything.”

      I think you’ll find that Rushkoff’s conceptions have as much application for your nonfiction as your fiction. As a devotee of your blog, I’ve noticed that one of the ways you impart value so impactfully is by setting context: You generally start with a very personal anecdote — you place the reader in that scenario vicariously — and then carry us, step by step, to a takeaway insight; yours is very much a narrative-based approach to edification. Part of the reason I included John Oliver in my dissertation was to illustrate that narrativity is by no means limited to fiction: As Rushkoff says, it is “still in use by governments, corporations, religions, and educators today as they attempt to teach us and influence our behaviors.” Now, you may very well find that making a formal study of postnarrativity doesn’t necessarily aid your process, and that would be perfectly valid; to whatever degree they incorporate this information into their discipline, I simply want writers to be cognizant of it, as I said to Ben, so as to help tell better, more consistent, more honest stories — or even just to better express one’s own ideas, as you indicated above.

      To address your last point: True, blogging is hardly lucrative, alas, but I find the democratization of information is its own reward. Thanks for engaging with me, pal!

      Sean

      • I believe that all truth has value. Application is secondary. Often, what a writer may have intended for the audience to take away … isn’t what I take away. Or, rather, I wind up making unexpected parallels that add meaning in contexts other than the original setting.

        This post definitely has done that already.

        As I’m known for saying, this is the best in social media: exchange of ideas, encouragement and opportunities for growth.

  3. Soap operas have been doing this sort of thing for over 80 years. You start watching a soap, you don’t start from the very first episode. You don’t expect to see the story end. Each show has various story-lines that occasionally cross and intertwine, but then then separate again, following their own paths.

    Comic books have also been doing something similar, particularly since the sixties. No surprise that the movies based on them are using the same sort of structure.

    • That’s absolutely correct, Dell Cartoons: Soap operas and comic books have been unknowingly utilizing a similar “postnarrative” approach for decades (something I explore in greater detail here). The Marvel Cinematic Universe is only emulating what the comics upon which it is based have been doing since their inception. But here’s the difference: Throughout the twentieth century, comic books (and soap operas, too) were regarded as shoddy storytelling — a lesser form of literature for an undemanding audience; now they are “no longer considered bad writing. In fact, presentist literature might even be considered a new genre in which writers are more concerned with the worlds they create than with the characters living within them” (Douglas Rushkoff, Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now, [New York: Penguin Group, 2013], 34).

      What postnarrativity reflects, then — something comics and soaps were never concerned with — is a collective cultural worldview shift away from a linear perception of reality (as exemplified by the “hero’s journey” narrative model), whereby events unfold sequentially, in favor of a nonlinear “hyperlinked” understanding of our present circumstances in which events occur simultaneously. Before the Digital Age, we used to deal with one thing at a time: We’d wake up, walk the dog, drive to work, sit at a desk, come home and have dinner with our family, and go to sleep — all very linear, all very one-thing-at-a-time. But now, with modern communications technologies, we’ve been thrown into a “brave new world” in which all of those occurrences happens at once: We send work e-mails while we’re in bed; we text with loved ones while we’re being paid to work; we get yanked out of the physical space and actual moment in which we are living all the time by a pinging device in our pocket that lures us into the cyberspatial dreamtime of Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, etc. We are here and we are there, concurrently — ever and always. That’s the kind of nonlinear worldview that is being reflected in the sprawling fictional narratives of the MCU and Game of Thrones. And that’s why we place so much value — why we shower such accolades — on that kind of “presentist” storytelling as opposed to disregarding it as worthless, time-filling junk for children (like comics) and housewives (like soaps). Postnarrativity is indicative of so much more than an evolution in storytelling; it is reflective of a seismic shift in the way humanity itself perceives its own existence. And when you consider it in that context, as Rushkoff compelled me to do, it changes the way you see everything, like Neo in The Matrix. I would encourage you to check out Present Shock for yourself.

      Thanks for commenting!

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