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 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.
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.