Storytelling — Just Add Dinosaurs

This entry is part 11 of 12 in the series Narrativium

In a previous part, I covered the storytelling model of Matthew Dicks, who specializes in live, spoken-word competitive storytelling from real life. He has a theory of stories I found deeply unsatisfying: That the essence of a story is a moment of character change where the protagonist changes in an important way from the way they were. Everything else is “just stakes.” His key example is Jurassic Park, and according to him, the story is about Alan Grant flipping from disliking children to liking them. Everything else is just stakes. The dinosaurs are just stakes.

I don’t know about that. I think the story is about dinosaurs. That doesn’t mean Dicks is wrong. Dinosaurs might just be the stakes in Grant’s story, but Grant’s story is not the story. I think the problem is caused by the adjective “just.” Most literary writers, storytellers-from-life like Dicks, and writers in genres like romance are enormously interested in ordinary human life, including their own. Everything revolves around ordinary concerns, especially ordinary human relationships. But these writers don’t particularly feel the need to throw dinosaurs into the mix to create sufficient stakes. Not only are ordinary lives interesting enough, they supply enough of their own stakes. This says more about the personalities of the writers than the world.

A lot of storytelling in speculative genres on the other hand, seems to feel the need to introduce dinosaurs. By which I mean any outlandish stakes-increasing element. Time travel, FTL space travel, aliens, magic, wizards, and so on. Occasionally literary writers do this too, though they seem to feel more of a need to code in symbolism projecting back to ordinary life.

But why might you need dinosaurs for their own sake? No Freudian symbolism. No deep morality tale about not messing with genetics. Just… put in dinosaurs because dinosaurs are cool.

I think the answer is so simple, reality-based writers can’t believe it’s that simple. They believe the rest of us can’t be that “simple” in their terms. Surely these stories are just cryptic ways of exploring love and relationships? Surely other humans must have their kind of rich inner life where that’s all that matters? Surely the dinosaurs are just for the youngest children?

There’s that word again, just.

Here’s an alternate take, with just in a different place.

Maybe for some of us — the majority apparently, going by the popularity of fantasy and sci-fi, ordinary life just isn’t that interesting. I tried Dicks’ exercises and the main thing I discovered is that though I have storyworthy ideas in my life by his standards, complete with character changes, I’m just not interested in telling them. I want the dinosaurs. Don’t get me wrong. I like my life. It’s a good life. It might even be storyworthy by Dicks’ standards. It’s just not storyworthy by my own. Which is fine. Life doesn’t have to be storyworthy to be worth living. But stories do have to be storyworthy.

Kurt Vonnegut has a talk where he graphically describes the shapes of various stories, but he begins with a flat line and a casual remark that most real stories are like that. Explains why Vonnegut is one of the rare literary writers who uses crazy speculative elements. Notably, I find his nonfiction rather dull. Like me, he doesn’t find his own life that interesting.

Maybe the right way to look at stories with dinosaurs is that they’re… about the dinosaurs. Technical formulas like characters changing are just structural scaffolding. This is not just a rhetorical gambit of moving the adjective just. Centering the stakes over the flip creates a very different kind of story. One that’s less interested in putting human-scale life under the microscope and more interested in turning the telescope towards the cosmos, leaving the humans at stick-figure level.

A tell is that stakes stories rarely delve deep into characterization. Some deft archetypal strokes, some not-too-stale tropes, a very basic arc that can be easily and compactly narrated, and you’re done. The energy and word/scene budget is mostly saved for the stakes games. The dinosaurs.

The modern Doctor Who plays with this tension well. In character terms, Dicks’ formula applies loosely. There are three key moments in every Doctor Who long arc: Meeting a new companion, losing an old companion, and regeneration.

  • In the meeting, the Doctor chooses companionship once again, after the loss of an old companion or a regeneration, and the companion chooses cosmic adventures over human-scale love.
  • In the parting, the companion usually dies, as-good-as-dies, or chooses human-scale love again, and the Doctor chooses solitude again as their true condition, swearing never to go through the heartbreak of relating to short-lived and fragile humans again.
  • In the regeneration, the Doctor lets go attachment to a transient body, archiving the memories of a chapter drained of most emotion, and surrendering to a renewal. Any companions around, who are now in it for love rather than adventure, have to choose whether to retreat to human-scale love or learn to love a New Old God again.

People who are all about the character flip dynamics are always shipping the Doctor and one of their current companions, and the showrunners usually pander to that at least a little, and sometimes a lot. But that’s clearly a red herring. If you’re into the show for that reason it’s just a particularly intense series of doomed romance stories. The Doctor is a god-like immortal and ultimately represents a scale of life where humans can’t really operate (the Master/Mistress gets this, and treats the companions as mere pets their frenemy the Doctor keeps around).

Equally, despite the god-like scale of the action, the show is not about actual religion-style Gods. Doctor Who is neither a Christian Jesus figure suffering resurrections, nor a series of incarnations of a Vishnu-like karmic God. The Doctor agonizes about this stuff on occasion, but mostly just plays the fool with a blue box, trying his best to do good but more often than not causing mayhem and rationalizing the results with little sermons. A fact his adversaries keep reminding him of. Beneath its idealistic veneer, the show actually has a nihilistic subtext similar to Rick and Morty, one that suggests a dark, universe.

Beth: “Am I evil?”

Rick: “Worse, you’re smart. When you know nothing matters the universe is yours, and I’ve never met a universe that was into it. The universe is an animal, it grazes on the ordinary. It creates infinite idiots just to eat them, not unlike your friend Timmy.”


“Yeah hardly matters now sweety. You know, smart people get a chance to climb on top and take reality for a ride but it’ll never stop trying to throw you. And eventually it will, there’s no other way off”

So Doctor Who is about neither the peripheral romantic love stories, nor the heavy-handed religious misdirections. It’s about choosing to take reality for a ride until it shakes you off. Just not as starkly as Rick.

In this way of reading Doctor Who, the key fact is that the companions are always initially (and often repeatedly after that) choosing cosmic adventure over love. The key foil characters in Doctor Who are the companions’ lovers, families, and other human attachments. These characters are almost uniformly wet blanket bores with no imagination or curiosity, and only let themselves be drawn into the craziness out of love for the main characters. They seem remarkably unmoved by initiation into life-altering hidden realities.

While these characters are sometimes given redemptive plot arcs, and usually noble endings (Rory gets to wait 2000 years as a sentient plastic clone for Amy), in general they are punchlines in most episodes. They are there to remind us that self-absorbed human lives are in fact small and dull backwater marginal plot lines in the grand drama of the cosmos. The Doctor often claims the opposite (“I think they’re giants”) but the stories belie that high-minded posturing. The wet blanket characters also often get to give high-minded speeches about how it’s all about love, not dinosaurs. But we watch the show for the dinosaurs. Would you watch the show if projected down to human scale, with Daleks replaced by stressful jobs and time travel replaced by trips to the grocery store? Some of you would and do in fact watch such shows. But clearly many of us need the dinosaurs to care at all. A single ordinary human life just isn’t interesting enough material.

The dinosaurs in Doctor Who are of course various weird and crazy situations and recurring cosmic villains like the Daleks. They’re the stakes, what the stories are about, the stuff of extreme, adventurous engagement with the universe as an arena for godding about in. The flips and twists of companion relationships are just scaffolding. The three key character moments are so intense because they’re charged with cosmic-scale stakes. The show is of course about loss, but the losses are the losses of gods, not humans.

To bring it back to Jurassic Park, that story is about choosing adventures with dinosaurs over lifeless fossils. That’s what makes an otherwise dull and human-scale tale about changing relationships with kids or dull morality plays about the responsibilities of genetic engineering storyworthy. The way to make a dull tale storyworthy is not about subtle and delicate character arcs. For most of us the trick is to just add dinosaurs.

Series Navigation<< Storytelling — The Penumbra of MortalityStorytelling — Philosophical Stakes >>

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter


  1. As usual , I fear you are right.

    Then I realize how you just infused the mundane with meaning.

    This post wasn’t “just” about dinosaurs…

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