Storytelling — Harmon vs. McKee

This entry is part 1 of 12 in the series Narrativium

I’ve been on a gigantic yak-shave for the last few months exploring storytelling theories, so I figured I’d start a new blogchain to compile my findings.

The most useful line about storytelling I’ve read so far is this line from Walter Benjamin, quoted at the opening of Reality Hunger:

“All great works of literature either dissolve a genre or invent one.”

I realized the line accurately describes all stories I like, and also everything I attempt in my own fiction experiments, whether or not I succeed. Hitchhiker’s Guide, for example, dissolved the genre of space opera. Iain M. Banks’ Culture series resurrected and reinvented it. Storytellers who do one of the two things tend to do at least a little bit of the other as well, but tend to have a preference. It’s like being left or right-handed.

One storyteller who seems particularly good at dissolving genres, and to a lesser extent, inventing them, is Dan Harmon.

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Storytelling — The American Tradition

This entry is part 2 of 12 in the series Narrativium

Adam Gurri pointed me to this 1895 Mark Twain essay, How to Tell a Story, which makes the interesting claim that the humorous story, dependent for its effect on the manner of telling rather than the matter, is an American invention:

There are several kinds of stories, but only one difficult kind–the humorous. I will talk mainly about that one. The humorous story is American, the comic story is English, the witty story is French. The humorous story depends for its effect upon the manner of the telling; the comic story and the witty story upon the matter.

I’m not sure if Twain’s claim is strictly true even within the narrow scope of his comparison to English and French storytelling traditions, but there’s something to what he was getting at in the essay. For whatever reason, in the 19th century, America reinvented, in a unique new way, an old, primarily oral form of storytelling. A form that appeared centuries after the rise of written and printed forms of storytelling, and within a modern, industrial context.

In making his exceptionalist claim for American storytelling, Twain was, I think, right about something. The question is what?

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Storytelling — Mamet’s Conflict Airing Theory

This entry is part 3 of 12 in the series Narrativium

One of the big questions to which I have yet to find a satisfying answer is what stories are, in the set of things that includes various other kinds of speech. David Mamet has what I think is a partial answer in Three Uses of a Knife, a short, stream-of-consciousness meditation on storytelling which I recently finished (ht: Sachin Benny).

I like plays, but not enough to be an avid theater-goer, so my only real exposure to Mamet’s work is the movie version of Glengarry Glen Ross, which lives up to its reputation, and a few episodes of The Unit, which I didn’t quite get into. But his storytelling chops are clearly strong enough for his theorizing to be interesting. His practical advice certainly is — here is a memo he sent to the staff of the Unit (ht Steve Hely), with plenty of gems in it.

But this post is about Mamet’s philosophy of storytelling, not his bag of tricks.

Mamet opens Three Uses of a Knife with a discussion of our tendency to dramatize entirely mundane everyday events, like a bus being late, or the state of the weather, into proto-stories. His opening example is:

“Great. It’s raining. Just when I’m blue. Isn’t that just like life?:

His exegesis:

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Storytelling — Matthew Dicks

This entry is part 4 of 12 in the series Narrativium

I recently finished, Storyworthy by Matthew Dicks, a quintessentially American storyteller in the Mark Twain tradition. It is perhaps the most unique book on narrative structure and theory I’ve read, after Keith Johnstone’s Impro.

Dicks appears to have lived a very colorful, eventful life that supplies all the raw material you might ever want, to tell lots of outrageous, extreme stories. A very American life. I have friends like that, whose lives seem to be a string of outrageous and improbable events that make for naturally good stories. Only the manner of telling needs work. Dicks insists, however, that you do not need to live a colorful life in order to tell colorful stories. That’s good news for me.

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Storytelling — Cringe and the Banality of Shadows

This entry is part 5 of 12 in the series Narrativium

Thinking about cringe comedy recently, it struck me that the genre is built around characters who are entirely driven by their shadows, and draws its comedic power from the sheer banality of the unconscious inner lives thus revealed. An example is the character of Mick played by Caitlin Olson on The Mick. Olson played a similar character named Dee on It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. Cringe characters of this type can be traced back nearly two decades to characters like Larry David in Curb Your Enthusiasm, through several characters on The Office to modern incarnations. While cringe is an old element of comedy (you can find healthy doses in Chaplin), cringe as the defining trait of the (prototypically female, or somewhat feminized male) protagonist seems to be a 2010s phenomenon. The fully-realized form seems to have emerged around 2013. Not coincidentally, this was right after The Office ended. Arguably, that show was proto-cringe. Bleeding edge comedies between 2000 and 2012 gradually refined cringe-based narrative, leading up to modern examples.

The idea that a shadow can drive an entire character complicates Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, which is usually understood as a structure with its middle half being buried in the shadow realm (of both the outer and inner worlds of the protagonist). A cringe character basically never leaves the shadow realm, so there is no heroism in venturing there, and no hope of ever making it back. The cringe self is not a redemptive self.

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Storytelling — Narrative Wet Bulb Temperature

This entry is part 6 of 12 in the series Narrativium

Telling jokes at a funeral is hard. Even entertaining an urge to do so is perhaps not a decent thing to do. At best, you might get away with telling a poignantly humorous anecdote about the deceased as part of a eulogy. The context of a funeral is simply not appropriate for joke-telling, and it’s not just a matter of social norms and performance expectations of grieving solemnity. People simply wouldn’t be in the mood.

Even if you were a comedian who left instructions for your funeral to be conducted in the form of a comedy festival, if people actually liked you, they’d likely find it somewhat difficult to get into the spirit of the idea.

Jokes at a funeral are a simple example of what we might call poor narrative-context fit, NCF. Not all stories can be told at all times with equal impact. And here I mean any performance with a narrative structure, not just actual fiction. The idea applies to nonfiction works too.

What drives narrative-context fit? I don’t have a general answer, but I have one for a special case: storytelling in a time of generalized crisis, such as we are living through now.

It is no secret that it’s been hard to tell compelling stories in the past few years. Television and cinema have turned into a wasteland of reboots and universe extensions. Thought leadership storytelling has descended from the smarmy heights of TED talks to the barely readable op-ed derps of today. It’s not that there are no good stories being told, but compared to say 2000-2017 or so, we’re definitely in a tough market.

A clue about why this is hard can be found in Robert McKee‘s description of narrative suspense:

“As pieces of exposition slip out of dialogue and into the background awareness of the reader or audience member, her curiosity reaches ahead with both hands to grab fistfuls of the future to pull her through the telling. She learns what she needs to know when she needs to know it, but she’s never consciously aware of being told anything, because what she learns compels her to look ahead.”


Suspense is “curiosity charged with empathy…” Suspense focuses the reader/audience by flooding the mind with emotionally tinged questions that hook and hold attention: “What’s going to happen next?” “What’ll happen after that?” “What will the protagonist do? Fee?”

Suspense is a “what happens next” curiosity you care about that anchors your attention to a period of time leading up to potential resolution. Or to put it another way, suspense literally creates your sense of future time. If you are not feeling suspense about how something in the future might turn out, in a sense, you’re not feeling the future at all. Your consciousness is concentrated in the past and present only, and not in a good way.

No suspense, no story, no future.

Now, extend this logic to the general background of suspense in the environment that a story has to compete with. We do not consume stories against a blank canvas backdrop. Whatever is going on in the world — a pandemic, a space telescope on a fraught deployment journey, a critical election — shapes the suspensefulness of life in general.

In fact, we might frame a hypothesis, which I call the suspense blindness hypothesis: You can’t see past the next big identity altering thing in your future that’s keeping you in suspense. The most acutely felt “what happens next” thing.

Note that this is a spectator point of view. Suspense only exists if you can’t do much to change the uncertain outcome. You can only watch. If you can act, you’re in the story, not watching it unfold from the sidelines.

When there is a high level of suspense in the general background, it is harder to tell stories because you have to beat that level of suspense. It gets especially hard if you have to tell a story that extends far beyond the temporal horizon created by the suspense blindness. If everybody is waiting for the outcome of a critical election in a year, it’s hard to tell a story spanning the next decade. And this applies equally to a TED talk painting (say) a vision of progress over the next decade, and to a fictional story that plays out over the next decade.

Some of this is merely technical difficulty dealing with storytelling in a forking future. If there is no vague consensus around the future being a certain way, it’s hard to tell stories set in that future. It’s a bit like having to choose a foreground paint color that works against many different background colors, ranging from black to white.

Your only technical recourse is to jump far enough out into the future — a century say — that the stark forking divergences of today can be assumed to have been sorted out. But then the storytelling loses access to the emotional energies of the present.

I came up with a weird metaphor for thinking about this — narrative wet-bulb temperature.

The wet-bulb temperature is a complicated measure of the body’s ability to cool itself. It is a function of temperature and humidity, and when it goes above around 35C, the body can no longer cool itself through sweating. This is one of the many ways in which climate change is a more serious threat than you might think, since it can drive dangerously high wet-bulb temperatures.

Here’s the metaphor: we tell ourselves stories to regulate the amount of narrative tension we feel in life generally. Felt suspense is one measure of this tension (though it’s a rich mess of many contributing textures, such as cringe, horror, fear, amusement, mystification). We metaphorically “cool” or “warm” ourselves through stories (where “temperature” maps to a vector of attributes. Like thermoregulation, narrative regulation is a function of context.

Narrative wet-bulb temperature is a measure of how well narrative regulation can work in a given zeitgeist. Beyond some metaphoric equivalent of 35C, perhaps it becomes impossible to tell stories. Perhaps the appropriate scale is a weirdness scale, measured in Harambes. Perhaps above 35H, storytelling is psychophysically impossible.

As with climate, we have some ability to control our environments through the narrative equivalent of air-conditioning. Personal climate control, through management of exposure to the stresses of the general outdoor zeitgeist, can be done through gatekeeping information aggressively (this idea is central to the book I’m writing). But to the extent storytelling is a public act, such “air conditioned” stories can only be heard by those who share your particular cozy climate-controlled headspace.

We appear to have collectively accepted this particular tradeoff, in that we have collectively abandoned public spaces (and by extension, truly public storytelling) and retreated to the cozyweb.

Storytelling — Mediocre Metamodernism

This entry is part 7 of 12 in the series Narrativium

As I continue my own experiments with fiction, I have been thinking lazily about metamodernism. By which I mostly mean I recently re-read David Foster Wallace’s E. Unibas Pluram, read the Wikipedia page, caught up with Shia Laboeuf’s shenanigans, and have kinda primed myself to notice mentions of the term (it has been trending on Twitter a bit since Everything, Everywhere, All at Once hit theaters). I have also been unsystematically reading some subset of essays on the topic that catch my eye. I haven’t read any of the weighty academic tomes on the topic, and don’t intend to. I haven’t sampled any of the high-culture literary novels that are tagged metamodern on various lists, because they don’t particularly pique my interest.

My main interest is in cultivating a rough feel for what it’s about, and allow it to shape the context of my writing to the extent that seems like an energizing thing to do.

Ironically (is it metamodern gaucherie to notice irony at all?), “feeling into” context is apparently the central concern of metamodernism according to this interesting essay by Jonathan Rowson which just crossed my radar:

We are now obliged to create meaning and fashion agency within the context of  meta-crises of perception and understanding relating to ecological, social and institutional breakdown, where one world seems to be dying, and another is trying to be born. The point of metamodernism is therefore to help us better perceive our historical context by developing theories and practices that allow us to feel into what it means to be in a time between worlds, where meta-crises relating to meaning and perception abound and we struggle to perceive clearly who we are and what we might do; where meta-theories seem friendly because mere theory feels absurdly specific; where nostalgic longing feels like it is as much about the future as the past, and where we sometimes feel like being ridiculously romantic and romantically ridiculous. To be metamodern is to be caught up in the co-arising of hope and despair, credulity and incredulity, progress and peril, agency and apathy, life and death. I had mixed feelings about metamodernism until I realised it is about mixed feelings.

This is a surprisingly accurate description of where I’m trying to go with my fiction experiments (the whole essay is worthwhile), so perhaps I am metamodern after all. But just to avoid annoying arguments over definitions, I’ll call the version I am laying out here mediocre metamodernism, since mediocrity plays a key role for me.

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Storytelling — Tellability

This entry is part 8 of 12 in the series Narrativium

I’ve been reviewing my own experiments with fiction (the stand-alone ones are on a separate fiction blogchain) to try and understand what makes an idea for a story tellable. I got to thinking about it because I was recently asked whether writing was a “particularly fluent” experience for me. The answer is: with nonfiction it definitely is, but with fiction, it isn’t. At least not yet.

I think it’s because “tellability” of stories is a more complex phenomenon that takes longer to turn into muscle memory where it feels like a fluency. Fiction fluency is to non-fiction fluency as riding a unicycle is to riding a bicycle. Developing this fluency, so I can go from idea to story in one sitting, with little to no metacognitive overhead, is kinda what I’m aiming at for now. I don’t really care about whether the stories are “good” as such, or meet other people’s formal notions of what a story ought to be. I just want to develop a fluency in “telling” so I can log the big wordcounts easily, while enjoying myself doing so. I want to learn to balance and ride the unicycle, and worry about getting somewhere later.

It’s not a point I’ve seen addressed in any of the storytelling material I’ve read so far, perhaps because it’s so obvious to people with natural fiction fluency. A story gets told if it is worth telling to the would-be teller, and is tellable. Just as an essay gets written if it is essayworthy to the would-be essayist, and essayable. It’s like whether a flight plan gets flown. The flight plan has to be tripworthy it for the pilot to do the actual flying, and the plane has to be flyable. Skill matters only after these two conditions are met, and the second one is the more basic one. Even a skilled pilot can’t make a bus fly. Not even if you put a gun to his head to make it worthwhile.

Tellability of a story

Tellability is not about whether the story is good or bad. It is about whether the storyteller can literally sit down and (almost unconsciously) work out how to tell it at all. In whatever medium — screen/stage, comicbook, live oral performance, or prose. Skill is usually medium-specific, but tellability is a property of the story idea. If a story idea lacks tellability, the story won’t get told. As with essays, there can always be major edits and surgeries later, and first-dump drafts might get abandoned. But the point is, the basic story idea has to be worth telling and be tellable in order to get told.

Here’s what I’ve learned so far.

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Storytelling — End-Times Tales

This entry is part 9 of 12 in the series Narrativium

It is perhaps a bit of a conceit, but I don’t like posting anything on this blog that doesn’t feel timeless. This does not mean ahistorical. In fact, timeless to me means acutely historical. The epics for example, are stories about very specific historical periods and events. They are timeless because of their immortal relevance, not because they are exercises in abstract thought ungrounded in time. Mathematics is timeless because we keep finding currently relevant properties of numbers in every era. Purely abstract ideas divorced from time are often the most transient and empty ideas of all.

History is, in a way, a test of the timelessness of the DNA of current events. To generalize Benjamin Graham’s idea about markets, in the short run, history is a voting machine, in the long run, it’s a weighing machine. And almost everything I think about these days feels very much situated in time in a… very lightweight way. Lots of votes for everything, but very little weight to anything.

It certainly feels like there are typical kinds of historic things going on, but it is hard to talk about them in an appropriately timeless way. The upcoming US elections smell historically significant, as does Musk’s messy takeover of Twitter. But it’s not obvious what the underlying historic big story is. One I’m playing around with is that we are at the tail-end of an up-cycle in de facto monarchism that began with the charismatic presidency of Ronald Reagan, and the charismatic CEO-ship of Jack Welch. In this view, the timeless thing going on is Trump, Musk, Xi, and Putin bringing up the rear of a half-century flirtation with monarchist social orders built around political cults of personality and billionaires, and that we’re heading into an anti-monarchist half-cycle.

Or perhaps the monarchist cycle is beginning rather than ending. I could argue either case. That’s the problem. There is no compelling reason to buy any particular attempt to historicize current events into timelessness through appropriate kinds of frame stories. When every half-assed story sorta fits, none of them actually works.

It’s this very insubstantiality of historical speculation that makes me feel like we are living in a not-very-timeless time. Every just-so story like my two alternate monarchist-cycle theories feels sort of arbitrarily made up. And I could make up a dozen more invoking various obviously important things — climate, AI, crypto, the end of Moore’s Law, gender culture, and so on — that would pass a basic sniff test but wouldn’t be deeply compelling. We are in the sort of era that’s easy to forget in longue durée history writing. It’s an interregnum. A liminal passage full of sound and fury signifying nothing. And we’re all ghosts for the time being, looking for identity-anchoring structure in circumstances where there’s only the clutter of chaotic transition.

A darker thought I’ve had is that perhaps the sense of timelessness is harder to find because we are, in fact, running out of time, and that our mortal civilization is ending. Not just in a Fukuyama end-of-history way, but literally.

A funny related notion I’ve been toying with is that we are drowning in a sea of reboots, reruns, and recycled stories on television and movie screens for the same reason dying people supposedly see their lives flash before their eyes. The story is ending. Despite living through arguably the greatest era of storytelling technology in history, we have no new stories to tell ourselves.

Now this is not entirely true. I’ve found the occasional fresh new story. Station 11 is an example, a lovely recent TV show, but rather tellingly, set in a post-apocalyptic world where for some reason the survivors perform budget Shakespeare reboot productions in a slightly nicer Mad Max world (really? the world ended and Shakespeare is still the source of the most interesting stories you can tell yourself?). And there are formal innovations too. I suspect the metamodern turn I wrote about last time has at least a little substance (though the latest Taika Waititi Thor movie is a big disappointment). But it feels like too little, too late.

So overall, I can’t shake this sense that the difficulty we face telling fresh new stories, about both real and fictional events, is a sign of the End Times.

I’m fairly certain this sense is entirely wrong. There are big problems in the world, but not world-ending ones. Even in the worst-case climate futures, we are not talking about the world ending. We are talking about a very tight evolutionary bottleneck which might lead to severe depopulation and de-complexification (though not back to stone age primitivism). The fraught political events are well within the historical range.

But definitely, something is going on that has temporarily shut down our ability to access a sense of the timeless in order to construct stable notions of ourselves in relation to it. For the time being, we seem to be eternity blind, unable to see past the sound and fury of reboots and reruns of our collective memories.

Storytelling — The Penumbra of Mortality

This entry is part 10 of 12 in the series Narrativium

I’ve been reading Permutation City by Greg Egan, my first taste of his work. I picked it because it seemed like something of a contemporary chaser to J. G. Ballard’s work, whose complete short stories I just finished and thoroughly enjoyed (also a first taste for me). I was not disappointed. Though a much weaker writer, Egan’s writing scratches the same itch as Ballard’s. He seems to be generally classified as hard science fiction but I suspected going in that this was a misclassification, and I was right. I’d classify both Ballard and Egan as ontological speculators whose work draws on mathematics (and to a lesser extent, science), for generativity rather than constraints. Rather than telling human stories stressed by the limits of math or science (like the value of pi or the speed of light), both tell mathematical stories stressed by the limits of conventional human subjectivity. Both explore the same basic question: how weird of a reality can a subjectivity experience while still remaining a recognizably human subjectivity.

Egan is obviously the better mathematician, and Ballard obviously the better storyteller. To some extent, Ballard was better because he knew not to spend time on elements of craft that clearly bored him. Both are clearly bored by conventional storytelling craft, and want to get to the cool ideas. But where Egan diligently grinds through conventional character and plot elements with awful, wooden prose, Ballard had the nerve to just skip them entirely most of the time. But when he did do plot and character, he did a much better job than Egan does (at least in this one novel). While Ballard was not at the level of say a Dickens or Tolstoy, he clearly possessed a workmanlike competence in conventional storytelling departments. There are occasional sparks of genuine liveliness, and even authorial interest where the elements rise above mere scaffolding to directly help explore the ideas. There are a couple of Ballard characters who rise to almost-memorable 2.1 dimensional, where Egan struggles to break one dimension.

But in one important area, both Egan and Ballard seem like kindred souls: their prose is deliberately and consciously loveless. In their universes, emotions like love are mostly unimportant noise that get in the way of exploring interesting mathematical conceits, and within the logic of their universes, they are right. Explorations of the emotional lives of their characters would be annoying and pointless in their stories. The humans in their fiction are creatures of timeless and austere mathematical universes, interesting primarily as subjective points of view whose experiences illuminate the character of the world. They serve as measures of reality rather than parts of it. Egan’s humans in Permutation City are effectively origins of solipsistic coordinate systems for apprehending reality. Ballard’s humans are more complex, but also seem like automaton subjectivities, contrivances designed to mediate speculative experiences of space, time, and materiality.

But one very human aspect of subjectivity does seem to strongly interest both these imaginative ontological speculators: death.

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