The reinvention of storytelling

Thousands of years ago, we told stories to each other. The best stories were those that could be repeated over and over again, changing little, those that embodied tribal memory, with strong, often repetitive structure and big heroes and villains. There wasn’t much by way of interior monologue or intertextuality.

Then came the printing press, and gradually we moved from a primarily oral to a primarily literate culture. By the late 19th century, the glory days of the novel, we saw complex, highly individualized narratives, intricate and embellished, woven from multiple subplots, as the highest literary form.

And today? Today, argues Matt Locke, founder of Storythings and organiser of The Story conference, we’re looping back to those pre-literate days.

Because we are sharing and re-performing the stories by tweeting them, and screen grabbing, and sending them around, the stories that survive now are the ones that can survive that re-performance… Memes are much closer to the oral storytelling structures of pre-Gutenberg worlds than they are to the literate, technical stories of the last couple of hundred years.’

Just as the earliest storytellers imbued the familiar tales with their own narrative skill, so today those engaging with stories on social media are co-creators, choosing what to share, adding and adapting, simply with the addition of an ‘OMG!’ or through deep engagement, as with fan fiction. And that changes the nature of the stories that furnish our minds and inform our culture, and how they’re disseminated.

‘The stories that scale in the world of mobile streams are the ones which touch a nerve with enough people that the amplification of those stories via retweeting and sharing and commenting creates scale. Scale is created in a very, very different way to the way it was created in the late 20th century. It’s created through the emotional responses of the audience, rather than the creative or business decision-making of gatekeepers.’

Another interesting development in our stories fuelled by digital disruption is that of scale. Ten years ago we consumed our stories in a neat range of package sizes: short story, A-format trade fiction, epic family saga, soap opera episode, 2-hour feature film. These days our attention goes off the scale in both directions: we snack interstially on episodic content or stories told as SMS conversations (see Wattpad Texts) and we binge on box-sets – you can find out just how long it’ll take to watch every episode of Game of Thrones over at BingeClock, and join the 2,183 people who claim to have done it. (Spoiler alert: it’s 2 days, 15 hours, 30 minutes.)

What does that giant attention spectrum mean for tellers of stories? Locke argues that we need to be clear about where we’re pitching our content.

‘When we talk about that attention spectrum, we divide it up into behaviours that are about distraction, and behaviours that are about immersion. At the lower end of the spectrum, you go onto Twitter and Facebook when you’re looking for distraction, you’re looking to randomly find something that will occupy you for a short period of time… I think we’re becoming more aware as audiences of when we’re making that decision, when we’re deciding to distract ourselves. And we’re starting to get good again at saying, “Actually no, I now want to really immerse myself, I want to save up and actually sit down and watch that Netflix show back to back, or sit down and read that book.” We’re starting to realise that actually we need to create times to immerse ourselves in stories, just as much as we need time to be distracted.’

And how do you make a play for that immersive attention in non-fiction, and specifically in business books, which is my area of interest?

‘If you’re smart, you think, “Well, how do I help that audience make that decision to immerse themselves in it?” and you think of all of the things that might stop them being able to do that. We’re focusing on episodic series at lot at the moment at Storythings, podcasts and long-form journalism series, and we want audiences to follow us over five, six episodes, as we explore a subject in depth… With books, you have to use a lot of narrative tricks that are familiar to fiction books. So you have to think about the arc of the plot and the arc of the story, you need to think about things like jeopardy and cliffhangers; what is it that’s going to make people come back to a book?’

We’re surrounded by stories, and they remain the best tool we have for engaging attention and emotion. Let’s look again at how we’re telling them.

You can hear the full interview with Matt Locke in The Extraordinary Business Book Club.

Alison Jones (@bookstothesky) is a publishing partner for businesses and organizations writing world-changing books. She also provides executive coaching, consultancy and training services to publishers. www.alisonjones.com

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