There is a shiny red apple filled with poison and a crone with eyes like steel. There is a virginal girl as pure as snow, a sleep like death, and a kiss that wakes her into a new life of Happy Ever After.
The tale has survived from ancient times because it was always more than just entertainment. It was an instruction for living. Snow White would have been told to young girls to prepare them for the life ahead. Beware of older women. They will be jealous of your youth and potential and will try to keep you locked in childhood. One day a man will come with a kiss — a metaphorical kiss, though stickier and sweatier — and he will awaken you to a new, adult life where you will find happiness.
Stories are the way we make sense of the world around us.
We’re moving into a new age now, one of unparalleled and accelerating technological change. Every aspect of our existence is being transformed. Hang around in the coffee shops and bars and you will catch murmurs of unease. Old friends are vanishing by the day. Familiar, comforting ways of doing things lost. Nowhere seems safe.
Never has there been a more important time for stories that instruct and guide and explain. A new narrative for a new age.
As a novelist and screenwriter, working for, amongst others, the BBC, I’m regularly in meetings with producers. Recently, I pitched a story that looked at how technology-driven change is shaping the world. Now I love the thrill of this new age and I’m fully-immersed in all aspects of tech. So I was, quite frankly, stunned to realize that I was having to explain at the start of every meeting that, no, this isn’t science fiction. It’s happening NOW.
Not long after, I was meeting a police contact to discuss research for a new TV series. He laughed at the depiction of most law enforcement officers on screen. Twenty years out of date, he said. Shows hired ex-cops to act as advisors, but the knowledge they held was from that distant, fabled time of pre-five years ago. Change was coming so fast, you needed to be on top of it, right now, to reflect it with any accuracy.
Why were all these experienced storytellers failing to keep up? For a start, it’s hard work. And paying attention is time-consuming, when you’ve got characters to create and arcs to develop and themes to sharpen and research to do. Who has the space to keep watching this tsunami of new information that’s engulfing the world?
Back in 1970, futurist Alvin Toffler wrote a book called Future Shock, a term which he defined as “too much change in too short a period of time”. The simple fact is that the majority of people simply can’t assimilate the staggering pace of today’s technological advance, one that grows faster with each passing week. Look away for one moment and so many new things have popped up that it’s easier not to pay attention at all. Get on with your life. It’ll sort itself out. Wrapped up in their jobs and their relationships, they only look up when another touchstone has fallen. And then, seeing what they’re losing but not knowing what they’re gaining, they’re fearful.
Storytellers have a responsibility to those people.
There’s plenty of academic research which shows that information or guidance provided in a tale is more sticky than plain facts taught in a lesson. Our ancestors knew that. Many of our oldest story-forms are packed with facts about agrarian life, the seasons, tree and plant lore, with life-lessons, and psychological insights. Sitting around the fire, the listeners would be entertained, and learn, and understand.
At their heart, stories are all about the human condition. Character. Emotion. Raw human nature doesn’t change — Shakespeare has shown us that. But tales are also about explaining the world around us, and how humans interact when placed under the stresses of the global environment.
Creators have always done that well. Whether it’s responding to 9-11 or the financial crash of 2008, we’ve seen plenty of fictions trying to make sense of those things.
But are they doing enough to reflect the current state of things? I don’t think so.
Part of the problem is that change is happening faster than the traditional production cycles of TV, film and novels. The entertainment industry can’t keep up. Many a time I’ve heard a producer complain about time and money wasted developing an idea that’s out-dated by the time it comes to fruition. It’s easier and more cost-effective to look back to simpler times, familiar story-forms and settings.
That’s what a lot of viewers and readers are doing. But it doesn’t help them.
In this 21st century thrill-ride of constant disruption, rapid change, of terror and hope, we need creators to start illuminating it as it happens. That means looking forward two or three years, taking in vast amounts of information and then creating something which will be relevant the moment it hits the street.
That’s hard. It requires a new way of thinking about stories. Not quite science fiction, not yet science fact. But one aspect of all that rapid change is that the tools to do this are out there, if we’re open to it.
But if creators opt for the easy option — looking around or looking back and then dreaming up their tale — they’re letting down a lot of people who really need their help in understanding what’s happening now.