Towards a Story Revolution (I)
How our narratives make matters worse, not better.
Our current paradigms in storytelling are harming our society. Sadly most storytellers are not even aware or even protect our current ‘normal’ as normal. I say, our normal is crazy. Our environment is in deep trouble. The ramifications impact more and more people faster. Worse. Many believe either propaganda, crazy conspiracies or that the current status quo must be protected at all costs while the ship is sinking. And, I fear, our current narratives help keep it so.
The problem with our dominant narratives.
What makes it like this? Is it that we keep our our audiences distracted with just amusement? I predict all such products will seem more and more silly and naive as the real world crises grow. On top of that I think our narratives are driven by damaging tropes and paradigms . Let’s discover those tropes, because shifts will not happen when we add more of the same.
I invite writers, game designers & moviemakers to help revolutionise how and what stories we tell. Ready to follow me down the rabbit hole?
The time to keep audiences distracted is over.
Note: This is part one of three. Part II is Gentle Revolution Manifest for a Stories the World Needs Right now. The Manifest offers principles to tell such stories. Part III is Ten Tips to Make Your Story Shine. These tips help you design great narratives aligned with the principles of the manifest.
How Our Current Stories Are Part of the Problem
The laws of narration have certain rules, grown over time, that help us relate, get deeper into the story and feel more emotional invested. Yet these rules, all too often just create more of the same into one big box. Let’s expose how these influence us.
Too many Repetitions, ‘the Tyranny of the Success Formula’
(Explanation) You’re making video games? And you want to be original? You might be fantasising how to make a bigger, crazier end boss than anyone before. Ever considered how unoriginal that fantasy is? Haha. In the nineties Romantic Comedies all ended with a grand declaration of love in a as big space as possible. Or take buddy movies, with odd couples. Or Heist movies with a diverse team. And serial killers, each one leaving a crazier trail than those gone before. Or scary movies full of people enjoying cruelty to make it all so ‘exciting’ for the audience. Meanwhile Easter Eggs, Tropes, Memes have become so popular some movies just seem a series of ‘find-them-all’ quotes referring to other movies or games. Or is that too meta? And these copies of copies keep being watered down. Sigh.
(Consideration) What happened to the art of the great twist like Sixth Sense or Arrival? Where’s awesome drama like Apocalypse Now, Slumdog Millionaire? Or movies having both, like Parasite. All of these have relevant topics, big questions too. They speculate, confront, puzzle, play with you. Time spend considering longer on the story to add puzzle, depth and imagination is time well spend. Or would rather teach people how to fit in and be a good citizen?
Too many narratives enforce our own society as normal and make successfully ‘fitting in’ the desired objective.
(Explanation) You must have seen at the least a dozen movies starting in a normal suburb, and then things get out of hand. Yes, we consider suburbs as the median of normal. These destructive-car-dependent-energy-absorbing-alienating places are promoted as the starting point of normal. Here in most movies people start in a normal life, which gets upset, and they try to (un)successfully return to it, with lessons learned. Many horror movies are about infringements upon these ‘normal’ lives. Our biggest fear is our safe bubble will be burst. Rare are the stories that make this normal itself the weird.
(Consideration) Hence for most parents success of their kids is fitting in and being able to afford a house, car and some career. But fitting in, striving to fit in, into a sick world, made sicker by the day because of our current industrial and consumer , isn’t something to strive for anymore. It has to be questioned on so many levels. How many popular narratives succeed in that? Is what we know and feel comfortable with automatically good? Are our safe bubbles getting safer by making the bubble thicker? Or should we all strive harder to rise above it?
The known world can be seen as the ‘normal’. It’s very rare the return is shown as a major shift to a wake up, as in the Matrix. That’s because way too many storytellers just follow Joseph Campbell’s model, without wondering, to question the context their story in being told in.
Too many narratives even advertise ‘be a bigger success’ (by being blind to how that worsens the problems for the rest of us)
(Explanation) Many see the Fortune 500 as pinnacle of having it made. Consider all the movies, self help books, LinkedIn tips to join the ranks of these top dogs. Despite many narratives about greed and the excesses of the rich we still seem to strive for a palace of our own. Way too many games follow the extraction economy model. They advertise ‘the infinite growth on a finite planet’ as a game winner. This years weather clearly shows it leads to collective suicide. And then most narratives are either bundled into ‘weather’ (draught and heat are getting more extreme) and economy (people need jobs, more jobs is good). But many of those jobs make matters worse. Many success stories of huge profits have many victims, directly and indirectly and many many more to come.
(Explanation) The same goes for way too many games. Grow through extraction of resources. Grow through conquering. Grow at the cost of others. And stay blind to the cost for others, as long as your village, city, empire looks fine within. We dare to suggest that reshaping all cultures into one compares eerily to the fascist mindset, let alone empire building. Remember that each culture often is a local answer to local conditions. This means to embrace diversity in solutions increases adaptability and means more wealth for everyone. Seems the rich history of real world cities made up of many peoples, many beliefs and cultural cross overs never reached game design. The secret of progress lies in copying what works best and fit it to your own situation. It doesn’t lie in enforcing your way of life unto all others.
(Consideration) We think success is personal, but everything is contributing and impacting the whole. Can we afford to see economy separate from environment in news stories? Can we afford to define personal success separate of the impact of your work on the planet? Should we start to celebrate other forms of success, like quality of life?
Too many narratives overlook NPC’s and Extra’s as Consequential
(Explanation) In the new Game of Thrones series almost all servants are bystanders. A few characters fight over power and the throne and few others matter to them … and to the storytellers. Many soldiers, women, children serve and die for a few peoples ambition. And our ‘heroic’ narratives sell that as normal. We see the same trend in China. Now that inequality is back, stories with many lowly people being very obedient to the nobles are back. Those who are rich deserve it. Inequality itself is never questioned, only those that enriched themselves in dishonest ways. Yet from the times of slavery we know, even good willing people had slaves and prolonged the institution of slavery. It took many years and people to end this. So too, must we with all huge current inequality ask, is this system honest? How do the weakest in such situation fare, not just the (rich & powerful) main characters?
(Consideration) Of course, I get it, many prefer stories of mighty people. Their decisions have more impact, and therefore their choices feel more important. And this makes, we the audience, prefer to follow them, rather than the destiny of those who fill their days waiting in line for a handout. So how to expand our view and include the ‘little’ people much more? Why are we fixated on such a few main characters anyway?
Too many narratives are escapism blinding us to anything not related to the story
(Explanation) I understand fixating on a few main characters makes narratives easier to follow. Too many roles and we get confused. Take your average romantic (Hallmark) movie. A career girl somehow ends up in a small town, meets a handsome local dude, and after some innocent hick ups they make it work. There may be a financial threat, like her aunt having to sell the family farm, but hey, she gathers the good people and saves the farm with charm. The local dude is often rich too. The 40+ hour workweeks for peanuts, unaffordable healthcare, racism, pollution, homeless in her town are all gone in these naive stories oblivious to everyday reality for many. Okay we have one sweet homeless side character who gets helped. Hey, the story needed an issue, no?
(Consideration) We think escapism helps people forget, but helping people forget might actually be a distraction serving the status quo of a sickening system. There’s seems nothing to ponder upon in such movies. What effect might that have?
Too many narratives are stupefying their own audience
(Explanation) I wonder why current TV shows seem soo populated with very stupid people. Tell a story about ‘normal’ people and you’ll make them a little over the top and simpler for the story. Commercials also present everything in neat to understand slogans & desires. News Shows are cheaper to make with short videos (expensive) and long explanations of a few talking heads (cheap). And these talking heads neatly fit an ‘in favour’ and ‘against’ format, preferably in a heated debate. Stimulants to think more complex things for a longer time are kills for fast thrills. That’s your audiences reference. And generation after generation we copy our references. And shows copy and simplify their audience. And this audience makes that their reference again. Etc. And year by year, it seems, we get closer to Idiocracy.
(Consideration) When we look at politics, or worse people talking about politics, too many just seem to shout. They’ll repeat easy slogans reaping out ever more nuance and wisdom, let alone intelligence. “Communism never worked!” “Can’t wait to see more of them in jail.” Is there a winning side? Should there be one?
Too many action narratives increase ‘Us vs Them’ paradigms
(Explanation) Paranoia is good for stories. “Evil terrorists just want to destroy America.” In reality such people exist very very rarely. They probably see themselves as heroes working to open the eyes of the citizens of Empire USA to their own regime, killing innocents across the world. Some terrorist bosses may even have a short monologue in that direction, and then go back to being evil.
(Explanation) To dehumanise people, or other beings, is the first step in war mongering propaganda. On top of that we often see that enemies dehumanising each other, start to become more alike. Evangelical Christians seem to be as convinced of their superiority as Islamic Fundamentalists. And both propose to protect themselves against the other, by harsh approaches and eradication of the other’s belief to make the ‘problem’ go away. Meanwhile the USA is scientifically an oligarchy and the two party system a tennis match for the elites, often funding both parties. Perhaps better start thinking outside the boxes, because you might be played.
(Consideration) As said above, each individual has their own dramatic story, why and how they end up in dramatic situations. Many, if not most, current ‘evil’ Russian soldiers, are propagandised, forced to fight, belied victims of their own regime, who for lack of provisions feel forced rob locals. Don’t dehumanise the ‘enemy’. Humanise them, so they too can humanise you. But can we even consider this idea? Who then would be ‘winning’? Shouldn’t the good guys win?
Too many action movies, especially American ones, don’t seem to be able to rise above ‘the good guy with a gun’ trope
(Explanation) This includes all the times when the man is a woman or a team and the gun a super power. For an exiting ending most (action)narratives work towards a final confrontation, where the hero beats the final boss. Go watch ‘Everything Everywhere All at Once’ to see a brilliant exception. And try to find the rare few other exceptions.
(Consideration) We think the victory of a hero boosts our belief we can make a difference. I wonder. Perhaps it’s more like they make us, normal people, feel small when facing ‘dragons’, because we can never be as tough. So how tough must you be?
Too many (action) heroes are psychopaths
(Explanation) Many action heroes have no qualms to kill anyone in the way. When do they even suffer after effects of all their murdering? And then we’re not even talking about all TV shows where the heroes walk away with a final episode joke, just after a shooting. Or consider the thousands of games that can only be won, by leaving a long looooonnngg trail of bodies. It feels too often that we must assume that we must disconnect from feelings to achieve big results. Of course there are many stories where arrogant or stubborn heroes learn to be more humble, ask for help or learn to love. Still even then we need to ask, is it to be more human, or just to serve the purpose?
(Consideration) The training in disconnection is everywhere. At school we’re forced to make hundreds of exercises and tests we too often feel no connection with. At work we do bull shit jobs or boring repetitive actions just to get paid. This we call normal. And we have to wonder, if heroes aren’t showing us the way to live this way. Don’t feel to get results. Love your partner and friends and disconnect from feelings to get done what must be done. Isn’t that a bit like the 1950’s husbands going to work to earn a living? And now to get rich and successful we are too often told to disconnect from the price others will pay for our success. As said before everything is interconnected. We can succeed at the cost of, or succeed more deeply connected with. And that is a very different kind of victory. One that millions of people choose, but hardly ever get on the cover of big magazines for that choice. Perhaps they should. Meanwhile we must take out the bad guy and then we’ve solved everything, no?
Too many narratives focus on taking down ‘this one bad guy’, not on confronting the system as a whole
(Explanation) Take a great action movie focussed on malpractices in justice. The hero has to save an innocent member of a minority falsely imprisoned by a corrupt police officer. The movie may explain how this case worked, point a bit to a stuck system, but it always ends with taking down the corrupt officer. Story resolved? A slow zoom out to all other similar cases should be the least little addition. Take ‘Dark Waters’ that exposes Duponts malpractices poisoning many. ‘Erin Brockovich’ was basically the same story. These victories against the poisoners are sadly rare. Many corporate victories and manipulations are out there. More Flints anyone?
(Consideration) We may think movies of little guys beating a giant help. But I wonder that when they are the exceptions, and the whole rotten system is left standing. They may help up feel even more incapable to make a difference. They show how hard it is to win against the system, how many years and millions one must bring to the table. And who is the one who solves the crisis? Is it the special one? Aren’t too many of us believing that someone is the one hero? Why would that be?
Too many narratives portray one hero(ine) making all the difference
(Explanation) In many movies and TV shows innocent naive citizens must be protected from global evil, by a few superheroes. Real protection or change takes many. Selma is an awesome Marten Luther King movie. And still, for the narrative we focus on MLK making it work. But those who pay attention see many others contribute little and big things to make it happen. Each protestor on the street has a personal story and personal drama that brought them there. We should not forget that.
(Consideration) When exceptional people make all the difference, all unexceptional people, who are as much needed are overlooked. Jeff Bezos would be a nobody without all street cleaners, nurses, teachers, civil servants, construction workers and delivery professionals doing the actual work (for way too little). All these people count and make society work. Our narratives are too often blind to the roles they play, as impactful heroes get all the credits. And this blindness to the contribution of the many is hurting many, and rewarding the ‘bosses’ way too much. How come our imagined stories of making a huge difference, even when made up of odd ball teams, or whole armies, fail to improve society?
Too many Fantasy Stories help to create the reality they offer an escape from.
(Explanation) Fantasy also often feeds into the paranoia, of ‘us good and evil threatening outside’. A small group of heroes then has to stop some ‘Dark Evil Rising’, bent on destruction of all the good people. Our heroes save them after a shitload of violence against the dehumanised bad guys, like inhuman ghouls, demons, zombies, goblins, orcs, etc. Even when the story is about corruption within the elites, it’s once again never the system, it’s evil lurking within the hearts of a corrupted few. And how we love stories of heroic princesses, noble kings and paladins. Perhaps it’s time we question whether even they deserve to be our ordained authorities. Didn’t most nobility start with robbing some land, occupying it long enough and adding a story of divine right to make it legal?
(Consideration) While we love narratives about important powerful people, we question differences in hierarchy in itself way too little. Why are there so many improve yourself books and leadership books, but no limit the leadership of those not suited for it? Meanwhile ¼ of all people quitting their job, does it because of bad leadership. And then we tell each other, “You weren’t strong enough for that job.” read give the maniacs, psychopaths who run our society space to play with our destiny and wreck the planet. Why only criticise those on ‘the other side’, like Russia or China, but stay blind for our own idiots. We know climate change, water shortages, air pollution and global corporate scams don’t stop at borders and the taxes paid to do some clean up are paid by you, not them. And shouldn’t we see more how much we relate to common people on the ‘other side’? How insane is our normal? Perhaps write fantasies in which all factions are run by terrible people, and the common folk slowly wake up to this fact? Or is the cliché still the best, the most terrible worlds offer the best adventures?
Too few dystopian or escape-to-space narratives hint at things we can actually do to avoid dystopia
(Explanation) You know one reason why game designers so love dystopia? Picking up things in games works best with very limited resources, hence dystopian environments. Also such environments, where all heroes are under constant threat, are just more exciting than stories about successful change on a nice planet. The overdose of scarcity narratives where we fight each other over resources, and the lack of collaborative solutions, are increasing the sickness and the acceptance of it. We make it seem impossible that more desired outcomes are (still) possible.
(Consideration) What about Solarpunk, the antidote movement to all the dystopian violence? What about struggles towards collaboration and solving a water crises across politics. I know real world solutions often suck for narrators, there’s often slow change, not last moment saving the planet twists. But getting water in time to people dying, daring to set in motion global shifts can be made to work as well. Let’s make more realist versions of the movie ‘Arrival’, about real world issues vs lobbying based on interests, complete with international diplomacy story lines.
And this all is not even mentioning governments, military industries, corporations sponsoring new narratives, or narrative products with a few rewriting demands in exchange for help and funding.
All these thoughts blasting at the dominant narrative conventions lead to this manifest as a call for more diverse narratives in games, movies and books. Because if we truly want to heal our planet, our narratives must help on all levels.
Tell a good one!
Dazzled by the length of this list? Wonder what does work? Follow up with the next article the ‘Gentle Revolution’ Manifest for Stories Our Planet Needs Right Now, with 8 principles to design such narratives.