What is a story?
For years I have studied and tried to wrap my head around what constitutes a story now, since the kinds of stories I read, watch, and listen to have changed a lot. Blog novels, Twitter stories, Audiobooks, Webcomics, Podfiction… I could go on listing things forever.
Over the years, as my taste in fiction has developed and changed, I find myself wondering what my fiction should look like. I write short stories and novels. They are available on the web and in ebook format, but is that really what I write?
It might sound like a strange question, but the truth is, the vast majority of my time is spent working on backstory and world building. Isn’t that story too? It might sound simple, but I am one of those people who likes to overthink things, so let’s dig into this.
Why do I enjoy Alt Shift X and CivilizationEx more than ASOIAF or GOT?
I have reached a strange place in my entertainment. I find myself enjoying the videos of channels like Alt Shift X and CivilizationEx more than the primary Game of Thrones or A Song of Ice and Fire. Why?
When you think about it, simple art like that on these channels shouldn’t be able to compete with the millions of dollars spent on the HBO series, but they do. Why? Is is because they spend so much time on the minutia of the series? Is it because they paint a more interesting world to me than either the books or the series, even though they are really derivative works?
I’ve started to wonder if it isn’t just that stories get better with the retelling. James Bonnet in his wonderful book, Stealing Fire from the Gods discusses a method for baking the qualities of a oral tradition into your world. I wonder if there might not be a middle ground between his method and Roland Barthes theory of the readerly and writerly text.
A readerly text, to simplify the idea, is a straight forward story that a reader can just pick up and follow the text without having to put effort into figuring out the story. The story presents itself. That is an overly simplification of the idea, but it is useful for this discussion.
The last step in Bonnet’s method is to create a “sugar coat” so all the elements and metaphors are easy to digest by the reader and the work becomes a cohesive whole. It would be possible to see this sugar coat as the production of a readerly text.
What if the novels, novellas, and short story collections are the readerly texts per se. In other words, those texts were crafted in a way that they technically don’t require anything other than themselves to follow the story, but the are also part of a larger writerly text.
Again, this is another gross simplification, but a writerly text is work that requires the reader to produce the meaning of the text on their own. While I am taking these terms out of Barthes original context, they are useful in understanding the nature of an online work.
What I enjoy so much about those youtube videos as opposed to the source material is that they are distilling a series (of books or shows) into their basic elements, translating them into an almost purely writerly text. The video posits several possible meanings or simply focuses on a particular element in hopes of finding meaning.
The question is: if an author creates their own mystery texts as an exploration of the setting, stories, and characters as a way to better understand the world they are writing, how is that content presented in a way a reader can play with it in the same way?
Nothing new to see here…
I know I am far from the first person to build a website around a story or setting that I am working on. My problem is that I can’t find much if any public thought about the method and means of storytelling.
I like to have a method and guidelines to keep me on track. I don’t have them yet, but this is a step in that direction. I will share more as I learn more. As always music expresses the way I feel about this. Enjoy:
If you have any thoughts on the subject, I would love to hear them.