The Evolution of Story-Telling by Oscar Nicholson

Story Telling - Digital

There are people in the industry who have the ability to change your entire perception of concepts or crystallise a notion that you’ve always felt but never been able to articulate. And Oscar Nicholson (or @returnon on Twitter) is just one of those people.

And once again, he’s done it again – here’s Oscar’s take on story telling.

Like me – he’s a self-confessed slashie: he’s a video slash director slash story slash a bunch of other things.  He’s someone you’d love to have in every idea session – he is a big picture thinker because he understand the intricate details to the Nth degree. So I can’t really sum him up at all!

Storytelling Evolves

Not to condescend to animals, but what distinguishes us homo sapiens from the rest of you vertebrate riff-raff is creativity and empathy. While you dilated your cloaca or increased the musculature of your prehensile tail, we evolved our hairy asses right out of the trees and learned to express ourselves. Our larynx descended, a language of grunts developed into speech and we started to exchange our experiences verbally as stories. No doubt this had an impetus in survival, a means of communicating incidents as warning others can understand through their capacity for empathy. At some point, creative Cro-Magnon found that embellishing a story helped to emphasize danger. “Minimize your odour to avoid attracting predators” is not nearly as enthralling as “A sabre-toothed orangutan can smell the beaver lard you condition your hair with from across a tundra”.

The captivating power of embellishment evolved stories from fact based anecdotes to fiction. Given free reign of expression, storytellers could entertain and enlighten their audiences. Tapping into our unique capacity for empathy, we told tales that empowered us to vicariously experience the lives of people we’d never met or who never existed. Tales of tragedy, heroism and hilarity that entertained and inspired us, spoke of the human condition and helped make sense of our place in the world. Tales became legends, became myths, became religion.

Storytelling became a vocation. As a purely verbal medium, storytelling allowed the teller a degree of authorship over each telling. Folk tales were fluid and perpetually evolving, audiences could ask questions and the teller could diverge from the main story to expound on minor characters and side plots. The Grimm Fairy Tales were originally passed between generations verbally by storytellers with license to adapt the telling to the times. Once the brothers Grimm recorded them in print in the early 19th century, the folk tales lost their fluid adaptability.

Modern storytelling was dominated in the 20th century by motion pictures, where storytelling has been immutable and linear in keeping with linear broadcast mediums such as cinema, television, cable and video. For all its interpretive nuance, Stanley Kubrick’s “2001” is a story told linearly, with a classic three-act structure that would have done Sophocles proud 2500 years ago. Despite a relatively definitive conclusion, its left to audiences of “2001” to ponder the fate of the human race after Dave Bowman’s ultimate evolution, transcending the corporeal to become a being of pure energy. So its not exactly a passive experience, but the audience engagement in conventional motion pictures is limited to personal interpretation.

Now that non-linear communication is mainstream, we can tell stories whose narratives metastasize into infinite directions. Michael Joyce wrote “Afternoon, A Story” (http://www.wwnorton.com/college/english/pmaf/hypertext/aft/index.html) in 1987, the first software based literature that allowed readers to make decisions on behalf of the protagonist via hypertext, much like Choose Your Own Adventure books did years prior. Videogames like the Fallout series similarly allow gamers to decide the fate of their avatar, but in a more dynamic and action-packed way than via hyperlinks, which lack the requisite gore to interest young audiences. These are examples of branching narratives.

While branching narratives are fairly commonplace in many storytelling mediums, their potential is relatively untapped in motion pictures. Until DVDs rocked our living rooms in the mid-90’s, no motion picture medium supported immediate audience interaction and even then, the logistics and production costs made branching narratives too big a risk for anyone to seriously undertake. Now YouTube enables hyperlinked annotations within the video, making branching narrative video series possible. But that’s only one small hurdle to making branching narratives work.

Last year Optus commissioned a branching narrative YouTube series produced by MCN (http://www.mcn.com.au) called “Dutch’s Destiny”, which followed the exploits of an upstart MC toiling in a call centre. Audiences could choose the girl he pursues and how to tackle career opportunities.

Though its yet to happen, branching narratives can potentially enhance repeat audiences. Once one narrative strand is completed, the captive audience will want to see how other narrative branches affect the protagonist’s story. The innovation of “Dutch’s Destiny” cannot make up for its lacking execution. Even if it were a linear narrative, the protagonist is ill-defined and difficult to empathize with, in a less than compelling and unoriginal story. Its a classic case of the coulds and the shoulds; just because they could do a branching narrative, should they? Its just a gimmick if the audience cannot identify with the protagonist and an empty exercise if the audience cannot empathize with the decision being made at narrative branches. The entire “Dutch’s Destiny” series was only viewed 6000 times despite widespread promotion. What’s most telling is that viewer numbers steeply decrease as the series progresses.

Yet I still have enormous faith in the future potential of branching narrative series, particularly with IPTV looming on the horizon. Aside from the aforementioned prerequisites applicable to any story, there needs to be a reason for the branching narrative; a “should” if you will. To me, branching narratives argue for free will against the determinism of conventional linear narratives. No matter how many times you watch “2001”, Dave Bowman always decides to shut HAL9000 down, behaviour a determinist would argue is dictated by who he is, his past, his training and his fate. But if “2001” were told as a branching narrative, we could see what might happen if Dave had the free will to alternatively reason with HAL and try to coax the effeminate AI out of its rational insanity. The capacity to further explore who we are as people and tap into our capacity for empathy is fundamentally why branching narratives are so tantalizing an evolution in storytelling.

Jye Smith is currently Senior Vice President, Head of Strategy & Operations, Asia Pacific at Weber Shandwick. Ranked in B&Ts 30 Under 30, Jye a regular keynote speaker and workshop facilitator who specialises in digital and social media strategist.

There are 15 comments for this article
  1. Oscar at 1:00 pm

    Worth adding that another impediment to audience immersion into a branching narrative video is the presentation of the choice to the audience. In “Dutch’s Destiny”, everything comes to a grinding halt at the end of each ep, where the choice is presented gracelessly. The challenge is to find dynamic ways of presenting the choice that are organic to the story.

  2. Matt Moore at 5:02 pm

    I reckon it’s very hard to do branching narratives well. We don’t actually experience life as a series of branching experiences that we can move backwards and forwards along. We only get to choose one adventure in life.

    The most compelling movies echo this because narrative events will probably surprise and shock us – and yet they will feel “right” at the end of the film.

    A branching narrative dilutes the power of a well-told story.

    That said, games work very well using branching narrative. But I’m not sure the future of movies is in trying to copy tropes from the gaming industry.

  3. John Colette at 2:29 pm

    Jye – I’m not sure what you are holding this up as an example of? The argument is hackneyed, insular and synoptic on so many levels that it’s hardly worth discussion. I’ll make a couple of points.

    In the first instance, the argument for the “immanence” of non-linear [rhizomatic] narratives has been in ful swing for about 18 years in a technologically determined sense – the implication being that “new” digital technologies are about to upend the tradition of linear storytelling.

    The concurrent academic debate and plethora of examples are out there – if you have any interest in looking into an idea that has a LOT of discussion behind it – which the autor clearly doesn’t.

    A second point is that games – contrary to much opoular speculation – are not stories, They are games, and to inflect elements of another medium is a pastiche – not genuine hybridisation. While games borrow marginally from the tropes of other media, there is more in common between teenis and bioshock than there is between bioshock and Star Wars.

    Moving on from Start Wars [or not so far] – storytelling is not – as the author suggests – a reflexive response to environmental stimuli, but a more deepseated desire to represent the world as an ordered phenomena through abstraction. The Greeks [who thought about this a LONG time before your author, and in some depth] divided this process into two orders, mimesis and diegesis [portraying and telling]. Further in the vast history of thought, a not inconsiderable part of which has been devoted to the dramatic arts, there have been thories of story which rely heavily on Jungian Archetype – particularly in the comparative anthropological studies of Joseph Campbell, who compared mythic structures across historical and transnational divides. His theories, most formally “he Hero with 1000 faces” are the basis of the Star Wars stories, and George Miller credits them with his success in the Mad Max movies. They form a common strucural premise for such diverse stories as Lord of the Rings, Toy Story and Pretty Woman. Christian Voegler, in his book “The Writer’s Journey” outlines the applicability of this structure to dramatic screenwriting fo all types.

    In the light of this – the “demise” of linear narrative has been predicted but never realised – why? If you look at it, simple narratives – like romantic comedies are not, in fact story TELLING, but story reception – we know how they’ll end – so why watch them? Why are they popular?

    I would suggest that the appeal of the story is not in the unknown, but in the resolution of conflict in a satisfactory manner. In the end “they get married”. “Buzz and Woody are friends”. “Here’s Pincess Leia…..”

    Stories provide a discrete narrative framework that embodies a moral and just universe. Life isn’t like that – but stories – epic or othereise – are. We want to be told stories – not make them from multiple choice options.

    Every few years, the circular argument comes around where someone gets up at a conference and says “The web will come of age when you cry reading a web page the way you do in a movie”. 10 years before someone stood up and said the same thing about CD ROMS. I know – I heard them both.

    Comparison between media vehicles and even specific genres is an easy means of making a point [it's a metynomic relationship not unlike our use of metaphor] however in the rush to mediate the world and write a blog and be famous for doing all of that – there is also a rush to the quick fix, and I’m not talking about the reposting of someone’s glib idea as a post. I mean the complete lack of scholarship, inquiry or respect for considered thought and its history that your author is so fatally guilty of.

    The problem with the Web is not Wikipedia using crowdsourcing to create its articles – its in what Nicholas Carr describes in “The Shallows” – a flight to the immediacy of ignorance.

    If you believe that non linear presentation of material has a future [and what, if not that, is the web istelf?] then consider the work of Glorianna Davenport at MIT who for many year has worked in the area of non-linear documentary. Consider the points raised by Scott McCloud in Understanding Comics are even read the underground comics of Mark Beyer, the Films of Harmony Korine and the countless other examples of episodic, non linear and impressionistic work that interrogate this premise.

    There’s nothing new in the idea – it’s been rattled inside out – and it sits in the periphery of popular culture for a reason.

  4. Jye Author at 3:11 pm

    @John: While your sesquipedalian approach to this is second to none – I need to be honest and say I think your approach and feedback is arrogant, deconstructive and just out of line.

    I’m not going to play vocabulary chess with you here, but in short:

    1. I’m holding this up as an example of perspective and opinion. Is that okay? Hope so.

    2. Not worthy of discussion? You were kind enough to write me over 700 words of response! I’m usually rather thankful for such dedication and commitment. Slow day at PixelMill?

    3. Who are you to say what is worth and not worth of any discussion? I’ve met you through AIMIA and remember you being quite an upstanding gent. Please tell me this is just a bad day? Is Matt Moore stupid for commenting/discussing?

    Look, I’d love you to write me a guest post: on where you think story-telling has or hasn’t come from or gone to? Would you be willing?

  5. Sean Smith - Fat Paddler at 4:05 pm

    I’ll make this very brief. What a DOUCHETASTIC response to what was an interesting commentary for those of us not locked in an academic parallel universe with a dictionary and a thesaurus. Seriously mate, I wanted to stab my eyeballs out.

  6. John Colette at 4:20 pm

    Jye – hey – I’m not being a grouchy or a smarty pants – but to answer briefly.

    1. As perspective and opinion, I think the post is based on a premise that is neither novel or underexplored. Sure – it’s an opinion – it’s just been said so many times before. In that light, I think maybe your assessment of it as a “crystallising” idea is a bit over enthusiastic.

    2. Point taken – what can I say? My days are usually busy…I thought being dismissive without any clarification is actually the more unreasonable position.

    3. When I say discussion – it’s the circularity of the process that’s annoying. This is such old ground – it’s been theorised to death. It’s just surprising to me to see this idea dragged up as novel….again!

    My point is that storyteling, its variants and technical enablers, from cave painting to computers, have been explored and talked about a LOT, not least the “immanence” of non-linear narrative.

    While I appraciate that it’s all opinion, and that’s fine, I don’t have to agree that it’s revelatory, insightful or novel, and I’m not trying to short change you with some reasons why.

    On that note, I think Matt’s comments are lucid and to the point. You can take what you will out of mine, but please don’t infer that I’m grouchy [I'm not].

    Lastly, I may take you up on a more considered discussion, but that’s a serious undertaking. Isn’t it always shorter to say nay than why not?

    [happy face]

    best

    -j

  7. SEO, PPC and Analytics Consultant Melbourne - Alex Avery at 4:23 pm

    @John Colette
    What’s up dude? Masters/phd review go badly? No one reading your blog?
    Seriously, you should relax John. Lay off the caffeine. Try this: Ask yourself if you put it to 3 friends what they thought of your post/comment/flame before you hit send, what would they say? You might find you don’t hit that send button at all.

    No one’s being the thought police here, and it’s a free world, but people are likely to think more of you if you say less of this type of stuff. And use less verbose language. You might get laid more too.

    Have a great weekend.

    And @Jye, keep up the good work but use a spell/grammar-checker please. ;P

    peace. aa

  8. Jye Author at 5:12 pm

    @Alex: I won’t lie – I rush all this ;) Apologies for the oversights – my directors always pull me up on it ;)

    @John: thanks for coming back. Would love to see your post, you have my details now – please give it some thought.

  9. Oscar at 6:29 pm

    Matt makes a good point, you can’t change past choices. Much like a film, life follows a path linearly via choice and circumstance. Most choices are made with little hesitation. But everyone has moments of deep contemplation over personal, professional and ethical decisions. And everyone subsequently wonders how a different choice might have changed their life. A branching narrative could justify the medium if it used the medium itself to illustrate free will and determinism, causality and fate. And it could retain the qualities of compelling storytelling you mention through linear narrative developments, based around the protagonist’s fate and determined behaviour.

    John, is the vitriol really necessary? Nothing in the post suggests that branching narratives will lead to the “demise” of linear narratives. I even acknowledge that branching narrative’s are nothing but a gimmick without a compelling story to justify the medium. I’m not trying to herald a paradigm shift in the entertainment industry, just the possibility of another storytelling medium potentially coming of age.

    You say “storytelling is not – as the author suggests – a reflexive response to environmental stimuli, but a more deepseated (sic) desire to represent the world as an ordered phenomena through abstraction” and yet its clearly written in the post that storytelling helps us “make sense of our place in the world”. I’m familiar with Joseph Campbell’s “The Hero’s Journey” and Carl Jung, but you fail to elucidate how they invalidate branching narratives.

    I agree that audience engagement with the resolution is paramount, but branching narratives can still resolve a story in a similarly satisfactory manner. This is where determinism and fate can play a part; the audience presented with narrative choices relating to the protagonist’s free will can explore the causality of those decisions, but the protagonist’s innate behaviour (determinism) and fate would dictate the overall story’s arc.

    Writing a good script with a linear narrative is hard enough, writing a compelling branching narrative would be a herculean task. To construct multiple overlapping arcs from one inciting incident with satisfactory resolutions would make Inception look like Commando. The difficulty is yet to be offset by the payoff, since the present audience is really limited to YouTube. But IPTV may provide a large enough audience to justify a well made branching narrative.

    For all his wisdom on the subject, its a shame that John doesn’t actually engage a reasoned discussion, instead going off point and hiding behind a rancourous deluge of pseudo-intellectual opinion and semi-relevant references (Harmony Korine, really? The Harmony Korine of Julien Donkeyboy?). Matt makes a more succinct argument against branching narratives than any one of John’s innumerable paragraphs.

    BTW – anyone else want to get into a dissertation on scriptwriting, try Karel Seger’s blog thestorydepartment.com

  10. John Colette at 7:04 am

    Sean – really – I’ll just STFU. Why bother?

    How can I compete with “douchtastic?” as a point of argument.

    I’ll leave you guys to it. Enjoy.

  11. John Colette at 8:04 am

    Oscar and the rest.

    Look – I’m sorry if my post seemed too opinionated [or arrogant, doucetastic - whatever you liek to call it]. I’ll probably just think it to myself sometime.

    Oscar – I am guilty of diminishing what you had to say – and you’re right – the non linear script is a herculean task, also one that people haven’t had much success with.

    A screenplay runs 100-120 pages. People who have written “non linear” products [and I have seen a few] clock in qt 500-1500 pages. They are difficult to produce, to fund and to find a market for – the linear film is hard enough.

    The possibility of branching narrative has been coming up for fifteen years, it always seems like a why not? – and there’s the rub – why not?

    In an age of spectacular and abundant digital production – why is there no shining, branching narrative that stands out as having cracked this nut? I mean – really – the possibility has been there for 20 years.

    There’s a ton of experimentation in text – people have done branching novels, comics, onlone hypertexts. Partly – this offests the effort of staging a filmed production, but fiomed and animated efforts in this genre have failed to shine – why?

    The possibility of doing something doesn’t make it a given. Matt’s point that “doing a branching narrative well is hard” – is a good point – but it comes from the diffuculty of changing story telling [and listening] to story making. We like the ride.

    If you go to a slasher film, and someone is heading to the door the guy with the hockey mask is behind – and you say “no – don’t go there” and they don’t, it takes the steam out of the film. If you get to reason with HAL, maybe strategise with him a bit, 2001 becomes a very different film.

    Filmed entertainment is very conservative genre. The most popular films are also the most conservative structurally – the follow the formula. This is why Campell stands up well across genres – I’d say the reason we watch is to see the form played out.

    Longer form pieces [and they I think are also very much of age] are everywhere, in the longfrom episodic drama that has really shone out of the US in the last 10 years. The Sopranos, The Wire, The West Wing, Deadwood, True Blood – across a rang of styles, formats and genres, they are episodic and entertaining – but still linear. Their characterisation works across multiple storylines, and shifts in its dynamics over time – but that keeps them engaging.

    Anyway – I don’t want to be a dick – I’m sorry Oscar because you’re right – I seem that way – I just don’t think storytelling has “evolved”, we’re doing it the same way. IMO the best opportunities for this type of material are in the hybrid / transmedia space – which has been happening [poorly] for ages with the online components of programs “amplifying” the material for the audience on the web. The IPTV promise [I'd guess] lies in that opportunity to extend story beyond the branching storyline model, and into something that actually relies on other mediums, that spans the text / moving image divide.

    This has happened quite successfully in Scandanavia with the poilitical thriller genre – and that seems a good place to start becausea thriller might engage the curiosity required ina different way to a romantic comedy.

    Lastly – Korine – I think there are really strong aspects of non linearity inherent in the way the films are edited – it needs a very active audience and that’s also in interesting place to start.

    -j x

  12. John Colette at 9:08 pm

    Hey whoever reads this – Alex – 100% right. I wrote straight to page and sound like I have a stick up my bum.

    Apologies to Oscar for my disrespectful tone. Really. He’s haveing an honest carack at a complex idea, and he hasn’t done it lightly.

    I’ll shout up now. Probably forever. [!]

  13. Oscar at 10:04 am

    Thanks for the great comment John! Don’t shut up, this is great discussion; the post is a synopsis for a reason – its more fun to fill in the blanks with you all.

    The difficulty of pulling off branching narratives that can also both adhere to storytelling fundamentals and entertain may be reason enough for their lack of success. That and the absence of an audience keeping talent away from attempting such a herculean task (so far as I know, John might know of a Hollywood big shot who tried and failed a branching narrative). John observed that proponents spring up with every new medium promising the potential to enable branching narratives and perhaps this is a circular argument that’s all spun out. But could it instead be a spiralling argument? For nearly 20 years after praxinoscopes and zoetropes, film gradually captured the public’s imagination as little more than static shots of action, before attempts at narrative motion pictures eventually yielded one that successfully employed the new medium to tell a well-rounded (yet racist) story with D.W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation” in 1914. Each new medium in the last 20 years might have further enabled branching narratives, but none offered the “if you build it, they will come” audience of YouTube. Then, hypothetically, IPTV will take it from a lean forward to a lean back experience. So though we argue round and round, we could be arguing ever closer to a critical point where branching narratives may surmount their central gimmick and actually deserve an audience. But as John and Matt point out, the classical “choose your own adventure” branching narrative model may be impossible given what audiences expect of a story. They might only work, if at all, in a more rudimentary form where the audience doesn’t choose the direction of the plot, instead choosing how the plot unfolds.

    Branching narratives may need to be more like a whole tree, with the trunk as principal story arc, branches as side plots and twigs as character moments peripheral to the plot. Audiences could watch the story in the most direct manner, or take a circuitous route via side plots to the same conclusion. Deadwood and The Wire are so brilliant partly because they portray a robust cast of characters with their own fully realised stories and character moments woven into a rich tapestry of a plot. But this is also why they rated poorly in syndication, drop-in audiences would be lost in the middle of these densely plotted serials. On DVD both shows have mesmerised me in ways feature films simply cannot and I’ve frequently revisited favourite episodes and moments. Part of the reason I’ve re-roasted the old non-linear chestnut is that these shows hint at the possibility that there is talent capable of writing a viable (tree?) branching narrative. Again, this may not yet have happened because there hasn’t been a medium capable of supporting an audience large enough to attract such talent. I remember reading an interview with David Milch, creator of Deadwood, where he complained that HBO wanted him to make Al Swearengen more the central anti-hero (they basically wanted another Tony Soprano) than part of an ensemble of 10 or so principal characters. IPTV’s hypothetical replacement of cable and network television models may provide a mutual solution to that problem. David Milchs of the future could appease both networks appealing to the lowest common denominator and sophisticated audiences by providing plot advancement options. Do you want to follow Al Swearengen, Alma Garret, Seth Bullock or do you just want a cliff notes telling and revisit the story from other perspectives later? Not only could it make densely plotted serials more accessible, it could also enhance repeat viewing. For example, a “Rashomon” style story following the perspectives of various unreliable witnesses to a crime could make great use of such a medium.

    John mentioned the tentative forays by networks producing online content intended to “amplify” programs. I’d love to hear from anyone who has seen it done well, because so far there really isn’t a shining example to hold up in support of transmedia branching narratives. AMC produced an animated branching narrative for Breaking Bad, where you control Walt’s DEA agent brother-in-law Hank as he interrogates a suspect. It looks cool and is a nice little diversion for fans of the show, but it doesn’t exactly transcend the branching narrative gimmick. That none of these ostensibly professional efforts have been successful may be attributable to the fact that they are after-thoughts, usually without much input from key creatives. Again, if IPTV can bring the audience and the profit, the talent necessary to tackle a branching narrative might be compelled to do just that.

    Ultimately, the proving grounds for branching narratives will likely be social media (this is a social media blog after all, I don’t mean to focus on entertainment and anyway, John started it). We’re already seeing campaigns that feature various forms of non-linear content. Though its hardly a story, the responses the Old Spice Guy gave to twitter questions elaborated on the character and allowed audiences access to explore the campaign’s loopy ethos. Recently Tipp-Ex launched a YouTube campaign that gives the impression that it will be a hyperlink annotation branching narrative but cleverly incorporated the product to take a u-turn into the kind of text-interfaced video pioneered by Burger King’s Subservient Chicken. Its feasible that as these infant branching narratives take shape as actual stories, they could become viably entertaining in their own right, establishing non-linear narratives as profitable platforms for short-form branded entertainment.

    I will try watching the films of Korine again, “Gummo” and “Julien Donkeyboy” were interesting, but I’ve found on the whole that he’s little more than a provocateur with his trash humping and cat drownings that makes me drop my monocle in outrage. I’d love to know more about the aforementioned Scandinavian political thriller. I’m also going to check out Gloriana Davenport’s non-linear documentary.

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