So The Hobbit is out now. Nearly 3 hours of Jackson Fan Fiction for a book that’s shorter than any of the Lord of the Rings books.
And yes, I am aware that the stories he pulled to make it this long are all in the Tolkien Mythos. Also, I haven’t watched it yet. That’s not what this post is about. I wanted to point the camera at a different kind of storytelling for a bit; specifically an almost mad-lib bit of writing using schemas.
I may not have mentioned this but I’m shifting my focus of study over to narrative structures and storytelling. So I’ve been doing reading on this thing called paratext. So what if we could tell stories almost exclusively through paratext (or schemas) using only a few key triggers. I’ve mentioned before how I’m no longer surprised by anything in fiction (movies, books, etc) because I expect all of it. I’ve been told I read too far into situations and should take things at face value. There are arguments that only one story actually exists and everything is based or structured like or on that story.
This isn’t actually what bothers me. My issue is with how storytelling has become less of a “here’s a set of characters doing things” and has instead become “here’s a set of characters, they are doing these things, they are telling you they are doing these things, here are the obvious reason why, and here is why all of this is going on.” Nothing is left to context. Yes, American culture is low context. English is a low context language. That doesn’t mean we have to describe every reason behind every action.
Here’s an example of high context characterization from the 2007 TMNT movie (Spoilers, but if you haven’t seen it by now I can’t really help you):
Fast forward to time stamp 3:34 for what I’m talking about.
There was discussion ahead of time but this spot right here: The tense moment where Raph is blinded and Leo sees what’s going on. Why does Leo lose a fight against such an angry opponent? It’s because winning wouldn’t help his brother. There’s recognition and he lets things end. Then, using only facial expressions which we readily recognize, you see the conversation between the two of them. There’s never an explanation of what happened or why Raphael trusts Leo again. You don’t need an explanatory scene. It was already there within the culture of both the viewers and the characters.
Want the opposite? Anything on ABC Family.
I’ve been following @FoalPapers on Twitter recently. He’s grad student working on a paper about the mythology surrounding My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. Some of the stuff he wrote got me to thinking. Kids haven’t seen this mythology. They don’t see it until it’s written for them and put into a new context. Some will look up the original texts later but how many people know of classic literature only because of Wishbone? So we write stuff using our schemas. Often the expanded universe of paratext shapes and molds how we view a story. Major stories rely on things written by others that we take for granted in culture. It’s how we recognize why sequences of events work the way they do.
So what happens if we try to make a story where that isn’t the case? Where, rather than enhance a story with paratext, you used our natural inclination to draw upon foreknowledge of elements and sequences to tell a story? Can it be done? Years ago my brother found a couple of stories that do just that: A sequence of key images that rely almost entirely on knowing other stories to get what’s going on.
The first is an action story. It condenses an equivalent amount of typical action adventure emotions (what you’d find drawn out over 3 hours in a Jackson film) into 6 minutes. Nightmare City by Clairvoyance:
NC: Catastrophe: http://www.newgrounds.com/portal/view/355430
You might argue that of course it’s possible with action stories since there’s not as much inter-personal drama required (that’s a different argument all together). As a counterpoint, I give you the “There She Is” series by SamBakZa; a romance drama done similarly (and with fewer words even).