Is Cultural Overproduction Killing Story Structure?

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I've been thinking a bit about story structure lately.


Why do I have so little desire to sit down to a typical movie or TV show, or to open up a novel?

Do you feel the same way?

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You know the story-structures I'm talking about. You probably studied them in high school English classes.

Introduction. Conflict. Rising action. Climax. Denouement.

Sure, there are variations. Kurt Vonnegut made a nice presentation on the shapes of stories where he talks about a few of them.

For the most part, stories are built around people getting into trouble and then finding a way out of it. Put your protagonist up a tree and start throwing rocks at him. That sort of thing.

But as I get older, and get busier, I have less time to spend on "entertainment" or "culture" or whatever you want to call it. The last thing I want when I sit down for a bit of relaxation is to be taken on a roller-coaster ride.

Open up a Lee Child novel, say.

I'll use him as an example since I think his talent actually is remarkable, and he has a style that stands out among drugstore thriller best-sellers. He pumps out a title a year and has mastered the art of producing something that's the same, but different, to entertain his fans.

His protagonist, Jack Reacher, will stumble into a situation where something is horribly wrong. Reacher's a good guy, so he's going to fix it, whatever the personal cost and risk. People try to kill him. He uses intelligence and violence to eliminate them. Somewhere along the way he gets laid, but it's really just ancillary to the rising waves of tension and anticipation. Then there's some explosions, and justice is served.

He's a master of the short chapter with the cliffhanger ending. Fine, I'll just read one more, you think, at 2:00 A.M. There's a visceral reaction in the body. You are, in a word, thrilled.

It's a fine trick to play with marks of ink on paper.

But here's the thing. After I've finished one of his books (at 3:00 A.M., say, or 4:00) I don't feel so much thrilled as manipulated.

It feels like I've been pulled through another appointment, in a life that's already over-scheduled. Reading a thriller is like going to the dentist. You get through it and then you think, well, my teeth are nice and shiny, but I'm an hour older and my gums hurt. But you kind of knew that was going to happen when you went in. And you paid for it. So you think, that was fine.

Movies feel the same way. When I log onto Netflix and scroll through all those offerings - high stakes drama, saving the world from aliens, surviving some eldritch horror, solving some mystery - all I feel is a sense of anxious despair. I know the roller-coaster of emotions they're built to put me through. I know the narrative techniques that'll be used, not to mention the slathering of music laid on thick to remind me what to feel in every scene.

And I think, Why put myself through that, AGAIN?

So, increasingly, we turn to documentaries for relaxation. Or I head over to YouTube and look for someone doing something ordinary - or something that's ordinary for them, but which is different enough from my own life to be mildly interesting.

The Wife loves gardening shows where people wander through their yards and talk about their flowers. I'm a fan of videos where people who are good at their jobs perform them with skill. I can ride along with this pilot all day. It's just enough of a window into what might have been my life, but just the better parts of it, that it's relaxing.

There's a ton of videos of people in different parts of the world trying drinks and snacks from other parts of the world. No drama there. If we do want a little drama, maybe we'll go for one of those Russian dash-cam compilations, or a "bad day at work" collection just to remind ourselves that whatever we're going through, it ain't all that special.

Life's a mess for everyone. Ha ha, LOL, alright, let's move on.

The fact that there's so much other stuff out there must mean I'm not alone in my growing distaste for traditional story.

It seems like this is a significant shift. It's hard to imagine someone twenty years ago watching a the view from the bow of a cruise ship on a television screen for five hours, or the feed from a train trundling through Norway. In the days before we all carried HD video cameras in our pockets, it took a tremendous investment to film, edit, store, and share footage. Why would anyone do it if they didn't think they could get a good return on their investment? Of course media was going to rely on tried-and-true forms.

So maybe it's just taken an overwhelming abundance of media - and the ease-of-access to tools of production - to bring this shift about.

Or maybe it's porn.


Perhaps you've watched some of the stuff?

Pornography was perhaps the first "entertainment genre" (or whatever you want to call it) that abandoned narrative structure entirely. Even when it was made with expensive cameras and celluloid film, the plots were dispensed with so quickly that they immediately became a joke.

"Pizza delivery, mam."

You could say that porn has a narrative structure that doesn't demand plot. Or that the natural structure of stories (rising action, climax, ect.) already follows the arc of the sexual act so closely that any kind of plot is unnecessary. There's an awful lot of it out there that just kind of goes on and on (so I've been told).

It's not like people watch these things from beginning to end. (My understanding is) that people just jump around looking for a particularly good bit.

(This suggests another consideration in the changing way we consume media: the scrubber bar. Pornography must have been a lot different when you could only move forward or back by straining the motor in your VCR. Even the basest form of entertainment took a certain commitment that's lacking today.)

It's interesting how the term "porn" is applied to all sorts of non-sexual activities, now. *Food porn, landscape porn, knitting porn."

Porn used to refer to media that was meant to elicit a physical response from the viewer. That's changed. Now it just means unstructured video that people simultaneously enjoy and feel guilty about.

We feel guilty (at least in America - is it the same elsewhere?) if our actions aren't contributing towards something. Even in leisure, if we're not working towards some goal, we must be doing something dirty, right? We've worked so many long hours that it feels awkward to have leisure time at all.

Maybe this is another reason the traditional narrative has held on so long. God, it hurts to watch those characters suffer, but eventually there'll be a pay-off.

It doesn't help that we're taught to consume literature in schools where getting through a novel is an assignment, followed by a report and a grade. We're been conditioned to accept that stories are work. And as with most work, we expect to be paid when we're through. Why else would so many people suffer through the travesty of a high school education and then enroll in college for a degree in literature?

Is it any wonder there should be a dichotomy between stories we feel virtuous about consuming, and things we just take in for the sheer pleasure of it? Like the sorts of videos we just leave running in the background? Filmed experiences that feel like casual chats with friends? The shared experiences of video games? The false intimacy of recorded sexual congress?

I'm wondering what your experience is. And I'm especially interested in how people my age and older (I was born in 1976) differ from the younger crowd, who have spent their entire lives surrounded by these non-structured media narratives. Do you zoomers (??) feel the same vague sense of guilt for zoning out to hours of ASMR girls brushing their hair or eating peanut butter as we old folks do?

Do you think appetites for stories (and non-stories) are changing? And if they are, what does this mean for the future of storytelling?


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Do you think appetites for stories (and non-stories) are changing?

Fuck, I hope not. Though I do see your point about all this seemingly mindless content out there that some people seem to enjoy. But I do think that also has a lot to do with this rising need to be a celebrity or an influencer or whatever. Only hitch is, most people don't have such interesting lives, so they just share whatever's normal to them in the hope that someone will validate them emotionally. That's my take on it at least.
As for trying out foods or whatever, I can only see the point if either the commentary's funny and/or unique or if the person that's doing it is traveling and thus trying new and exotic foods all the time. Other than that, beats me why people would watch that.

Not to be rude (but to be honest), I found this incredibly sad. In fact, that was going to be my original comment, are you sure you're alright? You sound...down, to me. Upset/dejected about something...
And the comparison of porn and other forms of entertainment also sounds depressing and, to me, somewhat untrue. I mean, look at the tremendous success the Joker movie had (only to name something recent) and understandably so, as it was a brilliant movie. And a long one and yet, people paid to sit in the cinema and watch and then went on to rave about it..They could've just waited to get the DVD and skip through it, no?
I don't know, I suppose I could get finding the same tried and tested story arcs a bit tedious, but to lose interest in story as a whole...never. There's just too many variables. And besides, nothing beats a really good story, both movie-wise and book-wise, personally I love that roller-coaster, I love the craft behind it, the effort and the mind-tricks that the author's devised for you to get there.

It doesn't help that we're taught to consume literature in schools where getting through a novel is an assignment, followed by a report and a grade.

Wholeheartedly agree with that. I was just talking to some guy and he was telling me how he used to read, but now doesn't cause he gets distracted and then he mentioned what sort of book really used to captivate him and I realized he'd read it in school/high-school. It wasn't the first person in that situation either...Sad. But honestly, I think that's to do with the society progressively getting dumber as we go along.

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Oh @honeydue, the last thing I'd want in the world is to make you sad!

Maybe I'm over-generalizing from my own tastes and experience. I understand the Joker movie did very well, though I've never been able to stomach superhero movies.

And we have been under a tremendous amount of stress lately. It may be that there's more than enough drama going on in our lives right now, so we just don't have room to seek out any more in fiction. Just after I wrote that post yesterday, for example, we discovered that the wife's car needs $1600 of work to pass a state inspection, the basement in our antique house was flooded with 1.5 meters of water and the water heater was blown out (with guests arriving in 24 hours!) and then I got off the train to discover that the headlights on my car weren't working. When I got home I had to attend to draining the outside faucets in the dark as a freeze was settling in, and wrestle with a shut-off valve that needs to be replaced because it won't shut off anymore.

This has been typical of a month with extended power outages, clogged bathroom drains, and backed up cesspools that required locating and pumping with expensive equipment. At least yesterday's flood was fresh water--the previous one filled our basement with sewage. This is during the busiest and most stressful weeks of the year at work, with the regular 40+ hours and 25 more commuting with frequent train break-downs and delays.

If other people are working as hard (and are as stressed out) as we are--and I suspect that, among the younger generation especially, this is the case--lots of the young folks at my last gig were working three jobs just to support themselves, their parents, and sometimes their children--I can totally get why someone would turn on an ASMR video of a woman brushing her hair or folding paper or getting a massage, instead of seeking out more drama.

Maybe the other factor in play here is simple lack of leisure time. Drama and excitement are a lot more appealing when you have the opportunity to get a little bored. Boredom used to be quite fashionable among Gen-Xers in the 90s, but I don't know anyone who has the chance to get bored today.

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Man, that is a pretty shitty streak, I'm sorry :( But I'm sure it will get better! I do understand why you might not want more madness with such a hectic schedule...From that point of view, I suppose it makes sense.

but I don't know anyone who has the chance to get bored today.

You think? While there's a lot more entertainment, there's also a lot more demand, you're always pushed to be doing something, as you said, productive, to "live it up" and I think that with all this constant pressure, adrenaline or hectic life can really get rather dull after a bit. Also, people's constant need of being entertained (listening to a podcast, checking your feed, reading a post, watching a video etc) is making them much more easily bored in the rare instances where there's nothing to do...that's just my opinion..

I understand the Joker movie did very well, though I've never been able to stomach superhero movies.

Aah but that's the beauty of it! :D It's not a superhero movie, it s a psychological portrait of a man breaking down in a society that's turned its back on him. It's fascinating and very well built, story-wise, really recommend it ;) I hate superhero movies too, Avengers, Spiderman, all that, never really got the point.

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people's constant need of being entertained ... is making them much more easily bored in the rare instances where there's nothing to do

I was thinking more about the fact that people have to work so hard to make ends meet these days, but yeah, the few moments of idleness we do have left are gobbled up by snack sized entertainments as well, which become the only meal.

It's not a superhero movie ...

All right, maybe I'll give it a try when it comes out on Netflix. It sounds like they're just using the comic book marketing angle to sell a story that didn't even have to have to be in a super-hero universe? I guess that could be a way to transition people into more complex stories. But I kind of hate how everything has to be part of a franchise to be successful.

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Speaking from my own experience, I think there is a certain percentage of creative people that simply do not want to consume fiction and the related. We are driven to write it, and I think that drive makes reading it so much less fulfilling. Like, why read a story, when I can make it up my own way, and make things happen the way I want them to? Especially when we have busy lives and limited time to do what we want. That said, we must be a small group, because everyone I know spends their time happily watching some sort of video entertainment or reading fiction. So I guess us writers are safe. There will always be plenty of consumers so long as they can find us :)

The comparison to porn was really interesting to me. I had never thought of the comparison between a plot and sex. All this instant gratification out there might be training us to want to fastforward to the good parts, meanwhile, all women know the ending never goes so well without a great deal of content leading up to it ;)

This was an excellent read. I have felt this way about stories for so long, and I'm the only one that I know that feels this way. So it turns out I am not alone in this world after all. I was born in 1986, so I guess I represent a generation pretty well inundated with media, although not as much as my children could be (if I were to let them be.)

I think people that are excited to go see a movie and get lost inside it must be some of the happiest people. How pleasantly simple life would be if that simple story line didn't seem...simple. That's why I started writing, because just consuming it wasn't fulfilling. I think on some level in my case, the boredom is just a deeply ingrained need to work thing, like you mentioned. It can't be over-stimulation on my part, because I don't consume very much media, although I'm guessing for most people over-stimulation is the culprit.

In people that experience chronic anxiety there can be a sense of being distanced from the self. I wonder if in our society, where there is over-stimulation and a high rate of comparison to our peers and therefore stress to be the best, I wonder if that disassociation is resulting in a need for uninteresting real life experiences, even if they are simulated. Sort of like grappling for a return to our ordinary selves, the way natured intend us to be. I think I have officially overthought this. I even began that sentence with "I think," which probably proves my overthinking thought ;)

dear @winstonalden, you wrote a very deep and interesting post. the most common answer is that everything depends on people's tastes and for the new generations we can certainly not stop the fact that technology has changed and with it the way to use films or books. perhaps, entering the staff, we have already seen and heard so much that we are really fed up, bored, fed up. nothing surprises me, if I stay to watch a movie it's because I love actors. for the books I have a special love, I still remained attached to the paper. usually I read the first page of a book to see if I get inside it right away, it certainly can't be a security, but it usually works enough !! I think we are in an age of transition, and we are lucky: I believe we have seen and read the best, and that now we are waiting for something new that can excite us again ... I do not know if we will see it, in the meantime we wait and stay fond of our favorites .->))

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I guess we never really know what's going excite us until we see it. Sometimes that makes it hard to go looking for what we think we want, since we're so often wrong!

An interesting reflection. I think that changes are necessary because they oxygenate the human being in one way or another. These changes of habit can be good or bad, according to the moral criteria of societies and the times in which they occur.
There will always be changes. How these changes impact our daily life is another conflict to inquire.
It has been a pleasure to read you and give my opinion. A big hello @winstonalden

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Thanks for the nice comment!

I agree, sometimes turning over the compost pile helps it to grow some new plants.

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Grotesque words ... but true!

Hello Hello!

A questionable and very interesting topic you wrote, once I read in a book that the authors are made to demonstrate their virtues through words ... It is true, every time I read articles on Steemit I always encounter very entertaining topics and They want to continue and keep reading :) Congratulations on your writing, you are one of those authors who will always love reading them

Greetings from Venezuela

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Hi winstonalden,

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Good point you got there. Psychology is really one of the concepts, we will never be able to get to have clear view of it. Because it's so complex. And every person has different mentality.

Hello @winstonalden, thank you for sharing this creative work! We just stopped by to say that you've been upvoted by the @creativecrypto magazine. The Creative Crypto is all about art on the blockchain and learning from creatives like you. Looking forward to crossing paths again soon. Steem on!