The Purpose of Story

Why do we tell stories?  This is the question I will be exploring in this post.

It has been a while since I’ve last posted, mainly because I have been busy, but I have also been thinking hard about what I wanted my next post to be about.  In this post I want to explore the purpose of storytelling, and why anyone should bother telling stories.  I will also explore different types of storytelling and what benefits they have.  Finally, I will once again explain the difference between games and interactive stories.  Grab a coffee and get comfortable, because this is a long post.

Story Uses

I recently finished reading The Art of Dramatic Writing by Lajos Egri.  It is a very good book, and I highly recommend it to any writer, no matter what medium you’re in.  The book mainly focuses on plays, but it can be easily applied to movies, books, etc.

At the beginning of the book, Egri talks about the premise of the story, which is basically what the writer is trying to prove.  Every good story has a premise, because every good story is trying to prove something.  That is the main reason writers sit down to write.  They want to show that ruthless ambition leads to its own destruction.  That great love defies even death.  That blind trust leads to destruction.

None of these may be true, or all of them may be true.  The point is, the writer chooses a premise that he believes in so greatly that he will use everything at his disposal–characters, mostly–to prove his premise.

I will not go into great detail on how characters can be used to prove a premise; for that, you should read The Art of Dramatic Writing.  All I wanted to say for now is that proving a premise is the main purpose of writing.

There are other, secondary purposes, of course.  Entertainment, for one.  But this is not the main reason for writing or reading.  People do not want to only be entertained, they want to think.  They want a story to be thought-provoking.  Only stories that prove a premise can do this.  But to prove a premise well, the story must be entertaining, otherwise you lose your audience.

Stories can also teach.  This is just a byproduct of proving a premise; through proving a premise, the story naturally teaches the audience why that premise is true.  One of the best examples of someone using stories to teach is Jesus Christ.  He used parables to teach the people he spoke to.  He didn’t just try to explain the kingdom of heaven, he showed the kingdom of heaven.  He could have just said “God will always welcome you back if you stray,” but he didn’t.  He told the story of the prodigal son, who left his father, took his inheritance, and spent it all.  When the prodigal son returns home penniless, his father throws a party for him.  Jesus was teaching the people by proving his premise.

Different Mediums for Stories

There are many different mediums in which stories are born.  Some stories are told out loud, like personal stories or humorous stories that comedians tell.  Others are written in books or magazines, and some are on websites or blogs.  Some are shown on a television screen or seen acted out in person.  And others are interacted with, so that the audience can change the story as it progresses. Each medium has its strengths and weaknesses, and I will talk briefly on a few.

Books are arguably the most popular medium for stories.  They are easy to create, easy to use, and they have been around for a very long time.  Personally, I doubt books will ever go away.  They may change from paper to screen, but they will still have chapters and words and, in essence, be books.  Everyone who can read has read a book.  Their greatest strength is that they are universal.

Books also force the reader to use their imagination.  Not everything is in the book; the reader has to fill in a lot of the details.  Even the most descriptive writers do not create an entire picture.  They can only encourage the reader’s imagination more.  Books are generally considered more intellectual than movies or games.  I will not delve into that argument at this time.

Movies were a natural progression from plays after the video camera was invented.  They allow a visual story to be played pretty much anywhere, at any time.  Plays are restricted to the stage, but they do have some advantages over movies.  For example, the actors are able to play off of the audience.  When the audience laughs more, the actors are able to react to that, and the performance is better.  It has to do with invisible brick walls between the actors and the audience.

Movies, on the other hand, are very passive.  In fact, books are fairly passive too.  The audience just sits there and watches or reads the story as it unfolds, and they really have nothing to do with it.  Somewhere I heard that it takes more brain power to stare at a blank wall than to stare at a TV.  I do not know if this is true or not, and frankly, I don’t care, because that’s not what I’m talking about.  I am building up to comparing movies and games, and eventually interactive stories.

Movies are able to immerse the audience in a story.  They can take the audience to another world more efficiently than books or plays, but that doesn’t necessarily make the experience better.  It just makes it easier for the audience to get into the new world their learning about.

Games as a Storytelling Medium

Games are also able to immerse the audience, or player, in a new world.  Computer graphics have gotten so good now, that many people can’t tell the difference between a computer image and a photograph.  Games are pretty close, too.  Close enough to draw the player deep into this new world the game is trying to show them.

Games do have their weaknesses, of course.  Mainly because of the designers.  Games immerse the player with visuals and sounds, but they usually don’t immerse the player into a story.  Mainly because I do not believe games are considered a storytelling medium.  Sure, there are games that say they immerse the player in the story, and some do, but that isn’t their goal.

Games are meant to entertain, and story is secondary to this entertainment.  Even Mac Walters, the lead writer for Mass Effect 3, widely considered as a very story-centered game, admits this. “When a video game can also make you feel something, you know, as long as it’s also fun, and still entertainment, then, well, I think we’ve done our jobs.”

The next logical question to ask, then, is, “can games be a good storytelling medium even if the designers change their goal from entertainment to proving a premise?”

A question in response to that question could be, “Would they continue to be games if they did?”

I think that if the goal of a game was proving a premise, it would become an interactive story.  Not because the only difference between a game and an interactive story is the goal, but because when the goal changes, the whole medium changes as well.  Perhaps “medium” isn’t the perfect word; it implies that games and interactive stories run on different hardware.  Honestly, I don’t know what kind of hardware interactive stories would run on.  I mean medium as how the story is presented to the audience.

Let me try to explain what I mean by changing the goal of a game from entertainment to proving a premise.  If this happened, the whole outlook of the designers would change.  First, they would focus on characters that could prove that premise for them.  You see, a writer doesn’t prove a premise by crafting a story that proves the premise, they create characters that can help them prove that premise, and what the characters do becomes the story.

Things like gameplay, graphics, weapons, and level design pretty much go out the window.  These are not important to proving a premise.  It is the characters, and the characters only, that make a story and prove a premise.

If you remember my first post, I talked about this a bit.  Games are about collecting things, shooting things, and even talking to things, but stories are about the characters.  You cannot prove a premise without characters.  Therefore, games cannot prove a premise.  They must become something else.

Something like an interactive story.

Interactive Stories as a Storytelling Medium

Interactive stories are made of characters, but the main difference between an interactive story and another type of story, such as a book, is the keyword interactive.  One of the characters that helps prove the premise of the interactive story is the player; the audience.

Interactive stories have one major difference from all other types of stories: they force the audience to help prove the premise.  How the premise is proved is decided by the writer and the audience; it is a symbiotic relationship.  The writer knows what the premise is, so he (or she) chooses characters that can help them prove that premise.  Then they create a situation to put all the characters in, including the audience character or characters, and the proving of the premise begins.

How an interactive story proves a premise will be the topic of a future post; this post is already getting a little lengthy.  I apologize, but bear with me a little longer.

In my opinion, and you may disagree with me if you wish, interactive stories will be the best medium to prove a premise, because they put the audience through the ordeal that proves the premise.  The audience can interact with the characters that help prove the premise; get to know them, love them, hate them.  People learn more from life than they learn from books because they interact with life; they experience life.  They only experience the book the way the author intended, and this could be acceptable for some, unacceptable for others.  Interactive stories will be able to adapt to the audience so that it can better prove the premise to that particular audience.

Entertainment

I would like to briefly talk about entertainment in the different mediums of storytelling.  In all the mediums of storytelling, there are some stories that are meant only to entertain.  They do not prove a premise.  They may be fun to read, watch, or play, but in the end, they will be forgotten.  When we learn something from a story, when we say “Aha!” during a story, we will remember it much longer than if it just gives us momentary pleasure.

However, I will admit that even some games attempt to prove a premise.  One of the notable examples is Deus Ex, in which they try to show that too much government control is not a good thing.  It also tries to show that violence is not the only option, but it didn’t have enough consequences for going into a room and killing everybody.  Just some characters would be a little ticked at you.  Its main weakness was that it was still a game,and as a game, it could get tedious, even convoluted.

The Purpose

So why do people tell stories? Some are for entertainment, but the greats are created to prove a premise.  There are many ways that stories can affect people, but if it proves a premise, then everything else–an emotional response, a change in the audience–is a byproduct.

If you have anything to say on this topic, leave a comment below; I am very interested in hearing what you think.

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