The Word “Story”

Google image search “storyteller” and this is what you’ll find.

Can we even call what we want from VR “stories”?

I’ve been talking a lot to game designers and people who are figuring out cinematic VR and we keep coming back to this notion of storytelling, which can mean different things to different people.

Once you start using the word “story” in relation to VR, you automatically approach the medium with a frame. You start applying everything you learned about storytelling in grad school workshops and countless hours spent watching sitcoms. VR is a new art form with its own grammar that is in the process of being discovered and defined, requiring us to enter it with a degree of neuroplasticity that might make us feel uncertain or insecure.

Instead of defining what a story is, I want to think about what a story does and think about what this means in VR.

I’m going to put a stake in the ground and say that stories do three things:

  1. Excite us
  2. Cultivate and reward curiosity
  3. Promote empathy and emotional engagement

Marvel movies focus monomaniacally on item #1. Their primary purpose is to thrill you out of the price of a movie ticket. But I couldn’t tell you what any recent Marvel movie was actually about. What was the big deal with the James Spader voiced baddie in Avengers: Age of Ultron? Hell if I know. Likewise for most James Bond movies. I could not articulate for you what the central conflict was of any Bond movie. My pleasure of Bond and Marvel movies has nothing to do with my curiosity or emotional engagement–it’s all lizard brain, fight-or-flight button pushing.

If your story is designed to cultivate and award curiosity, then you’re in the realm of the great (for awhile) TV show Lost, the nineties video game Myst, or novels like David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas or anything by Haruki Murakami. When teaching writing workshops I used to say that every story is about an exception to the norm. Exceptions inherently provoke curiosity. An exception is the one instance when something remarkable or out of the ordinary happens. Gregor Samsa wakes up as a bug. Aureliano Buendia sees ice for the first time. Furiosa takes a sharp right turn while hauling ass to Gastown.

Curiosity is the masterful storyteller’s weapon of choice. The greatest storytellers play  their audiences’ curiosity like an instrument. Stephen King is above all a master of the hooky premise. You really want to know more as soon as you hear a one-line description of the situations he sets up. An abusive husband and father holes up with his wife and son in a remote, haunted resort hotel for the winter? Sign me up for that. Masters of curiosity practice much of what we define as storytelling. Foreshadowing, building tension, climax, denouement.

Stories also make us feel things for imaginary characters, which helps us better relate to the real people in our lives. This is the primary distinction between what we call genre fiction and literary fiction. When you read a book by Icelandic Nobel laureate Halldor Laxness, you discover a landscape where very little actually happens, but you grow close to his characters to the point of almost recognizing them on a spiritual level. You feel you know them.

The greatest stories operate on all three levels. The Brothers Karamazov is both a detective story and an illumination of the yearning soul. Mad Max Fury Road is machine that generates excitement, tells the story of a fallen world through meticulous, implicit details, and manages to deliver moments of human connection when you least expect it.

The reason why most stories fail is that they rely on one of the three pleasure-generating modes while ignoring the others. They’re thrilling while the characters are flat. They’re emotionally rich but nothing interesting happens because it’s a short story in The New Yorker.

The sweet spot of narrative art is one in which the audience is curious, thrilled, and emotionally invested.

If you create experiences in VR that hit these three modes, then you’ve got yourself a “story,” regardless of whether that story fits the parameters of “story” that we cling to from the worlds of film and literature.

What excites me? What makes me curious? What makes me emotionally invested? If you come away from a VR experience and can answer these questions, then you’ve just witnessed a work of art.