Let The Trolls Speak: Principles Of 21st Century Storytelling


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Excerpt: The Introduction

I really enjoy reading or listening to an expertly told story. I forget her name; but when I was in school, there was this girl who worked on a project with me and a buddy of mine. The assignment was to present an existing classic story of our choice, then write and present an original sequel to it. We chose Washington Irving’s Legend Of Sleepy Hollow.

I was the clown, so I wrote and drew this ridiculous, over the top comic strip for the sequel where Ichabod Crane came back with his own pumpkin head riding a mechanical horse made of broomsticks or something. I’m pretty sure Michael Jackson was in it too just because. My buddy was going to work the projector while I read the comic strip. We were clearly going to be the fireworks for the day, the project everybody was going to be talking about. She was just supposed to kick us off by reading the condensed original.

Yet when we dimmed the overhead lights and put a single light on her, with her soft narration and natural storytelling ability, the way she changed her voice to suit the different characters, she stole the show. The class was spellbound. She just knew how to tell a story. It’s decades later; and I still remember how great a job she did at that.

There were people like her in Ugarit eight thousand years ago riffing on what would happen if Baal’s fiery sister, Anat got mad enough to kill death to get her brother back. It could have been a guy named, Vyasa who finalized India’s Mahabharata, a skull-melting opera house of a story that reads like a science fiction blockbuster only with a god in it. It’s convenient to just give credit to a minstrel named, Homer for The Iliad and The Odyssey, books with such scope and wonder we had to create the word ‘epic’ for them. Storytellers were around, of course before all that as well – they just couldn’t write it all down for us. The old myths of Egypt, Greece, China, the Scandinavians, and the Celts were resonant and fundamental enough to remain with civilization long past the cultures that shaped them. They’re still fascinating today. Check Amazon or stroll to the Mythology section in the bookstore – it’s a full shelf and it’s pages and pages of results.

The point of this short book isn’t to say that anything foundational has changed about what we like in our storytelling. Myths still have power; and we’ll poke into why that is so very soon. However, we are saturated like no generation before in all of human history with entertainment, meaning stories. Think about what that means. No person at any time ever has lived in a world so rich and diverse in storytelling. Equally true, no person has ever lived in a time with more understanding of science and technology than you are right now as you read this. Even if you hate science, you still know more about lightning and eclipses and tsunamis and a wide universe of other things that were blank slates to hundreds of thousands of years of people before you. Wow. Congratulations on that. It changed you, though.

The point, then is that though there are foundational principles that still apply, our aesthetics have changed. We like it told a certain way now. We’re a little less patient with ridiculous explanations held to be true. We have examples of exactingly well-crafted characterizations now to compare against. We wade through swamps of information, so if you’re telling us a story, we’ll use genres and tropes and categories and stereotypes to make sense of it quickly. If we guess where you’re going before you get there, we’re disappointed. And it’s harder to trick us because we’ve been there, done that. “Crap”, says the storyteller. “Now what?”

I’m a fanatic for reviews. Honest reviews, mind you, not the ones paid for by big publishing houses or bought with favors and connections like you see on a lot of bestsellers. I’m talking about when you want to see a movie, you scroll past the gushing praise of the article to what the people said. The masses. Folks like me. What did they think? That’s where you can pierce the noise and see what’s what. I’ve read reviews of movies and books and television shows for much of my life – I’m voracious about that; and it’s the place where broad trends in this shift in aesthetics I’m talking about can be seen in the wild. The storyteller could learn well what the people want from their characters, their plots, and their dialogue by compressing the extensive information in honest opinion pieces like reviews and distilling out the principles of twenty first century storytelling. If the concept of natural selection holds true in fiction, then our own stories should be getting more powerful, more interesting, more compelling, and more alive or else they should die out from the assaults of market forces. That means it’s harder to tell a good tale. More than ever then, it’s urgent we listen first to what the old masters did with their myths to give them the kind of life that still breathes so many centuries later. But then we have to listen to the trolls.

I’m being a little harsh with that term – a troll is technically the unemployed guy living in his mom’s basement blasting out quasi-anonymous insults online when he disagrees with your opinion. What I’m really saying is there are widely prevalent trends in what honest reviewers like and dislike that are really obvious when you read enough of them and when you go looking.

So why would you listen to me about something like this?

In my day job, one thing I do is examine and optimize how people communicate. Though I might be emphasizing proper hand-downs in a manufacturing plant or how a management team approaches problem solving, at the core it’s people talking to people about a narrative that resonates. We need to move information quickly; and, because it can be worth hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars, we need it to stick. What the heck’s the difference between the people there and the people reading a terrifying horror story that leaves them glancing behind themselves when they hop in a car? Right. Same people. Same mental wiring. Same tools work.

Apart from that, I’m a wordslinger from way back. I wrote my first book by hand in pencil in a set of three spiral-bound notebooks though it was a shameless ripoff of Kevin O’Donnell’s Journeys Of McGill Feighan. Reagan was president then; and I’ve been at it ever since, only going public with it in 2015. Unfortunately that means when I read something I enjoy, like M. John Harrison’s Viriconium or Stephen King’s 11/22/63 or Nick Hornby’s A Long Way Down, I’m probably studying why I like it more than just liking it. But whatever. That’s just me. I should stress that my world is more in tune with science fiction, fantasy, thrillers, horror, and speculative fiction versus romance or slice-of-life storytelling…in case that throws you. Let’s dig in first, then to what is timeless and why the old myths still have power to fascinate and to move us so long after their cultures moved on.