The many ways to tell a story

What is it that you think of when you think of storytelling? Books? Movies? Camp fires? Old men with long, white beards? Or is it something completely else?

There are countless ways to tell stories in this day and age. And more keep cropping up. What I will try to do here, on this blog, is detail some of these new forms, some of which you may even not think about as storytelling, per se.

Rulebook glue

Think about your Pen & Paper system of choice, for example. What you’re doing when you sit down with a few friends, some dice and some pieces of paper with numbers scribbled on them, is nothing but telling a story, together, inside a framework you agreed upon beforehand.

The dungeon master details a world for you, and you tell him what your character does in response. It’s you all telling a story, with just a bit of rulebook glue to stick it all together. This is collaborative storytelling.

Another example is emergent storytelling, which can be found in video games like Dwarf Fortress, or Crusader Kings 2 by Paradox Interactive – though, really, it can be found pretty much everywhere. Emergent storytelling is the art of making the change of random numbers or other things have a story.

Patterns

Think of watching a water stream flow across the gaps in a tiled floor, the stopping, waiting, the partings; it’s all random, of course, but it’s easy to humanise the actors in this randomness and see a pattern you can sympathise with.

Collaborative storytelling has existed for hundreds of years. The first non-professional table top wargames were set up in the early twentieth century; but it’s the minimalist beauty of some of the more recent systems, which are no longer dependent on miniatures, but play out completely in the teller’s minds, that I find fascinating.

Emergent storytelling, on the other hand, is a format that could only possibly exist in a digital world. The computing power necessary to generate enough randomness to see patterns again – and enough framing to hide the numbers – requires, well, a computer; though I don’t doubt that there are earlier forms not dependent on numbers which I have yet to find.

There are many other strange and innovative ways in which computers and the internet are exploited to tell stories. On the other hand, there are the more traditional forms of storytelling that have been eclipsed by modern forms of mass media, at least in the western world.

What in hell does this all mean

When was the last time you’ve heard of someone telling a fairy tale? Or the tale of this one stupid farmer who kept losing his crops, told to children of farmers by farmers to make sure they knew their farming? And yet both live on in new forms or new packages, with their reception and changes and spins on existing formulas still surprising and fresh.

I’ll try to detail some of both.