No matter how you find your way to storytelling, your own individual authorial journey begins with the stories you have been exposed to over the course of your life. This exposure inevitably affects and informs your initial efforts as you necessarily substitute mimicry for what will later become mastery. As you grow and develop as an author, and as your skills and interests broaden, you will leave these initial anchors and points of reference behind in order to explore new narrative territory. As you become more comfortable with different aspects of craft you may even probe the complex dynamics inherent in the interplay of art, craft and commerce. You may also decide to branch out and work in different storytelling mediums such as poetry, short fiction, long fiction, screenplays, stage plays and even interactive fiction.
At some point, if you keep pushing against your limitations, you will realize that stories exist apart from the specific mediums that allow us to document and relate fiction to others. We don’t need mediums to conceive of stories, we need mediums to express and communicate stories. This means that choosing the right medium is, in the end, simply another aspect of craft — albeit one that has unparalleled importance. As you grow in mastery you may even notice that many if not most of your earlier conceptions presumed a medium, and that in some cases that medium was not the best choice. (Not only can choosing the wrong medium dull the potential of a story, leading to a less-than-satisfying result, it can lead to still-born tales that never quite work no matter how many drafts or versions you write.)
Understanding the strengths and limitations of every medium you work in is critical. As I detailed in the previous post, what the world witnessed during the first three weeks of NFL football this year was the complete collapse of an entire medium into a narrative black hole. This self-inflicted debacle was both a chilling and comical lesson in the dangers of authorial hubris, and a cautionary tale for authors who believe they have absolute power.
The Medium Is Your Master
To truly grasp the magnitude of the embarrassment that NFL owners subjected themselves to, try to imagine any fictional medium collapsing in a similar way. It’s almost impossible to do because sports is a medium in which narratives play out in real time. As fans we tell stories about sporting events we witness, but only after the fact. The appeal of sports as a medium relies on the real-time enforcement of rules in a way that fiction never does because fiction is always predetermined.
(The obvious exception is interactive storytelling, a medium that casts a siren’s song on the unwary, and one that has never been fully realized for a variety of reasons. [See here, here and here.] Still, it should be clear from the NFL’s self-immolation that there is a direct parallel between the importance of rules in sports and the importance of rules mediated and enforced by a CPU. If the rules that define an interactive world are inconsistent, interactive storytelling can never take hold.)
So the good news is that you’ll never write yourself into a situation equivalent to what the NFL did to itself. But there are still advantages in taking a step back from your all-powerful role as author to consider the inviolate rules of your favorite storytelling mediums. Once you have those rules clear in your head you’ll be able to see how they differ from both the conventions of any genres you favor and your current beliefs about the markets or audiences you want to write for. And I can’t think of anything more liberating or empowering than to realize that most of what you previously considered inviolate truth is in fact self-imposed limitation.
If you’re the kind of writer who’s determined to follow marketing trends or conventional wisdom then obviously there’s some benefit to paying attention to those things, but you still have to do so in the context of whatever medium you’re writing for. On the other hand, if you’re the kind of writer who’s interested in pushing boundaries and taking chances and exploring both your imagination and your craft — and maybe even being the kind of writer who somehow manages to advance a genre or reinvigorate a market — there’s probably nothing more beneficial that you can do than come to terms with the rules that define your medium(s) of choice.
Do mediums themselves evolve? Yes, but at an incredibly slow rate. Watch almost any movie made since motion pictures were invented and you’ll probably be able to follow the story even if there’s no sound. Pick up any novel written in the last few hundred years and you’ll probably be able to understand it if you understand the language it’s written in. Even if you were to go back in time and watch the Greeks put on a play you would probably be able to relate to what was happening on stage. Conventions in each medium have changed and evolved, and audiences are better able to read those mediums as a result, but the mediums themselves haven’t changed much.
The bottom line for authors, as it was for the NFL owners, is that you may at some point think you’re god, but you’re not god. The medium you’re working in is god, and if you forget that you will almost certainly make a total idiot out of yourself.
Whatever your personal interest in telling stories, the one goal that will never lead you astray is aspiring to mastery of craft. Yes, you have complete authorial control when you face a blank page. Yes, being imaginative and expressive and evocative and entertaining is always a good thing. But in the end that blank page still has limits in the same way that the camera has limits and each musical instrument has limits. Real control, real mastery, comes from acknowledging those limits even as you push against them.
Mozart, the Beatles and Radiohead all served music. Not the other way ’round.
— Mark Barrett