Saturday, June 20, 2009

'Narrative exhaustion'? Huh?

A screenwriter named Paul Schrader writes at length in The Guardian about a concept he calls "narrative exhaustion" -- people are tired of narrative storylines because they've seen them all before.

He thinks an average 30-year-old has seen 35,000 hours of narrative.

"That's a lot of narrative. It's exhausting.

What does it mean? For a storyteller, it means that's it is increasingly difficult to get out in front of a viewer's expectations. Almost every possible subject has not only been covered but covered exhaustively. How many hours of serial killer plot has the average viewer seen? Fifty? A hundred? He's seen the basic plots, the permutations of those plotlines, the imitations of the permutations of those plotlines and the permutations of the imitations. How does a writer capture the imagination of a viewer seeped in serial killer plot? Make it even gorier? Done that. More perverse? Seen that. Serial killer with humour? Been there. As parody? Yawn. The example of the serial killer subgenre is a bit facile, but what's true for serial killer stories is true of all film subjects. Police families? Gay couples? Corrupt politicians? Charming misfits? Yawn, yawn, yawn.

This becomes painfully clear to any writer who attempts to orally tell his story (screenwriting is closer to the oral tradition than it is to literature). You start to tell a story, try to catch the listener's attention, then watch as Ollie Overwhelmed packages your story and places it in a box. He has seen so much storyline that he has the boxes already prepared."

Well, um, yeah. But wouldn't this be better labeled as "originality exhaustion," or maybe "lack of originality exhaustion"? People are wise to cliche stories and are more likely to disengage.

But if the story is original in its characters, action, suspense, conflict, surprises, resolution and/or other elements, the reader (or viewer or listener) goes with you on the trip, even if the basic storyline is recognizable. That's the point. You may not be able to report on a storyline that's never been done before, but that story has things that make it unique. If you can find those things and write about them, you've got something.