How storytelling is slowly committing suicide

Storytelling, an art as old as man’s ability to communicate, is an art that is quickly dying. Not storytelling in and of itself, but the ability to do so well. One need not look farther than all the constantly recycled, repackaged, revamped products of Hollywood for proof of that. I recently overheard a film major say, “Movies are all about the visuals. You can’t really say a movie is bad just because it doesn’t have a good story, because it’s all about the visual aspect of it.”

By box office numbers, he might be right. Avatar, a film whose storyline has been called out as a reincarnation of Disney’s Pocahontas or Fern Gully, still managed to become the highest grossing movie of all time because of its visual spectacle. (The highest grossing runner up, Titanic, is arguably in a similar boat… pardon the pun.)

A poll conducted by the Associated Press-Ipsos in 2007 reported that the average American claimed to read less than four books a year, with 25% of those surveyed saying they hadn’t even read a single book, whereas the average number of movies the average American sees per year is thought to be between 5 and 8, not including movies watched at home. With this growing prevalence of movies over books as the average American’s preference for receiving stories, it seems to me that filmmakers almost have something of a responsibility to be good storytellers.

My roommate, who is an elementary education major, returned from one of her days of classroom observation in shock over an exchange she’d heard between one of the kindergartners and the teacher. When the teacher asked him why he refused to play on the playground with his classmates, the boy answered that he didn’t know how—that he wasn’t used to using his imagination because all he ever did at home was play the videogame Halo.

Besides the fact that the game garnered a rating of M (Mature) and no 5-year-old should be playing a videogame intended for those over 17, there’s something tragic about a child so young who doesn’t know how to just play. In general, children seem to have the innate ability to spin stories at will, as though they were spiders, and stories their web, quite possibly with more ease than screenwriters and authors who have spent years learning and perfecting their craft. I remember spending endless hours as a child with my friends creating dynamic characters and complicated storylines that only ended because it was time to go home. Even then, we could have easily picked up where we left off the next time we saw each other, and often did.

A survey conducted in January by the Kaiser Family Foundation indicates that the average 8-18-year-old child is exposed to nearly 11 hours of media per day, which hardly seems healthy. First of all, with that much time spent immersed in electronic media, where do children possibly have time to imagine on their own? Secondly, I believe that good storytelling ought to inspire others to be storytellers, but it seems that most stories today, regardless of medium, foster instead a dependence on the sub-par storytelling of others, or even stifle the imagination (TV and film are particularly more “stifling” than books, which encourage visualization of the words on the page).

Bad storytelling, I think, has several causes. First, we seem to have lost the appreciation for and ability to tell simple stories. Not shallow, not amateurish, but simple. There’s a beauty in stories such as Antoine De Saint-Expéry’s The Little Prince, which don’t rely on labyrinthine plot twists or high language or probing the darkest depths of humanity to reflect truths.

With the proliferation of post-modern and relativistic thought, maybe the reason for the disappearance of simple stories sharing simple truths is that so many storytellers do not know themselves what “truth” is in the first place, and are therefore left to use style rather than substance to craft their works. Not to say that style isn’t important, however, nor do I mean to imply that those who do have a grasp on truth are automatically gifted storytellers. While there’s truth in abundance in Christian fiction, for example, I think most of us would agree that few of the novels on the shelves of Christian bookstores can also be considered art.

Current storytellers have produced very little that is likely to stand the test of time like the “classics.” Will there be any stories left 100 years in the future that we created today? Will stories that were once beautiful continue to be worn down by sequels and remakes and adaptations in a never-ending game of literary “Telephone,” or does the art of true storytelling stand a chance for revival?

Related links:

National Endowment for the Arts’ 2007 survey on the decline of reading

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How storytelling is slowly committing suicide

6 thoughts on “How storytelling is slowly committing suicide

  1. I agree. This is something producer Ken Wales was passionate about when he visited Biola. Telling the right story should be very important. And it’s the right stories that sometimes get the most attention (case in point, The Blind Side).

    Unfortunately, the vast majority of movie goers prefer action and visuals over story. I, for example, absolutely loved Avatar (although I disagree with critics on whether or not its story is too cliche). Critics said the story was cliche and said the only real treats were the visuals.

    Another example: The movement away from print and to the web proves a need for visuals. Perhaps this represents a lack of imagination in our modern society as we rely on pictures and video to tell the story rather than reading the stories for ourselves.

    Are we lazy? Or perhaps our method of communication is changing, but not communication itself? Doesn’t a picture still tell a story?

    Also, playing Devil’s Advocate, experts say that video games are good for you, that they increase awareness and such. What are your thoughts on that? At least the Wii has new exercise games available to keep children more active.

    Your point about how much media children are exposed to is also a very important one. In one of my classes we’ve been talking about how media influences people. It’s amazing what the media can do. But where do we draw the line?

  2. Your point about the simplicity of stories these days made me think. My favorite genre of movies is shoot ’em ups, the ones with thin plots and a lot of action and violence, but my favorite movie is The Legend of 1900, which is a simple story of a man’s life. It does make me sad that most of the time the shoot ’em ups are the only movies that can keep my attention, and it makes me mad that I realize this and can’t figure out a way to change. Maybe you could talk of a way to revert to the old way of entertainment.

  3. Sarah Sunderman says:

    The story about the kid on the playground breaks my heart.

    Here is my opinion.

    I think that parents are not doing their jobs. Parents are supposed to encourage imagination and education

    Parents need to play with their children, not just set them in front of the tv for hours. Parents should limit computer and video game use.

    Family time is crucial in raising children.

    I have strong urge to say “duh” to what I’m saying.

    I was blessed to be raised in the arts. My parents put me in theatre and dance. My parents did crafts with me, read to me, and let me put on performances for them.

    It is so so so important for parents to encourage imagination.

  4. admin says:

    Sarah, I completely agree. There is definitely too much blame placed on the media or on society or on public education or what have you for people’s actions today, as opposed to emphasizing good parenting. I considered addressing that as well, but I think that would have deviated from the purpose of my blog as being a critique on *media* influence, because while bad parenting is more at fault, it’s undeniable that media also plays an unfortunately significant role.

  5. Landon says:

    This was a cool blog, I think I would have to agree with Sarah on this one. I think parents don’t spend enough time with their children. Although some people’s circumstances are different from others, i think parents should really take time out of their jobs to actually spend time and have some fun.

  6. Sarah says:

    “There’s something tragic about a child so young who doesn’t know how to just play.”
    This is so true, and so sad.
    There are so many lost arts mentioned in this post. Innocence is slowly being killed at an earlier and earlier age. And while media plays a large part, I agree with Sarah-so much of, if not all, of the fault can land squarely on the parents. Parents are in charge of how much their children watch, what they watch, and what the rest of their time consists of. This is not medias fault, but instead a huge lack in parents stepping up to the plate and giving limitations on media for their children.
    I’m waiting for the day when children forget how to play tag outside, and instead think that is something you play on a video game.

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