Expanding Our Sense Of The Possible In Narrative Design
This is an updated transcript of the keynote I gave at an event called Story Hack held online on June 26th, 2020. It is a talk where in the beginning I discuss the relationship between narrative design and nihilistic and optimistic beliefs about the world, and then in the second half quickly show examples of how narrative design can play a role in expanding our sense of the possible.
What comes to mind is a quote from Arundhati Roy, and their quote: “The pandemic is the portal.” This year, for instance, here in the land known as Australia we have had the fires; we’ve got COVID; we’ve had Black Lives rallies, which are continuing; and at the moment too, we are having another wave of #metoo uprisings happening in the games industry. And all of these are pushing to changes.
And so to quote Arundhati Roy, she said that, “Nothing could be worse than to return to normality. Historically pandemics have forced humans to break with the past, and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.” This talk is situated in the portal.
And so here we have — I’m going to be doing audio description as much as I can too, and so I’ll quickly describe myself first: I am seated here with long brunette and blonde hair with a light green shirt and a whole lot of books in the background ordered as a rainbow there. — And so I have on the title screen here “A Pen, a Keyboard, a Song, & a Sandbox Walk into a Writers’ Room.” And I’ve got the figures there: a figure holding a pen, holding a keyboard, singing a song, and walking with a sandbox.
Now, I haven’t worked in TV writers’ rooms like a lot of my colleagues. But I’ve run a lot of VR writers’ rooms. And I’m about to step into my own, next VR writers room. And one of the things that’s important to me with my writing is that I’m creating projects that open up the world, rather than close it down.
And so, as researcher Hanna Meretoja argued in her book, The Ethics of Storytelling, which I have up on screen, with a black and brown rust-coloured cover: “Narratives,” she explains, “both expand and diminish our sense of the possible. Narrative practices,” she continues, “can be oppressive, empowering, or both.” So I want to talk with you today about a particular aspect of narrative design that diminishes our sense of the possible, and then also talk about how we can instead expand our sense of the possible.
And the part of narrative design that I’m talking about here is closure.
Closure is defined as “The satisfaction of expectations and the answering of questions raised over the course of any narrative.” So let’s have a look at how these expectations and questions are set up in the first place.
So for instance, I have my prompt here: “A Pen, a Keyboard, a Song, & a Sandbox Walk into a Writers’ Room.” There’s the setup of this kind of joke structure, for instance, and what we would expect here.
So what we would expect to happen next is basically, I would say, “So the pen does this...” Or, “The pen says this…” “The keyboard says this…” “The song does this…” “The sandbox does this…” This is the kind of structure that we would expect.
The same in a writers’ room. We would work out your A storyline, your B storyline, your C storyline, and your D storyline. And each of those storylines will be ordered (often) as a hierarchy, and have an expected outcome.
And that outcome will be relative to the genre, and also to our storytelling systems. Like the arrow that I have of the figure at the beginning moving outward to the end of the story. There is a setup and there are possibilities that enter your mind at the beginning. But as we progress through the narrative those possibilities reduce, until we get to a point where we get our single, our ideal, outcome. So let’s talk about why we’ve come to expect this.
I have on the screen now, the cover of Robert McKee’s book called Story. Robert McKee is a story consultant and educator. I’m referring to him because he is cited by both experienced and inexperienced creatives from all different art forms. And what the things he says are considered the story design rules of how we make. On the screen I have the categories he lists — not just in his book, but in videos as well — for endings. We’ve got closed endings, ironic endings, ambiguous endings and open endings.
Closed endings are the most popular, the most prevalent kind of form of ending. And these kinds of endings are described by McKee as when, I quote, “All questions raised by the story are answered. All questions evoked are satisfied.” And so, I quote, “The audience leaves with a rounded, closed experience. Nothing in doubt, nothing unsated.”
McKee explains how that there are two kinds of these closed endings. One, the most popular , is the idealistic, the up-ending one. And that experience is, I quote, “Expressing our optimism, hopes and dreams. It’s a positively charged vision of the human spirit, and life as we wish it to be.”
Or there’s the pessimistic or down-ending. And that is, I quote, once again “Expressing our cynicism, our sense of loss and misfortune. A negatively charged vision of civilisation’s decline of humanity’s dark dimensions. Of life as we dread it to be, but know it so often is.” Black Mirror comes to mind as an example of this kind of work. And it’s no coincidence that Charlie Brooker has stepped away from writing the 6th season, because he says, “I don’t know what stomach there would be for stories about societies falling apart.” And the screenshots are from McKee’s book, here — showing how the narratives go through positive and negative moments, until ending on a high or a low.
[So to clarify: the most popular structure is one in which there is a premise or problem at the beginning which is answered in the end by the author/ designer. All questions are answered in the end. Nothing is in doubt. And while there can also be negative endings, the most popular one is a positive ending.]
Okay, so where do these ideas come from? About expecting a specific positive or negative outcome? I’ve looked through a lot of whitefella storytelling books and playwrighting books. Aristotle mentions the “rule of probability and necessity.” But that’s about it. So there’s a seed there of this idea. But it actually isn’t until relatively recently that this whole idea of a positive and negative and a defined outcome was articulated.
So here I have a scan from Claude Bremond’s work. This is around the ‘60’s and ‘70’s, when the structuralist movement was happening. And here, Claude Bremond is talking about the “elementary sequence” of a French folktale. He explains how there’s the potentiality at the beginning, the objective to reach. And then there’s the actualisation — where you try and reach the objective. Or there is the lack of actualisation when you don’t: where there’s inertia, when you’re prevented to reach your objective. And the outcome — if you do try and get it, it can either be successful or a failure. Keep that in mind.
And now we go to the work of Nitzan Ben Shaul. I have the cover of his book up here, called Cinema of Choice. And there’s an image that looks like a x-ray scan of a tree with all of it’s branches.
Shaul talks about how standard Hollywood narrative movies prescribe linear narratives, that, I quote, “Cue the viewer to expect predictable outcomes and adopt a closed state of mind.” But, Shaul then offers, “There are a small number of movies, that — through presentation of alternate narrative paths, open up the mind to thoughts of choice and possibilities.”
He continues, introducing the concept of optional thinking. Which refers to “The cognitive ability to generate, perceive, or compare and assess alternative hypotheses that offer explanations for real or lifelike events.”
Okay, so optional thinking is about possibility, about opening up the world. Shaul explains the antithesis of this is close-mindedness. And he says that, “There is evidence that not deploying the cognitive ability to generate optional or alternate hypotheses in real-life situations can lead to premature acceptance of inadequate or incorrect hypotheses that may result in dire consequences.” So your mind closes up to accept a single outcome no matter what it is.
So let’s look at how we experience this in the everyday.
Everyone is aware of the Black Lives Matter rallies that have been happening, and are still happening around the world. And we had ones recently here, in Australia. The day before the rallies were about to take place here, the NSW Supreme Court declared the protest illegal. And on the screen I have screenshots of the articles that alerted this news. So let’s have a look at what this action does to our sense of the possible.
I have Bremond’s flowchart up again. And now I have the success branch crossed out in red, and the step before that, the prevention to act, is now highlighted in red.
What this court ruling did was create a narrative in which a negative outcome, failure, is now prematurely considered to be the outcome. The effort tries to prevent us to act because with the ruling we now have in our minds a justification for police violence and for incarcerating people. And the court order claims that the protest will be a public health risk, and so we also think that the rallies will certainly result in health harm to ourselves and to others.
So I now have an image of a frowning figure guarding a gate. In a world run by a closed, linear logic, we are warned of the worst outcome. We fear the worst outcome. And it becomes in our head the only outcome.
So what can we do in this scenario?
I now have up an illustration of a figure surprised, hopeful, looking at a dawning sun. We have to come up with an option that is not being offered. We have to figure out a way to make a different future possible, even though the world is setting us up to expect the most feared scenario.
And so, and then as people were making their way to the locations at the rallies — with hope of a possible outcome in their heart, but the awareness of a defined one in their minds — two barristers won the appeal to have the protest go ahead as a legal protest. Their smiling faces are now on the screen. And thousands attended in record turnouts — with a high majority of people wearing masks, unlike any other public gatherings we’ve seen. And there was one record of police violence at the end of the day — unprovoked police violence, of course — in Sydney, as protesters tried to get home.
So how do we get beyond life as we expect it? How do we get beyond life as we expect to these new possibilities? How do we see the big golden sun of possibility all the time, and how do we encourage that as storytellers?
Okay, on the screen now, I have lots of big yellow bubbles. And I have some options for encouraging optional thinking in your narrative design, which we will have a look at some of these very quickly now.
Open endings. This is one of McKee’s categories. Open endings answer most of the questions that were raised in the narrative but, I quote, “An unanswered question or two may trail out of the film, leaving the audience to supply it in their subsequent to viewing. But the question must be answerable, and the emotion resolvable. All that has gone before leads to clear and limited alternatives that make a degree of closure possible.” It is the audience that is actually doing that closure themselves.
So the example that McKee gives is the movie poster that I have on the screen: Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas. At the end of the film the father and son are reconciled, but the husband and wife and mother and son relationships are not. “The answer,” McKee says, “will be found in the privacy of your post-film thoughts. Your beliefs about families will inform whether it is a sad or happy outcome.”
So let’s have a look at some other examples of open endings, which I have posters of up on the screen.
And apologies for any spoilers. There will be a few in this talk. (Edit: warning: spoiler for Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood coming up. Please don’t keep reading if you haven’t seen it and want to.)
In most of these there are still these binary outcomes expected (a positive or negative outcome). But it is up to the audience or to the player to determine which it is, according to their own decisions about the narrative leads that they’ve been given and their own beliefs.
So Inception is an example. Where we do have enough information to figure out what the ending could be, but it is up to us to write that final line. The same with the film, Juanita, and her moment on the beach, barefoot, smiling. And perhaps the game, Thirty Flights of Loving, with the motorcycle driving, and then epilogue scene. It is up to you to fill, to make the decision about how these worlds end.
But in our stories and games, the norm is that people are told how things end. The norm is to expect a certain outcome that is given to you. It is not the norm to encourage people to make their own decisions about the world. And in fact these kinds of projects can be called “anti-plot,” “anti-games” or “ungames.” They are ones that are more like play, if you like. It’s not the norm of narrative design to encourage trust in, or place any value on, your own truth.
So back to Shaul’s book. Shaul speaks about the effect of alternate narrative tracks. He analyses the movie, Run, Lola, Run, which I’ve added a stills of., along with examples of Groundhog Day, Edge of Tomorrow, and the game Guardian Maia. So the narratives in these works keep beginning again, and each time the protagonist can do something different.
Shaul explains how, I quote, “It is this overlay of options that bring forth to the viewers’ attention the inherent probabilistic and optional nature of narrative causality.” In other words, we think about options and how the future is not inevitable. There is not a linear causal path through life, there are things that can change.
[Edit: I’ll add here too if you’re thinking about the circular nature of games where you repeat an action: this is not the same as the alternate narrative track effect we’re discussing here. The difference being game repetition is often about getting it right according to a preset, single best way of doing, whereas we’re talking about experiences that get you thinking there are multiple ways of experiencing and doing. That the outcome is not pre-written or designed.]
The feature film, Sliding Doors is an example that Shaul gives for another kind of alternate narrative track, but this time we zig zag between the options, instead of them being sequentially one after another. I’ve put an example up here of the One Choice game by Awkward Silence Games. In which you play a scientist, and you’re there in the last 6 remaining days on Earth. And the VR experience, Possibilia, which is a love story set in a multiverse. In all of them, through a variety of techniques — optional thinking is facilitated.
Another technique that Shaul mentions is a switch of character perspectives, a shift of point of view about the same event. This works when there is empathy for more than one lead protagonist, and so there is a pleasure in the different outlooks…which then compels a reassessment of the narrative comprehension.
An example is Akira Kurosawa’s Rashōmon. Where the experience of contradictory versions of the same event through flashbacks of different characters are narrated by an unreliable witness. But Shaul explains, “It’s not about the loss of truth, but the searching for truth and the feasibility of choice and change in one’s life.”
Another example I’ve put here is the VR & tablet experience by Lucas Taylor for NBCUniversal, called, Eleven Eleven. In this one you follow various characters as they each experience the last 11 minutes and 11 seconds on a planet that is about to be destroyed. What is also interesting is that you can jump through what is happening to the other characters at the exact same time. And that there is a switch to a “Goddess” view mode.
There is also David O’Reilly’s Everything game, in which you can switch your point of view of the world to anything — from a cow, to a rabbit, to a blade of grass. And I guess in this sense, the same event being life in general.
Another category here is the narrative alternative to previous works of fiction. For instance, I have the cover of Chuck Tingle’s recent book, Trans Wizard Harriet Porber, created in response to the horrific transphobic rants made by JK Rowling. There’s also the recent feature film, Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse, in which we suddenly saw Spiderman become very many different people. Spider women, spider pig — all from multiple realities, and all co-existing. And just this morning, RPG designer Avery Alder shared a quick tweet on ways that the cop show “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” can be re-imagined away from a police setting. So these worldview shifts are powerful in relationship to the works that have come before, offering up new possibilities.
There’s also narrative alternatives to history, the counterfactual. And this is another strong device that can encourage optional thinking. Shaul explains that this works when the alternate history could have feasibly taken place. When viewers see the rewriting in contrast with the history they know it sets up “The notion of an ultimate unpredictability of the course of past events.” And Shaul gives the example of Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, which is featured on the screen here. I’ve also put Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, and Ryan Murphy’s TV series, Hollywood. Though the later is less successful in the execution of the techniques. One of the reasons for the failture of optional thinking being invoked is due to the successful setting up the expectation for the historically-accurate ending Tarantino does and then subverting that.
This is where Shaul’s categories end, but I will keep going because as Naomi Klein said recently, “Our job is to kick open the door of radical possibilities as wide and as long as possible.”
So I’ll stretch the alternate history further than the counterfactual and include narrative alternatives to whitewashed or mythical norm history. The “mythical norm” is the term introduced by Audre Lorde in 1980, to describe where the “trappings of power reside” and “which each one of us within our hearts knows ‘this is not me’.” The mythical norm is usually a “white, thin, male, young, heterosexual sort of Christian, and financially secure.” It is that mythical norm that centres a lot of cultures, including whitefella storytelling cultures.
So I have some movie posters here as examples. Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman, Trisha Morton-Thomas’ satirical documentary, Occupation: Native, and Phillip Noyce’s Rabbit Proof Fence. There’s also a screenshot of Beth LaPensée’s game, When Rivers Were Trails, and Navid Khonsari’s game, 1979 Revolution: Black Friday. In all of these projects, they’re based on real events, but they move us beyond mythical norm rendering of these events.
And with this, there’s also the narrative alternatives to the mythical norm in general. With Jordan Peel’s film, Get Out, the TV series, Sense8 by Lana and Lilly Wachowski and J. Michael Straczynski. The recent film by Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz, called Peanut Butter Falcon, which I watched last night, was beautiful. And Kan Gao’s game, To the Moon. All of these works represent, present a world that is different to the mythical norm.
Another kind of narrative alternative I’ll suggest here are the ones depicting futures that are not mythical norms. Mythical norm futures are things like The Terminator, Children of Men, and Black Mirror. Indeed, as the quote credited to Fredric Jameson goes, “It’s easier to imagine the end of the world, than it is the end of capitalism.” Whereas the recent Black Panther feature film showed a different way of conceptualising a black-run technological future. And The Deep Forest tabletop game by Mark Diaz Truman and Avery Alder, is a world in which you spend time decolonising and reclaiming. And Anna Anthropy’s Queers in Love at the End of the World, invests in the intimate moment. In each we’re either watching or making different kinds of futures and presents.
And the last option I will suggest quickly today, is this: alternatives to even aiming for an objective in the first place. I have an illustration of a figure running to a finish line, and the title of the study on the screen. What if aiming for a particular objective is what is defining the outcome for us in the first place? In their research into evolutionary computation, Joel Lehman and Kenneth Stanley found that if they gave the system an objective, it actually leads to more dead ends than what they’re actually trying to achieve.
So instead, somewhat counterintuitively, they found that if they designed the system so it sought out novelty — that is, it sought out things that have not been done before, then it actually out-performed the objective-driven approach.
[Edit: The issue here is about the system not checking on it’s progress according to whether it has reached it’s objective. Instead, the system progresses by doing things every step of the way differently than before. This is the way the new outcome was achieved.]
And this is it. When the norms of our narrative design facilitate close-mindedness, then it makes sense that we have to go outside the norms to encourage options that we want in our stories, in our games, and in the world.
Because in fact, radically different futures cannot be written with narrative norms, and by the mythical norm.
It means playing with our narrative design, mixing things up, and opening things up.
And today I briefly shared 9 of the 11 ones that I have on the screen, that facilitate optional thinking and expand the world — but there are more.
And so with this, what happens when a pen, a keyboard, a song, and a sandbox walk into a writers’ room? And what will happen next in your own writers’ room? It’s up to you to see whether it’s going to be something that’s happened before, or something new. Thank you.
[Instead of “Ask Me Anything” I like to encouraged an “Ask We Anything.” Because everyone in the room has thoughts.]
Do you have thoughts you’d like to share? Let me know. I haven’t included the detail behind the techniques here, and there is more that can aid in encouraging an optional thinking mindset. I’d love to hear what you are doing that is different to the mythical norm of close-minded narrative design. :)