Humanity’s Most Important Try-Fail Cycle
8 Jun 2023

The importance of story in the human psyche and polity can’t be overstated. Without the power of stories, there would be no human civilisation – tribes of semi-advanced primates could maintain at most alliances in the hundreds, as Yuval Hariri illustrated in his fascinating book Sapiens. And people respond best to stories when it comes to receiving information, being sold, entertainment, understanding, reflection – and nearly every other important cerebral work.

Stories also help us understand the world, or ourselves. Read a story about a little boy born of a virgin and you might find religion. Hear a story about how your people are threatened by a certain group of people and you might become a fascist. Entertain stories celebrating narcistic victimhood and you trap yourself as a prime specimen of the above. Understand the story of how electrical currents work well enough and you might get yourself a doctorate. Stories are central to human progress.

On a very personal level, stories also help us figure things out. We like horror movies because subjective and unconscious fears are sometimes best dealt with personified into monsters we can defeat on screen. We read science fiction books because we like to ponder and consider what could be. We heal ourselves with stories.

Storytelling is vitally important. I believe this. It is also becoming increasingly difficult. Fewer and fewer gatekeepers exert greater and greater influence over which stories – and which storytellers – are allowed to be heard. Books are banned by prissy assholes on the left as well as on the right, More perniciously, words are changed to suit entirely subjective ideologies unsupported by facts. Critics hail ‘correct’ films that audiences see through as feel good agitprop BS. Or they hate and slander works that audiences love.

All you need to do to get attention is attach your comment to someone more successful whose genius you will never match – so attention seeking whores do just that. I think I’ll just leave this pithy banality on Stephen King’s wall. Oh, I think I’ll just hurl all kinds of rabidly inaccurate and intellectually dishonest slander at JK Rowling. Oh, I’ll just repeat whatever my favourite partisan opinion station gave me to all and sundry about Elon Musk. Oh, I’m going to go after Neil Gaiman for too much Queer content. I punch up, you see, not because of my self proclaimed superior morality, but because that’s how I get noticed. Piggyback on the fame of the player I piss on. Whichever political side you come from, whoever your target: it’s pathetic.

There will always be suckers and there will always be fools – and simply ignoring them is the best remedy. Continue on with the mission, because to get to a better grade of human a better grade of story is non-negotiable.

Most people are not wild eyed extremists for the left or the right, talk to them. Most people are smarter than the gatekeepers give them credit for, engage there.

There has to be breakthroughs in quality every now and then, changes in direction, new eras with different angles… being stuck with sameness brings only doom.

This means that universal popularity is a sure indicator to the storyteller that he or she is busy screwing up.

Not every thing works for every one – and that’s okay 🙂

Tastes differ, expectations colour our experiences & some things are just intrinsically subjective. On the one hand – some folks lack the ability to enjoy some things. On the other hand – some stories work better than others. Audiences and works have to find each other – and fit, or not.

Sometimes stories can be rapid and noisy and flashy. I enjoy those too and we might have some, going ahead. Other times stories can be very subtle, with barely a word of dialogue and subtle performances unfolding complexity in symbolism and subtext.

Sometimes stories work fantastically well, sometimes they just work, or work less well, or work not at all. Sometimes what REALLY works for a small audience, only works for them, and no one else. Sometimes stories fall completely flat and works for no one. Sometimes stories hit a great many perfectly, and rise to legendary popularity.

Telling all original stories – working or not – is the duty of storytellers: to revolt against the endless cycle of sequels, reboots, remakes, reinterpretations, reiterations and regurgitations which is the main fodder fed to mass markets and which has resulted in a kind of insipid celluloid narcissism which demands that everything matches expectations, or else…

It will be noted that generals seldom pull rank, but lowly corporals make everyone aware of their own importance. So it goes with commentary… the most acerbic vinegar erupts forth from those with the least merit of their own. As Brendan Behan once said: ”Critics are like eunuchs in a harem.”

Not that criticism, even unkind criticism, is unwelcome. To bother at all is to pay a compliment. Unless sociopathy is involved, to take the time in itself reveals investment.

And for the author, director, storyteller, actor, artist – to be subject to the pronouncements of others is part and parcel of the job. One must CARE about audiences – profoundly and deeply. That is absolutely critical, non-negotiable and indisputable. But that does not mean one must always listen to them. If Henry Ford asked his customers what they wanted, they would have asked him for faster horses.

There has to be an antidote to the copy and paste formulaic sameness. There must be opportunities outside an oligarchy of incumbents. There must be product that deviate from specifications, adventures outside the norm, stories that depart from well-established structures – or all we will ever have is more of the same. And more of the same – whatever else it may be – can never be art. Also true: Art isn’t everything. Nor is commercial success.

But if all is the same then nothing is new and that is fatalism. Screw art, and money, telling only stories people have heard before isn’t storytelling at all.

It’s pageantry. Re-enactments of rituals deemed safe and appropriate by a culture stuck in myopic cycles.

There are several books that say all stories have been told… or that say there are only 6 master plots, or 14, or 8, or whatever. This is like saying words are limited and concepts are all alike because they are expressed using the same 26 letters.

Two heist movies can be – and SHOULD BE – nothing alike. Season Two of the same thing better not be the same thing.

When movies become too expensive to make because your incestuous industry structure rewards incumbency, then risks are understandably not taken. Investors must get their money back. Hard to do when the average cost of a production is between $50- and $100-million – not counting the marketing and advertising. You can’t risk that kinda dough so you go back to what works. And that’s why you get the sense its all the same.

But do not mistake me for being bitter, or hopeless. There are interesting things happening. Old Masters remain master storytellers and manage to, through the vagaries of ‘the industry’. Tarantino knows his stuff. Scorsese knows his stuff. Nolan and Burton and many others, whether they are my preferred flavour or not – these names are known for a reason.

And new names. Telling stories in age old ways but better, and in new ways.

Try and fail. It must be allowed. You will not build successful business unless and until you allow people to fail. You will not make advancements, or create industries, or change the world. Nor will you tell stories worth seeing, hearing or telling.

Ignore the sniggering cynicism from the sidelines. Don’t be dissuaded by the opinions of people you couldn’t possibly respect. Listen to those you’d ask for advice. Be willing to try, and willing to fail, and do it enough times that you get better, and fit, and streamlined, and the sheer number of tries get a few across the line.

Humanity needs every new story it can get.