Thesis: I Tell Stories

INTRODUCTION

I tell stories.

Although the specific medium and formal qualities may differ from project to project, the majority of my work is narrative. Most of my stories are presented in the form of comics, though animations and more experimental forms of storytelling do make appearances. The form a story takes is decided by what I feel has the most potential to successfully convey the content of the story. Much of my work can be called “digital storytelling”. This is a broad term: I use it to refer to any narrative which utilizes digital technology as an integral part of its production, distribution or consumption. This may simply mean that the comics I produced are published on the web though they could potentially be published in a print format. Other times it means that my work can only exist in a digital realm.

My stories explore the power of narrative to make sense of the world and to influence people’s beliefs and perspectives. I do this in one of two ways: remixing familiar stories and tropes and drawing attention to narrative structures within the narrative itself. Some of my stories draw on specific narratives of fairy tales or mythologies, while other only reference their common tropes, archetypes and story structure. Still others make storytelling and the power of narrative an important aspect of the story itself. By referencing common genre conventions and tropes and then turning them on their head, I cause the viewer to acknowledge the prevalence of these conventions and tropes. In having characters that recognize the influences of stories in their own experience, I force the reader to consider the ways in which stories are being used to shape their lives everyday. In addition, I seek to include types of characters who are underrepresented in the majority of mainstream stories, to push the idea that different types of stories are equally valuable.

But above all I simply try to tell good stories.

DIGITAL STORYTELLING

At the most extreme end, “digital stories” are stories which can only exist and be enjoyed by using a computer. Some comics take advantage of the lack of certain restrictions when producing for the web. Comic theories Scott McCloud (1) refers to this premise as the “infinite canvas”. He argues there’s no need to faithfully replicate the experience of print comics when working online if it does not benefit the story. The webcomic Thunderpaw (2) is a good example of this: the each page is different in size, determined by the pacing needs of the story. Thunderpaw also takes advantage of dynamic images, incorporating animated gifs to enhance the mood of the story.

Thunderpaw

Thunderpaw is an apocalyptic story that utilizes animated gifs to establish mood. It also takes advantage of the versatility of the web by not having every page be the same size. Instead, each page’s size is determined by the needs of the story and pacing.

Comics like  Ava’s Demon (3) pull away from the infinite canvas route, instead displaying only one panel at a time. But Ava’s Demon also doesn’t limit itself to still images, interspersing short video animations in-between still panels in order to move the story forward. All of these works take advantage of the unique opportunities with form that existing in the digital realm afford them.

Other works take advantage of the possibilities for interactivity that the web offers.  Scott McCloud’s short comic Mimi’s Last Coffee (4) uses flash to allow readers to explore different outcomes of the story, an updated version of the “choose-your-own-adventure” genre, if you will. The ongoing comic A Stray in the Woods (5) bills itself as a “collaborative comic adventure” which allows readers to send in suggestions for what the main character should do next, which the author then uses to create the next update. These works explore interactive possibilities that cannot be experienced without the use of  computers.

Other works take advantage of the sheer breadth of platforms present on the web. The Lizzie Bennet Diaries (6) is a web series adaption of the classic novel Pride and Prejudice. In The LBD, the main story is told through the titular character’s vlogs (video web logs). Unlike many web shows, The LBD acknowledges the medium in which it exists within. The characters make references to production, deal with the limitations of the medium and occasionally respond to viewer questions. In addition, invested viewers can follow the characters across the web, as all the characters also have twitter accounts where supplementary aspects of the story play out.

While the main story of the Lizzie Bennet Diaries plays out through "Lizzie's" vlog, invested viewers can also find and follow the character's twitter and other social media accounts for supplementary content."

While the main story of the Lizzie Bennet Diaries plays out through “Lizzie’s” vlog, invested viewers can also find and follow the “character’s” twitter and other social media accounts for supplementary content.

Other characters have accounts on other web platforms such as facebook, tumblr, pinterest, and even okcupid. These additional web presences of the character add characterization, a sense of ‘realness’ and immersion to the story, and occasionally, plot significance. Stories such as The LBD take advantage of all the web has to offer for storytelling.

On the more modest end of the “digital stories” spectrum are comics and tv shows which are published via the web but do not differ in any significant formal way from traditional comics. However, these should not be written off as an unimportant aspect of digital storytelling. Many of these stories would never exist without the aid of the web. Or rather, they would never be published by the traditional media industry for various reasons. Some might say this is a good thing. It’s true that some, perhaps most, of the work on the internet isn’t very good. However, the internet also allows people access to a meta-narrative that is often hidden: the story of a creator’s and a story’s growth. Dedicated readers can see the progression of skill in certain webcomics as they continue. Looking at the quality of the early pages of comics like Tom Siddell’s Gunnerkrigg Court (7) and Jeph Jacques’s Questionable Content (8), it would be hard to name any publishing house that wold take a risk on these comics. Yet because these creators were able to independently publish their work on the web they evolved as artists and writers. Both comics are now consistently recognized by The Web Cartoonists’ Choice Awards for their outstanding quality.

Finally, the ability for independent creators to publish and promote their work on the web allows for narratives normally ignored by the mainstream media  to find an audience. There are many reasons why these amazing stories can’d find a home within traditional industries: the content isn’t marketable, it’s too “controversial”, or it’s held back by bigotry. The web has the potential to allow stories that normally aren’t told – stories by and about women, people of color, LGBT+ people, disabled people, etc – to be produced and viewed by others who crave a breath of fresh air from the same-old narratives created by traditional producers.

THE POWER OF STORIES

Stories are important. They are human’s primary way of communicating ideas. Advertisers use stories to market products more efficiently (9), journalists tell news ‘stories’ to make events more understandable (10), educators use narrative as a tool to instruct students (11). We use stories to make sense of the confusing world around us. Author Robert Coover once stated that “we need myths to get by. We need story; otherwise the tremendous randomness of experience overwhelms us” (12).

Neuroscientists have discovered that humans use stories to make us feel
“coherent and unified”, and that whenever we perform any action our brains will try to find ways to “explain that action as to be part of…your story, your narrative” (13). Scientists have also found that the brain makes little distinction between reading about an experience and actually encountering that experience in real life.  Stories act as life simulators, allowing readers the “opportunity to enter fully into other people’s thoughts and feelings” (14).

It is this capacity for making people think and feel that makes fiction so incredibly powerful. Stories have a unique ability to change our perspective and to mold us into different people. Literary scholar Jonathan Gottschall argues that “fiction enhances our ability to understand other people; it promotes a deep morality that cuts across religious and political creeds” (15). Stories can increase a person’s capacity for empathy, which in turn shapes their behavior. In fact, fiction may be an even strong tool in changing behavior than fact. Gottschall explains that “studies show that when we read nonfiction, we read with our shields up. We are critical and skeptical. But when we are absorbed in a story, we drop our intellectual guard. We are moved emotionally, and this seems to make us rubbery and easy to shape” (16).

However, with great power comes great responsibility. Because stories effect our perspective much more easily than fact, we may get the two distorted. Novels and movies ‘based on a true story’ but that have been altered for dramatic effect influence the ways people think about historical events (17). Popularized tropes within certain types of stories have given rise to widely believed falsehoods. For example, the proliferation of crime dramas on T.V. has given rise to misconceptions about how the criminal justice system actually works (18).

But perhaps most importantly, stories can dramatically effect how we view the people around us as well as ourselves. One study in particular reported that watching a great deal of TV lowered the self-esteem of children – except in the case of white males. The study attributed this to the fact that “regardless of what show you’re watching, if you’re a white male, things in life are pretty good for you…You tend to be in positions of power, you have prestigious occupations, high education, glamorous houses, a beautiful wife, with very little portrayals of how hard you worked to get there” (19). The study contrasted this with the average portrayal of women, which is one-dimensional and sexualized, and with that of black men and women, who are depicted as criminals and hoodlums. While there may be occasionally increases in the number women (20), people of color, people with disabilities (21), and queer people (22) seen in books, comics, TV shows and movies, these types of characters continue to be greatly underrepresented. When they are present, they are often only allowed a limited variety of roles and are rarely the protagonist. These characters shape the way we view real people. When we only see them presented in one way,  that effects how we view all people even remotely like them.

Writer Chimamanda Adichie refers to this as “the danger of the single story” (23). Adichie states that when we do not see people like ourselves represented in literature and media, then we have a hard time believing we can exist in stories. This also effects the ways we see others as well. She explains that when we “show a people as one thing, as only one thing over and over again […] that is what they become” (24). When we tell a ‘single story’ of a group of people, we ignore all the diversity possible within that group. This create stereotypes, which, Adichie goes on to say, are not problematic because they are untrue, but because they are incomplete. Stories have the great power to shape our understanding of the world and the people in it, but when those stories are incomplete, or certain stories are not allowed to be told, then the effects can be damaging.

THE STORIES I TELL

My work consists of merging of these two ideas: that stories are powerful and that creators should take advantage of digital tools if those tools can add value to the story.

All of my work owes its existence at least in part to technology. Whether because the work is created using digital imaging tools or because it is published and read using them. Some of my work uses the flexibility of the digital medium to enhance the content of the story. My comic The Girl In the Woods, utilizes Processing as a programming language and Arduino as a hardware component in order to create a story where the reader views a different version of the pages depending on how light or dark it is in the room where they are reading it. This story utilizes common fairy tale tropes and narrative structures, and the central theme of the story is the ability to define oneself. The two sets of images that readers can encounter portray the same black-and-white image, but in inverse of each other, until the end where the main character reconciles two disparate parts of herself and images ‘merge together’. The technology used supports the overall theme of the story and allows for a storytelling experience that could not be replicated in print.

Another in-progress work I created, Hereland, also utilizes the possibilities of web publishing. Hereland is a story about a world parallel to our own where the fabric of creation is literally controlled by stories and imagination. In the prologue, also known as Anna’s Story, the visual aesthetic mimics that of a visual novel or a first-person game, where the images the reader sees are presented through the eyes of the point-of-view character, Anna. This reference to visual novels, along with the use of limited animation within the piece, sets up an expectation in knowledgeable viewers that this will be an interactive story, where their decisions influence the outcome in some way. However, the prologue for Hereland centers on Anna’s kidnapping and her lack of agency in this event. The story sets up an expectation that the viewer will have some control over it, but then takes that away, just as Anna’s control over her situation is taken away. The format of the story and the utilization of digital tools supports the themes of the story.

The prologue/prequel to Hereland, also known as Anna's Story, utilized the aesthetic style of visual novels in order to set up an expectation of agency in the narrative in readers, only to take it away just as the character's agency is taken away.

The Hereland’s prologue, Anna’s Story, utilized the aesthetic style of visual novels in order to set up an expectation of agency in the narrative in readers, only to take it away just as the character’s agency is taken away.

Even in cases where I feel the story will not be enhanced by the use of digital tools, digital technology is still an important part of my production process. All of my stories at the very least are published on the web. Work such as my short story The Pier, can be read both my website and hosted on a free webcomic service known as smackjeeves.com. Publishing via the web allows me to bypass traditional gatekeepers. I have great deal more control over the content and distribution of my own work. I control when a completed story is release or when an on-going comic updated. I have complete control over what happens in my comic and am not required to answer to any editors or publishers who may wish to change certain content within my stories.

Thematically my stories seek to bring the viewer’s attention to the influence of stories. I do this in two ways: remixing the familiar and in-narrative genre awareness. In the former, I deal with source materials ranging from well-known fairy tales or mythologies, to common tropes or archetypes within specific genres. Whether it’s a specific story that’s being retold (i.e. retelling Sleeping Beauty or the myth of Persephone and Hades) or a well-known trope (i.e. “damsel-in-distress” or “the hero’s quest”), I take these familiar stories and introduce a complicating element into the formula. What if Sleeping Beauty’s parents hadn’t upset the wicked fairy that curses her? What if the damsel gets tired of waiting and decides to make her way out of the tower? When confronted with a slightly distorted version of an otherwise familiar tale, readers are forced to think about the stories that they are familiar with and why they are the way they are.

Another way I deal with making people confront the power of stories is by making the characters within my stories explicitly deal with stories themselves. How extreme this confrontation is differs from story to story. I rarely break the forth wall, but in stories such as Hereland there are levels of narrative control. The main characters are transported to a world where stories literally have power and control everything, and they must use their existing knowledge of how narratives work in order to achieve their goals. In other stories the characters may just be slightly “genre savvy” (25); they don’t necessarily believe they are in a work a fiction, but they use what they’ve learned from stories to navigate the problems they encounter. In either case, the characters recognize that stories effect their lives, and in turn, cause the reader to consider how this may also be true for their own lives.

Finally, I seek to be inclusive and respectful in my stories, including characters who are female, people of color, LGBT+, have disabilities, etc. This is a constant learning process that forces me to confront my own privilege, but I feel it is important to fight against underrepresentation of specific groups in the media, but underrepresentation or poor representation sends a clear message about what kinds of stories – and therefore what kinds of people – are valuable. I feel very strongly that we need to make efforts to tell stories that help the world more than harm it, and that including well-developed and respectfully researched characters from all walks of life is one way to do so.

CONCLUSION

I tell stories because I think they are important. I work in digital media because it allows me to explore ways to utilize technology to enhance the content of a story and to bypass traditional regulations in publishing. I explore the influential power of fiction by remixing the familiar and making characters confront their own relationship with narratives. I seek to make the reader think about the ways they are influenced by the stories around them for both good and for bad. I want to use stories as an agent of change, to make people more accepting of other perspective and identities.

But mostly I just tell stories.

ENDNOTES


(1) “The “Infinite Canvas”” Scottmccloud.com. N.p., Feb. 2009. Web. 26 Apr. 2013. <http://scottmccloud.com/4-inventions/canvas/>.

(2) THUNDERPAW: IN THE ASHES OF FIRE MOUNTAIN. N.p., n.d. Web. 01 May 2013. <http://thunderpaw.co/>.

(3) Czajkowski, Michelle. Ava’s Demon. N.p., n.d. Web. 01 May 2013. <http://www.avasdemon.com/>.

(4) McCloud, Scott. “The Morning Improv #26 – Mimi’s Last Coffee.” Scottmccloud.com. N.p., 12 June 2004. Web. 01 May 2013. <http://www.scottmccloud.com/1-webcomics/mi/mi-26/mi-26.html>.

(5) Wilgus, Alison. “A Stray in the Woods.” A Stray in the Woods. N.p., n.d. Web. 01 May 2013. <http://astrayinthewoods.tumblr.com/>.

(6) “The Lizzie Bennet Diaries.” The Lizzie Bennet Diaries. N.p., n.d. Web. 04 May 2013. <http://www.lizziebennet.com/>.

(7) Siddell, Tom. “Gunnerkrigg Court.” Gunnerkrigg RSS. N.p., n.d. Web. 01 May 2013. <http://www.gunnerkrigg.com/>.

(8) Jacques, Jeph. “Questionable Content.” Questionable Content. N.p., n.d. Web. 01 May 2013. <http://questionablecontent.net/>.

(9) Hibbard, Casey. “Stories That Sell.” Stories That Sell. N.p., n.d. Web. 02 May 2013. <http://www.storiesthatsellguide.com/stories-that-sell/>.

(10) Eadie, William F. 21st Century Communication: A Reference Handbook. Vol. 1. Los Angeles: Sage, 2009. 483. Google Books. Google. Web. 02 May 2013.

(11) Walker, Sherrelle. “Using Stories to Teach: How Narrative Structure Helps Students Learn.” Scientific Learning. N.p., 14 June 2012. Web. 02 May 2013. <http://www.scilearn.com/blog/using-stories-to-teach.php>.

(12) “Robert Coover Quotes.” Goodreads.com. N.p., n.d. Web. 04 May 2013.

(13) Your Storytelling Brain. Perf. Michael Gazzaniga. Bigthink.com/. Big Think, 15 Jan. 2012. Web. 1 May 2013. <http://bigthink.com/videos/your-storytelling-brain>.

(14) Pual, Annie M. “Your Brain on Fiction.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 17 Mar. 2012. Web. 1 May 2013. <http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/18/opinion/sunday/the-neuroscience-of-your-brain-on-fiction.html?adxnnl=1&pagewanted=all&adxnnlx=1354716276-vBCJNxgtIuIFGnU+PmkBpA&_r=1&>.

(15) Gottschall, Jonathan. “Why Fiction Is Good for You.” Dallas News. Dallas News, 25 May 2012. Web. <http://www.dallasnews.com/opinion/sunday-commentary/20120525-jonathan-gottschall-why-fiction-is-good-for-you.ece>.

(16) Ibid.

(17) Brown, Joanne. “Historical Fiction or Fictionalized History? Problems for Writers of Historical Novels for Young Adults.” The ALAN Review 26.1 (1998): n. pag.Digital Library and Archives. Virginia Tech, 1998. Web. 2 May 2013. <http://scholar.lib.vt.edu/ejournals/ALAN/fall98/brown.html>.

(18) Sparks, Glenn. “Researchers Rest Their Case: TV Consumption Predicts Opinions about Criminal Justice System.” Purdue University News. Purdue University, 28 Oct. 2009. Web. 1 May 2013. <http://www.purdue.edu/uns/x/2009b/091028SparksCrime.html>.

(19) Vlahakis, George. “Study Finds TV Can Decrease Self-esteem in Children, except White Boys.” EurekAlert (press Release). AAAS, 30 May 2012. Web. 1 May 2013. <http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2012-05/iu-sft052412.php>.

(20) “Research.” Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media. N.p., n.d. Web. 04 May 2013. <http://www.seejane.org/research/>.

(21) “Latest Casting Data Follows Historical Trends and Continues to Exclude People with Disabilities.” SAG-AFTRA. N.p., 23 Oct. 2009. Web. 01 May 2013. <http://www.sagaftra.org/press-releases/october-23-2009/latest-casting-data-follows-historical-trends-and-continues-exclude-p>.

(22) Moore, Frazier. “GLAAD’s ‘Where We Are On TV’ Report Finds LGBT Television Characters At Record High.” Huffington Post. N.p., 5 Oct. 2012. Web. 1 May 2013. <http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/10/05/glaads-where-we-are-on-tv-report-gay-characters_n_1942313.html>.

(23) Chimamanda Adichie: The Danger of a Single Story. Perf. Chimamanda Adichie. TED: Ideas Worth Spreading. TED, Oct. 2009. Web. 1 May 2013. <http://www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story.html>.

(24) Ibid.

(25) “Genre Savvy.” TV Tropes. N.p., n.d. Web. 02 May 2013 <http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/GenreSavvy>.

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