The Academy Award Winning Trailer (and what it says about Story Fatigue)

15 Apr

In his book Story, Robert McKee exhorts his readers to write stories, because the world needs storytelling and there is greater demand than ever before.

For me, McKee’s evangelical fervor vacillates between inspiring and eye-rolling, but I do agree with most of what he is saying here: Human beings need stories–individually and collectively–and due to a growing number of entertainment pathways (as more TV channels means more shows and movies-of-the-week, as the intarwebz finds its place, as the gaming business outstrips them all) there is increased need for storytellers and different types of storytelling.

I suspect there’s a flip side of this for viewers: story fatigue. By way of explanation, check out this hilarious parody trailer for an imaginary Academy Award-winning film.

As viewers consume unprecedented amount of stories through a greater  number outlets, they become increasingly savvy to storytelling structures. I believe this is one reason that the majority of older shows, films, plays, etc., have a harder job keeping our attention. Superhero films (the modern genre closest to classic myths) have been forced to be increasingly dramatic and “realistic”; viewers don’t buy into their simpler predecessors. Don’t get me wrong, I love the original Superman films, but they look a little silly compared to say, The Dark Knight—as does the 1989 Batman movie, for that matter.

This makes the modern storytellers job of keeping the audience surprised and engaged harder than before. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. This challenge can lead to better, more nuanced and powerful stories.

What do you think? Can you think of any other examples of story fatigue? Is telling a fresh, original, engaging story harder than before?


2 Responses to “The Academy Award Winning Trailer (and what it says about Story Fatigue)”

  1. Adam April 20, 2010 at 04:30 #

    I absolutely agree with you, but it’s also created a “new” genre of meta-storytelling that offers opportunities for story-savvy creators to take advantage of. “Community” is a classic example of a story that in no way pretends that its viewers haven’t seen this before, and successfully moves in the other direction by honoring and exploiting our story exhaustion by deftly weaving in contemporary cultural references, generally through the character of Abed, but every character gets a chance. “30 Rock” does a lot of the same things, but not as directly or as successfully I think as “Community” does them. This meta-commentary on media savvy within media only has a limited audience, but it speaks to the kind of exhaustion you’re talking about.

    On the other hand, a well executed story, even based on classic themes, still has power. “Avatar: The Last Airbender” is a three season cartoon show about the rise of an unlikely hero that has some of the best plotting and character development that I’ve ever come across, and I’ve watched a lot of cartoons. Well executed stories will always have power. It’s when even the creators stop believing in the power of their stories (power often being conflated with originality) that the cliches overwhelm them.

    • cxw April 21, 2010 at 10:26 #

      You’re right that a lot of the best TV (especially TV) has been meta. I love meta. I love Community. And sometimes I get really tired of it. Stories built on stories built on stories. Gets all pomo and hollow to me.

      And I agree that classic story structures resonate regardless of whether they use unprecedented forms or focus on unseen content. If you’re watching a good story powerfully acted it often doesn’t matter if you know what’s coming.

      This is less true with comedy, which is often based off the unexpected and outrageous. Experience deadens the impact of these factors. I might have found the 3 Stooges funny when I was young. I don’t anymore. But I remember a story about indie film producer opening up a film theater in Fiji (with Kevin Smith, BTW) and the locals loving, it openly and loudly. It was a refreshing response for him. And it was possible because, it was something they’d never seen.

      More info here:

      I also think the best storytellers are also great scenarists. BSG, Whedonverse, etc. And I love it when they can surprise me. It’s just gets increasingly hard.

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