Connect, connect, connect. Our brain sits in blood-filled darkness; craves light and sound and meaning. It needs you to feed it, stimulate it. And what it loves most are stories.
This is how it used to be many years ago: most of the food a brain got was unstoried, other than a day can be said to begin and end at some point. It was shown trees and grass and dogs and cats and buildings and other people. These things responded to their own rhythms. The brain observed but didn’t really feel inspired by them very often. But that quiet co-existence with the everyday provided a natural balance to the time when a story might appear. For centuries, they would come largely from family and friends, and the occasional professional story-teller. And when they did, the brain became if anything over-stimulated, running with the magical coincidences of a meaningful, if not strictly true, adventure.
Books came, then the radio, film and TV. Stories were easier to find and a hungry brain could snack and feast on them around the clock. But for most people, there was still the contrasting quiet, even dull, trees and trains and other people between the stories. They say it’s the space between notes that makes music work. Perhaps it’s the same for stories: that they work best between the less shaped spaces of our lives.
But it seems now that those spaces are in danger of disappearing for good. The brain wakes up today and immediately connects, not to the solid continuance of walls and windows and the garden outside, nor even to a distant voice on the radio, but to aspects of itself via social media. Messages from friends answering messages from oneself . . . the ongoing story of each other and us. It continues through breakfast, walking down the street; travelling to work; at work in many stolen moments; on the way home; while sharing a meal in a restaurant.
All of this connection is done under the mantle of story. We believe we’re living the story of our lives. But the truth is, it’s not a story. It’s a never-ending stream of unremarkable and unmotivated fragmentary scenes. You go on Twitter and tell your followers, “I had a great tofu burger for lunch today.”
So? screams the brain.
“Sneaked off work early today.”
“Amazing! Bumped into an old school friend I haven’t seen for ten years!”
So: this happened next is the meat of story. It is the reason-coupling that links separate scenes. Scene B happens because of what happened in scene A. So is everything.
But there is no so in a standard Facebook life.
Yet we keep telling our brains that there is. Which means they live most of the day in the midst of a massive lie, a world-wide conspiracy, where millions keep insisting, this is story, this is story, this is story.
But there is no so.
There also is no quiet contrast to real story. For some years now we have been telling our brains that everything is story. So, what happens now when the brain is introduced to a real story? Increasingly, it feels agitated, rather like the religious zealot being confronted with hard evidence that his god does not exist. It does what zealots do, which is to ignore the evidence and look instead for ‘evidence’ of its own.
I believe we’re seeing the beginnings of brains destroying real stories in order to preserve their false belief that ordinary life is story.
Mainstream television, movies and books increasingly produce nonsensical, sequentially unmotivated and ultimately purposeless ‘stories’. Plots are thin and often full of holes; characters behave purely in reaction to their circumstances. It’s not so much that most brains don’t notice this; it’s more that they want the shapeless plots and illogical sequences of events and the too many coincidences, so that their viewing/reading is a continuance of their false storied lives. Not a stimulating distraction from.
What’s a writer to do? Well, if he’s been well and truly socially networked, nothing. His writing will automatically adjust to producing non-story stories. He’ll nod admiringly as Dr Who runs around aimlessly, waving his sonic screwdriver to make everything all right. He’ll just shout with the fans if anyone tries to point out the lack of decent story: “Hey, it’s okay; it’s Dr Who!” He’ll watch all the videos from Comicon where the cast pay homage to the brand, where no one talks plot or arc or meaning.
He won’t notice the frantic editing to up the pace, to sleight of hand viewers over the plot holes and inconsistencies. He’ll smile admiringly as actors publicly pay their dues by fawning on about how getting the call to be on the show was a dream come true, not just another job. The pre-series build-up across all media heightens the gloss and builds belief: surely all this money spent on telling us how good the show will be means it really must be good?
For a decent plot to work, the pace has to slow down for a while. First, the writers have to take time out to really think through what their character needs to do in order to convincingly pull through. Then the writing itself has to pause between effects; it has to introduce cause. Finally, the actor/character has to do the same; to deepen, in effect.
But there are no pauses on social media; no causes. Just effects. Oh dear. Then, as with politicians, newspapers, football clubs and friends, the writer has to follow too.
Good plots and causes are now a luxury, by and large. It used to be the writer’s personal message that needed to be slipped in under the story’s radar, so as not to distract the reader. Now it’s the story itself that has to be stuffed inside a sugar action pill and swallowed unconsciously.
Good stories are now like high fibre foods: necessary for digestion but not much fun. And of course, on Facebook Fun is God.