The scope of our stories

I do love superhero movies, particularly the Marvel Cinematic Universe films. The overarching creation of these united films into a single storyline is undoubtedly the foundation of a new mythology that will likely last for generations, an epic poem of godly heroes who give us hope and tickle our ethos when the casual nature of everyday reality isn’t quite enough.

mcu
The Marvel Cinematic Universe initially culminated with an Avengers movie in 2012, but the studio continues to expand the pantheon.

Marvel may own the rights, but these stories are our shared property. They’re only the successes that they are because we’ve collectively agreed to make them a cornerstone of our experiences. Same goes for Harry Potter. And Star Wars. And James Bond.

And these are just the big names. Hollywood pumps out hundreds of films every year! So on that note, have you noticed that we as Americans (and everyone else in the modernized world) are completely bombarded by these big-budget spectacles of miracle and mirth? There are more movies, of all shapes and styles, than any of us could realistically watch in our lifetimes. So why do so many people, at a scope many times larger than the entire workforce behind Hollywood, work so hard to write and create even more stories in their spare time?

This is an interesting question to me because I’m one of those people. Just one in hundreds of thousands of people who tinker at laptops and scratch paper to develop characters, locations, and conflicts that we put into short stories, novels, plays, and even small-budget independent films. So why? It’s not like there’s a dearth of entertainment in our culture, so we’re not exactly filling a lost niche.

Or are we? Fact of the matter is, there are too many different stories, and too many different ways of telling them, to just rely on Hollywood alone. In fact, there are too many to reasonably rely on the entire writing public to fulfill. One thing you learn as a writer early on, to the point that it’s a cliché, is that everyone has a story to tell. You can distill these stories into genres, such as the action or drama, and into even larger categories of conflict (five main types: Man vs Man, Man vs Nature, Man vs Society, Man vs Himself, and Man vs Technology), but the specifics of how a story is told is what makes it relatable to its audience. Sure, once you boil it down, James Bond is just a Man vs Man story, but his suave class and daring-do are what make us love the character and root for him as he accomplishes the seemingly impossible.

So what’s the answer to this question? Given the fact that there are more stories out there than we can reasonably consume, and the fact that there are more stories possible than we can reasonably tell, just where on this spectrum do we find ourselves? Or perhaps this is simply the wrong question. If the greater question is, “why do we tell stories?” then the question of why do we tell so many or so few shouldn’t really make a difference.

I know for me personally, telling stories is a way of communicating, of letting those around me know what’s going on in my head, however cryptically. Slightly broader, the telling and listening of stories has helped humans to learn about the world around them, to put some order to the complexities of life. So to put some sort of pragmatic cap on the number of stories that we tell is to also hobble some important aspect of our humanity. Ultimately, I don’t think there can ever be enough stories. There’s too much to learn in the world to keep anyone from sharing what they’ve experienced.

Of course, such an answer doesn’t help anyone who is looking to make a living as a story teller. There may be no end to the stories we can and will tell, but the market has certain limits. This was evident enough to me this past summer when my theater comrade, John, and I brought our play “Pistachios” to the Minnesota Fringe Festival. Despite the fact that we thought it was a good story with interesting dialogue and relatable characters, we hardly put any butts in the seats of our tiny little theater. But that’s what happens when you’re up against over 160 different shows in a single festival, some with much more name recognition.

But I’ll keep tinkering. That’s just how it works. And perhaps something more will come out of the next play I’m working on, which is a fable loosely based on the character of Sir Isaac Newton titled “The Ballad of Newton Badger.” Or maybe I’ll see some success with the next project after that, still in the early developmental stage, which is to be a satire of Donald Trump’s rise in political power. Or maybe the next story after that. Or maybe never.

The stories we tell won’t always be the next “Captain America,” and probably rarely will be. Most will probably be a bunch of “Pistachios.” But then again, the value of stories never has been in how much money they made.

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