Finding Flow for Stories

There's an idea I've been mulling over: That being too original is actually a bad thing for your story... and especially if you're using a novel structure like transmedia.

We'll get there in a little but, but first let's talk about flow. Flow is that moment when the amount of challenge and your skill level mesh perfectly, throwing you into a deep state of concentration. Here's a pretty graph about it:

Now, I happen to think this is a little bit circular, because how challenging something is to you is a function of your skill level -- but it does describe a sort of tension between easy and hard at which we are most comfortable working. I think there's a similar kind of flow for stories -- or maybe we could call it engagement, instead.

Comfort vs. Originality

Thusly inspired, I fired up the ol' Potatoshop and made my own chart.

On one axis you have originality, or if you like you could frame it as challenge. It's a measure of how much like other stories a narrative is, generally speaking. On the other axis is comfort, a measure of an individual's familiarity with the kind of story at hand. If someone has a very high comfort, then we need the work to be a lot more original to find it deeply engaging (this is the problem of becoming a connoisseur; it takes more and more to sate our requirements). 

The stories we love most sit neatly in that space of being pretty original (but not too much), and just a little uncomfortable (but not too much). If you stray too far into comfort with low originality, you get stuff that's boring. This is why children's entertainment is generally total yawn city for adults -- there's nothing in Dora the Explorer that makes us look at the world in a new way or challenges our boundaries. But if you're four years old, your picture of the world is so nebulous that more complex stories are simply too challenging for you to really follow.

This is also why, all joking aside, we don't have a booming literature from the point of view of hyperintelligent cephalopods; why alien races in literature and games are never really as alien as all that. It's because they could easily shoot off the end of the challenging end of the scale, and the enjoyment we got from reading it would be diminished by its sheer unfamiliarity. And it's why the same kinds of epic fantasy novels and games I ate up when I was a teen don't engage me anymore -- my comfort with that kind of story has expanded so much that the low-grade originality doesn't do it for me anymore.

This isn't entirely a matter of skill, though, as with flow; this is more a matter of taste and socialization. We all have a different worldview. We've all consumed different stories. And all of us have a different calibration for just how far is too far on the scale.


Which brings me 'round to exactly the kind of theory I recently swore off. I've lobbied in the past, as have others, for expanding the kinds of stories we tell with transmedia tools. So many mysteries, so many secret cults and black ops government agencies, conspiracies, missing persons. The stuff we do is so unoriginal...

But that measure of originality covers more than just the content being presented -- the structure matters, too. For adults, the challenge of your medium isn't generally a significant consideration. Once you know how to read, novels and films are generally all similar enough that the mechanism of consuming them doesn't affect your enjoyment of the content one way or another. But for transmedia works -- and particularly highly fragmented, spiderwebbed, interactive transmedia works -- the challenge starts out higher simply because the structure is one most audiences are unaccustomed to. 

So maybe the key to being that breakout transmedia success lies in telling simple and extremely familiar stories -- so familiar, in fact, that they wouldn't fly in a single medium, but where the structure alone is so challenging that it all feels fresh and new. There's some evidence for this in seeing how people respond to adaptations, like the Pride and Prejudice web series currently unfolding. Maybe we should just go with that and try out some myths and fairy tales. Dead-simple romances. 

Or at the very least, we should make sure that we're not innovating our guts out to such an extent that the audience who would be comfortable there with us is zero. It's by no means the only consideration... but maybe it is something we need to think about.

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