Friday, August 27, 2010

Storytelling on Speed

This morning I discovered a website called 5 Second Films. A new film is posted to the site on a daily basis, and most are about 5 seconds (though I saw one that was about 40 seconds). They are very funny films, and I enjoyed watching a few of them. But I do notice that they're part of a trend.

It seems that there has been a significant change in storytelling in the 21st century. There is flash fiction (1,000 words or less), six-word memoirs, horror films re-made in 30 seconds (with bunnies), and books being written on Twitter, which has a 140 character limit per post. In fact, more communication takes place on Twitter these days than on the telephone, on e-mail, or perhaps anywhere else. We are urged to express ourselves as succinctly as possible, without wasting words.

Why is this? Is it a time factor--we no longer have time to sit down and hear or read a long story? Have our attention spans gotten shorter? Or are we just trying to cram as much culture as possible into our ridiculously overscheduled lives?

On the one hand, I can understand the time factor with stories. I know people who take so many detours through a conversation, that you just want to shout "get to the point!" There is an expression for such conversations--"Going from New York to Baltimore via San Francisco". (If you don't know U.S. geography--perhaps "Going from London to Birmingham via Siberia" would be comparable). I remember my ex-husband telling me about a conversation he had with a co-worker that was like this. He was at an office event, and was eating borscht, and the person he was talking to went on for 45 minutes about her family, her entire genealogy, the people on the street she grew up with, and several other topics. What she actually wanted to say was "This soup is good. It reminds me of soup I had growing up."

One might argue that hearing her entire family history might have been interesting--after all, this person did have an interesting childhood. However, when you're at an office party making small talk, such meandering discussions don't really allow you to mingle with others--you're trapped listening to a story for an interminable amount of time. This was an "appropriateness of audience" problem. If my ex had been interviewing her about her family history, it would have been a great story.

So, there are the meanderers, and they are the bane of meetings and office life, where getting to the point really IS essential if you don't want to be trapped for several hours unnecessarily and unproductively. In working life, time management is very important. But what about literature and film?

Many of these really short works are actually quite clever and creative. I don't want to give the impression that they are frivolous or "lazy". To really convey a story in so few words or images takes a lot of discipline and creativity--it's much easier to ramble on.

However, there is a lot that is lost when works are too short, in my opinion. I do prefer short stories to novels, and short films to very long ones, but I do want to see a story unfold. Scott Adams recently talked about atmosphere in good writing in his blog. All of your senses should be engaged when you read something. This is how some authors can get away with pathetic plot--they make up for it in atmosphere. I like richly conjured images--long passages about mundane things that make you feel like you're there. Or a camera lingering on certain details in a movie, certain scenes that seem tangential to the plot. Combined with the right soundtrack, these images can have tremendous impact. Mental Floss did a blog post last year about music in movies. There were YouTube videos of scenes from famous movies, with different background music. It's an excellent illustration of how music can affect the impact of a scene. Those scenes seem entirely different with different music.

If I were to get on my soapbox about slowing down, I'd be a hypocrite. I'm always going, always working on 10 things at once, and perhaps not doing any of them well. I'm from the Northeastern United States, New York metro area, so I'm already geared to hurry, hurry, hurry up to go nowhere. I step back and remind myself of this from time to time, but it's a hard habit to break. I imagine I'm not alone, and I think these trends in literature and film prove it. I know that if someone sends me a YouTube video link that's longer than 2 minutes, I bypass it for another time--I'm usually busy at work, or in the middle of a project at home, so I can't take the time out to watch it. I understand the struggle between one's day-to-day working life, and the need for those literary diversions from that. Maybe this is a means of compromise. But I'd hate to see those short-short works become the norm and standard for literature. I'd prefer that we all slow down first.

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