Authenticity. It’s sometimes the hardest thing to get right, especially when telling a story that you want to be more than just a collection of the facts. Stories that speak to us on a deep level, that resonate, our genuine. They are not contrived mashups of improbability, though especially in speculative fiction there is plenty of room for creativity. No, a true story gains its authenticity by the way that it makes the audience feel. The emotions that a story creates are what lends it authenticity.
So how best to gain emotion in your audience? Well, the more immersed that they can feel the stronger their connection to the story will be. In the written word, authors can accomplish this by using a close first person. When the narration truly inhabits the skin of a main character you can get deep inside the psyche of a protagonist. Even when telling a story orally, including details about feeling, tasting, touching, can all serve to anchor your audience in your message.
So when you’re thinking about telling a story, don’t just relate the facts. Think about the way it feels to go through those facts. When you feel stressed out, or under the gun, how does that feel in the body? Are the shoulders tense and tight? Does the chest bind and not, forcing you to breathe deeply just to get enough air? These sorts of deep embodiments are where great stories pull their audiences in and make them truly a part of the events.
Modern storytelling has examples of this in so many mediums. I’d like to talk about one that has gained a lot of traction in the last decade or so. Video games have the potential to put you deeply into the experience of the story. This is done through the use of agency, or at least the illusion of it. Agency, free will and the act of changing something, forces the audience to pick up a pen with the author. By choosing the way the story unfolds, the audience becomes a partner with the author. This fundamentally changes the relationship between the work and the audience. Video games do this extremely well, because they are tied together with visual storytelling, narrative, and agency.
I am by no means an accomplished gamer, and I really only play one video game with any regularity. But a long time ago, I came across a game that had some of the best storytelling I have ever encountered. And yes, though it pains me to say it, this was even better than anything that has come out of the Mass Effect franchise. It was called Advent Rising, and unsurprisingly the script was written by an accomplished storyteller, Orson Scott Card.
The initial opening scenes of the game are not particularly inspiring. There’s a large alien invasion, most of humanity is killed, and some survivors take refuge with a sympathetic alien faction. Fairly straightforward science fiction stuff. As you move along and play the game though, you learn more and more about why humanity had such an enemy to begin with. Why we are feared.
It’s because humans are special. A trope, I know, but it is one that we are all willing to latch onto without all that much prodding. Everyone has a need to be special, to feel special, and by stoking that flame into a raging fire, advent rising roped the player in to the story with incredible finesse and effectiveness.
And it’s not even that humans are special and that’s the end of it. Each thing you learn about the origins of humanity, each ability you harness and unlock, makes you more and more powerful. This in turn lets you fight further and further into the enemy stronghold to uncover more and more secrets, and so on. Basically, this entire part of the game is Odysseus facing the trials. It is masterfully done.
The only downside to this game and the story within it, at least in my opinion, was the fact that it ended on a massive cliffhanger, and they never made any more. I have no idea what the backwards compatibility of modern consoles is, because I played this game somewhere around 2007, but if you can find a copy of it at your local GameStop (Is that even still a thing? Didn’t they make a bunch of money in the stock market?), I can highly recommend picking it up and playing it through. And if anybody has a line on the next game that I’m just missing, I would love to hear about it.
So in this example we’ve looked at a video game as an immersive storytelling experience, and hit on a few of the themes that make stories truly engaging. They were agency, emotion, and making the audience feel special. Whether you’re writing an epic novel or thinking about your next speech to your team, if you can weave these three things in you will move your audience in a profound way. As always please let me know what you think in the comments below, and happy storytelling!