Imagine the novelist James Joyce peering through his window into the Parisian night. He’s chain-smoking. He’s taking a bit of medicinal cocaine for his ailments. He’s adjusting his thick glasses and squinting down at his big notebook pages, scratching out Finnegan’s Wake in blue crayon. He’s laughing so hard at his own jokes—his rollicking wordplay, his lewd asides—that his long-suffering wife, Nora, shouts at him from bed to knock it off so she can get some sleep.
Finnegan’s Wake was an act of breathtaking literary swagger. Like Jackson Pollack slinging paint at canvas, Joyce wanted to smash up the traditional grammar of his art form. Frustrated with the limitations of English, he invented his own language, mashing together words and word bits from dozens of tongues into a new dialect. Bored with the contrivances of "cutanddry plot," Joyce did away with plot almost entirely. And while he was at it, he pretty much demolished the whole notion of character, too. Joyce’s characters shift and morph, changing names, personality attributes, and physical traits. James Joyce set out to take something as old as humanity—the storytelling impulse—and make it new.
Joyce—mostly blind, toothless, obsessed with his money and his fame—worked heroically at Finnegan’s Wake for 17 years, producing 700 pages that would, he bragged, keep literary critics busy for 300 years. In this, he probably succeeded. The book is now hailed as a towering monument of experimental art, and as one of the greatest novels ever written. According to Yale critic Harold Bloom, Finnegan’s Wake is the one work of modern literature whose genius stands comparison to Dante and Shakespeare.
When I give talks about the science of storytelling to business audiences, I always get the same question: "What’s the next big thing in story? What new thing will come along and transform everything"? My audiences seem to worry—as Joyce did—that the old story forms have gone a little stale, and the time is ripe for a bit of creative destruction. The digital revolution has put a massive number of new and powerful tools at the storyteller’s disposal. And if technology has revolutionized our tools, shouldn’t this lead to a revolution in the stories themselves? This whole way of thinking is summed up in an annual summit called The Future of Storytelling, which bills itself as "Reinventing the way stories are told." Is it time for story 2.0?
Interactivity seems to be the holy grail. The idea of a creative class feeding stories to passive consumers is so 1995. Everything in the digital universe is two-way, interactive, and collaborative. Digital-age consumers will want to interact with their stories—control them, talk back to them. They don’t want stories washing over them like waves, they want to jump on the waves and surf. All storytelling doesn’t necessarily have to go as far as video games—where you get to actually be the character in the movie and make choices that determine how it ends. But that’s the idea.
Before we get too swept up in our enthusiasm to reinvent storytelling, let’s return to James Joyce. There’s a paradox about Finnegan’s Wake. It is known as one of the greatest novels a human has ever penned, and also as a novel that humans simply cannot stand to read. I’m a literature professor, and I’ve never met a single colleague who has managed to read the whole thing, or has even wanted to. Finnegan’s Wake is admired for its sheer balls and its astonishing, half-loony creativity, but it’s almost entirely unread and unloved.
Master storytellers are wizards who lull us into a trance. When entranced by story, we lose track of our immediate surroundings as our minds teleport us into an alternative story universe (psychologists call this phenomenon narrative transportation). Finnegan’s failure to connect with readers isn’t due only to the novel’s fantastically obscure language (one critic refers to the novel as an act of "linguistic sodomy"). It’s because the novel—with its incomprehensible plot and shape-shifting characters—doesn’t cast an entrancing spell. Joyce denies us what we most want in a story: that sensation of falling through the pages of a book and losing track of ourselves in a land of make-believe.
Here’s the problem with interactivity: There’s no evidence people actually want it in their stories. No one watches Mad Men or reads Gone Girl yearning for control of the story as it unfolds. Interaction is precisely what most of us don’t want during story time. The more we interact with a story, the more we have to maintain the alertness of the mind operating in the real world. We can’t achieve the dreamy trance that constitutes so much of the joy of story—and the power. And the more I think about it, the more convinced I am that Finnegan’s Wake, for all its splendor as a kind of impressionistic word painting, repels readers because of its interactivity. Most critics think that Joyce was trying to get away from what he called "wideawake language" to re-create the chaos of dreaming life. Paradoxically, however, the sheer difficulty of Finnegan’s Wake forces readers to maintain a "wideawake" frame of mind as they attempt to puzzle their way through. They can’t slip into the waking dream of story time.
Story resists reinvention. As the example of Finnegan’s Wake shows, storytelling is not something that can be endlessly rejiggered and reengineered. Story is like a circle. A circle is a circle. The minute you start fussing with the line you create a non-circle. Similarly, story only works inside narrow bounds of possibility. Imagine narrative transportation as this powerful brain capacity that is protected by a lock. The lock can only be opened with a specific combination. For as long as there have been humans, the ways of undoing the lock have been passed down through generations of storytellers. Going back to the earliest forms of oral folktales and moving forward through stage plays, to printed novels, and modern YouTube shorts, the fundamentals of successful storytelling have not changed at all. Over the last 15 years, perhaps the most spectacularly successful "new" thing in story has been very old. I’m speaking here of the rise of great cable dramas like The Sopranos, The Wire, and Breaking Bad. But there’s nothing new about these shows. They are just very good novels transferred to the screen. (The much ballyhooed anti-hero trend may be new to TV drama, but it’s nothing new to literature.) When it comes to the fundamentals of story, there is not now—and never will be—anything new under the sun.
To see what I’m getting at, take a good look at this famous photograph of the storytelling animal in action. This photograph captures Kung San bushmen sharing a story in 1947. The storyteller is at the center, holding his arms up like a wizard throwing spells. He’s drawn his audience together skin against skin, mind against mind. He’s dictating the images in their minds, the feelings in their hearts. He’s wielding huge power. And he’s doing so only with the most natural human tools: his expressive face and hands, his voice, his story. And things aren’t much different today. There’s an ancient grammar to story that opens our mental locks, and gives us the joy of story. A tablet computer is a bit like the clay tablet from 3000 BC or the printing press from 1450—a technology that is radically changing how we consume stories, without changing the fundamental elements of the stories themselves.
James Joyce certainly knew how to tell stories in the classic way (see his immortal short-story collection Dubliners). As he wrote to a friend about Finnegan’s Wake, "I might easily have written this story in the traditional manner. . . . Every novelist knows the recipe. . . . But I, after all, am trying to tell the story . . . in a new way." Joyce was genuinely surprised that so few people—a portion of highly sophisticated critics aside—could connect with his new way of telling a story. He really had, as H. G. Wells complained to him in a letter, "turned his back on the common man."
In business storytelling, connecting with the "common man" is the whole point. And, as I’ve argued in these posts, successful connection means hewing to the principles of good storytelling that are coded in the DNA of our species and won’t change until human nature does.
Jonathan Gottschall is the author of The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. His work has been featured in the New York Times Magazine, Scientific American, and the Chronicle of Higher Education, among others.
Read the two previous posts in this series:
"The Science Of Storytelling: How Narrative Cuts Through Distraction Like Nothing Else"
"Infecting An Audience: Why Great Stories Spread."