Consider how many stories you encounter every day. Include in your count all the sources for stories you have: television, radio, iPods, computers, phones, newspapers, magazines, other people. Make sure you take into account all the forms stories take: movies, videos, commercials, jokes, songs, news, plays, TV shows, comic strips. Even simple video games have stories. Pigs stole eggs from those Angry Birds who are now out for revenge, right?
We are immersed in stories every day everywhere we go. Is it any wonder that we can tell a story — and tell it well — in 30 seconds?
Now how many stories do you think your great-grandparents heard in an average day? Or their great-grandparents?
Stories took longer to tell a few generations ago, perhaps partly because those absorbing the story were not as steeped in the art form. Now some chafe at the length of the classics. I mean, really, Mr. Tolstoy: were all 696 pages of War and Peace really necessary?
Theater suffers from the same issue. Who wants to produce all 13 acts of Eugene O’Neill’s Mourning Becomes Electra? For that matter, who produces Show Boat or Gypsy without making a few cuts or speeding up tempos?
In the early 1980s, I directed Talley’s Folly for The Vortex Theatre and was worried that Lanford Wilson’s play would be too short. Matt, the protagonist, actually tells the audience the play will be 93 minutes without intermission. That’s just slightly longer than an animated film from Disney.
We’ve dissected storytelling these days so we understand it even better. Christopher Booker tells us there are seven basic plots since the beginning of recorded stories. Other theorists assign a different number, but they all tell us that of the millions of stories available to us, there’s a very small, finite quantity of original plotlines. You’d think we’d get bored.
Christopher Vogler synthesized Joseph Campbell’s work to tell us that there are 12 parts to the hero’s journey, no matter what the story. Whether you’re talking about The Lion King or The King’s Speech, Vogler contends that you can find those 12 steps in each and every movie. That makes these stories seem like an endless batch of cookies all made with the same cutter.
Yet we keep going back, don’t we? We sign in to Hulu or stop by the nearest Redbox or download something new to the Kindle, always in hopes of being entertained, of catching a good story. And we bought each Harry Potter installment in vast numbers. (But, really, Ms. Rowling, were all 4100 pages really necessary?)
What’s become somewhat disturbing is the number of us who want our own story told. The rise of the “reality” show holds as its promise that, if those real housewives in New Jersey can be on TV, some day somebody will put my story on television, too.
Stories were created, we are told, as both entertainment and enlightenment. We are supposed to learn from them. As G.K. Chesterton said, "Fairy tales do not tell children that dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children that dragons can be killed."
I just hope that stories never become so mundane, so common, that we lose sight of their entertainment value and the lessons they can offer.
Terry S. Davis