The Joy of a Tale is in the Telling Part II: Magic Beans

During the first ever Adventures in Storytelling Suds and Stories (a real life meetup where community members hang out to enjoy company, beverages, and talking about stories), Amanda described Stephen King as ‘supernaturally talented,’ which is both incredibly apt and an incredible pun.  I can’t give you any proof, but I feel that King’s talent flows from an innate understanding of a simple storytelling truth (a truth that he puts on to the lips of Roland in The Dark Tower series): the joy of a tale is in the telling.

As we explored in Part I, a story is a space where the audience and the author meet and together generate meaning. Stories possess a wonderful quirk that complicates this idea, though. Once a story is told, it continues to exist independent of the person who originally did the telling. That might mean it was codified or recorded in some way, or it may just mean that it lives on in the memory of a person who was listening, but a story becomes an entity unto itself.

This is where things get really exciting for me as a student of storytelling: when the original author of a story re-enters the story space like an audience member, they can generate new meaning by engaging in the same sort of interaction we talked about in part I. I know I’m being a bit reductive here; the original storyteller will always have a unique relationship with their story. The metaphor often invoked is that works of art are a creator’s children (I like this metaphor because children have agency).

In a work like a novel or a painting where a single object is presented as the definitive version of the story, you typically don’t get an opportunity to see how the creator re-entering the shared story space changes the work. Adventures in Storytelling is, of course, an exception. You are able to see how Luke and I went back in to Charlotte’s Journey and are given a look at how our story has changed as we re-read sections and engaged with it in new ways. 1 We recently refined and slightly re-plotted the second half of Charlotte’s Journey because a hard look at some of the sections we have completed in draft proved that something was wrong with our plotting, for example. If I were to pick a random novel off the shelf beside me like, oh, say … Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist, though, I could use google to find some news articles or interviews that give hints at how the novel developed, but there would be no in-depth look at how the story changes from draft to draft.2

Despite that lack of evidence, make no mistake, stories change as they are told. No matter how well-plotted, no matter how carefully planned, a creator has ideas that only come when working in the shared story space, and those ideas grow like magic beans, taking the stories to new and unexpected heights. That growth is no small part of the joy of telling a tale – and it cannot happen until the act of creation is in progress.

We are lucky to live in the age of the internet, because it has allowed for a resurgence of serial storytelling. Unlike novels, which typically remain static once published,3 new forms of media like webcomics and podcasts don’t have the luxury of waiting for a final version before parts of them become unchanging entities, artifacts of the storytelling process. A story told serially like those in webcomics or podcasts is generally beholden to a release schedule, and once an episode is published, it continues to exist in that form even as the story being told develops for months and years afterwards. Effectively, this means that we can actually see how a story changes as it is told because each individual segment of that story continues to exist as a unit while the overarching tale evolves. When a tale is told serially, we are given a unique opportunity to compare early episodes to later episodes in the same contiguous story.

Thanks to meta commentary, I also happen to know that the creators of this type of content go back and enter the shared story space as audience members when pushing the work forward. Because I’m writing a fantasy novel, I’m going to stick with a fantasy theme, even at the risk of alienating those who have no truck with elves and dragons. There are at least two really good examples of long-running serialized fantasy storytelling that have changed considerably during the act of being told which just so happen to have pretty good meta-commentary: Rich Burlew’s webcomic The Order of the Stick and the McElroy brothers’ (and father’s) podcast The Adventure Zone (you may have seen this podcast mentioned in other recent articles).4

The Order of the Stick started off as a way for Rich Burlew to poke fun at the idiosyncrasies of the Dungeons & Dragons rule set. The very first page of The Order of the Stick is a joke about player characters converting from the 3rd edition rule set to version 3.5. Subsequent early comics tend to stick pretty close to rules jokes.

Burlew demonstrates a self-awareness of how his story grew in the telling as early as his first collection of comics, first printed in hard copy in 2005, a mere two years after he began writing the strip. From an introduction to the earliest OOtS strips:

My early plans called for no continuing plot whatsoever, merely a series of amusing anecdotes. I’m really glad I tossed that idea.

I would argue that self-awareness and that ability to think critically of his own work while re-examining it (not to mention editing – the art needed considerable re-colouration and straightening of borders in order to be print-ready, though the written content remains identical) allowed Burlew to develop as a storyteller. As he says nine years later in the introduction to the fifth and, as of this writing, most recent collection, Blood Runs in the Family:

It’s pretty cringe-worthy for me to look back on those early crude strips. I don’t just mean the art, either; the characterizations are barely recognizable, what with Haley giggling like a schoolgirl for no apparent reason and Roy killing goblins in their sleep.

Although Burlew doesn’t come out and say why, I feel like he regrets how his character Haley was presented in the early strips because she was less character and more collection of poor stereotypes that do not reflect well on women. I can’t say for sure that Burlew’s growth as a person is a direct result of telling The Order of the Stick, but I can tell you that as he learned how to write Haley and the story evolved, poor representations of women evaporated from his story. Compare this awful comic (complete with the aforementioned giggling) with something that carries a bit more substance, like the time Haley (spoiler alert) finally finds her father and he isn’t quite the man she remembers. You’ll notice in the second comic Haley is a character with emotions and motivations rather than an object. Those emotions and motivations happen to tie in to the main ongoing plot, too!

Burlew quickly recognised that a webcomic without a story couldn’t survive. The scope of the story he set out to tell was massive, and for fans that have followed the comic for the last decade, the shift in tone and quality may not had been immediately evident because it was so gradual. That glacial shift from D&D rules jokes to a character-driven fantasy epic is the growth that happened while this tale was told. I can only assume that there is some joy in it for Burlew, because even more than a decade on, he is still diligently working towards the completion of his tale.

The Adventure Zone follows a fairly similar trajectory. What began as a filler episode for the McElroy’s flagship product, My Brother, My Brother and Me (no oxford comma), grew into an incredibly ambitious fantasy epic with heartfelt drama rather quickly, but in such gradual increments that you hardly notice it is happening.

The meta-commentary created by the McElroy brothers in the The The Adventure Zone Zone episodes, on their blogs, and with their twitter presence is a treasure trove of creative insight and a fascinating map of how not only the story but also the creators themselves have grown as a result of producing this podcast. Luke has already covered this topic in his post on representation and diversity in creative works, but I think some words from the McElroy brothers bear repeating. From the page of Griffon McElroy:

When we started, we did not consider the fact that folks would relate to these characters, or would care about what they looked like, or if they looked like them, or anything along those lines… Justin named his character Taako, the joke being that this name sounds like “taco,” and that he would be pursuing a quest to invent tacos in this fantasy world. Justin thought of this name as a big and goofy joke several minutes before we started recording.

The players in the McElroy game of Dungeons & Dragons used pre-generated character sheets and did not take the act of character creation very seriously. Their adventure began as a mildly simplified version of the Lost Mines of Phandelver adventure module published in the D&D starter set. Although the McElroys were invested, they weren’t taking the whole adventure very seriously. A strange thing happens as you listen to the first few episodes. Although the McElroy family keeps up their constant stream of goofy humour, a serious tone begins to creep in around the edges of the story, and you can actually listen as the creators of this story learn about it as it happens and begin to care about not only their own characters, but the non-player characters and the larger world around them. As they get involved, they drift away from the pre-made adventure and begin creating a story of their own. By the end of the first story arc, the McElroys are in uncharted water.

The Adventure Zone goes from generically goofy D&D adventure to a living, vibrant world where the creators’ investment rings through their performance and creates an insane amount of empathetic reactions in its audience. There are very few episodes past the first few arcs that do not give me chills or cause me to shed tears of joy and excitement. Listening to The Adventure Zone is one of the most emotionally exhausting things I’ve ever done in my life, but that is a big part of the reason I love it. I think that visceral reaction is the greatest proof of the story’s growth – it grew from a series of jokes the creators didn’t take terribly seriously to an emotional tour-de-force fantasy epic.

The Adventure Zone does have one quirk that makes it unique in this discussion. Although Griffon McElroy has created an overarching frame for the story and directs his family through the story as a game master, agency is given to his brothers and his father in the story space as the story is told. The players can chose to take actions that go against what the game master had planned, and that makes for dangerously fun spontaneous story generation. Because Luke and I are writing a fantasy story together, I have some experience with compromise and trying to see a particular story element from another person’s point of view, but there is something incredibly attractive about the idea of coming up with a fantasy epic and letting some unknown quantities loose inside. With that in mind, I bought my Dungeon Master’s Guide and invited some friends and acquaintances to my house, and let them go buck wild inside a fantasy setting I call The Make-It-Up-As-You-Go-Along Realms. We’ll take a closer look at how interactivity once again shakes up the joy of storytelling in Part III.

Colossal nerds!!!

  1. Amanda and Luke discuss how a similar process works for an actual famous person in the comments of Part I

  2. There is a really fantastic The Reluctant Fundamentalist pun in this sentence that nobody will ever get except me, so I just wanted to assure you that it’s in there. No good pun should ever go unrecognised and unchuckled.

    Also, Hamid makes a good argument about how stories are a space where author and audience co-create in the linked article. Just sayin’. Jung would probably dig the connection.

  3. Notable exceptions include Frankenstein and a number of the earlier HALO novels

  4. I want to acknowledge that both The Order of the Stick and The Adventure Zone use Dungeons & Dragons as a base for how their stories are told. For now, I’m going to mostly ignore Dungeons & Dragons as a game system, but rest assured we’ll return to how a system of rules effects the shared story space in Part III, where you’ll meet Oscar-Frank, the hotdog cleric.

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