Story Worlds is a series about storytelling and world-building in film TV, books, games, and more. Congrats: you’ve arrived for the first installment! In future weeks, I’ll be visiting many “story worlds” from every popular medium and genre and exploring what makes them memorable. For today, I thought I’d start with a simple question: why do stories even matter?
In 1997, after my sophomore year at college, I decided to spend my savings on a backpacking trip across Europe. Seeing new places and meeting new people had always appealed to me, so I bought a ticket to London, stuffed my clothes into a backpack, and got on my merry way. To pass the downtime, I also brought a novel. The thick paperback I chose bore the impressive title, The Eye of the World: Book One of The Wheel of Time.
Europe was gorgeous, all the more so because I was traveling alone and had time to take it all in. Yet nothing I saw in the mountains of Switzerland or the vineyards of France compared to the journey I took as I read The Eye of the World. For those who don’t know (is that possible on Tor.com?), The Wheel of Time is a fantasy saga that eventually came to span fifteen volumes and over 12,000 pages of text, making it the longest continuous narrative in modern literary history. Robert Jordan’s detailed world—filled with lands, characters, histories, and even laws of nature unlike our own—hooked me from page one. Years later, I became closely involved with The Wheel of Time franchise, helping develop the project at Universal Studios and writing promotional videos for Tor—all because I wanted to pack the biggest book I could find for those epic train rides across Europe.
Looking back on it, what strikes me about that summer is not that I spent three months with my nose in a book, but how deeply I cared about the story. Many people have memories of a book or movie that affected them in a similar way: the day they first saw Star Wars; the summer they read The Hobbit; how they felt when LOST ended. Certain stories just seem to touch us and stay with us for the rest of our lives.
We think of storytelling as entertainment, or sometimes education, but stories are so much more than that. Great stories swallow us whole and change our view of the world. They’re the lifeblood of our experience, the means by which we learn and grow. From the night the first story was told around the first campfire (what do you suppose that story was?), storytelling has been the hallmark of human civilization. It remains the highest art on the planet.
Like most people, I love a good story. But I don’t find them as often as I would like to. Movies, TV shows, books, games: I love each of these mediums, but so much of the content in them seems to be filler. Sure, it’s called “entertainment” for a reason, and there’s nothing wrong with The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. But I do think it’s safe to say that most of today’s entertainment doesn’t do justice to our full potential as human beings.
However, certain stories in every medium do seem to rise above the pack. These truly great ones appear year after year, transcending both their medium and their genre, joining that elite club of stories that have become a kind of modern day mythology. These are the stories that change us, the ones that redefine us, the ones that shape us as a culture and a planet. They open our minds to things new and profound, and they haunt or inspire us for years.
We live in a time of prolific storytelling. Never in history have so many tales been told across so many media formats, and in such astounding numbers. You can’t even find reliable statistics on the total number of movies, shows, and novels produced in a given year. Yet if you were to gather a group of random people and ask them to list the stories that really mattered, you’d find the list is short.
In literature, they’d mention authors like Tolkien, Tolstoy, and Shakespeare. In film, they’d reference classics like Gone With the Wind, or more modern staples like The Matrix. TV aficionados might talk up Mad Men and Game of Thrones, while gamers would sing the praises of Skyrim and Zelda. There’d certainly be spirited debate about exactly which works belongs on the list—but almost without exception, people would agree that the list does in fact deserve to exist.
(That said, there does seem to be some controversy about this. Check out my article on “Media Super-Literacy” for a deeper discussion of personal taste vs. objective aesthetics as relates to film, TV, books, and other media.)
The point is this: everyone seems to agree that great stories, whichever ones we think they are, matter in some fundamental way. They’re coded into our DNA, at the heart of what makes us human. The trick is to find those stories that matter most, the ones that penetrate our souls and change our lives. Those are the stories that define us. They are the stories worth talking about.
This blog is all about great stories. In particular, I want to look at stories that take us into other worlds: worlds of fantasy, of history, of sci-fi, or even worlds within our own world. We’ll travel to Middle Earth and bow to The Lord of the Rings; we’ll jump into deep space and see why Battlestar Galactica became a cult hit. We’ll also gallop into the old west of Deadwood, slip into the dreamscape of Inception, and conquer the story missions of Starcraft, as we figure out exactly what makes these “story worlds” so critically or commercially successful.
I won’t profess to having read, watched, or played even a fraction of all the great stories ever told. But I’ve spent enough time studying story and working in the storytelling industry that I can hopefully get a conversation rolling. Because deep down, not only do I believe great stories matter, I believe understanding why they matter also matters. In a time when we’re bombarded with more stories (not just fictional) than we can ever hope to digest, it’s essential we be able to sift through the chaos and find the hidden gems—otherwise, we risk spending our lives in an armchair, flipping through a thousand channels, never quite seeing the genius before our eyes.
My trip to Europe ended on the Greek island of Ios, where I settled into a beachside bungalow to read three thousand straight pages of The Wheel of Time. Did I miss out by not seeing more of Europe? Maybe. But I did another kind of traveling that summer, one that mattered much more to me than stamps on a passport. In the end, I think that’s what we’re all looking for: that book, that movie, that experience which doesn’t just take us out of ourselves, but leads us deeper in, somehow making us more complete than before we heard the story told.
That’s the hallmark of a great story.
Brad Kane is a writer in the entertainment industry, focusing on storytelling in movies, TV, games, and more. If you enjoyed this article, check out his blog or like its page on Facebook. He also has a brand new Twitter account that he promises to use if you follow him.