Wed
Jul 31 2013 11:00am
Stories That Matter: Introducing “Story Worlds”

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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.

Eye of the World Robert Jordan Wheel of TimeEurope 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.

The MatrixIn 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.

Battlestar GalacticaThis 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.

26 comments
Jeremy Goff
1. JeremyM
I'm really looking forward to this series. I really enjoyed this first post. Looking forward to what else comes along.
dwndrgn
2. dwndrgn
Can someone tell me what the image in the accompanying collage with the boy and a miniature dragon like animal on his shoulder is from? D&D? It is making me crazy. Er, more crazy.
dwndrgn
3. spoonmaster
@2 That's not a boy, it a girl. It's Daenerys Targaryen from the first season of George RR Martin's Game of Thrones HBO series.
dwndrgn
4. TheIvoryTower
@2.
I can only assume you mean the picture of Daenarys Targaryan, the First of her Name. The Stormborn. The Unburnt. Heir to the Iron Throne. Rightful Ruler of the Andals, Rhoynar and the First Man. Queen of the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros. Khaleesi of the Great Grass Sea. Mother of Dragons and Braeker of Shackels.
Jack Flynn
5. JackofMidworld
Most of my favorite stories are the ones where the world seened to expand beyond the original and took on a life of its own (the Dark Tower series, the Alien universe, Firefly, and the Buffyverse, just to name a few) or when the world is soooo detailed that it seems like it exists outside the closed off, fictional universe (yes, Mass Effect, I'm looking at you).

I'm definitely looking forward to this series!
Dustin Freshly
6. Fresh0130
Great article Brad, very much looking forward to this series.

I too remember the first time I read the Eye of the World. My friend lent it to me, I was astounded by the sheer size of the novel, as I went I became even more astounded by the sheer volume of description and world building Jordan was doing. I remember handing it back to my friend and asking "There are how many more of these?"
It really changed my perception of what could be accomplished in a novel, not just a fantasty novel. What I saw was a world that was so well thought out and yet had so much more to explore and offer to its readers. It blew my mind, spoiled me a bit in the process as far as world building in a novel goes, and made me a life long Wheel of Time fan.
dwndrgn
7. Maviellas
Really looking forward to this series, I'm always searching for the great stories no matter the medium (TV, books, movies, games). I love the feeling of being drawn in and being completely engrossed in the world.

It also doesn't hurt that I read this post while listening to the Lord of the Rings soundtrack (specifically the track where Sam makes a similar speech). Struck a profound chord =)
dwndrgn
8. Cybersnark
This reminds me of why I first fell in love with Star Wars all those years ago; it wasn't the movies, it was the RPG sourcebooks, filling out the background of the story into a world as deep and wide and intricately-detailed as our own.
Alan Brown
9. AlanBrown
After reading this first installment, I also look forward to this series. There are fictional worlds that feel more real to me than some of the actual places I have visited. The best stories are those that not only draw us in, they become a part of us, and shape us as individuals.
The worlds of Star Wars, Star Trek, the Vorkosigan tales, the Uplift series, Van Rjinn/Flandry, Firefly, Known Space and Babylon 5 come immediately to my mind as potential places to explore.
dwndrgn
11. Just a lurker
Of all the articles posted on Tor.com, I think I'm going to enjoy this one the most. It looks really promising, and I can't wait to see which stories you're going to include. Although I have to ask if only novels, films, TV-series and videogames will be covered, but also pictorial content such cartoons and animation?
Dean Tucker
13. StoryCottage
I didn't see comics mentioned, but I hope you find a few story arcs to include this discussion - both superhero and other. I remember being lost in X-Men, New Teen Titans, Micronauts, Fantastic Four and many other titles at different times.
Melissa Shumake
14. cherie_2137
this sounds like it's going to be a great series! and there is something wrong with "real housewives" being entertainment- it's giving these terribly-behaved women more excuses to be terribly-behaved instead of contributing to society in a positive way.
dwndrgn
15. Action Kate
You will likely enjoy TV critic Alan Sepinwall's book The Revolution Was Televised, which covers several of the shows you mentioned above and for many of the same reasons: these are groundbreaking, genre-redefining series. Sepinwall is a great writer and the book just flies along.
alastair chadwin
16. a-j
Well worth clicking on the link to read the blog on 'super-literacy'. Good piece (ie I agreed with it!)
dwndrgn
18. dwndrgn
@spoonmaster and @theIvoryTower

Many thanks! I don't watch it so I didn't recognize the character and misidentified the gender probably because the lack of a shirt. Really, all I was interested in was the little dragon ;-)
Alexander Denley
19. Winterfell911
This article, like the stories it talks about, has given me that great feeling where you know even greater things are ahead. Can't wait for the next.:)
dwndrgn
20. Googaloo Schmoogey
What a great post, I'm looking forward to the next in the series. You're absolutely right. There is a certain stirring, a certain concoction of wonder and awe that mix together into a new recipe of a richer personal insight when you witness a new world. A dash of The Talisman, and a cup of The Matrix stirred into my bowl.
Nick Hlavacek
21. Nick31
This should be an interesting discussion; I'm looking forward to the future articles. I remeber reading some well known author a long time back say that at heart all good stories are just retellings of just a few basic stories or memes. I forget how many he said there were or if he even listed them all, but I know he's not the only one who's pointed it out. What matters then is not which of the basic stories is told, but how you develop the setting and the characters, and how you dress up the plot.
Gene Verley
22. wakko379
Worldbuilding is near & dear to my heart. I'm looking forward to this series! Best of luck!
dwndrgn
23. Skulldug
I imagine the first story told round the first firepit had something to do with who captured the fire and how they did it, with plenty of hyperbole as all good campfire stories!
Kal S. Davian
24. kalez238
Good choice with Wheel of Time. My all time favorite series.
Tony Linde
25. tonylinde
I shall be a little contrary and suggest that intricate and detailed world building is not necessary to the quality of a story. It is useful to avoid irate letters from anally retentive fans over a long running series and, for certain authors, might be what *they* need to imagine before they can start to create stories in that world but I don't think it adds anything to the story being written and may even detract from it if the author tries to stuff all he/she has imagined into one novel.

For my own example, I'd cite the Discworld series. The world itself has evolved and changed as the series has developed and there are anomalies between the books. But each book is simply a great story. Those who've read and reread all the books might feel a twinge as an anomaly crops up in any story but as long as the world is consistent for that story, it really doesn't matter. The story (characterisation, plot & supblots, themes and so on) is the thing.
Colin Bell
26. SchuylerH
@25: I would agree. The best worldbuilding is the sort that you don't notice.
Erica Collier
27. scifibard
This is a subject near and dear to my heart. In fact, I was working on a post for my own blog last week about the books that had effected me most, which seemed "greatest" to me in the last few years. Actually, Song of Ice and Fire didn't make the cut--it's good...but...well, that's another discussion--and it didn't even occur to me to put Wheel of Time on. I remember the first book effecting me, pulling me in. But it lost me over time for a variety of reasons.

I have to say, I find your story rather tragic. A good story changes the way we see the world. But it's a shame when we become so engrossed that we instead cease to see the world. A fantasy world can show us other cultures, can give us a sense of travel, of emersion without the expense of actually going to real other cultures and spending time in them. I do understand that tension; I happened to be reading McKinley's Sunshine when traveling to a massive event with over 10,000 people from all over the world. I lived the experience to the fullest from dawn to dark, then read by crank flashlight until midnight, collapsed, and repeated all week. I could resist neither experience. Also, I read Neverwhere while spending a week in London riding the underground which made both book and underground travel worlds creepier!

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