What makes a graphic novel, game or book so good you can’t put it down? What do we get from our favorite film that makes us want to watch it over and over? In this article we will look at why good storytelling is important in successful sci fi and fantasy content.
Audiences are drawn to fictional content because of deep emotional needs to fantasize and disengage from the relentless grind of modern life. How well the story fulfills these needs depends on four aspects described in Dona Coopers Writing Great Screenplays for Film and TV, pp. 15-18. First, audiences want new information. Concepts such as the dystopian simulation-based slavery of humankind presented in the Matrix films are fascinating, pushing the limits of imagination as the heroes go up against impossible odds. Or the idea of the Force presented in the Star Wars films, which introduces magic to the streamline realm of science fiction. New information in the form of situations and environments allow us to take part in previously unknown adventures through the characters in the story. Fictional new information can also inspire us, boosting our own imagination not to copy but instead to think in new ways. Audiences need for new information can also be met by content with an original style or form, such as the film Transcendence which told its story from the end back to the beginning, or The Lake House which features a magic mailbox, allowing the main characters to fall in love while separated by two years time.
Fictional content also meets the audience’s need for conflict resolution. Life seems riddled with problems beyond our control; paying taxes, homelessness, the obesity epidemic are just a few troubling examples. The struggles of fictional characters resonate with the struggles of its audience, allowing us to become our heroes as they overcome conflict in the context of the story. We overlay the conflicts of our own lives on those of our heroes for the release it provides at the conclusion. While only temporary fantasy, the complex nature of the human mind allows this process to work, providing some relief from the problems of existence. This conflict resolution aspect of the emotional need met by stories is mingled with that of the need for bonding.
Characters vary in nature, from heroic to tragically flawed, but interesting characters always inspire the audience to care about what happens to them. Heroes of all forms of fictional content generally are of four types; the powerful Idol, the regular Everyman, the misunderstood Underdog and the antiheroic Lost Soul. This range of hero types aligns with the wide variety of personalities of the audience, explaining why some readers identify with Captain America (Idol hero) and others with Elric (Lost Soul hero). In an isolated society where the words, “I love you” are almost taboo, audiences crave emotional connection and find it in the eyes of their favorite characters. Movie goers and gamers also bond with each other during the experience of the film or playing the game.
In the case of video games, the plot is not as important to users as the experience of an engaging session of gameplay. Users create their own stories in realtime using the game, writing the story as it happens for retelling later or even recording and posting on the Twitch video share platform. The popular MMO first-person shooter Counter Strike franchise has no storyline, only the basic theme of player versus player in a variety of settings. Counter Strike users get emotionally involved creating their own stories of epic gameplay, using their skill on the content as an authoring tool.
Just as every video game has a ‘game over’, books and movies have conclusions which fulfill audiences emotional need for completion. Based upon uncertainty about the future, this need is met by the beginning-middle-end structure of fictional content. Though emotional involvement with the characters, we lose ourselves in the tension and release cycle of the story as it builds to conclusion, experiencing a kind of resolution in our own lives. We are largely unaware of this ‘fantasy therapy’, in part because emotional processes work subconsciously.
Humans have an eternal need for story. Where once long ago told by firelight, these myths eventually became to be told by typewriter and printed page. The page grew, the story becoming the wide gaze of the film camera, and now by the virtual light of CG imaging technology. Interesting to note that the CG ‘tool’ is similar in essence to the ‘tool’ of literature; the keyboard. The many forms of fictional content now at our fingertips are emotional systems that empower us to bond, overcome conflict, get closure, and learn new information.