My youtube favorites list is full of unique moments – pieces of movies and television shows, snippets of conversations, strings of images set to song through which I experience content not in its entirety, but in chunks. Sometimes those chunks are something that got stuck in my head, sometimes they’re the best parts of something old, sometimes they represent a meaningful piece, taken out of context, and sometimes they’re something familiar, repackaged into something new.
It’s always been possible to double back to a book and read the best parts. Who hasn’t finished a novel with a good love story in it, only to revisit the parts where the relationship started, struggled, and was finally resolved (hopefully happily)? We all enjoy experiencing those moments a second (or a third) time, imbued with additional meaning by our understanding of the whole. Who hasn’t leafed through an old favorite, stopping at the critical or best parts as a way of remembering what it was like to live it that first time?
For Visual Content, it Wasn’t Always Thus
Before the advent of VCRs and DVD players, movies were seen on screens, big and small, and again when programming cycled back around. Until content was digitized, watching the best bits was something done at the time, or at best infrequently. The possibility of hoarding material, or of hunting for it on sites like Youtube, changed all that. Now the best bits of everything are readily available to revisit for enjoyment or inspiration.
By their availability, these best moments are revealed as the shared experiences that they always were: if something means something to you, it surely means something to a host of other people – surely, one of them has shared it, for you to turn around and share right back. In the past, these bits of culture had been restricted to references that might be shared within a small group of friends or fans. Now even the smallest, throwaway lines that made us laugh decades ago are at our fingertips, 24 hours a day.
These days, through the magic of streaming video, I watch whole movies in pieces. Mediocre science fiction, horror and action movies that I don’t have time for but am curious about – it all gets consumed through fast forward; I can’t pull out the best moments, but I can pinpoint the crucial ones: when the monster is set free, when the heroes rally, final confrontations – and I watch those.
So What, if Anything, Does This Mean for Writers and Novels?
Has the proliferation of digital content changed how we consume story in a fundamental way? Are we becoming, more than ever before, piecemeal consumers, not just when looking back, but when initially consuming? Have we lost our patience for story?
I don’t think so, but I do think that stories need to get more compact, if they’re going to keep up. For a long time, now, agents, editors, and publishers have been urging writers to get to the point, to use concrete scene and action to move the story along. Other advice urges writers to create “frozen moments,” which might be points of time at the top of a roller coaster, but also to my mind might be any moment where the wheels, deep inside the narrative, pause for a fraction of a second, pivot, and then grind, once again (“Stand, Men of the West!” says Gandalf. “Stand and wait! This is the hour of doom.”). Those are the moments we remember. They’re the moments we go back to. Readers are engaged, because they intuitively know that these moments matter. The idea that your writing needs to be full of these moments can make the prospects of long-form story creation seem harrowing.
The good news is that story, as a form, isn’t just about moments – it’s about the road that gets us there, that grants those moments their meaning. One character killing another means nothing if a reader (or viewer) hasn’t been taken in hand and led on a journey to that single, violent moment. Every action is defined by the one that preceded it. The magic of story is in the telling. That process can be compacted, but it has to be experienced in full.
Writers need to be aware of the changing cultural expectations of story, and in this case, that means faster and more concrete. That’s not bad – as a modern reader, that’s mostly what I want. Gone is the time (and good riddance) when readers would have to wade through page after page of detail and exposition before getting to character and story. I do wonder though, how things will evolve. Will written works be cut up and their pieces used to encourage readers to buy into the whole? How will methods of storytelling change, and how will we be changed, in turn?