Is there a value in making the story more difficult through storytelling?

In the last year or so, I’ve grown increasingly fond of stories hard to digest or even find.

So much content is made so readily available and easily digestible to all of us, that it has gotten boring.

I want to go through some of the obscure storytelling I’ve become aware of the last couple of years. To me they promise storytelling that seems to be only for people with the stamina to be intellectually challenged. An alternative voice that is also creeping into the fact-based media.

Three fiction examples of obscure storytelling

1: “S”

I’ve always liked challenging books, but I started becoming conscious about it last year when I bought the book “S”  by J. J. Abrams and Doug Dorst. The book is fascinating in it tells two stories, one in the book and one about the book. To add to the difficulty level, it has big pile of additional content “stuff”, which makes it difficult to even carry around for the fear of dropping vital physical parts of the story.

This is not a book for everybody for sure… which means whenever I meet somebody who has read it (and there are few), it always feel like a likeminded spirit, like we are part of a secret club.

S alongside some of it’s many content bits.

2: Kingdom Death: Monster

“I played 24 sessions over 7 days pretty much dawn till dusk and while playing I wanted to start a second campaign to experience all the other options I didn’t choose.”

I read an article about an adult-themed board game called Kingdom Death: Monster, that with an original pledge of $36,000 raised more than $2 million… the second round aimed for a pledge of $100,000 and hit $12,3 million… It’s just a board game, yet it is one of the most successful Kickstarter campaigns to date!

There’s no doubt Kingdom Death:Monster with its adult horror themes and with 20+ sessions of a couple of hours each to complete, would never have stood a chance without KickStarter. In fact, given the original pledge ask, I’m sure the direction changed drastically when the funds started to break the ceiling.

It is far from a game for everybody, but the few who are up for this epic storyline, they… we… have been connected via the Internet in a way that has made the game become a reality and a huge success in a very niche market.

Monopoly, go home!

3: Flesh Interfaces

As I started digging into obscure storytelling, I stumbled upon “Flesh Interfaces“, a scifi horror tale that was made public through disjointed snippets posted in random topics on Reddit making it hard to even put together as a linear story. It reminds me of “The Footage” described in William Gibson’s amazing book: Pattern Recognition, where the hero is part of a hobby to stitch together disjointed clips of a movie discovered in the various corners of the Internet.

The fact Flesh Interfaces doesn’t even come in a collected, linear delivery, makes it a tough digest for most.

Challenging storytelling in fact-based storytelling

In the same way as simple fiction bores me, so does simple news. You never get even a snippet of the full picture and are left with a “so what? and it’s gone” feeling.

But some journalists are determined to challenge our minds. And one of the best examples I’ve seen is Adam Curtis’ HyperNormalisation that can best be described as a 2,5 hour long documentary epic trying to describe what’s happened the last 30-40 years that has lead the world to where it is today! Not a small task.

Does it have all the answers? no. Does it cover all angles? no. Does it make you think and challenge your views on the world? yes.

I also like The Guardian’s The Long Read series, which takes pride in not being short and easily digestible, but instead intellectually challenging and demanding attention and thought.

What does it all mean?

I read J.R.R. Tolkien’s Silmarillion when I was 13.

Having only just started learning English in school, I read it with a Danish/English dictionary by my side… and in turn I used the English/Elvish dictionary in the back of the book. It took me all summer, but I read it.

At the age of 36, now throughly embedded as a digital professional in an increasingly zap-zap, Google-has-all-the-answers, Word-can-fix-all-your-spelling world, I tried to read it again… and failed. I couldn’t concentrate on it. My mind yearned for an easy release, a quick answer. A tweet, a like, whatever fast and easily consumed. Not a heavy collection of mythopoeic work.

I tried again a year later and failed again. And became worried. Had my ability to digest complex content been sacrificed in a world of click-bait headlines?

 There’s a lot of evidence that difficulty in processing is strongly related to confidence. If readers encounter a disfluency—something hard to decipher—they become less confident in their ability to understand, and that nervousness makes them concentrate harder and process the material more deeply.

Separately, I was looking for evidence to push the case for better typography online to make content easier to read and digest. As a professional web designer with a classic design background, I wanted to bring my knowledge of print typography into the world of digital.

I looked online for evidence to back my case, but to my surprise I found a Havard Business Review article that supported proof of the opposite: Difficult typography made people concentrate more and as such retain the information they have read better.

Today I can’t help but wonder if the same applies to challenging storytelling.

Is challenging storytelling the way forward to broaden our minds to take in more complex concepts?

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Share your thoughts

  • The point with typography did not convince me.
    When I came here following Luca Sartoni’s post I was a bit disappointed by the look of the page, mainly the font. But I trust him and if he spent some kind words on this article, that meant it was going to be good.
    And it was.

    But if I had come here out of the blue I can’t really say I would have read it all and also leave a comment or spread the link myself into my social-bubble…

    Also, I do think that clever things, written without verbosity and redundancy are always the keys to good storytelling.

  • The typography study provides an interesting point, but it clearly didn’t take into account drop-off rates of readers getting frustrated with illegible typography. In fact, good usability is measured in efficiency effectiveness and satisfaction. That applies to typography as well.