During a recent project for factual television producers, one of the participants asked if there was any way to “break out” of the same old beginning/middle/end – character/conflict/resolution story structure that has held away for producers and their audiences since Aristotle first articulated it all those years ago. He wanted to know if there is something he called “chaos storytelling” – a way to tell stories for television which don’t always have the rigid character/conflict structure and a neat and complete ending.
For me, the best place to start thinking more about the idea of “chaos storytelling” (as opposed to “structured” storytelling) would be to read Erich Auerbach’s famous essay “Odysseus’ Scar” from his book “Memesis: the representation of reality in Western Literature.” Auerbach explains the origins of Aristotle’s idea, and how, back then, he had a rival who was equally influential, with exactly the opposite approach to storytelling.
Ovid’s “Metamorphosis” is a good example of how memorable stories can be told without any kind of definitive ending or structure. In Ovid’s approach, stories are about continuous transformation – from the grotesque to the beautiful to the shocking to the reassuring, and on and on and on. There’s no end to it, and that’s what the Metamorphosis was all about. Ovid’s “message” is there is no clear “resolution” to stories (and in life)… we just keep changing.
The ancient Indian epic “The Mahabharata” follows a similar pattern to Ovid; there are few clear winners and losers in its incredible collection of stories. And deeply connected to the Mahabharata are the fantastic Indonesian shadow puppet plays, Wayang. The art of storytelling in the Wayang is fascinating (everything is told in shadow and seen through smoke, which represents desire and human failings); it is very deep and has profound things to say about human stories. Again, like Ovid and the great Indian epics, the Wayang has no clear winners, losers or final resolutions.
My colleague’s question made me think – could “chaos” and Ovid’s ideas about impermanence and change be the key to storytelling for a completely new medium that is all about continuous transformation… online?