How many stories can a person hear at once?

Tragic_Life_StoriesSomething I got thinking about today:

How many stories is the average person currently holding in abeyance?

If you’re like me, you’re currently reading at least one novel, watching a couple of episodic television programs, playing one or more narrative-based video games, and viewing a couple of movie series that stretch one story across multiple films (Hunger Games, Divergent, and the like.) Add in other long-form or serialized narratives (comic books, web series, podcasts and radio programs) and you have maybe a dozen or more stories that you’re partway through. 

Also if you’re like me, you may have extended periods away from one or more of these stories–movies generally release their next installment once per year, and television shows once a week–with longer breaks between seasons. You may get busy and take a week off from reading a novel or playing a game, and like most people you may get sidetracked by the urge to binge-watch a season or four of a new show on Netflix or Amazon. Each time you leave a story, you have to keep mental track of characters, locations, plot points, motivations, and so on–and the more time you take away, the more these pieces are going to fade from memory, or even run together.

I’m struck at how different this is from media only ten or twenty years ago. In 1996, there were no narrative video games (or at least very, very few), and no webisodes, podcasts, or streaming on-demand seasons. Movies and television episodes for the most part featured self-contained storylines, and even comics treated crossover series as an annual event instead of a constant thing. I suspect most people were, at any one time, partway through only a few storylines: a novel, perhaps, and one or more soap operas.

At some point in the recent past, the people who sell us narratives realized there’s good money in keeping us involved in one long story. I blame the X-Files. Now it seems every form of media is embracing a serialized form.

I don’t know if this is a good or bad, or neither. It’s just something that struck me. I know narrative is incredibly powerful in human communication; nothing catches and holds our attention quite like a good story. I also know that most people feel the world today is busier than ever before, the details of our lives whirling around like we’re all vaudeville plate-spinners just barely avoiding catastrophe. I’m not sure the two are related, but I have to wonder.

I, for one, have a hard time keeping track of the relevant details in all the stories I’m consuming, and I watch less episodic television than most people I know. I’m getting ready for the season three of House of Cards, just for instance, and I can’t seem to remember even the major plot points of season two. I’ve been trending toward simplification as a theme in my life of late, and I think reducing the number of narratives I consume may be a part of that.

Thoughts?

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

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