The other day, my friend invited me to talk on Student Radio Maastricht, the radio show he works on. The topic of the evening’s discussion would be stories – what they are, how they’ve evolved, why they matter to us.
I thought it was a great topic; I’ve always loved stories. When I was a young kid, I would watch my Wallace and Gromit videos and copy the stories, word for word, into my notebook, stage directions and all. I did the same thing with my book about the Statue of Liberty. Being so young, I had no idea what plagiarising was, nor did it occur to me that I was ripping off someone else’s work. For me, there was just something deeply engaging about what I was doing. Perhaps it was an early signpost on my journey as a writer, that I’d develop a greater affinity for working with what was already there than creating stuff of my own.
I used to play FIFA World Cup ’98 on my Nintendo 64 and sometimes, instead of playing matches, I would cycle through the team selection screen and be mesmerised by the flags and the kits and the colours, and how people had different-sounding names depending on where they were from. I wondered why the Saudi Arabian names began with ‘El’ or ‘Al’ but the Italian names all ended with ‘o’, how come the Swedes were all called ‘son’ and the Brazilians didn’t have surnames. To fuel this fascination further were the atlases my parents gave me. I’d spend hours looking at all the wild, exotic places and trying to pronounce their names. I’d look at pictures of the people who lived in these places and wonder what life would be like as an Andean villager, a nomad traversing the Sahara or a stockbroker working in the urban jungles of New York or London. I would draw the flags of all these countries I learned about and take them into school for show-and-tell, to share what I’d learned with my friends.
When I tell people I like writing, many of them ask if I’m going to write a novel. For a lot of people, it’s a rite of passage that setting out as a writer means aspiring to create a great work of fiction. But writing a novel takes more than just writing skill. Creating characters and settings, forming a gripping and coherent plot – these are just as important to a novel as the actual writing. If these childhood memories tell me anything, it’s that I’m more fascinated with the world I live in than the idea of creating my own worlds, more invested in the people I meet than the characters I might invent. My creativity lies in taking material from the world around me and forming it into something that tells a good story, whether it’s showing off the El Salvador flag to my Year 2 class, plagiarising Wallace and Gromit or retelling something I experienced on my travels. I’m more of an interpreter than a creator.
There are so many ways to tell a story these days. As well as conventional media like theatre, film and television, we’re now flooded with blogs, videos, podcasts and video games, all of which are superb platforms for telling stories. Video games in particular offer a level of interactivity which has been lacking from other media. Those who deride video games as an art form look no further than Call of Duty and FIFA; Rarely do they consider thoughtful, challenging and superbly written games like Firewatch, Disco Elysium, the Metal Gear Solid series and countless others.
And it’s not just the media that are evolving but the stories, too. In the books I’ve read and films I’ve seen recently, it’s been refreshing to see writers shifting away from tried and tested storytelling methods and trying bolder strategies. I especially love how more people are ditching the clean, ‘happily-ever-after’ endings that we typically associate with Hollywood movies, going for ambiguity over closure, as it so often is in real life. We, as the paying audience, are often left to fill in the gaps, to imagine the course the narrative will take once the book is read, the curtain down, the credits rolling. The stories are ours, too: we experience them, feel them, connect with them, shape them.
There will never be a point in human history when we don’t need stories. Stories help us see the world through the eyes of others and understand our own views, our own worlds, a little better. The world could do with more of that right now.
Click the player below to listen to the full discussion.