A few days ago, I saw this awesome post on Tumblr. It was so simple and yet so obvious. For years I’ve heard older adults telling me how short life is, and I just had to disagree. Life is ridiculously long. In fact, I feel like I’ve already lived my hundred years. If I died tomorrow, I wouldn’t have any regrets. Except maybe that I didn’t get another hundred years to do even more. (Although I also must disagree with the diagram above; I do not remember the first five years of my life at all. I’d say a more accurate picture would stretch out the 6-21 years.) I thought maybe the major reason their lives seemed so short is because they’ve had to give up their goals to raise children, which is equally plausible. But this Tumblr post answered my question and opened my eyes: as we get older, we tend to have less new experiences. Old experiences or repetitions of what we’ve already done are not new memories. Every time we do something like take a shower, we replace our memory of the last time we took a shower. So it seems like we’ve only ever taken one shower! Think about it, do you feel like you’ve taken thousands of showers in your life? Probably not. You’d be so sick of the shower you’d never bathe again!
So what does this mean for storytelling? Does this have anything to do with why people grasp and remember certain scenes or stories and easily forget others? I believe this is the counterargument to “formula” stories. The closer a story is to something we’ve already read or seen, the more likely it is to be forgotten! Sad, isn’t it? Of course we’re still free to build on other things that we have seen or heard. That’s what storytelling is all about! But unless we change things and vary our story, it’s very likely much of what has or can be duplicated will be quickly replaced by another memory. The most practical application is that for every two (or more) scenes that are too similar you can just nix one since no one will even remember it!
This is a lot to take in. I’m still digesting it. But I’m going to consider it when writing. Basically, go for something that isn’t easily duplicated. We see this in mysteries all the time. How many mysteries can you recall? Or romances? Probably not many because so many of them have been done and redone. But we remember things like Titanic, Avatar, and The Sixth Sense, because they’re so unique that no one can quite replicate them without completely replacing them in the memory of those who have read or seen them. Even if they did, it would be so obvious that people would respond negatively and discard it for being a copycat.
I’ve never been fond of formula stories, and now this strengthens my feelings against them even more. But just because they’re likely to be forgotten, does that make them bad? No. Many readers, in fact, get a lot of joy out of reading them, even if it’s temporary and they quickly replace it with another book or movie. I guess that’s why the classics will always remain classics, and why it’s become increasingly more difficult to create something that can stand out and be remembered far beyond our lifetimes. But that doesn’t mean we can’t try.
Which stories are you least likely to forget?
-The Story Addict