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Thread: Changing standards of storytelling

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    Senior Member Gryphos's Avatar
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    Changing standards of storytelling

    Studying Literature at university, I've come to something of a realisation. We were studying the classic Greek play Medea by Euripides, and, reading the first scene, I was met with perhaps the most laughably blatant instance of info-dumping and lazy exposition I have ever seen in my life.

    For those who aren't familiar with it, Medea's servant walks on stage and goes "Oh, how I wish [insert page of backstory] hadn't happened. Oh how it grieves me that [insert description of Medea's deteriorating sanity and her plans to harm her children]." This in itself is ridiculous, but it gets worse when another servant comes outside and asks wtf she's doing outside, she says something along the lines of "Oh, I was so overcome by concern that I just had to come outside and exclaim my worries to the air." F*cking priceless.

    Now, I'm not hating on Euripides; the play has loads of interesting themes and discussion points and yadda yadda. But reading this example of what I would straight-up call bad writing made me realise: many of the novels, plays, etc. that have become canonised over the centuries as 'classics' ... actually suck, and would struggle to be published under modern standards.

    Another example: The Picture of Dorian Gray, by Oscar Wilde. Famous story; dude has a secret painting which bears the load of his ageing and sins while he's forever young and beautiful. So it takes the novel 10 chapters to establish the painting and have Dorian realise what's going on, and then there's like a 20 year time-skip, after which characters frequently mention how much of a corrupt dude Dorian now is, but we never actually experience him being corrupt in any tangible way until the climax when he murders his friend. Badly constructed.

    And just generally, older stories tend not to have the same level of efficient, focused storytelling that good modern ones do. I'm not saying these texts aren't worth examining or studying (I wouldn't be doing my course if that was the case), but I'm always wary when people hold up these texts as examples of great writing, because more often than not I can point out more deft and poignant storytelling in your standard good Hollywood blockbuster.

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    Senior Member CupofJoe's Avatar
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    I did Medea in College too and loved and hated it in equal parts.
    I saw it on stage... read it three or four times [or at least it felt like that]... Finally it was an audio "book" of the play that won me over.
    It is ALL in the performance for me...
    But if Euripides was writing today he wouldn't have written that same play. It was and now would be written for the contemporary audience.
    Now... If someone can re-tell Medea with the same force and passion...

    I'll see your The Picture of Dorian Gray and raise you a Wide Sargasso Sea... Still have nightmares about the sub-text of that one...
    Gibson: No, I... I have to write some letters first.

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    Senior Member Demesnedenoir's Avatar
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    Fashion and readership changes, one can't mistake these for indications of bad writing. Having big info dumps in plays was expected in the past.

    Audiences today have different expectations from each other let alone compared to the past. Compare Gone Girl to Game of Thrones to (cough) 50 shades of horrible. And the fantasy genre is a great place to look at recent changes in the tolerance for info dumping.
    Craven Raven, black of feather and black of beak,
    of what today shall we speak?

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    I find it unfair to judge a poetic play written in Ancient Greek by the standards of English popular prose.

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    Senior Member pmmg's Avatar
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    I find I take issue with a bit of the original post, but I don't wish to dwell on that. I think you need to be careful holding up things for comparison and putting a thumb on the scale. To say older stories don't match up 'good' modern ones is ignoring that many modern stories are not good, and would not hold up well to older stories.

    I don't mean to take away from the comparison. If Medea is infodumpy to start, then that is a fair observation. Something we might change if we were writing it today. But you know, these older stories pioneer the 'good' modern stories of today. We all stand on the shoulders of giants, and the giants had fewer giants upon whose shoulders they could stand.

    In my quest to become more well read, I have read a number of classics of late. And I must say, I have enjoyed them all much more than many of the more modern stories that I am sure you would recognize. More than I expected too in fact, cause I always think of classics as stuffy. The Scarlet Letter is a better book than Sword of Shannara, Imo. And though I appreciate the contribution of many fantasy authors, I find many of them, JRR Tolkien, for example, just boring and hard to read.

    I think the thing is, there is no magic formula as to what makes something great. They become great because of some quality they have. It may not be that it is the best written thing ever, but it still managed to capture something and stand the test of time. I could argue, many of the Good modern stories may not be able to make such a claim some years from now.
    Last edited by pmmg; 4-21-17 at 12:45 PM.

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    Senior Member La Volpe's Avatar
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    I've noticed similar things in my reading. Most of the classics are a hard read for me, simply because they are incredibly slow to get going (and to keep going). I think the change in how its written is less a show of skills improving and more a chronology of how society views books (and entertainment).

    Infodumping was probably a lot more acceptable back then simply because there wasn't much competing with books in terms of storytelling. Nowadays, books have to compete with movies etc., so they need to do a lot more to keep the attention of the audience.
    On the other hand, books seemed to have made a split (from what I can tell, anyway) into literature and commercial fiction, while the older stuff seems mostly literary-like. And perhaps the aims of literature was less to entertain and more to do whatever literature does best. Ergo, as the needs of the audience changes, so changes the format of the media.

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    Senior Member TheCrystallineEntity's Avatar
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    I'll see your The Picture of Dorian Gray and raise you a Wide Sargasso Sea... Still have nightmares about the sub-text of that one...
    Did I completely miss the sub-text when I read it, then?

    I find it unfair to judge a poetic play written in Ancient Greek by the standards of English popular prose.
    Agreed.

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    Senior Member Russ's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by TheKillerBs View Post
    I find it unfair to judge a poetic play written in Ancient Greek by the standards of English popular prose.
    I didn't really take it as a contest* I agree strongly with the OP that both audiences and audience's expectations from their fiction have changed, not just by language and millennium but with the last decades, and do vary from say the UK to the US.

    The bigger problem I see are modern aspiring writers who justify using info dumps or passive voice or whatever, because they saw it done in a classic work. They seem to be refusing to come to grips with the reality that he modern reader expects something different from modern fiction, and they don't have a name like say...Chaucer to invoke tolerance and understanding of not meeting current standards.
    “Tomorrow is the most important thing in life. Comes into us at midnight very clean. It's perfect when it arrives and it puts itself in our hands. It hopes we've learned something from yesterday.”- John Wayne

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    Senior Member Demesnedenoir's Avatar
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    I would also say info dumps (in SF&F in particular) are justified as much by recent successful books, no need to look to the classics. To me, reading Rothfuss feels like one huge info dump after another. -ly adverbs in dialogue? Scads of books to justify that habit by, despite making me want to gag. Any bad habit can pretty much be justified by some successful book somewhere, and they don't have to be old.

    Quote Originally Posted by Russ View Post
    I didn't really take it as a contest* I agree strongly with the OP that both audiences and audience's expectations from their fiction have changed, not just by language and millennium but with the last decades, and do vary from say the UK to the US.

    The bigger problem I see are modern aspiring writers who justify using info dumps or passive voice or whatever, because they saw it done in a classic work. They seem to be refusing to come to grips with the reality that he modern reader expects something different from modern fiction, and they don't have a name like say...Chaucer to invoke tolerance and understanding of not meeting current standards.
    Craven Raven, black of feather and black of beak,
    of what today shall we speak?

  13. #10
    Quote Originally Posted by Russ View Post
    I didn't really take it as a contest* I agree strongly with the OP that both audiences and audience's expectations from their fiction have changed, not just by language and millennium but with the last decades, and do vary from say the UK to the US.

    The bigger problem I see are modern aspiring writers who justify using info dumps or passive voice or whatever, because they saw it done in a classic work. They seem to be refusing to come to grips with the reality that he modern reader expects something different from modern fiction, and they don't have a name like say...Chaucer to invoke tolerance and understanding of not meeting current standards.
    The OP has a point and so do you. However, what I took offence to was the line where Gryphos says the classics suck and they came to that conclusion by applying the standards of another genre in another language. I find this an unfair judgement.

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