Stories, Audience Participation And Associative Memories – A Ramble

2016 Artwork Audiences and memories article sketch

Even though this is (sort of) an article about writing and/or making comics (as well as storytelling in general), I’m going to have to start by talking about my reactions to watching a TV show. As usual, there’s a good reason for this that I hope becomes obvious later.

Although I’ll probably post a full review here tomorrow, I watched the first episode of the two-part Swedish TV adaptation of Stieg Larsson’s “The Girl Who Played With Fire” on DVD shortly before writing this article.

Having read the books in early-mid 2010, my memories of them were slightly vague and inconsistent (eg: I could only remember some key plot points and small details) but the TV/film adaptation seemed to be reasonably accurate. But, that wasn’t the most interesting effect that watching the first episode had on me.

Subtly at first, I started to feel like I had travelled back in time to 2010. Although I certainly hadn’t forgotten this fascinating time, re-visiting a series of stories (albeit in TV show form) that I hadn’t looked at in about six years seemed to make the memories a lot more vivid, immediate and detailed – which was kind of a cool experience.

Not only that, I also suddenly started remembering a lot of other subtle things from the time – such as the layout of my imagination back then, my outlook on the world etc….

It was as if looking at an adaptation of an old story had given me a brief glimpse of the person I was when I last read that story.

And, well, this made me think about one element of storytelling (whether in fiction, comics, TV shows, films etc…) that is often overlooked. Namely, the idea of stories being linked to a particular time.

Normally, when I’ve thought or written about this subject, I’ve focused on the creative side of things. I’ve rambled about how I can’t continue many of my older comics or stories for the simple reason that I’ve changed and grown as a person since the time that I originally wrote them. Even when I re-started my old occasional “Damania” webcomic series in 2015 after a one-year hiatus, I had to “re-boot” it for the simple reason that I wasn’t quite the same person I was in 2011-13.

But, the one thing that often gets overlooked when talking about stories, time and memory is the non-creative side of things. In other words, the audience.

Although stories and comics are often seen as non-interactive forms of communication, I’d argue that there’s a lot more interactivity than many people think. The reader matters almost as much as the writer does.

When you read a story or a comic, it follows you around until you finish it. It becomes part of that particular period of your life. It becomes the background music to a chapter of your life. Parts of the story or comic may even linger in your imagination for a long time after you’ve finished the final page. It may even influence or inspire the things that you write or draw.

Because novels and, to a lesser extent, comics rely on the reader to “fill in the gaps” with their own imaginations, reading a story is – essentially- a creative experience. Although the reader has been given a detailed set of instructions, they still have to re-create the story in their own imaginations when reading it. As such, it takes on a uniquely personal quality that can remain in memory in a different way to – say- remembering an old song.

In addition to this, I’d also argue that the audience is as relevant to how “good” a story is as the writer is. What do I mean by this? Well, it has to do with how well the audience members and the writer get along when they meet on the page. If you think of reading a story (or a comic) as meeting someone in a pub, then you’re probably going to really get along with that person a lot better if you have similar interests, a similar sense of humour, a similar outlook on the world. Even if you don’t, you might still get along with them well if their worldview or interests happen to fit into what you currently consider to be “cool” or “interesting”.

If you meet someone who seems interesting to you or who you get along with well, then you’re probably going to remember them a lot more than you would if you met someone who was less interesting. Even if you end up becoming a different person to the one you were during the meeting, you’ll probably still remember the older version of yourself when you remember the meeting. This is why stories can evoke memories in a surprisingly vivid and unique way.

Plus, although I can only speak from my own experience here, I’ve also found that a sizeable majority of my favourite stories, comics, films etc… were only really “accessible” to me at particular points of my life. If I’d discovered them a few years earlier or later, they wouldn’t really be my favourite things.

To use a cinematic example, the first time I watched “Blade Runner” was when I was fourteen. I’d bought a second-hand VHS of the film and, from the cool-looking cover art, I imagined that it would be a thrilling sci-fi action movie like “Total Recall”. Of course, it wasn’t. At the time, I found it incredibly tedious to watch.

It wasn’t until three years (and many other films, novels, experiences etc..) later that I was finally able to appreciate this film for what it actually is. It’s since become my favourite film and, later, one of my largest artistic influences. But, because I wasn’t the kind of person who got along with the film when I was fourteen, all of the great parts of it were pretty much invisible to me back then.

So, yes, when it comes to stories and storytelling, the audience matters as much as the writer does. Like listening to the storytellers of old, reading a story is more like a meeting between the storyteller and the listener than anything else.


Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂


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