I was recently introduced to the YouTube channel JustStories through Arif Choudhury, a storyteller, filmmaker, and stand-up comic. Arif travels the country telling stories of his Muslim upbringing that tackle issues of religion, identity, and diversity.
Arif has a series on the JustStories channel where he talks about growing up as a Bangledeshi Muslim American, and how that has influenced his view of himself and others. His stories illustrate the diversity of the American experience – for example, in the video below, he discusses the diversity among American Muslims in how they view and practice their religion:
The video resonated with me because I think it’s a common experience for many people,
The JustStories channel is a project of RaceBridgesStudio, which itself is a project of the Chicago Province of the Order of the Divine Word, a Catholic religious order. According to their website, RaceBridgesStudio is essentially a resource for discussions on race relations and diversity.
The channel features videos from Noa Baum, Charlotte Blake Aston, who performs stories from African and African-American oral history, Shannon Cason, who has appeared on NPR and Tedx, and many more. The stories are all very different but they are all passionately told by people who clearly believe that human beings are ultimately good.
Here’s another from Arif:
And this, from Noa Baum, which I found particularly touching:
You, the reader, probably don’t watch a whole lot of Arabic television, but I do. But this not a list of the differences between Arabic and English television shows. That would be too long.
No, this is the case for incorporating one particular aspect of Arabic drama into the world of Western television, and that aspect is the closed ending.
Consider: the most satisfying aspect of a story in any format is that it’s building towards some kind of climax, followed by a winding down to a sensible end. This is story arcs 101, and there’s a reason for that: it works. When you don’t have a specified end, you force the story to continue in ways that are inorganic and ultimately dissatisfying.
Think about it, how many of your favorite shows ended up going down the tubes after three or four seasons, rehashing old plot-lines and resorting to obnoxious guest characters to force humor and/or drama where none can grow?
Or even worse, how many shows were cancelled after one or two seasons, leaving the dedicated viewer grasping at straws, forced to resort to that dark side of the Internet, fanfiction, in a desperate attempt to gain some form of closure?
Compare that to your average Arabic television drama, which wraps up in quick and easy 30 episodes. This ensures that the show will have a beginning, a middle, and, thankfully, an end. Within that tried and true structure, you have character development, crisis and resolution, and an overall sense of structure. Even when the end is left purposely open, at least you have a sense that the main plot is wrapped up.
There are, of course, many shows that follow a season format, but that’s usually because they cannot, for whatever reason, resolve the major plot points within 30 episodes. At most you’ve got a story that 90 episodes to end. That’s still much less than the average six-season American television show, which at 22 episodes a season is over 120 episodes! That’s not even taking into consideration the fact that a lot of these episodes involve either a) upping the dramatic ante until it reaches previously unheard of levels of insanity (*cough “Grey’s Anatomy” cough*), b) employing ridiculously convoluted plot twists in an attempt to maintain viewer interest (“Pretty Little Liars” is particularly notorious for this), or c) beating the “will they won’t they” drama to death (“Friends” and, increasingly, “New Girl”).
I’m not alone in thinking our shows go on for way too long: more and more new shows are debuting at just 10 episodes in their first season. In an interview with Variety, television producer and the brains behind Parks and Rec, Mike Schur, says, “…there’s more of a sense that shows should have a number of episodes that befits that idea, instead of just, ‘Let’s do as many as we possibly can.'”
It’s a trend that many credit to networks like HBO, AMC, and Starz. But as far as I’m concerned, it’s not enough. The problem is not the number of episodes per season, it’s the number of episodes overall. So I say it’s time to take a page out of the book of Arabic television and commit only to shows that have both a start and an end.
Someone once told me I talk like I’m reading a story. They did not mean it as a compliment, but I took it as one.
I like stories and, if you have the right mindset, everything is a story. But not all stories are created equal. Some stories are created particularly unequal in that they are repetitive, obvious, relying on overused tropes and stifling stereotypes. They bore us. Am I really going to suffer through 200 pages of a love triangle so that the heroine can come to a revelatory realization about what true love means and what she was really looking for this whole time?
Well, I might.
As irritating as I often find love triangles to be (is there no other way to introduce conflict into a narrative? Any other way at all? I’ll take literally anything else), there are times when a well-written story can supersede the actual plot. As Ursula Guin writes,
“Romeo and Juliet is a story of the conflict between two families, and its plot involves the conflict of two individuals with those families. Is that all it involves? Isn’t Romeo and Juliet about something else, and isn’t it the something else that makes the otherwise trivial tale of a feud into a tragedy?”
Let’s take Romeo and Juliet for a moment (and I’ll admit now that many long years have passed since I read the story or saw that absolutely awful film rendition, which made the bizarre choice to take the most off-putting part of historical fiction…but that’s a post for another time. Back to the topic at hand.). It’s not a great plot, and especially after a few hundred years of work on the English novel it comes off as rather over-dramatic. The language is nice – for about the first five pages, and then you just want someone to tell you what in the world is going on. This is why we have Cliff Notes.
But as much as one might roll their eyes at Romeo and Juliet, there is still an aspect that endears itself to the reader. The intensity, the pace, the desperation of it all, you can’t help but feel heartbroken for this tale of doomed love, even if the whole thing was kind of silly to start with and could have been avoided if the two teens in question had been good kids who listened to their parents. Maybe that’s a part of it, too. The truth is that there are those times in your life where you believe so strongly that you’re right, where you’re so determined to prove that you’re right, you’ll do anything, no matter how unreasonable or extreme or downright insane it may be. And a lot of those times happen when you’re young and/or in love.
The multi-form approach
The medium can help too. Most songs, with the exception of those designed with twerking primarily in mind, are really just stories in lyric form. How many stories have I heard of doomed love in song form? A lot, and I love them. When Abdelhalim sings “Ana lak ‘ala tool, khaleek leya,” I sing along, even though I can’t sing to save my life, and my heart breaks for him, the poor desperate guy. I root for him so hard, and I’m so happy when it works out at the end of the approximately seven minutes.
Yes, I have very old-fashioned tastes.
The song, whose first line translates to, “I am yours forever, be mine,” is essentially the story of man whose love will not give him the time of day. He goes through life with a burdened heart, longing for a soft look, a kind smile, anything to demonstrate that she returns one iota of his feelings for her.
If this were a book, I would not have gotten past the blurb. If someone were telling me this story, my eyes would roll in their sockets so hard they would get stuck back there. Yet in song, somehow, I am so moved I feel an actual pain in my chest. It’s a combination of Abdelhalim’s beautiful voice and the elegant choice of words, I think, that causes this reaction, more so than if it had been just one or the other.
Emojis killed the writing star
For a more positive and amusing example of this phenomenon, check out the TEDTalk below. It tells a very simple, very obvious story, but it works because of the medium, which in this case happens to be emoticons. Watch and enjoy! But please keep in mind that most publishing houses do not accept novels in emoji form.
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