The Future of Storytelling: A Conversation with Tim Kring
Novelist, TV writer and producer Tim Kring began his career penning scripts for Knight Rider, but is now in the vanguard of what some people describe as a “transmedia” storytelling revolution, creating stories that traverse media platforms and, quite frequently, human experiences. Known most recently for hit NBC series Heroes, Kring’s future includes highly anticipated new Fox series Touch. In the following interview, Kring shares his thoughts on where we’ve come from and where we might be heading as a storytelling species.
There’s this notion that communication was an evolutionary benefit that helped humans survive and thrive. A big part of that is storytelling. Why do think people tell stories?
I think we told stories, traditionally, because the storytelling actually told us who we were. It taught us who we were, and it taught us how to be social. When we told stories around the campfire, those stories taught you how to be a warrior or a father, or a son, or a good citizen.
Storytelling is deeply imbedded in the human psyche as a learning tool and socialization tool. I think that has gone away to a great extent, and the stories that used to tell us who we are have been replaced by a kind of media view, and sort of pop culture. This consumerism, pop culture, and celebrity culture have replaced the myths that were handed down from generation to generation. As a result, I think we are kind of lost and starved for myth telling, archetypal myths, especially, to tell us who we are and to help define our place in society. I think that is why archetypal narrative connects so deeply with people. It’s because they almost instinctively understand it — these stories about good and evil, right and wrong, and fathers and sons. It is easy to connect very deeply because it is somewhere very deep in our psyche, as a learning tool of who we are.
As a storyteller who now has technology and tools to share your story in different ways, how is that changing the way people experience them?
I’m pretty set on the idea that the archetypes are the same. I am really intrigued by recreating the sort of out-of-fashion archetypes. I certainly tried to do that on Heroes. It’s very much about good and evil, and mothers and sons, and fathers and daughters. It’s just very much about how to be a righteous person.
Is that what made it accessible to people, because they could relate to it?
Yeah, and I think when you do that, especially in contrast to so much of storytelling nowadays, which does not tap into that. When you do tap into the really archetypal stories that are deep-seated in our psyches, people deeply connect with them. So, it’s a bit of a “secret weapon.” If you want to connect to an audience, find the archetypal narrative and try and mine it. But, as you were saying, the tools of storytelling have changed, as has the dynamic of the storyteller to the audience. That’s the part that is a real journey of discovery for me personally.
I see this accelerated change, especially in the last five to seven years, and I, as a result, have had to do a real ripped-shirt action in the way I look at storytelling. As a writer in a medium like television, and then in Hollywood, I kind of grew up with the idea that the relationship that I had with the audience was a one-way street, where it was my job to create this content and push it out into the world. And, if we were lucky, after creating it and writing it and producing it, two or three months later, it would be on the air. The only way to know whether your audience got it, or enjoyed it, or felt anything from it was through the Nielsen ratings, which is just a set of metrics and facts that are not very specific about what people’s reactions are. That was sort of the relationship with the audience, this completely isolated, ivory-tower kind of relationship. We had no relationship with them.
Clearly, the Internet started to break that down, and it has accelerated it to the point where I now think of my relationship with an audience as a two-way street. I now have a kind of immediate feedback loop with an audience. The dynamic of my relationship to the material and to them creates this extremely lively and sometimes volatile, but often very exciting, relationship with the audience. It’s been a real paradigm shift in the way I’ve thought about what my relationship is to people that I’m trying to tell stories to.
I had a show on the air for six seasons, called Crossing Jordan. It was on NBC. The only way that the audience could experience that show was, you know, nine o’clock on Monday nights, on NBC. If they missed it, then that was too bad, then they had to wait for the reruns. That was the only relationship we had with the audience, and that was the only way they got your content.
I started to realize that I was existing on this very thin rail of the Nielsen ratings — living and dying by these ratings — that were beginning to slip all around us. This was where I started to come at the idea of reaching an audience where they live — really wanting to fish where the fish were. I wanted to reach the audience. So, I decided that if I got up to bat again on another show that I would take a different approach, that I would take more of a 360-degree approach to the audience, and to try to tell stories where people were.
When we started Heroes, I realized that people were beginning to use their mobile phones quite a bit, and they seemed to be on the Internet quite a bit, and they seemed to be playing video games, and they were emailing one another. My feeling was, “Well, let’s just go push stories to all those various places, where they are, and try and create some sort of virtual cycle with these stories so that they can drive people back to the mothership of the television show.”
Why do you think people’s taste for how they experience stories has changed?
It’s about the sheer number of options you have now. That’s a big, big part of the connection. But it’s also your relationship with the content. The ability now to interact with the content — to actually have a feedback loop with the content makers, has created a different relationship. Not everybody wants that relationship. People might want to come home after a long night and just sit in front of the TV and be entertained. But a lot of people are now natives to a different environment and a different way of consuming content. They’re spending more time on the Internet than in front of the TV, and want to interact with it, using the attributes of that platform. In other words, we want to search, click and drag, and all those things that you normally are doing with the computer. You want to continue to interact more. You want to speak your mind, and you want to socially connect with other people who are watching shows. You want to be part of the community that is watching the show. So, the technology has just provided an entirely different set of parameters that are driving people’s behavior.
So, how do you think about the opportunity for sponsors and brands?
Well, I think that I may have a slightly unique kind of attitude about sponsorship and products or brands. A lot of people in my position are very resentful of the sheer idea that, as artists, they are shilling for soda water or something, and it is an anathema to what they believe is their artistic authenticity I created a long pilot for Heroes. It was much longer than normal airtime. I just did not want to cut it down, so, the only option was to get a single sponsor for the pilot. But what it forced us to do was to come up with an interesting way to integrate a product that ended up being not only really valuable for the brand, but a lot of fun for us on the show. We had this Japanese character that could stop time. In the first season, he was following a comic book that foretold the future, and, in this comic book, he has to get to New York to stop this bomb from going off. The comic book literally tells him that he has to go to this rental car place and rent this Nissan car. So, from then on, this specific Nissan car became sort of the Batmobile, and is now an integral part of the storytelling. And it was actually a lot of fun. The writers enjoyed it. The brand loved it. If you sort of calculated it in early enough, and you embraced it, it could be a very beneficial relationship.
We all seem to forget the way television worked for many, many years was that [sponsors] kind of ran the show, like The Texaco Hour. I think, in a way, it’s kind of going back to that.
What is the concept of a TV show morphing into?
We’re in this very interesting transition period. In the new project that I’m doing, I’m trying to approach it even more aggressively in a sort of holistic way. The narrative will be an intellectual property of the story. It will live at the center of a universe rather than a television show at the center that has various extensions. You will have merchandise, or you have some digital content, or maybe some mobile content. We will start to approach the shows, or narratives, in a much more three-dimensional, holistic way, putting the story at the center, rather than the television show at the center. Part of this may end up on this platform, on the monitor on your wall, and part of it will live on this tablet you carry around in your briefcase, and some of it will live on this mobile device. And some of it will be on the social games you play on Facebook. Seventy-three percent of the audience is watching television while connected to another connected device. That’s a statistic from about a year ago. I don’t even know what it is now.
The goal there is to create a virtual cycle between the device that is more at hand and the one that is on the wall that is designed and built into the DNA and the narrative itself. This idea of a timeslot, I think, will be a real causality of great technological advances. Eventually, the specific time you enter a narrative will go away, and the narrative will be information, and you can connect to it whenever and however you want. This is part of the whole advent of geosocial lifestyles. You need only walk into a Starbucks and you come in contact with Wi-Fi. So, this idea of the story moving all around you is a really exciting idea. This is probably where some portion of my world is heading.
It is very interesting right now to look at who is driving who in terms of technology and storytelling. Is the storytelling driving the technology, or is the technology driving the storytelling? I’ve found that it goes both ways. When I worked on this project, “Conspiracies For Good,” we thought this was rich pavement for storytelling. We had this mobile application that allowed you to pick out the digital tags in these various locations so that you can point your mobile device at a wall and there would be a tag there, and you could click on it, and a video would appear. These would be in various locations. As that technology was being developed, we were working with the media around this. We took a series of notes about what we wished the product to be in depth. Like, “Wouldn’t it be so cool if it had a button here, and a button like this,” and things like that. We were sort of driving the development of this product for use in the real world, based on how people could use it, not only to find narrative, but to create it. The really fascinating part about this is that these devices, like the mobile devices and the app world, means that a device is no longer just a content-consumption device, but is now a content-creation device. This allows you to really have an interesting relationship with an audience, because they now can become part of the story and actually become a co-creator of the story with you. It’s a one-to-many kind of proposition. In other words, only a few people will actually do it, but many people will watch, and converge, and consume it. So, that dynamic is really interesting as well. Where do the content creator and the audience line begin and end? Right now, it’s very blurry, and getting even more blurry.
We’ve really been talking about how people tell stories, and how the technology we use to tell our stories is changing, but how are people changing because of the new ways we are using media to tell stories?
Clearly, we all complain about the fickleness of the audience, the inability to stick to something for very long. The networks, and television in general, are really struggling with that idea. My 14-year-old daughter’s ability to get a story in terms of the actual story itself — the beat of the story — requires a lot less of the connective tissue than I do. It’s one plus one equals four for her. Stories are becoming self-referential and you see the similarity of things, and you may just assume that, ‘Well, that’s a story about this, and I already know where it’s going, so I don’t need these four beats in the middle to tell me where it’s going.”