04/05/2013 01:30 pm ET Updated Jun 05, 2013

Let's Tell a Story

Popular wisdom says that the best way to sell something is to turn it into a story. So we get Hollywood blockbusters that stick to the three-act formula like clockwork, labels on bottles of olive oil that read like a foodie fairy tales, and blog posts that contain entire narrative arcs within 500 words. Stories all around us, all the time.

Who writes these stories, and how? As a teacher and cartoonist, I think about this a lot. Part of my job is helping students figure out what stories they want to tell, and the best way to tell them. I teach classical narrative structure, mollifying the iconoclasts with that old saw, "you have to learn the rules before you break them."


In recent decades, with the explosion of interactive media and growth of the video game industry, creators have been exploring non-linear narrative models that encompass everything from the Choose Your Own Adventure books of the 1970s to the open-world "sandbox" exploration of popular present-day video games like Skyrim or Assassin's Creed. The shape of a story has busted loose from the chains of tradition, and is free to roam where it will.

But sometimes, you don't want to make decisions about a story; sometimes, you just want to sit back and listen. And usually, you're listening to a story written by just one person.

There are plenty of examples of stories told by more than one person, but the standard is overwhelmingly in favor of a single authorial voice. It turns out that, despite their desire to connect with an audience through their craft, most storytellers are solitary control freaks. I certainly am. But for a while I had been thinking about ways to collaborate with other people in the telling of a story, to loosen up and get out of my own head.

I felt the urge to collaborate, but not in the sense of wanting someone to draw something that I had written (a common form of collaboration in comics). I imagined sitting down at a table with five or six people and creating a story as a group. It turned out that this urge came from a powerful memory of a period in my life that had been a turning point in my creative development.

In 1978, at the age of eleven, I discovered the game Dungeons & Dragons. It was my salvation from the suburban wasteland in which my friends and I found ourselves. It allowed us to escape to other worlds, in a way similar to the escape provided by books or movies, but with a crucial twist: we were the authors.


At its best, Dungeons & Dragons is a social storytelling experience to which all of the players contribute equally. And the crucial thing that it showed me -- by way of the sense that wherever the story went, we were taking it there together -- was that when a bunch of human beings join together to make something, the whole can be greater than the sum of its parts. And so much more thrilling and joyful than making something alone.

In early 2012, at the age of 45, I shook the dust off that old feeling and reintegrated it into my life. I recruited five of my former students, sat them down around a table, and laid out some ground rules. Together, we told a story.

Three months later, still working as a group, we turned that story into a complete, 72-page, full color comic book. You can read about our Kickstarter campaign to get it printed here.

The whole undertaking is an ongoing experiment. We don't know if enough people will want to buy our story, or read it, or enjoy it. But we loved making it. And the most important thing we discovered is that, although it's impossible to say whether this approach is better or worse than that of a single author, it is undeniably different. In ways that were unexpected, and exciting, and fun. Feelings that are great for any creator to have; feelings that have us chomping at the bit to tell another story together.

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