The Next Frontier in Storytelling Universes and the Never Ending Desire for More
One of the strongest and most consistent human traits is our desire to escape to imaginary worlds where anything is possible.
For millennia, we expressed this want using every medium we could — from religion, to carvings and sculptures, gardens and zoos, paintings and architecture, opera and theater, the starry night sky or cloudy thunderstorm, and so on. Each of these offered — if just for a brief moment and only through “active disbelief” — the sensation of being transported into a fantastic alternate universe.
But by the 20th century, this all began to change. Modern technology began a century-plus process that continually enriched storytelling across four dimensions: (1) immersiveness/believability; (2) persistence and frequency; (3) continuity across different media and mediums; and (4) audience control/influence. Understanding this trend allows us to better understand the next storytelling innovation, which stories will thrive and decline, how many we’ll support and love, and where they come from. And the best way to do this is to consider the key “inflection points” that fundamentally altered modern storytelling.
The 20th-Century Prologue
The first mainstream movie theaters rolled out during the early 1900s. Soon after, tens of millions of Americans were flocking to darkened rooms where the real world was “shut out” in order to be transported into a fully fictional one, with moving images, live music and, later, recorded voices and sounds. Performative theaters had been around for millennia, and fireside oration even longer. But movie theaters offered a quantum leap in human immersion. The granted the ability for anyone — and at almost any time — to escape reality for less than a nickel.
Two years before his first park opened in 1955, Disney wrote that Disneyland would be “like Alice stepping through the Looking Glass; to step through the portals of Disneyland will be like entering another world”.
By the 1920s, Americans were going to the movies 30 times a year, on average, and that number was growing. The first “blockbuster”, 1939’s Gone with the Wind, was in theaters for more than four years and sold one ticket for every two Americans. Beyond its raw popularity, the film was notable for another reason. It was the first time that a successful fictional story was more widely consumed as an adaptation than in its original format (Margaret Mitchell’s novel, which was also a hit).
The early 20th century also boasted other innovations in escapist storytelling — namely the emergence of the first explicitly fictional fantasy epics such as L. Frank Baum’s Oz series, J. R. R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth, and C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia. Each series quickly became the best-selling books in history (excluding the Bible, Quran, etc.), a record these titles still hold today.