Let Me Tell You a Story: The Function of Digital Narratives as Oral Narratives in
Once Upon a Time and Grimm
A quick search on recent scholarship about digital narratives will yield results for digital storytelling in the classroom, the digital narratives of video games, and hypertexts. However, one gap that exists within this scholarship is an analysis of how the digital narratives can be part of a cycle that influences other types of narratives, that in turn cycle back around to influence the digital narrative. A perfect example are the official web pages for television shows- how do they influence and affect the narrative of the show itself? How do the stories presented on these pages change how the audience views the narrative of the story? This paper will examine how the digital narratives of the webpages for Once Upon a Time and Grimm function: how the use of interactive Facebook feeds, blogs, and interactive web pages on these show sites create a community out of the audience, how these digital narratives influence the audience, and how audience input and contribution to these digital narratives influences the narrative of the television shows. I will argue that this interaction between the narrative of the television show, the digital narrative of the webpage, and the audience forms a new oral narrative that functions in similar ways to the original transmission of fairy tales and folktales.Oral Narratives and How they Function
In The Irresistible Fairy Tale Zipes defines “fairy tale” as “the symbiotic relationship of oral and literary currents” (3).
“Storytellers strive to make themselves and their stories relevant, and if they succeed, those stories will stick in the minds of the listeners, who may tell these stories later and contribute to the replication of stories that form cultural patterns (Zipes 5).
Zipes states that fairy tales are both “an elaborate and simple narrative” and these tales can only be understood id “we grasp its hybrid nature” and how it continues to build on storytelling qualities of other genres (Zipes 9). He also states that “fairy tales have been changed while changing the media” (Zipes 20).
According to Mittell, specific mediums have set parameters and expectations, which influence the narrative. While his work focuses on the narratives of film, his ideas can be applied to television, and the digital narratives of shows’ webpages. His example of the device of switching from black and white to color in The Wizard of Oz does not have a direct literary parallel, unless you consider a change in type or font. However, when you consider a webpage, one can easily see how such cinematographic techniques are used on webpages (Herman159). For example...
Mittell also discusses how “visual shifts” operate as “storytelling discourse” and how “camera angles and movement, editing, music, and unusual tricks like the shift to color all function to guide viewer comprehension and emotional response to the story represented on screen” (Herman 160). Many of these elements of “storytelling discourse” can be seen on webpages such as
Mittell states that “most narrative television offers ongoing storyworlds, presenting spefici opportunities and limitations for creating compelling narratives”, now, the webpages of these shows have become extensions of these storyworlds” (Herman 163). However, Mittell also argues that “television’s institutional constraints structure how stories are narrated, forcing creators to follow strict guidelines and narrative routines” (Herman 164). While this has historically been true, I argue that the digital narratives of the shows’ webpages now allow television creators to present stories outside of “institutional constraints”.
Frank lists six basic traits of narratives:
- Stories do not belong to storytellers and story listeners because all stories are “reassemblies of fragments on loan” and “depend on shared narrative sources”
- Stories not only contribute to the making of our narrative selves but also weave the threads of social relationships and make life social.
- Stories have certain distinct capacities that enable them to do what they do best and can be understood as narrative types of genres. Though distinct, genres of stories depend on one another, for there is no such thing as a pure genre, and all tale types have a symbiotic relationship to one another.
- Soci-narratology encourages a dialogic mode of interpretation so that all voices can be heard, and open up a story for various interpretations and possible uses.
- Socio-narratology, although always relational in recognizing that all parties act, pays most attention to stories acting. It analyzes how stories breathe as they animate, assemble, entertain, and enlighten, and also deceive and divide people.
How Fairy Tale Shows Are Oral Narrative
The viewing audience of show such as Once Upon a Time and Grimm come to these texts with a vast knowledge of folklore, often presented through popular culture. Perhaps they are familiar with fairy tales from early viewings of Disney’s adaptations, or perhaps they know the stories from the darker Fairy Tale Theatre series from the early 1980s. The knowledge may instead come fro movies such as Snow White: A Tale of Terror, or more obscure references to fairy tales such as...
No matter what their background knowledge, today’s audience is very savvy about fairy tales, and not only comes with a working knowledge of the tales, but also a knowledge of the different aspects of the tales. Therefore, they are accepting not only of the fact that there are different aspects of these tales but also of the fact that all of these aspects are part of the story, there is no one “true” story. One explanation for this acceptance could be the advent of technology. Today, interactive webpages for television show, as well as other online interactions such as Facebook fan pages, and Twitter accounts, are the norm. Each one of these “texts” presents a different aspect of the story. In many cases, these texts present additions to the main story- there are behind the scenes looks, web episodes, and additional information available to fans/the audience that add to the story.
It is impossible these days to comment on one text and not acknowledge the presence of the other texts, what Brooker calls the matrix. None of these texts exist in isolation, instead they not only assume a familiarity with these other texts, they depend on them. The authors depend on fans/audience knowing that a scene is a wink to another text, such as when ….Likewise, fans no longer see television shows as a single text, but instead interpret it in light of the Disney films they watched as children, the Facebook fan page, and the Twitter feed. For some fans, their conception of the text of the show is also formed by the discussion boards they post on, the fan fiction they compose, and the fan art they create. While fans/audience have participated in these secondary texts for years, technology has enabled fans/audience to instantly share their opinions with other fans and creators. Not only do the fans/audience create a community through social media, but they also add to the secondary texts with their creation of their own texts.The Once Upon a Time website is very well put together, and offers a lot of goodies to fans. It contains blogs based on characters/episodes where the fans/audience is encouraged to point out things that the writer (of the blog) may have missed. There are announcements for live Tweet events where fans/audience members can use a hashtag #UnlockTheMagic to get clues on episodes, or get looks at future scripts. The website for the show also has trivia quizzes, Snows Gallery (Sic), and a discussion board. The discussion board, not surprising given the nature of the storytelling on the show, focuses mainly on speculation about what Storybrooke characters are what fairy tale counterparts, what the relationships are between these characters, and who unrevealed characters could be.
The live Tweet events and discussion boards both create the sense of audience and narrative interaction that replicates an approximation to the original oral narrative/audience interaction so that is what I will focus on. It is important to note though that it is an approximation- while fans may be able to interact with actors and writers on Twitter during live Tweet events, these fans do not KNOW these people, and there is no real relationship that exists. Likewise, while there are conclusions that can be made on how influential the fans/audience’s input is on the narrative, such conclusions are anecdotal at best without confirmation from the authors/creators, which is problematic.
The Grimm website, while not as well organized, offers more (although also more controlled) information. There are a lot of “Exclusives” such as background information on Grimm and Wesen history, Grimm Guide to episodes, interactives of both Aunt Marie’s trailer and the Spice Shop. There are also photo exclusives, video exclusives, games, and behind the scene looks. While Grimm’s webpage does feature a blog, it is a Production Blog, and while there is a place for fan/audience comments, there is no fan/audience created blog. There are few blogs that have comments on them, and it is hard to tell if this is because the webpage is disorganized and the production blog is buried, if it’s because the blog is monitored closely and comments have been deleted, or if fans simply don’t find it engaging and therefore don’t comment.A better place to see fan/audience interaction is on the Twitter feed of @NBCGrimm, @OnceABC, or to follow the #Grimm, #OUAT. The Twitter interactions, especially when the creators, writers, and actors are tweeting, send us back to the model of storyteller ←-> audience. There is a give and take. However, the Facebook fan pages of each present some interesting avenues for exploring authorship- fans are allowed to post, but it is moderated. The majority of the posts are done by the author, and act as marketing- there is a strict control of how the story on the Facebook page is presented. It would be an interesting avenue for future research to look at the authorship of the webpages and other secondary texts and how or if this authorship is different from the authorship of the primary texts.
Technology’s Influence on the Narrative
There’s a counterargument to be made though, that the use of Twitter, and Facebook are not part of the narrative of the show, but instead are marketing tools used by the studios. However, this still deals with the authorship, although in this instance, it is the studio cast in the role of author, deciding what shape the narrative will take. This concept becomes more complicated when you understand that Once Upon a Time is owned by Disney, bringing into focus the idea of corporation as author.
Right now, there is no way to measure whether or not shows being talked about on social media are actually successful, or reaching an audience. This will soon change though as Twitter and Nielsen are joining together this fall with the Nielsen Twitter TV Rating which will track “how social media is affecting TV viewing” (Stransky 33). Stransky does argue that social media does “create a must-watch community atmosphere”. Again though, the push for social media from networks may just be a marketing scheme as it creates “a must-watch community atmosphere. Now networks and showrunners hope to replicate that effect by making their real-time airings as relevant as they were before the advent of the DVR” (Stransky 33). Nowhere does it mention the narrative, it is simply about numbers.