The immense comfort of knowing how the story ends

There is a lot of writing being done about how the box office and TV ratings are dominated by reboots and remakes, rather than anything new and innovative. Beyond the obvious economic benefits of a reboot/ remake/ sequel (invested fan base, easier marketing etc), I suspect there is a very important reason why people are drawn to them right now, as they are to murder mysteries (hello, Richard Osman) or Bridgerton: we know how it ends.

Uncertainty is something that we as human beings don’t do well at all with. Not knowing what will happen tends to trigger our cave (wo)man reflexes: flight, flee or freeze. It also raises our anxiety levels. These can be desirable outcomes, which is why haunted houses and scary movies do so well, but right now, with so much uncertainty around us, that’s not what anyone wants.

And so we retreat. A Marvel movie, a rural crime novel, a Taylor version song, feel comfortable and unlikely to surprise us in a stressful and unwelcome way. They are the sweatpants equivalent of our story consumptions.

This is reflected in the BAFTA long list of nominated films for 2022. Last year saw more diversity than ever before. This year? Remakes, sequels and biopics dominate.

We need our stories to stay in our comfort zone. And there is nothing wrong with that, per se. Goodness knows we have deserved a bit of comfort zone.

My question to you is this: while you may be retreating to safe havens in your story consumption patterns, is this influencing how you lead the rest of your life?? Are you prioritising situations, people, topics that make you feel better? As we crave for certainty, there is a risk that we evolve towards confirmation bias – this very human tendency to just seek out information or opinions that reinforce our existing beliefs.

By staying firmly within the safe haven of well known story patterns, of established situations, we fail to develop and grow. After all, it is through stories that we can best apprehend feelings and situations that are alien to us. And the empathy muscle can be trained – and untrained. If we don’t stretch our capacity to relate to stories that are different, or tragic, or unexpected, it will become harder for us to relate to different ways of thinking, different communication types, different management styles.

I rewatched In the Heat of the Night recently, following the death of Sidney Poitier. Here is a 1967 movie talking about race, racism, abortion, and not in a roundabout way. A film created to challenge expectations (as in the scene where Virgil Tibbs slaps back a white man) and make people face what was really happening, as uncomfortable as it might be. These stories still exist, of course; films, TV series, books come out that look to shift the status quo and challenge our way of thinking. And it is only by leaning in towards stories that don’t mirror our experience that we get to expand our perspective.

Are you stretching your story muscles? When was the last time you chose to watch or read something unexpected, different, unsafe?

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