the science of story

The writer receives the commandment: “Know thy genre.” According to Robert McKee, it’s not possible to do a competent job of writing a screenplay (or, I would suppose, any other kind of dramatic work) without a deep understanding of the genre one is writing in. He says that audiences have strong genre expectations, even if these are unconscious, and that these must not be frustrated without good reason, or the writer and producer face failure. If you’re writing, say, a mystery or a Western, what basic plot choices are open to you? What events should happen in the story, and when? According to McKee, these choices are controlled by genre, and the writer is ignorant of them at his peril.

As I discussed in my blog post of 14 July 2011, this commandment sent me on a quest to discover and elucidate the genre of my own work, The Mission. I decided that my genre was epic, and I proceeded to learn all I could about that genre.

As I mentioned in that post, I discovered that the word genre is used in many different ways, and I decided that I would focus on what I am calling story genre as opposed to literary genre. For the same story can be told in different forms, such as print, stage play, film, and comic book, each of which can be regarded as a separate genre, according to a different definition. So the question for me was: What exactly is an epic story?

Before long I was faced with a more basic question: What exactly is a story, anyway? Before looking into the specifics of a certain type of story, I felt I needed to know what a story is. From my set of notes from a McKee workshop on screenwriting, two definitions are offered:

1) A story is about why people do the things they do.

Interesting, but a bit high-level for me. Here is the other:

2) A story is a series of events selected from the life histories of the characters and composed in a strategic sequence specifically in order to arouse emotions and communicate a particular view of the world.

Ah, much more meaty. I like this definition, but I found that for my purposes of studying story, it was still not explicit enough. For one thing, a story is not “a series of events”, but a telling of a series of events. I did some thinking and writing, and in time came up with my own short tentative definition:

A story is an account of a problem and its attempted solution.

It’s short, but it’s still not clear unless we know exactly what an account and a problem are. So I defined those. I’ll start with problem:

the experience, by a free agent, of both a need and an obstacle to its satisfaction

Next, a definition of account:

a depiction of characters, situations, and events presented in such a way as to evoke strongly some combination of emotional response, intellectual insight, and aesthetic pleasure

So far, these definitions have withstood the tests I’ve given them. I still believe that a story is necessarily about a problem. Our interest is aroused by problems and how people try to solve them. Our own lives are filled with problems and we relate to the feelings and issues they raise. Shared problems create a strong sense of fellow feeling.

Compare these two accounts:

Paul left his house and walked up the street. Turning left, he proceeded uphill, past some quiet Craftsmen houses and on past the renovated elementary school. Turning back down to his own street, he returned home.

Now try this one:

Paul left his house and walked up the street. Turning left, he proceeded uphill, where some movement an a ditch caught his eye. Crossing the street to look more closely, he saw a newborn infant in a carrying basket. Paul looked around, but saw no one else nearby.

The second account is the beginning of a story, for in it Paul is suddenly presented with a problem. Even if it’s not easy to exactly state what the problem is, we sense it. At the least, it seems likely that Paul can’t walk on without figuring out what is to become of the baby. He may have to take it home with him in order to get this sorted out. If we’ve gone to the trouble of reading the opening, we have at least a mild curiosity about how the situation turns out.

This of course is only a beginning. Before I could proceed with my study of story genre I would have to know more about what a story is. What are the parts of a story? I did some analysis and have come up with my own list of what the parts of a story are—but I’ll leave that for a future post.

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