Storytelling became something of a dirty word in the 20th century, at least among writers of serious fiction. It was seen as the concern of lesser, commercial writers. I’m not sure things are changing even now, but in this serious writer’s opinion, storytelling is about 85% of the fiction writer’s craft. But what exactly is story? What does story mean?
I intend to share some of the study I’ve done on this subject. These notes are highlights from John Truby’s excellent The Anatomy of Story: 22 Steps to Becoming a Master Storyteller (available from Amazon.com, and Amazon.ca－these are affiliate links, meaning that when you click on the link, I may get a small commission).
So what does story mean?
Here’s a one-line definition:
A speaker tells a listener what someone did to get what he wanted and why.
We have three distinct elements:
- the teller
- the listener
- the story
The storyteller is first and foremost someone who plays. Stories are verbal games the author plays with the audience. The storyteller lays out a set of actions that have been completed in some way.
But telling a story is not simply making up events. Events are just descriptive. The storyteller is really selecting, connecting, and building a series of intense moments. These moments are so charged that the listener feels he is living them himself. Good storytelling doesn’t just tell audiences what happened in a life. It gives them the experience of that life. It is the essential life, just the crucial thoughts and events, but conveyed with such freshness and newness that it feels part of the audience’s essential life too.
Good storytelling lets the audience relive events in the present so they can understand the forces, choices, and emotions that led the character to do what he did. Stories are really giving the audience a form of emotional knowledge, or what used to be known as wisdom, in a playful, entertaining way.
As a creator of verbal games that let the audience relive a life, the storyteller is constructing a kind of puzzle about people and asking the listener to figure it out. The author creates this puzzle in two major ways:
- he tells the audience certain information about a made-up character, and
- he withholds certain information
Withholding, or hiding, information is crucial to the storyteller’s make-believe. It forces the audience to figure out who the character is and what he is doing and so draws the audience into the story. When the audience no longer has to figure out the story, it ceases being an audience, and the story stops.
Audiences love both the feeling part (reliving the life) and the thinking part (figuring out the puzzle) of a story. Every good story has both. But you can see stsory forms that go to one extreme or the other, from sentimental melodrama to the most cerebral detective story.
What do all stories do?
Key Point: All stories are a form of communication that expresses the dramatic code.
The dramatic code, embedded deep in the human psyche, is an artistic description of how a person can grow or evolve. This code is also a process going on underneath every story. The storyteller hides this process beneath particular characters and actions. But the code of growth is what the audience ultimately takes from a good story.
In the dramatic code, change is fueled by desire. Desire is what propels all conscious, living things and gives them direction. A story tracks what a person wants, what he’ll do to get it, and what costs he’ll have to pay.
Once a character has a desire, the story “walks” on two “legs”:
A character pursuing a desire takes actions to get what he wants, and he learns new information about better ways to get it. Whenever he learns new information, he makes a decision and changes his course of action.
All stories move in this way. But some story forms highlight one of these activities over the other. The genres that highlight taking action the most are myth and its later version, the action form. The genres that highlight learning the most are the detective story and the multiperspective drama.
Any character who goes after a desire and is impeded is forced to struggle (otherwise the story is over). That struggle makes him change. So the ultimate goal of the dramatic code, and of the storyteller, is to present a change in a character or to illustrate why that change did not occur.
The different forms of storytelling frame human change in differing ways:
- Mythtends to show the widest character arc, from birth to death and from animal to divine
- Plays typically focus on the main character’s moment of decision
- Film (especially American film) shows the small change a character might undergo by seeking a limited goal with great intensity
- Classic short storiesusually track a few events that lead the character to gain a single important insight
- Serious novels typically depict how a person interacts and changes within an entire society or show the precise mental and emotional processes leading up to his change
- Television dramashows a number of characters in a minisociety struggling to change simultaneously
Drama is a code of maturity. The focal point is the moment of change, the impact, when a person breaks free of habits and weaknesses and ghosts from his past and transforms to a richer and fuller self. The dramatic code expresses the idea that human beings can become a better version of themselves, psychologically and morally. That’s why people love it.
Key point: Stories don’t show the audience the “real world”; they show the story world. The story world is life a human beings imagine it could be. It is human life condensed and heightened so that the audience can gain a better understanding of how life itself works.
The Story Body
Just as the human body is made up of the nervous system, the circulatory system, and so on, a story is made of subsystems like the characters, the plot, the revelations sequence, the story world, the moral argument, the symbol web, the scene weave, and symphonic dialogue.
Key point: Each subsystem of the story consists of a web of elements that help define and differentiate the other elements.
No individual element in your story, including the hero, will work unless you first create it and define it in relation to all the other elements.