It's Only A Story

Still from movie Thick Red Wine (c) 2006 Jack&Sons productions, Dunedin, New Zealand

I can lay down the law to people, instruct them in things, coax teach and inform them, and the odds are they will have forgotten it all before the sun goes down. If I tell them a story they will remember it for weeks, months or maybe even a lifetime. Give them a list of propositions and their eyes glaze over. Tell them a story and their bodies go still and their faces light up. We respond to stories because our lives are narrative in nature: they have a beginning, move through a "plot" towards an ending. All reality in fact, can be thought of as narrative in structure; the history of anything is a story with a beginning a middle and and end, so a story is a familiar way for us to view the world; but there's more to it than that. The reasons for the compelling nature of narrative are many but centre on the way stories are structured.

There are a number of things all stories have in common. All stories begin by establishing a place (real or imaginary) and a time. All stories have characters, and our ability to identify with the characters, and to imagine ourselves into the place and time of the story will help us to be involved in the story. The most compelling thing about stories though, is that all of them work by a process of stating and resolving narrative tension. Let me explain. Very early in a story, a paradox will be stated. That is, there will be two things which are opposites, which cannot be reconciled, but which are somehow tied together. For example, in the story of the Three Little Pigs the story begins by contrasting the safe home of the piglets and the fact that they have to leave it and enter the big wide world. Safe small cosy home/dangerous large scary world: you can have one side of the paradox or the other but not both. The story progresses through time holding these two in tension until the tension is closed with the defeat of the wolf (representing the big wide world) and the tension between the two thus disappears. The story introiduces many other paradoxes - big stupid wolf /small intelligent pig, safe shelter/quick shelter, for example. All get resolved at the closure.

This is important because we are all creatures of paradox. We, all of us, live in the tension between many pairs of these binary opposites. Paul Tillich says there are five common to all people: life/death, potential/actuality, individuality/community, forming a bounded self/extending ourselves to others, creative novelty/traditional patterns. As well as these, there are some common to men or to women, or to children, or to any group you care to name; some are common to our family or tribe and others we hold all on our own. We are caught between poles of literally hundreds, perhaps thousands of paradoxes. And these paradoxes are seldom, if ever resolved. When a story begins, we are interested in the story to the extent that the paradox of the story mirrors one of our own. We listen and receive the gratification of a vicarious ending of one of our tensions as the same tension is closed in the story. This is why, once we begin listening, we cannot leave until we find how the story ends - until we have the tension closed. The skillful storyteller keeps the tension at just the right level: easing it sometimes, increasing it at others, knowing that once the tension is closed, the audience's interest will be reset to zero.

What are the polarities in a story? What things are in opposition? This will give you a clue as to who is telling it and why, and who will be likely to listen to it and why. Thinking of Mama Mia, for example a partial list of polarities might be: beginning/ending; marriage/divorce; old/young; untapped potential/spent energies; together/alone; known/unknown; male/female; youth/age .... and so on. It is the concidence of one of the major polarities of the film with issues we are currently dealing with that will decide, more than cohence of plot or believability of character, whether we are gripped by the film or not, as the case may be.


Anonymous said…
Yes.. so well put!.. a book that has moved me to tears at one point in my life, leaves me cold at another.. The closer the paradoxes are to my inner concerns and tensions, the more likely they will outweigh the qualities of the vehicle carrying them.

Interestingly (to me anyway!) as I get older, I seem less likely to be as gripped by books than I once was. Perhaps I just have fewer inner tensions.. or maybe I am just reading the wrong books..
VenDr said…
Exactly. In my 20's I read John Fowles a lot - I think I reread The Magus and all his major novels at least 4 times. It's young man's stuff. At the same time a teaching colleague, a woman in her early 40s, recommended Doris Lessing to me but I just couldn't read her; I could recognise the brilliance of the writing but it was a matter of the narrative tensions being all wrong for blokes and particularly ones of my age. I re-read John Fowles this year, and found him compelling in a whole new way - this time round it was not so much the plots but the Heraclitian philosophy which grabbed me. Also, strangely, an excellent biography of Fowles by Eileen Warburton.

The truly great stories: the ones which last for centuries are those which plug into universal human concerns; the tensions are Tillich's big five, or some others with deep resonances for all people. As an oral storyteller I often tell a Comanche folk tale Bluebonnet (aka She Who Sits Alone) It's difficult for me to keep control of the story because even after probably a hundred public tellings, the story is still able to move me to tears and I can lose control of my voice at the crucial part - which ruins the performance. I have to steel myself and tone it all down a little - and I know that it's just a story, and that it's all made up and there really is no little girl called She Who Sits Alone, and no famine, and no doll....
Katherine said…
When at school, I sometimes view the children as having little hooks all over them. These hooks are their experiences, interests, personalities etc. If I offer them a learning experience, they will not 'pick it up' unless they have the appropriate 'hook' to hang the new learning upon.