A tale I will thee tell

I’m a story guy. I enjoy them as much as anybody, which is to say just about everybody, I make’em, and I’m interested in what they actually are.

If you’d like, do a quick recap with Little thinks and Drrrama, which this post builds on.

I don’t even know what the currently faddish phrase “the storytelling animal” is supposed to mean. Just about any “man the [—] animal” is arrant bullshit, missing as it does the rather pedestrian (if consequential) actual distinctiveness of our species. As well as the insidious implications of the phrasing, to be avoided even if its literal meaning is factual: (i) that our purpose is to tell stories, and/or (ii) that stories serve a purpose.

With respect to esteemed colleagues, those phrases are the curse of anthropology: assigning a goal to society, that it “does” or “is for” something, however vaguely or specifically phrased, and therefore assuming an atomic component goal to every social activity. I’m going to stay boring: to go with, but not beyond, the mere observation that stories are indeed something we do.

That’s a real observation, though. It’s interesting. Even when you strip away all the romance from the upcoming phrase, there remains raw emotional and intellectual connection to the observation, that stories are a primary medium of what and how we communicate – we do it this way because of who we are.

Taking if you will my characteristic “dissect it” approach, let’s look strictly at the fiction, never mind how it’s told. In this, I see no controversy or counter-example to the classic story structure – “no problem” meaning, yes, it’s observed very widely, and more so, it’s expected and desired as intensely as it’s produced. The term “arc” is, I think, a recent buzzword of no particular interest; there’s no such thing as a non-story arc.

Please note, for a moment, what I didn’t say:

  • Anything about how the story is presented. There’s nothing in there about three-act structure, and no constraints on the content’s order or details to which the audience (reader, viewer) must accord. If you read or otherwise learn/see it backwards, big whoop.
  • Nor have I said anything about clarity, completeness, or simplicity. How many people get it, follow it, or like it isn’t a defining feature. Futhermore, what’s shown is the minimal requirement, not a this-and-no-more one. The rising action could be utterly simple or full of direction-changes and redefinitions; there could absolutely be a series of these lines with mini-climaxes, or two or more parallel lines, or not quite parallel.
  • Nor anything about specific or values-based content: no definition of “hero” or even “protagonist,” and no constraints on how things turn out,

I haven’t seen a damn thing in the whole two-diamonds-in-the-gunk academic history of deconstruction to obviate that. Anything I’ve seen pitched as postmodern merely (i) makes crap stories, (ii) dresses up crap stories as clever, or (iii) tells plain old stories with techniques that have been around a lot longer than Derrida and pretends they’re new. I think that buzzword only exists due to a pedestrian, even lamebrained notion of “traditional story structure” which seems to have been concretized in screenwriting and condified in mid-20th century education.

But wait – something’s missing, or better, strictly implicit, in the graphic that I chose. Conflict. Let’s jettison all that horrible hogwash about Man Vs. … ’cause that’s some generalizing nonsense when we’re talking about fiction, which by definition is about this person (or equivalent) in some situation, not “Man” or any other cartoon thingamajig. What is conflict in plain language? It’s a source of anxiety. Not for the character, although it can be, but absolutely, for the audience. The character might or might not know. We, watching or reading, do. [This is phrased as if we’re perceiving it chronologically with the fiction; we don’t have to – I’m talking about when we find out.] Unless there’s a specific nugget of this anxiety absolutely and unavoidably embedded in the fictional situation, the next event isn’t rising action; if there is, then it is.

I used this chart in the post about commercials, regarding a biological thing, potential fitness. It’s not real outcome-fitness, it’s an assessment of the immediate circumstances with no guarantee regarding that outcome. A person with a safe about to descend upon his or her head doesn’t have low fitness, but rather low potential fitness, and even saying that presumes near-enough equivalence for a number of other variables.

Here’s what I mean. Look at all those things below and recognize that every bullet point is full of if-but-and subdivisions … and that all the bullet points are operative at almost all times.

commercials2What a story does, is isolate one or more bullet points, usually not more than a couple, into high focus, with the others either providing some context or held steady. Lives are not stories, because stories have framing, this focus I’m talking about, and closure.

That’s why a ball hitting a guy in the head isn’t itself a conflict. It’s an event, but there’s no isolated and highlighted threat to fitness potential relative to any other, for me, the reader or viewer or listener, to understand. I need to know something about this guy and his circumstances so that the impact makes a difference to fitness potential, for him, more than anything else going on at this very moment. It could very well be that the ball’s impact does this well – but not for “survive direct threat,” but rather, for, say, mate choice, subset competition, or parenting, subset teaching.

Go watch Die Hard (1988) for real, entirely cleansing your mind of the franchise, without shouting out memes or otherwise “being a person watching Die Hard” in your own social terms. Instead, pay attention to the fiction. You’ll see that “survive direct threat” is incredibly subordinate to, and utterly intensifies, a mate choice conflict.

  • John seeks to reconcile with his wife who’s got at least one foot out the door, and he’s bad at it.
  • He demonstrates to her that he cares more about her than anyone, and that his various character deficiencies are virtues when it really matters.

This isn’t the movie. Neither is this. This is (see at right). I’m not talking about symbols or anything weird – simply and strictly the actual events of the story, taken reasonably seriously and with more attention and emotion paid on your part rather than less, than usual. It’s not the Golan Globus model at all, in which the woman is either whiny furniture or a bullet-catcher, if not both The more you get into Hans Gruber’s dastardly plot, the more this story about John and Holly hits. Hans’ death isn’t the climax. It’s Holly’s kiss and her reclamation of his surname. Go ahead, watch – I’ll wait.

See, that’s the framing thing. In Die Hard, it’s easy to see that once this happens, the story is over. In another story with a less right-here-and-now moment with the initial fitness potential written into it, then the neat thing is … you’ll assign that role to the most eligible moment in the fiction anyway. You are not a passive, slightly-drooling recipient of story delivery – you’re making it, which you came here to do, and you’ll do that unless the fiction is unforgivably incoherent, stupid, or most likely in franchise media, working against this aim in order to keep you on the hook.

Which brings us to theme, another term mangled by pedagogy. I’m a simple person and can’t be troubled with author’s intentions or hidden messages, so I’ll say it my way: it’s the judgment laid down by the events of the fiction, as I see it, when I’m an engaged audience member. That’s interpretive to be sure, but contrary to the “subjectivity,” “well, for me,” extension thereof, I point to my phrasing the events – a theme has to stick with them or it’s vapor.

Now we’re getting somewhere. Take human potential fitness as raw material, the fiction as medium, and the immediate context for this story (obviously and necessarily cultural, historical, and political) as idiom. Stay with me … stories are thought-experiments, the perfect mix of cognitive play, lab technique, and social communication. What we call “entertainment” and “escape” is thoroughly, addictively serious and relevant behavior.

Next: Thicker but so what


5 thoughts on “A tale I will thee tell

  1. Hi Ron,

    First of all, great … consolidation? of stuff I’ve seen you write/talk about for years, and I really like how you present the judgement of potential fitness here. I think I understand and agree with this in all substantive aspects. And if I wanted to change the emphasis in some areas*, I think a) you’ve left room for that, and b) it wouldn’t undermine your fundamental points. But because this reads like a post to build from (that is, it seems like a foundation for some future work), let me go ahead and poke a bit, just to be sure. Entirely in the spirit of making sure there’s not something I’m thinking that will turn out to be a meaningful problem later.

    On anxiety – I’ve no problem with focusing on the anxiety “absolutely and unavoidably embedded in the fictional situation.” But I do find it important to remember that … “engaged audience members”** also confront that anxiety simultaneously in their actual, right-now life situation (reading/hearing/watching the story, in whatever circumstances their life may have at that moment).***

    That’s consequential, I think, to whatever experience and/or judgement emerges from the story events. I assume (but I’m checking) that this is covered when you talk about the “immediate context for this story (obviously and necessarily cultural, historical, and political)”, so … just an emphasis thing, I hope.

    Similarly, I’ve little interest in “well, that’s all just SUBJECTIVE, dunchano”. But I am very interested in how our personal access to “the events” is shaped (by that other anxiety/by your obvious and necessary contexts). I love getting insights about the events from other people, and clearly it’s possible to be flat-out WRONG about ’em, but I’m fairly contemptuous of the notion that the events of a substantive story can/should be seen in only one way. Going back to “just SUBJECTIVE”, I mentally obliterate the “just” and replace “subjective” with “contingent”. But that’s a personal solution.

    I do want to re-watch Die Hard, but that may be a few days. I’m pretty sure I haven’t said anything here that will be an issue later, but if you notice something – I’d love some help in seeing where/how/why.

    * Not sure *I’d* want to, but maybe some – and I am sure some people REALLY do want a different emphasis.
    ** Why is it so easy to say “storyteller”, and so hard to say “the folks who need to see/read and/or listen attentively/engagingly; the additional necessary components to successfully creating story”?
    ***Though I find stories that rely on that outside(but still reliant upon)-the-fiction anxiety generally … less compelling, I do sometimes see/sense something admirable going on there. But that’s just me.

    (I’ve been on vacation for a bit – glad to see this post was still on top o’ the heap when I managed to get back to it.)


    • I’m glad you like it!

      I completely agree about the individuality of the experience. I also think the medium of “story” permits connection among us, i.e., among people, and a way to process the individual differences of experience (and interpretation). You can see this any time people get together and use movies as a touchstone for conversation rather than, say, religion or politics. Because they’re still talking about religion and politics, only for real, because they’re using fiction as the medium/interface.

      My books/games Spione and Shahida are ‘specially written toward that end.

      This is one of the reasons I dislike genre-identity politics among geekdom, too, because it literally befogs and demolishes the potential actual-human interface that great stories can make possible.

      Your insight that this topic is introductory to a larger work is certainly correct.

      And your ** baffles the hell out of me too, or rather, piques my curiosity to the point of mental pain.


      • I think this can be part of the “thing” of “audience as passive receiver” vs “audience as engaged person who’s also making the story ‘go'”. It would maybe be too much to call them both “storytellers”… but on the other hand, you know the other word I used to employ, to easily refer to all of them readers, players, moviegoers, audience, etc?: “Consumer”. It’s not right! Someone took the work to have the word be readily available when you want to refer to them in the “passive receiver” sense, and we struggle to find a different one for the other meaning.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. The flip you make here on conflict being centered, not on the protagonist, but on the anxiety of the reader in the larger context of the story, turned on a light bulb in my head. Sounds stupid maybe, especially for an English major and former English teacher(!), but the idea that abstracting conflict is misleading at best and bullshit at worst, because it removes the conflict, which only exists in, and the magnitude of which is determined by, the experience of the reader in the context of the story, never occurred to me before. Awesome.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks! The difficulty, of course, is in preserving this concreteness when referencing the fitness-potential categories that I list. To the first-encounter, no-exercises viewer, that looks like a list of abstractions no less odd than, e.g., “Man vs. Nature,” and worse, shot through and through with the dreaded biological determinism and genetic essentialism that they’ve all been warned we biologists are trying to put over on them anyway. Whereas that list is absolutely nothing without each instance’s immediate situational details, whether in a story or, in less compartmentalized form, in real life. That’s why doing the commercials exercise is crucial, among others, including “invent some fictional conflicts from the list” and whole-group techniques with minimal input per person.


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