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.
What 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