The Nature of STORY
"Man is a work of art. In his making the stress has been laid neither on the mechanical nor on the moral, but on the imaginative." -- "Tell Me A Story," Nobel Prize winning poet/storyteller Rabinadrath Tagore.
STORY is ultimately without specific, definitive explication. To the ancient Romans, "to define" [difinire & finire] meant to build a fence around something, to set measurable boundaries. To define STORY is to confine it, limit it. STORY cannot so restricted.
The concept of Story, in the words of Randall Jarrell, begins in that a story goes somewhere. It follows, with purpose, one or more characters through a series of events. By the end, it arrives at a target destination, fulfilling its reason for having been told. If the string of events is fairly neutral and straight-forward, we might call it a narrative. A narrative might not be more than a sequence of things that happened, one after the next.
I did this. Then I did this. Then this happened.
If a narrative is basically what happened, a story takes it to the next level. It creates a structure to seek and hold far more significance.
Several terms need to be presented and clarified:
Narrative is often simply explained as the technique or process of telling a story. This not quite the same as plot although the two terms are sometimes used interchangeably.
Plot is a design or diagram of events. In his Ars Poetica (The Art of Poetry), Aristotle presents plot as a series of interconnected events, leading from one event to a final point. That is, there is a beginning, middle, and end. Edgar Allen Poe, over two thousand years later, elaborates on this with his own "Philosophy of Composition," expands the structure to include such elements as Rising Action, Climax, and Resolution. The importance of plot, according to Poe, is to achieve its effect.
Story line is a description of either Narrative or Plot: a summary, precis, or abstract.
As Mark Twain also stated in the 19th century, “a tale shall accomplish something and arrive somewhere.” This 'somewhere' is when the understanding of story begins.
Randall Jarrell explains that STORY is how—long, long ago—we learned to take the confusing flow of many things that happen and try to make sense of them. A story is a fundamental way that humans organize and store information. This coincides with psychologist Marc Hauser (Harvard University) who defines 'human' as separation of intellect and use of abstract thought. Other ideas on the meaning of being human is mankind is a tool-maker and has opposable thumbs. However, naturalists have demonstrated that a number of animals make tools, and a number of whale species and chimpanzees have abstract thinking abilities.
Philosopher Frederick Turner, of the University of Texas at Dallas, believed that mankind is the story-telling animal. It is what we do. Donald Murray and James Kinneavy, both practicing authors and scholars of composition theory, both believed that we tell stories to make sense of the world. However, STORY is more than making sense; that is, presenting a theme. Poe recognizes an emotional connection as well. According to Ursula K. Le Guin, writing in The Language of the Night, “The story—from Rumpelstiltskin to War and Peace—is one of the basic tools invented by the mind of man, for the purpose of gaining understanding.” When asked how to develop intelligence in young people, Albert Einstein was reported to have said: “Read fairy tales. Then read more fairy tales.”
Let’s look more closely at what it means to rise beyond narrative into the realm of story.
The magic of story lies in what happens during that stream of forward-moving narrative events. A storyteller, said Jarrell in his Book of Stories, “writes numbers on a blackboard, draws a line under them, and adds them into their true but unsuspected sum.” That unsuspected sum is the special mathematics of story. Story imbues meaning to words and events. It also connects us in a very simple way, as listener and teller.
The First Nations' Storyteller Association (FNSA), of which this writer is a member, believe in, to use the a term from modern psychology, the "field" of a storyteller and the listener. The element of the storyteller is implied by the basic "communication triangle" well known in every Speech and English Composition class in America. In oral stories, the storyteller is physically present. He / she is a part of the story. The FNSA also believes this holds true in print and visual storytelling. We know that we are watching Steven Speilberg or Alfred Hitchcock movie; we know they are the ones telling the story. Even in print we sense the presence of Mark Twain in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn or J.K. Rowling spinning the adventures of Harry Potter. The audience, viewer, or listener perceives the voice of the storyteller. Please do NOT define or apply these terms too rigorously.
“Stories make community; make one feel they belong to something,” wrote novelist Leslie Marmon Silko, a Laguna Pueblo Storyteller. Stories connect events and create meaning; they also connect people to each other.
They make community. Ken Burns, the documentarian, believes that Story presents "emotional truth."
We never tire hearing the story.
STORY is not the same as plot.
Joss Whedon, the film maker best known for the TV series Firefly and motion pictures Serenity and The Avengers, once said, "When you're telling a story, you're bringing people into the world of the story and they live there then."
J.R.R. Tolkein, perhaps the 20th century's greatest story teller, remarked in his scholarly essay "On Faerie" about "the seamless Web of Story":
"The sense 'stories about fairies' was too narrow. It is too narrow, even if we reject the diminutive size, for fairy-stories are not in normal English usage stories about fairies or elves, but stories about Fairy, that is Faerie, the realm or state in which fairies have their being. Faerie contains many things besides elves and fays, and besides dwarfs, witches, trolls, giants, or dragons: it holds the seas, the sun, the moon, the sky; and the earth, and all things that are in it: tree and bird, water and stone, wine and bread, and ourselves, mortal men [italics are mine - gt], when we are enchanted." He goes on to say that if Story survives unto later ages then it is "in itself a sign that the story possessed some permanent, and more than local or temporary, value [. . . ]" (Tolkien "On Fairy-stories" The Tolkien Reader)."
This is the case regardless of Story's realm: the American Civil War, rafting down the Mississippi River, drifting through the bars of post World War 1 Paris, racing the Batmobile through Gotham City, diving a rebel spaceship into the bowels of a moon-sized space station.
As Stephen Spielberg explains, "There has to be a story worth telling. That's what it's all about. The thrills come naturally if you tell your story right."
Few writers explain the tension between STORY and the Newtonian universe better than the Nobel Prize writer from India, Rabinatrath Tagore. He writes, "Tell Me a Story," that "Man is a work of art. In his making the stress has been laid neither on the mechanical nor on the moral, but on the imaginative." In American English expression, Story cannot be analyzed; it can only be described at best.
The following videos provide further explanations of the nature of story.
Stephen Spielberg on a "Story Worth Telling"
Kurt Vonnegut On the Shape of Stories
Martin Scorsese on the Difference between Plot and Story
Ken Burns Discusses the Reasons We tell Stories it the First Place
How a Story Works: Sequence from Pixar's UP.
All video clips acquired according to federal Fair Use Laws, 1976