The Art of Storytelling

Chapter 7


Introduction to Storytelling

All complete stories show evidence of two principal facets: An underlying dramatic structure contains the story’s inherent meaning, and a secondary meaning created by the manner in which that structure is presented in words and symbols. In practice, neither aspect of story can exist without the other. Structure, which is not tangible in form, cannot be communicated directly, and similarly no mode of expression can be created without something to express.

The first half of this book explored The Elements Of Structure. Its purpose was to define the essential components that occur in the dramatic structure of all complete stories. These components fell into four principal categories: Character, Theme, Plot, and Genre.

This half of the book explores The Art Of Storytelling, which documents the process of conceptualizing and telling a story. This process passes through four distinct stages: Storyforming, Storyencoding, Storyweaving, and Story Reception.

An author might begin either with Structure or Storytelling, depending on his personal interests or style.

If you come to a word or idea that is unfamiliar or unclear, use the index to reference that topic in The Elements Of Structure. Also, don’t forget to take advantage of the extensive appendices at the back of the book.

The Four Stages of Communication

There are four stages of communication that stand between an author and an audience. Stage one is Storyforming, in which the arrangement and sequence of dramatic story points are determined. Stage two is encoding (Storyencoding) where the storyform story points are translated into topics and events that symbolize the essential dramatic concepts in terms the author expects has meaning to an audience. Stage three is Storyweaving, where all the independent illustrations are woven together into an integrated whole that is the story as it will be presented to an audience. Stage four is Story Reception in which the audience assigns meaning to the work, hopefully decoding the intent of the author with some degree of accuracy.

In bringing a story to an audience, through any media, there are four distinct stages of communication through which the story will pass. When an author is developing a story or looking for ways in which to improve it, it is a good idea to evaluate how the story is working at each of these stages individually. Problems can exist in any single stage or bridge across into many. Seeing where the problem lies is half the work of fixing it.

The Four Stages are:

Stage 1: Storyforming—where the structural design and dynamic settings of an idea are created. This is where the original meaning of the story is born, the meaning that the author wants to communicate.

Stage 2: Storyencoding—where the symbols with which the author will work are chosen. Stories are presented through characters, setting, and other details that symbolize the meaning of the story. No symbols are inherently part of any storyform, so the choices of how a particular storyform is Storyencoded must be considered carefully.

Stage 3: Storyweaving—where the author selects an order and emphasis to use in presenting his encoded story to his audience in the final work. The way in which to deliver a story to an audience, piece by piece, involves decisions about what to present first, second, and last. The potential tactics are countless. You may start with the beginning, as in Star Wars, or you my start with the end, as in Remains of the Day, or with some combination, as in The Usual Suspects. What you most want the audience to be thinking about will guide your decisions in this stage, because choices made here have the most effect on the experience of receiving the story as an audience member.

Stage 4: Story Reception—where the audience takes over, interpreting the symbols they’ve received and making meaning of the story. The audience is an active participant in its relationship with a story. It has preconceptions which affect how it will see anything put in front of it. The audience is presented with a finished, Storywoven work and hopes to be able to interpret the work’s symbols and decipher the Storyforming intent of the authors behind the work. The accuracy with which this is carried out has a lot to do with how the story was developed in the other three stages of communication.

There are many ways to play with any one of these stages and many reasons for doing so. It all depends on what impact the author wants to make with his work.

Genre, Plot, Theme, and Character

In each of the four stages of story communication, authors have recognized four aspects of storytelling at work: Genre, Plot, Theme and Character. In other words, first there must be a Storyforming stage in which the author designs Genre, Plot, Theme, and Character as dramatic concepts. Next is the Encoding stage where the author symbolizes Genre, Plot, Theme, and Character into the language of the culture. Stage three, Storyweaving, sees the author blend the symbolic representations into a seamless flow that presents the symbols for Genre, Plot, Theme, and Character to an audience. The final stage of Reception puts the audience to work decoding the symbols to understand the author’s intent as represented in Genre, Plot, Theme, and Character.

Naturally, with so many internal steps and story points, the opportunity for miscommunication is great. In addition, since the audience members are looking from stage four back to stage one, they are authors of their own Reception. In this role the audience may create meaning fully supported by the symbology, yet never intended by the author.

How Dramatica Fits In

The study of Reception theory is well documented in many books, articles, and essays. Many inspired teachers of the art, including Aristotle himself, brilliantly cover the process of storytelling. Dramatica provides a view of story never before seen so clearly: An actual model of the structure and dynamics that exists at the heart of communication—the Story Mind itself. By using the structure of story as a foundation, the process of communication becomes much more accurate, giving the author more control over the audience experience.

Author as Audience

With the author at one end of the communication chain and the audience at the other, it is not unusual for an author to cast himself in the role of audience to see how the story is working. In other words, many authors approach their story not so much as the creator of the work, but as its greatest fan. They look at the blended result of Storyforming, Storyencoding, Storyweaving and Story Reception and judge the combined impact even as they write it. This can be valuable in making sure that all stages of communication are working together, but it carries hidden dangers.

When an author adopts the audience perspective, he compresses all four stages together. Thus, Genre, Plot, Theme, and Character become complete, yet their components become indistinct and much harder to define. This makes it easy to tell if something is going wrong, but much harder to discover which part of the process is at fault.

To avoid this problem, Dramatica suggests first building a Storyform that spells out the dramatic story points necessary to fashion a complete argument in line with one’s intent. Then, referring to this structure while encoding (or symbolizing) the storyform, an author can make sure that missing or inconsistent pieces of the storyform are not masked under clever storytelling.

Emphasis Where Emphasis is Due

Storyencoding simply creates scenarios and events that illustrate the Storyform’s dramatic story points. In the Storyencoding stage, no illustration is more important than another. The nature of the illustration provides the emphasis. For example, a Goal of Obtaining might be encoded as the attempt to win a fifty-dollar prize or the effort to win the presidency of a country.

Further emphasis occurs in the third phase of communication, Storyweaving, when an author places the illustrated story points into the work, favoring some with extended coverage while de-emphasizing others with mere lip service. Portions of a Storyform structure more central to an author’s personal interests rise to the surface of the work. Those story points of less interest sink to the bottom to form a complete but minimalist foundation for the story’s argument.

In short, it is fine to stand back and admire one’s handiwork, criticize it, and see if all its parts are working together. The audience point of view, however, is not a good perspective from which to fashion a work.

In keeping with this philosophy, this book began by outlining The Elements Of Structure. Now it is time to shift mental gears and outline the process of communication itself as expressed in The Art Of Storytelling.

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