The Evolution of Stories


If you were building a perfect story, how would you design it?

First, it would have to be able to immediately grab and then hold at least one reader’s attention, and preferably whole hosts of readers’ attention.

Second, the story would have to move that attention along towards a goal which the writer had in mind from the beginning (even if that goal was crafted over repeated re-writings by the writer). That means that the story, to be perfectly successful, would have to be able to handle large numbers of individuals and large amounts of attention simultaneously.

To do this, it would have to be written in a language which large groups of readers understood. This applies to letter and word level language, to sentences and sections, obviously - a French novel could hardly be expected to have much impact on a non-French-speaking person - but there is a broader definition of ‘language’ that applies and which is frequently overlooked: the language of symbol and archetype which stretches across cultures and which is perhaps universal.

It is the entire purpose of this language to channel communication: that is, to convey an intention or set of intentions from one place to another, as above.

Not that a story is merely a disguise for the transmission of a ‘message’ from the author to the reader - it is much more than that. It begins, perhaps, with an author wanting to express something or convey something to another, however vague or incomplete, but it grows in meaning through contact with readers, who bring their own connotations with them. Though apparently universal, the cultural archetypes and patterns which form the hidden level of the language of fiction do not register as entirely the same with each individual.

In other words, though we all tend to recognise the similarities between protagonists, between companions, between antagonists, and the many parallels between plots, because as individuals we bring our own unique experiences to each, they grow in meaning and resonance. A tree is a tree because it fits a biological description of the genus ‘Tree’, but an individual tree grows in its own way, reaching out root and branch into an individual space, casting its own shadows, and having its own character. So it is with stories: each one is defined by its language and use of the same archetypes, but each does something unique with them. And that uniqueness mounts with each individual reading and reader.

The Lord of the Rings, to take an obvious example, clearly possesses remarkable similarities with Star Wars and with all Epic quest plots, as has been explored in numerous studies. But Frodo, though shaped as a protagonist archetype by the same awareness of a story’s need as that which shaped George Lucas’s hero, is not exactly the same as Luke Skywalker; Gandalf, though so closely matching the wizard archetype as to be its definition, is not quite the same as Obi Wan Kenobi, his counterpart in Star Wars.