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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.

A walk in the woods of fiction, then, does not mean a stultifying study of growths which have been manufactured to exact specifications on an assembly line. In the forest of stories, tales work together to create the atmosphere of a culture of fiction: each is its own tree, though each conforms to the description ‘tree’.

It might be somewhat astonishing, at first, to conceive of stories like this. But the fact is, there are an almost infinite amount of them in publication today and many, many more billions have been written and read in the past. But each one is re-born with each reading.

The above is a generalisation of an optimum story, which basically works exactly like that. It needs to have mechanisms for capturing attention, moving readers forward, not allowing attention to escape, and then communicating a final ‘message’, however defined or loose that may be. Various tools are employed by authors to achieve this, so much so that most readers sense when they are missing and complain.

Moving attention along towards a goal which the writer had in mind from the beginning must have been how stories began. The mechanisms which evolved to do that grew out of necessity. One can imagine a primeval storyteller frustrated by the lack of attention paid by an early audience to what he or she was trying to convey: somehow, attention had to be grabbed. Thus was the protagonist, with his or her wound or lack or flaw, born. To draw sympathy and glue attention, this character had to be missing something which the audience felt was needed, something basic like health or parents. But a single character could not hold attention on its own: a set of characters, each equipped with attention-grabbing powers, would need to be developed. Then the audience, dazzled and hooked by multiple strands of attractive power, might stick around a bit longer.

Characters on their own would not be enough to create a lasting audience over a period of time, even an hour: there would have to be the question ‘What will happen next?’ helping to grip their attention. And when that became tired, another question for a slightly more sophisticated set of listeners: ‘What is really going on?’ Then, for those becoming engaged on deeper levels, the question ‘What is the right thing to do?’ Working together, these questions effectively trick an audience into sticking around for the end, in the hope of some kind of resolution.

So stories evolved from a basic necessity to hold another’s attention long enough to make a point. And everything else can be seen to be a part of that.

For more, see my book How Stories Really Work.


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