Traditionally, we have looked for the source of the magic of story in popular classics. We analyse the arrangement of information to try to find the common story structures that are possibly why a story is special. The outcome is a set of structures that we hope might be magically powerful if re-used in the same way in other narrations. We document these structures and rules into a formula for applying them and peddle them in ‘How to Write’ books and seminars.
From this approach we get old chestnuts like the idea that all stories ever told can be reduced down to versions of only seven essential plots. Or sometimes it is five. Or three. Or even just the one — the fabled “Universal Plot”. Those who like this idea go on to show how you can interchange Luke Skywalker with Harry Potter or Frodo Baggins and you will find the same underlying story in Star Wars, Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings. What is going on? Have these people discovered the Holy Grail? Is this the Mythical Substance of Story?
You might be forgiven for thinking they have, because traditional understanding of how stories work is based on finding common structures in existing texts. In reality, the entire structural approach to story theory fails us, and its flaws are beautifully exemplified in this ‘universal plot’ example. Plot is not the same as story in the same way that a canvas is not the same thing as a painting and a piano does not define a sonata. Nobody ever points out that every portrait artist from Raphael to Van Gogh uses an identical canvas and three primary colours. Well, they do, and nobody is saying that this means there is essentially only one painting that the others all copy. Nobody ever ridicules Chopin and Beethoven for using identical pianos and then deploying NOTHING in their music but the same 12 semitones that make up an octave. Why not?! Because it is amazing and incredible that an infinity of incredible artworks emerge from three primary colours and an endless glory of piano music emerges from the limits these 12 notes impose. It is the same with stories. A limited number of sensible plot structures support an infinity of stories. All art has practical limits and story is no different.
Traditional story theory focusses solely on those underlying structures and fails to recognise the true power of story, which lies in characters, their behaviours and the storifications those behaviours can deliver. The purpose of structure is to facilitate the magic of art. It does not define it.
In my seminars, I use the following analogy: Every genius that has ever lived had a skeleton. There is a 100% correlation between the presence of genius and the presence of a skeleton deep within them. It is not unreasonable to assume, therefore, that the skeleton is the substance of genius. And if that wasn’t proof enough, there is further evidence, because if you remove the skeleton from a genius they suddenly don’t seem half so clever any more. So, it is obvious: To understand genius, we must understand skeletons.
Using this logic, story theory has devoted itself to an ever more forensic investigation of the structures in the text in order to discover the secrets and substance of story. Now, you and I know that the secret to genius is not in the skeleton, it is in the mind. It is equally true to say that the substance of a story is not found in the structure of the text, it is in the mind of the author.
The reason this book is a step forwards in narrative theory is because it treats the text as a facilitator and recognises that:
A story is a conversation between an author and a receiver.