I searched in Google recently for “elements of a story.” The many results were dominated by topics like:
- The 3 parts of a story;
- The 4 elements of a story;
- The 5 steps of a plot;
- The 7 (or the 8 or the 12 or the 17) stages of the Hero’s Journey.
I read quite a few of these articles (and even a few books on Amazon) about the parts of finished stories. Interestingly, they all seemed to assume that knowledge of these parts is essential to making a story.
Don’t get me wrong: I am not saying that these lists of story elements are useless. But I object to the idea that simply knowing them helps us create stories. In fact, they can easily get in the way.
Making a Rose?
Suppose you want a rose. You love the smell and beauty of roses. You look up “parts of a rose.” You learn that a rose has a stem, leaves, petals, thorns, and filaments, as well as things called “petioles” and “stipules” (and much more).
Does that knowledge tell you how to make a rose?
You might assume that it does. You might say, “I’ll just get myself a stem and some leaves and petals and so on, then I’ll put them together."
If you tried that, you might make something with a certain similarity to a rose. But it would lack both the sheen of life and an aroma that can delight an ancient part of your brain.
A Better Way?
What is a better way to get a rose? Grow one! Just start with a rose seed.
But wait. Do you know what a rose seed looks like? Most of us don’t, because it looks like a little nut, hidden in the rose fruit. The seed does not have stems or leaves or petioles.
In other words, to get a rose, you need to start with something that has none of those parts you learned about.
If you want a rose, therefore, it’s not important to know its parts.
But it’s very important to know the process for finding a seed and then growing a rose from it.
In the same way, the seed of a story almost never looks like a story.
I have created many stories that began as simple memories. Some began as images, sensations, questions, or even ideas. But not one of those memories, images or ideas had a clear dramatic arc or even a clearly-defined problem.
Fortunately, I understood the process of growing a story from such a seed. As a result, the parts of the story emerged over time. But without the knowledge of how to grow a story, I might easily have discarded these seeds. “No climax? Can’t be a story, then. I guess I’ll have to keep looking."
People have been growing stories since before recorded history, without any idea of the elements, steps, or stages. Instead, they used a simple set of processes that our brains are specifically built for.
This set of processes involves, first, imagining the events and emotions of the story. And it involves trying the story out by telling it - not once, but multiple times. Stories don't pop out fully formed, but develop, in part, in response to the responses of multiple listeners.
The Perils of Story Assembly
If you treat a story as an object, you tend to disable the very brain circuits that our ancestors developed over many thousands of years, back when we all lived in the African savannah and needed ways to share life-saving experiences with other members of our wandering bands.
But if you treat a story as something that needs to be grown while interacting with other humans, you enable those same amazingly efficient neurological processes which, among other things, can condense complex experiences into tight narratives.
Things Over Relationships?
Given that humans naturally use a highly effective, organic story-growing process, why do we tend to view stories as objects to be manufactured? First, our society is very fond of mechanistic models. We favor them in schools, at work, in politics, and even in psychology.
Add to that our tendency to talk about creativity as a solo process. We are often told to “go up to your room and do your homework,” but no teacher ever told me to “find some people to try explaining your ideas to.” No one suggested to me that stories - and many other forms of human creativity - can best be developed in relationship with other people.
Why do I object?
Why do I object to those hundreds of web pages, articles, and books that push us, perhaps implicitly, to treat stories as gadgets to be assembled rather than as processes to engage in?
The “parts of a story” fad tends to put us in an analytic, step-by-step, conscious-assembly mode of thinking. But stories - to have the sheen of life and to evoke aromas, sounds, sights, gut feelings and emotions - can’t reliably be built from interchangeable parts, or by using only analytic thought processes.
Instead, stories grow faster through interaction with other humans. They emerge in their own time, often in surprising ways. They develop naturally in the course of being told, imagined, and yes - as part of the whole process - analyzed.
I don’t object to stories. I don’t object to studying the parts likely to appear in a fully developed story. Such analysis can help at several stages in the story growing process. But it is not a substitute for the process. In fact, applied improperly, it interferes with the process.
Like artificial roses, “made” stories tend to fall flat. But, by building on our innate story-development processes, every human is capable of growing stories that have freshness, authenticity, and emotional power. In the face of a chorus of story-manufacturers, let us sing loudly and clearly this ancient, empowering truth!
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