Interchangeable Storytelling Parts?

Part 2 of the 3-part series: “Storytelling Has Infected Society—and Vice Versa”
See Also: Part 1 (Part 3 is upcoming.)

It’s seldom remembered, but an event in Paris in 1790 introduced a concept that made possible nearly every manufactured object sold in the world today. And, oddly, it led indirectly to unhelpful practices in teaching storytelling.

An Astonishing Feat

In Paris's historic Hotel des Invalides in 1790, Honore Blanc, an inventor and gunsmith, staged a daring demonstration in front of a crowd of prestigious politicians, academics, and military men. Until that time, firearms were built individually. Each part of each gun was separately shaped by hand; no two were identical, so replacement parts had to be laboriously crafted to match each unique broken one. This made repairing a gun almost as difficult as making one in the first place.

But Blanc had a bold, new plan: he had manufactured 1000 gunlocks (the critical part of the gun, which causes the gunpowder to explode, firing the bullet) that were made of identical parts. In front of the startled crowd, he chose one of each gunlock-part randomly from bins, then assembled them into a working gunlock. Then he repeated his feat again and again for the astonished crowd. Blanc had just demonstrated the potential of interchangeable parts.

Blanc’s demonstration was a dramatic turn in the long road that led to assembly lines and mass production. The result: low-cost manufactured goods and the apotheosis of the factory as the principal creator of wealth. A new age was born!

What Does This Have to Do With Storytelling?

The analytical thinking that drove the development of mass production has come to dominate our society. For most of us, for example, the word “thinking” means “analytic thinking.”

Linear thinking has benefitted us in many ways. But overdoing it comes with a cost: it ignores our abilities to create non-linearly, to integrate as well as dissect. Schools, intent on what can be tested objectively, ignore creative, divergent, integrative thinking.

Into that arid landscape ruled by analysis, the storytelling movement arose—in part as a reaction against the stifling dominance of analytic thinking—as an assertion that symbolic, wholistic thought, as exemplified in storytelling, is an essential part of being human.

The Forces of Analysis March On!

Our dominant profit-oriented, competition-driven, win-at-any-cost society has no idea that it is built on only a partial understanding of what it is to be human. So much wealth and power have been accrued by industrialists, financiers, developers, and the like, that any other pursuits seem almost frivolous - frills to be pursued by those not truly serious about advancing themselves and society.

This “analysis monster” marches on, in every field of human endeavor, reducing everything in its path to machinery. So is it any surprise that it does that with stories?

One Hundred Million Copycats

Try Googling “elements of stories.” You’ll see an absurd number of results with titles like “Five Elements Every Story Must Have” and “Every Story Has Three Parts”.

On the one hand, I am pleased that so many people are writing about storytelling.

On the other, I am horrified. Instead of increasing our society’s awareness of the integrative power of story-thinking, the popularity of storytelling has tried to turn story itself into a series of linear steps.

And Now, It Infects Us

As I said in Part One of this series, not only has storytelling infected society, society has infected storytelling.

Nowhere is the infection of storytelling by society more obvious than in the dominance of “interchangeable parts thinking” in the talk about storytelling. This way of thinking hasn’t just bent storytelling to fit warped social concepts. More insidiously, it has also infected our own thinking as storytelling practitioners.

To be sure, I don’t see much evidence of professional storytellers integrating “Freytag’s pyramid,” for example, into their story-creation process. That doesn’t surprise me, because methods of analysis like “rising action, climax, falling action,” etc., don’t offer too much to the creative process, except possibly during the revision stages.

But I see and hear us teaching storytelling in terms of the “elements of stories.” Or, more accurately, quoting the “five parts of a story,” etc., to our students, as though these analytical tools are actually important or useful for beginning storytellers.

Pruning the Seedlings?

The sad fact is that good stories can’t be manufactured. Why? Stories aren’t “things.”

Instead, stories are relational processes, which can’t be built. They can only be grown.

Instead of trying to build a story, try growing one from a seed: an image in your mind. Expose it to the sunshine of a delighted listener, then water it with the listener’s remarks about whatever worked so far. Then repeat the whole process again and again.

At some point, you may find that your story needs pruning. At that point, it can be helpful to use analytical thinking: What’s too large? Too small? What’s missing altogether? That form of analytical thinking, applied at the right stage of a story’s development, can be very helpful.

The problem isn’t trying to prune a yearling tree. The problem is trying to prune a seedling; the seedling will either become stunted or die.

Don’t Feed the Monster!

The unthinking application of overly analytic, descriptive formulas for storytelling is anything but helpful.

Why? Because it promulgates the “interchangeable parts” philosophy in one of the few areas that should be able to resist it.

Just to be clear: I’m not opposed to manufacturing things using interchangeable parts. After all, as I write this, I’m sitting on a chair, typing on a computer, which is resting on a table, illuminated by a lamp—all of which are available to me because of the miracle of interchangeable parts.

No, I don’t mind the existence of mass-produced goods.

What I mind is the inexorable intrusion of the “interchangeable parts” mindset into every aspect of human existence.

Resist the Infection

I especially mind the infection of the connecting, healing processes of storytelling with the germs of mis-applied analysis.

I believe we must resist this. If we don’t notice the germs, after all, we become vectors for the infection.

Instead, let’s be antibodies. Let’s mobilize our resistance to all forms of misapplied materialism—and help those we teach do the same.

To paraphrase Hillel the Elder, “If not us, who? If not now, when?”