Sunday, November 14, 2010

What is a Story?

This essay is an excerpt from a longer article on Story/Message Theory, originally published November 14, 2010. To read the original article in full, click the link. Links to other excerpts follow at the conclusion of this entry.

Photo Credit: Mike Bailey-Gates

We know that Stories entertain and enlighten. We know Stories create emotional connections and present useful tools for the transfer of cultural values and information. And we also know that without a doubt, the best stories create lasting impressions, drive action, add to our cultural capital and lend themselves to replication.

But what is a Story, exactly? The word is so common that it is almost never defined.

Is Story represented by any entertaining and engaging stuff? Is it the mere explaining of Cause and Effect?  Is it simply the presentation of a situation?

The definition of Story, like many concepts, depends entirely on context.

Some people describe Story as anything that creates an emotional connection.

Others might simply define Story as a fiction; an explanation; an account; a journey; a series of incidents influenced by a theme. Similarly, a historian might define Story as simply an explanation of how a series of choices led from this decision to that event. In contrast, a group of criminals might want to modify their recent history with a new Story, which we might frame as an agreed-upon reality ('That's our story and we're sticking with it!')
A playwright I once studied scripting with defined Story as:

'Someone wants something badly enough and we watch them fail or succeed'.

Screenwriters and film fans may be with familiar with Film theorist David Bordwell's definition of Story as:

 'The causal-chronological series of events'. 

Contrast this with his definition of Plot, which he defines as:

 'The order and duration of events as they are presented to us.'

Story is often equated with the kindred concept of Narrative. Kevin Werbach, Wharton business school professor teaching on Gamification has suggested that narrative in this domain is:

‘The structure that pulls together the pieces of a given system into some coherent feeling whole.’

Similarly, Transmedia Evangelists and marketing professionals might describe Story as a narrative told, or an experience delivered, in any format, and across multiple formats, which serves to provide a sense of connectedness between the elements and platforms that deliver it. Narrative itself has been described as any set of words, objects or experiences which suggest a beginning, middle and end, or  as simply a way to engage, entertain, win fans and otherwise build relationships.

 Students of Story Structure have long been taught that an effective Story describes 'The 5 Ws'
  • Who
  • What
  • When
  • Where
  • Why
Then there are those who suggest that stories might be told without employing text, but with data or pictures, maps or some other sensory trigger.

So, it seems not that no single definition for Story exists, but that many do. And I think that this very point demonstrates the flexible nature of the art form. Indeed, a list of grocery items or even search terms might indicate a Story if we read carefully, connect the dots and let our imaginations wander. By the same token, the same batch of data can be used to tell many different stories, or it can represent nothing at all. As a result of this ambiguity I've found it useful for my own work to create a independent model for story building that I call Story/Message Theory.

Story/Message Theory describes Narrative as a textual Data Set whose sequenced points are connected by meaning (Theme) and afterwards explained (either directly or suggested) in a conclusion (Message) in such a way that audience members will use the resultant information in subsequent decision making processes.

Thus,  Storytelling is defined as the process by which data is†:
  1. Converted to text (if it is not already in a textual format)
  2. Identified (Perspective)
  3. Sequenced (Narrative)
  4. Connected by meaning (Theme)
  5. Presented by some chosen method. (Medium)
  6. Explained (Message)
[†This definition is a work in progress and was last modified 1/1/13]

First, the model is unique because Data by itself is considered absent of Story until a given set is defined, analyzed through the 'lens' of narrative, and then an explanation formulated and delivered. In other words, data is not simply aggregated and presented: it is interpreted ,and  meaning is inferred upon it, whether inherent or imbued. Thus a list by itself is not a Story although it may suggest a Theme and even anchor points within a Narrative.

One might think of the storyteller as a Data Analysis who explains the implications present in the data through narrative.

However, Narrative by itself, or the Journey, even one embedded with a theme, can not represent a Story according to this system. In the Story/Message system, all components must be present in order to indicate a Story form. And everything else, however valid or interesting, is something else.

So, this model limits what kind of works can be fully considered as a Story. And at first, this restriction may seem inhibiting to the creative mind; feel free to reject it entirely or use simply as a measure for comparison. On the other hand, it's very limitations may also serve as a platform for inspiration.

Yes, it is a box, but it is also a very useful box.

Indeed, many professional storytellers define and employ one formula or another in their work. Some models are conventional, others proprietary; some are based on medium alone, and others influenced by genre; every writer forms strategy, even if it is not always strictly followed.

For instance, a screenwriter will write a commercial screenplay or sitcom according to basic formulas as identified as being the most effective means of entertainment for a given medium and genre. Popular songs, too, for another instance, are formulaic.

In this respect, Story/Message Theory is simply another formula, and no better or worse than any other, but however basic, it nevertheless forms a powerful tool. For if think of a TV commercial, a sitcom, a Hollywood script, an electronic game  or even a Transmedia Branded Story Experience, each represents a different Story format. But each might also employ Story/Message Theory in construction, in conjunction with whatever other Story algorithms are at play.

Again, models may overlap; and any tool might prove itself a useful tool in the construction of a Story world.

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Articles in this series:

Story/Message Theory (Original full length article)
What is a Story?
The Parable/Fable Framework as Story Algorithm
The Story/Message Theory Construct
So It Goes: Vonnegut's Law
The Power of Effective Messaging
Create Engagement with Compelling Signification
Elevator Pitch: Speed Dating Signification
Static Symbolic Accentuating Triggers
Story is Dead
Leading with Message Signification
Non Linear Cross Platform Transmedia Storytelling
Mythology and Messaging

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