Stories: celebrations, warnings, and making sense

From Plato’s three act story structure, to Georges Polti’s 36 dramatic situations, and Christopher Booker’s seven story types, people have sought to understand the storytelling process, to find common threads that link stories together — or to rationalise the process into a universal structure, a repeatable, plot driven, formulae. These frameworks tend to fall into two categories. First, the technique driven insights designed to help writers create engaging stories, and, second, academic studies charting the medium’s origins, and developing form. (Some studies even aim to unlock the common origin of story plots, from a sociological or anthropological perspective).

One thing most people agree on, is that stories go beyond the communication of pure information: they offer an opportunity to learn, and to bond through a shared, emotional experience. Conversations are the basis of these experiences, and I believe, they can be understood as: (1) celebrations, (2) warnings, and (3) making sense. The first two categories cover the whole gamut from: feel good to elation; from downbeat to terrifying. While ‘making sense’ covers anything else, that isn’t a celebration or warning. The ambiguity of ‘making sense’ is just as critical for dramatic success, because it creates tension, atmosphere, suspense, and alternates the pace of a story.

Stories have an obvious entertainment factor, but beyond that they are important tools for social bonding (feeling connected), and learning (making sense of the world around us, and exploring our identity). How can a story relate to identity? In many ways — a common example is when we empathise with a ‘good’ character, and in doing so, we associate ourself with their values; which aligns our perception of ‘who we are’.

When we meet friends we share good news, or we warn them about possible danger. Once this news is shared, we analyse it by making sense of the how and why it happened—what it means to us. People can use stories for selfish purposes: to spread rumours, to sway people to a particular viewpoint, or to deceive, but, even then, subverting stories for our own end still relies on sharing an apparent celebration or warning. Whatever the intended purpose, the skill of the storyteller lies in how effectively they can combine the elements, into a sequence of events that retains audience interest.

Celebrations are upbeat — good news — and have happy endings: warnings are downbeat — bad news — and have unhappy endings.

Sharing good news feels like a celebration. It feels light in tone, often with a humorous connotation, or with a feeling of being unburdened. Good news is synonymous with success, hope, and good fortune. A happy twist of fate can be won by accident (luck of birth, divine reward, winning the lottery, etc), or though hard work (building up a business, teamwork, honing a special skill, developing a strategic mindset, and so on). In a celebration, the main character achieves their goal (or wins something that more than compensates for not winning it), something the audience might also wish for themselves.

A warning element in a story is darker in tone: violent, shocking, sad, downbeat, sombre, disturbing, or unpleasant. It can occur by accident, or chance (natural disaster, illness, an oversight, the threat of a monster), or through a deliberate plan (a warmonger invades a peaceful nation, a business closes down a factory, a criminal mastermind seeks to control the world, a gossip spreads a cruel rumour). The warning element facilitates social bonding through a negative event, or a downbeat mood; which brings further fear and anxiety, but it fulfils an important role. Warnings are part of the learning experience; they prepare us for the future, so we can protect ourselves against potential threats. A story that ends with a warning usually has a main character who fails to achieve their goal (or their efforts does not change the status quo) — the audience wants to be forewarned so they themselves don’t fail.

Short, informal, stories told by amateurs — social conversations, chats, recollections — are usually simple celebrations, or warnings. Professional storytellers combine (1) celebration, (2) warning, and (3) making sense, to heighten the drama, and make stories believable.

A story that is mostly oppressive (a warning), and ends with a victorious main character (a celebration), can leave the audience feeling optimistic. A mostly upbeat comedy with a bleak ending, can leave the audience feeling sad. A story with an ambiguous ending can be enigmatic, poetic, or thought provoking.

Using a combination of elements gives the storyteller the option of incorporating plot twists, and reversals of fortune. These additional devices create plots with surprise, mystery, tension, and unpredictability — all of which help to keep the audience hooked. The myriad combination of (1) warning, (2) celebration and (3) making sense elements can be handled crudely — to shock — or with delicate subtlety. When the mix doesn’t work, the audience becomes confused, frustrated, bored, or angry. When the mix is expertly handled the audience is delighted, and fascinated by the interplay of elements, which possess sophisticated ambiguity.

In a celebration of positivity, characters in a story: work together to beat the odds, they show courage, exhibit determination, use their ingenuity, persevere, overcome nature, reap the bounty of nature, find their creativity, invent solutions, have loving and supportive partners, live in a society with trustworthy institutions, and praise their diligent leaders.

In a warning element, characters are likely to: quarrel, experience the odds stacking up against them, show fear, become anxious, suffer torment, be unable to shift out of their fixed thinking, become vulnerable, experience the destructive side of nature, lose their creativity, discover their partner is cheating, know that institutions are corrupt, and realise they have self-serving leaders.

Stories are formed of these elements — much like a sentence is formed from phrases. The ending is crucial to the overall effect, because this is the tone the audience leaves with.