The process of communication requires at least two parties: the originator and the recipient. In addition, for communication to take place, the originator must be aware of the information or feelings he wishes to transmit, and the recipient must be able to determine that meaning.
Similarly, storytelling requires an author and an audience. And, to tell a story, one must have a story to tell. Only when an author is aware of the message he wishes to impart can he determine how to couch that message so it will be accurately received.
It should be noted that an audience is more than a passive participant in the storytelling process. When we write the phrase, “It was a dark and stormy night,” we have communicated a message, albeit a nebulous one.
In addition to the words, another force is at work creating meaning in the reader’s mind. The readers themselves may have conjured up memories of the fragrance of fresh rain on dry straw, the trembling fear of blinding explosions of lightning, or a feeling of contentment that recalls a soft fur rug in front of a raging fire. But all we wrote was, “It was a dark and stormy night.”
We mentioned nothing in that phrase of straw or lightning or fireside memories. In fact, once the mood is set, the less said, the more the audience can imagine. Did the audience imagine what we, the authors, had in mind? Not likely. Did we communicate? Some. We communicated the idea of a dark and stormy night. The audience, however, did a lot of creating on its own.
While some authors write specifically to communicate to an audience, many others write because they wish to follow their personal Muses. Sometimes writing is a catharsis, or an exploration of self. Sometimes authoring is a sharing of experiences, fragmented images, or just of a point of view. Sometimes authoring is marking a path for an audience to follow, or perhaps just presenting emotional resources the audience can construct into its own vision.
Interactive communications question the validity of a linear story itself, and justifiably so. There are many ways to communicate, and each has just as much value as the next depending upon how one wishes to affect one’s audience.
It has been argued that perhaps the symbols we use are what create concepts, and therefore no common understanding between cultures, races, or times is possible.
On the contrary, there are common concepts: morality, for example. Morality, a common concept? Yes. While not everyone shares the same definition of morality, every culture and individual understands some concept that means “morality” to them.
In other words, the concept of “morality” may have many different meanings — depending on culture or experience — but they all qualify as different meanings of “morality.”
Thus there can be universally shared essential concepts even though they drift apart through various interpretations. It is through this framework of essential concepts that communication is possible.
To communicate a concept, an author must symbolize it, either in words, actions, juxtapositions, interactions — in some form or another. As soon as the concept is symbolized, however, it becomes culturally specific and therefore inaccessible to much of the rest of the world.
Even within a specific culture, the different experiences of each member of an audience will lead to a slightly different interpretation of the complex patterns represented by intricate symbols.
On the other hand, it is the acceptance of common symbols of communication that defines a culture. For example, when we see a child fall and cry, we do not need to know what language he speaks or what culture he comes from in order to understand logistically what has happened.
If we observe the same event in a narrative, however, it may be that in the author’s culture a child who succumbs to tears is held in low esteem. In that case, then the emotions of sadness we may feel in our culture are not at all those intended by the author.
The accuracy with which an author is able to successfully convey both concept and context defines the success of any communication. And so, communication requires both a sound narrative and an effective translation of that narrative into symbolic language.
These requirements create an immensely rich and complex form which (though often practiced intuitively) can be deconstructed, understood, and manipulated with purpose and skill.
To begin such a deconstruction, let us next examine the origins of communication and the narrative form.