Excerpted from Dramatica: A New Theory of Story
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, an- other 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 trem- bling 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. Did we tell a story? Definitely not!
One of the early questions we grappled with was the relationship between author and audience (or reader). When you stop to think about it, not just superficially but deeply, the fact that we can communicate at all is something of a miracle.
Consider: Two creatures, each with completely different life experiences can experience essentially the exact same understandings and passions as each other across a medium through abstract patterns of ink on a page or moving patterns of light, shadow and sound on a screen.
It was not long into our investigation of the nature of story structure that we realized the only way such communication could exist was if the underlying mechanisms of our minds were identical, as a species, regardless of age, race, gender, sexual orientation, culture or personal experience.
Story structure itself an artificial mind – a model, a replica of all the elements that make up this foundational mechanism we all share that form the framework upon which we hang specific information and particular emotions.
That framework is just a skeleton, however. And though it can be created in any language and through any medium, it is the development of commonly understood symbols that allows for communication between author and audience.
Still, while each symbol has a denotative meaning, it will differ in connotation from other symbols that might have been used to convey the same information. Further, each reader or audience member will expand upon each symbol and especially upon a continuing stream of symbols, seeking patterns not only in the order in which the symbols were received, but also in the potential manners in which they might be assembled into an overall understanding, much as one might follow the instructions on a kit step by step and end up with an assembled piece of furniture.
Pattern making is a survival trait. It allows us to note, “where there’s smoke, there’s fire” in a spatial sense (when this, also that) and also allows us to project, “one bad apple spoils the bunch” in a temporal sense (if this, then this). As a result of pattern making, we are able to see dangers and opportunities that are co-existant with indicators in the here and now and also to anticipate the same in the future.
And so, when we write, “It was a dark and stormy might,” we not only convey the facts, but provide the seeds for our readers or audience members to create patterns that enrich the communication process, and immerse them into a world that is partially of their own creation.
–Melanie Anne Phillips