Monday, September 22, 2014


The Charm and Evolution of Story

Stories have charm.
From childhood on,
we are charmed by stories.
From the earliest fairy tales,
to graphic stories, to literary stories, we listen to or read stories with absorption and excitement. When the cave man came home and depicted his (or maybe her) hunt on the wall of the cave, storytelling was taking place. Stories came out of the oral traditions of all cultures around the globe. Curiously enough, these early stories, though widely separated by geography, including large oceans, shared many similar plots and motifs.

Why do stories charm us? They amuse and delight us. They instruct us (remember the fable and the parable?). They record our values and our culture. They communicate among cultures, and they reveal a structural dynamic that is fundamental to human consciousness–a momentary collapse of wholeness into a point and then the reemergence from that point to a new level of understanding or awareness.

Story has changed over the millennia. Early tales rely mainly on standard or familiar plots and motifs. The fairy tale of “The Princess and the Pea” revolves around a tiny pea, the discernment of which indicates a highly evolved level of purity and sensitivity. In early tellings, a young man discerns a hair under mattresses and is pronounced the most fastidious of three brother but he has forgotten he is on a spiritual quest for his father and so incurs great sin. In later tellings, a princess is the one for whom the tiny lump of a pea creates a bad night of rest but wins her the hand of the prince because of her purity and sensitivity.

In modern short stories, the familiar plot lines have been embellished with richer character development, revealing psychological depths. Motifs, though still present, have blossomed more often into intricate figurative language. Read a Hawthorne story like “Young Goodman Brown” and it’s not enough to recognize the pink ribbon as a symbol, one must delve into the characters of young Brown and his wife Faith as well as the townspeople to understand the role the forest and town play as we create our own meaning from the story.

As elements change in the modern short story, the underlying dynamics of story remain the same–that collapse of a larger wholeness into a point of compression or coalescence, from which a new understanding emerges. Contemporary forms of story, such as flash fiction or the graphic story, are also constructed from these same elements and follow the same structural dynamics. In flash fiction, so much is embedded that the story is minimalized almost to the point of a joke or anecdote while the graphic story showcases the image, which, in some ways, functions as motifs do in early tales. The elements alter but the structural dynamic stays the same.

Yes, all these variations of story exert the same charm. We are drawn to that glimpse of wholeness from which a story emerges and we are mesmerized as the wholeness collapses into a point. We wait, anticipating the closure, to see the new wholeness of understanding that emerges.  Over and over again, we are charmed by this process. We are entertained, we learn, and we experience this process of creation in its short, encapsulated form. We hear one story and we want another.

Each story lets us experience the story of creation, so to speak. On the surface we delight in the complexity of the characters, the richness of the language and figures, and the reality shown by the settings, but at a deeper level, we follow that presentation of wholeness to its collapse and we  experience that new emergence of wholeness from the point–a different, even deeper level of understanding.

Story is creation; that’s why it charms.


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