Story: A Language of Whole Meaning

I measure the success of a story by noticing how much it sticks with me, changes my perspective, helps me solve problems in my own life. This means the story itself has ‘stuck’ to me on many levels; it has moved (literally, moved, wrenched, pushed and pulled) me emotionally, engaged me sensuously, hit major themes and major points on the Arc of Meaning, referred to by mythologist Joseph Campbell as ‘the Hero’s Journey’, and leaves me with a sense of abiding mystery and ‘no final answers’.

If you’ve read my articles here on Dream Interviews, you’ll noticed that dreams do all these things. They punch you in the gut with fear and ecstasy, fill your eyes, ears, nose and body with sensations,  and dance you through a series of scenes that measure an Arc of Meaning, in a sense Acts I, II, and III of a dream-life play. And of course, the dream leaves you with ‘what the hell did that all mean?’, a sense of deep abiding mystery (and perhaps not a little frustration and confusion).

In fact, in thinking about ways of teaching and encouraging storytelling, I’ve noticed that folks who recall a vivid dream already demonstrate incredible ability of recall and texture of the story, as if they spent all night hard at work memorizing a long, complex, bizarre folktale that they want to effortlessly perform at the drop of a hat.

Think about this.

Our dreams (and our dream-selves) have us figured out to an extent that they can do this to us. With no conscious work on our part, they burn their story into our being, and leave us giddy to tell someone ‘about that crazy dream I had last night’.

I have started to feel that this particular someone has a much better model for teaching storytelling than I do. Of course, dreams apply so individually and idiosyncratically that they usually don’t carry meaning to the often unimpressed listeners. And some out there do not remember their dreams (and others may think they do not even have them). So how do we apply the lessons of dreams to improve our storytelling?

One of my favorite effects of dreams comes from their unwillingness to tell or explain anything. That sense of mystery that they can impart has such a powerful impact, it can leave me with a sense of magic and divinity, even concerning the most mundane subjects. Modern storytellers, on the whole, just don’t seem to get this need for mystery as well as old myths and folktales.

For example, I believe that among devotees of the Star Wars storyline, the explanation of the mystical and all-pervading Force as sourcing from small mutualistic organisms in our blood called ‘midi-chlorians’ caused almost universal disappointment and frustration. I often heard the rationale for these feelings as the fans considered it a bad explanation, or it didn’t make sense, or it just sounded stupid.

I never heard anyone say, as I suspect, that George Lucas’ true transgression occurred when he tried to explain the Force at all; that, in fact, no explanation suffices for the Force. It dwells in a mythic space of story where, to explain something, means to kill it and pull it out of that space. I think the fans, consciously or unconsciously, knew this and reacted emotionally and viscerally in the defense of something meaningful and alive to them.

Part of the new tide of indie story games involves an effort to create setting and situation on the fly, out of a small number of evocative and inspiring story elements; pictures, poetry, snippets of story. To the extent this works, I believe it works because of the awareness of mystery and the discovery of more mystery to come. To ever end on an answer will kill a story, in my opinion. In my experience it certainly will kill a conversation, create dead ends in a spiritual life, and alienate the other in a relationship. Questions and mystery really matter when caring for and creating story that really matters too.

At the Story Games forum recently Nathan Herrold asked why so few (if any) indie games attended to ‘the Return Home’ part of the Hero’s Journey? That time of integration and reflection of the adventure and challenges abroad; that time of noticing how self has changed, and how home changed too. Lord of the Rings does this wonderfully when the hobbits return to the Shire in the chapters starting with ‘the Scouring of the Shire’. Odysseus has a similar experience when coming home from his journeys.

Integrating and reflection on what we have done and where we have gone can really challenge us, and I see us as a culture of people who live according to the motto, “get over it – move on with your life – find the next adventure”. I think by including this Return Home (a parallel to Act III in a dream) in our storyjamming life, we can create more meaningful stories that ‘stick with us’. By also not explaining, by leaving mysteries open-ended (or at least always ensure solving a mystery opens a new one), we can keep magic and awe in our tellings.

Written by Willem