Story Theory and the Quest for Meaning

Story has been our constant companion throughout the journey of human existence. Why is that?

Modern audiences are inundated and entranced by advanced storytelling. But stories have been with us from as far back as we can remember. Is it because they entertain us? Is it because they inform us? Because they distract us? Yes, of course. But the very universality of, not just story itself, but our passionate connection to story would seem to indicate the human experience finds great resonance in the act of storytelling.

I do not think it too simplistic or idealistic a statement to say that storytelling is a quest for meaning. As creators and consumers of story (and, indeed, art as a whole), we all have personal connections to this. We often interact with stories, whether intellectually or emotionally, as a search for understanding. We turn to stories for catharsis, comfort, and catalytic challenge.

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As Margaret L’Engle put it in her Walking on Water (which is really a treatise on the whole concept of story as a quest for meaning):

This questioning of the meaning of being, and dying and being, is behind the telling of stories around tribal fires at night; behind the drawing of animals on the walls of caves; the singing of melodies of love in spring, and of the death of green in autumn.

As writers, we gradually become more cognizant of this than even the average viewer or reader. As we study the craft and technique of writing, we eventually encounter humanity’s collective ideas of . These theories posit that there are certain patterns—which we generally identify by such terms as and —that repeat themselves over and over again to create the very definition (however loose) of what we consider a story at all.

When writers begin learning story-theory principles, we often tend to identify them merely as “rules for success.” But in recognizing that story itself is archetypal, these tools and techniques of the craft emerge as a fascinating meta commentary on the deeper questions of life itself.

Chaos vs. Cosmos

This post is an introduction to the introduction to the introduction (!) of a new craft series I will be sharing this year about foundational archetypal characters and character arcs (including but going far beyond the prevalent Hero’s Journey). Before diving into the nitty-gritty of this one specific set of archetypes and how you can use them to powerfully undergird the character arcs in your stories, I wanted to step back to the broader context. Next week, we’ll be talking more specifically about actual archetypes in fiction. But today, I wanted to talk about story itself as archetype.

Several years ago at a time when I was particularly needing, searching for, and redefining meaning in my own life, I read Madeleine L’Engle’s wonderful ode to the synthesis of art and spirit, Walking on Water. I resonated deeply with her notion of why it is that humans are driven to create and to tell stories. She said:

…the artist is someone who is full of questions, who cries them out in great angst, who discovers rainbow answers in the darkness and then rushes to canvas or paper. An artist is someone who cannot rest, who can never rest as long as there is one suffering creature in this world. Along with Plato’s divine madness there is also divine discontent, a longing to the find the melody in the discords of chaos, the rhyme in the cacophony, the surprised smile in the time of stress or strain.

It is not that what is is not enough, for it is; it is that what is has been disarranged and is crying out to be put in place.

She recognized art as an ordering principle by which humankind strives to understand its own existence:

[Composer] Leonard Bernstein tells me more than the dictionary when he says that for him music is cosmos in chaos…. all art is cosmos, cosmos found within chaos…. There’s some modern art, in all disciplines, which is not; some artists look at the world around them and see chaos, and instead of discovering cosmos, they reproduce chaos, on canvas, in music, in words.

The Cosmology of Story Theory

The more I study story theory, the more I have come to recognize it as something of a cosmology all its own—a microcosmic commentary on existence. In short: an archetype.

As such, what we write (sometimes consciously, usually very unconsciously) is often surprisingly explicit in its ability to offer us answers and meaning in our questions about life.

For example, modern writers often tend to think of story structure as a format we apply to our stories. But, in fact, story structure is an emergent. It exists and it works—and we recognize it as such and try to apply it to our own stories—because it reflects truthful patterns about life itself.

The same is true—perhaps even more poignantly—for character arcs. For me, researching and writing my book was a personally life-changing experience that provided insights far beyond writing. The character arcs we recognize as archetypal resonant with us as readers and viewers for the simple reason that they are patterns within our own lives.

And so it goes for even more “mythic” archetypal journeys, such as the Hero’s Journey made so famous and ubiquitous by Joseph Campbell and George Lucas. These mythic story structures are endlessly repeatable because they do endlessly repeat in every single one of our lives. (Don’t particularly identify as a Hero? Doesn’t mean you haven’t, or won’t, take the Hero’s Journey in your life, among many others.)

This is why L’Engle can say, about writing and reading, that:

Story was in no way an evasion of life, but a way of living life creatively instead of fearfully. The discipline of creation, be it to paint, compose, write, is an effort toward wholeness.

She quotes her professor Dr. Caroline Gordon as saying:

We do not judge great art. It judges us.

Meanings, Patterns, Symbols, and Archetypes

Story theory is eminently practicable in supplying writers with techniques they can apply to improve the resonant power, and therefore success, of their stories. But this is really just a byproduct of the theory itself, which focuses on recognizing emergent patterns within our ever-growing body of stories. These patterns then contribute to our ability to recognize those particular symbols and archetypes that appear over and over again, almost universally, rising far above time, place, genre, or even thematic intention.

Laurens Va Der Post pointed out:

…without a story you have not got a nation, or a culture, or a civilization. Without a story of your own to live you haven’t got a life of your own.

At their loftiest level, the emergent patterns of human stories tell us something about all of existence. But for most of us, these patterns are most poignant when they help us tell our own stories—not just those we put on paper, but those we are living every moment of every day.

We may think of stories as something separate and apart from life itself— and we most commonly interact with them with the intention of entertainment or distraction. But inevitably story is not separate. Indeed, perhaps the modern era has seen the line between story and reality grow more blurred and meta than ever.

Regardless, when we understand , we are able to simultaneously bring the patterns of life to the page and the patterns of the page to our lives.

L’Engle one more time:

…when the words mean even more than the writer knew they meant, then the writer has been listening. And sometimes when we listen, we are led into places we do not expect, into adventures we do not always understand…. one does not have to understand to be obedient. Instead of understanding—that intellectual understanding which we are so fond of—there is a feeling of rightness, of knowing, knowing things which we are not yet able to understand.

, all of them valid. But deeper than the entertainment, the distraction, or the titillation—deeper than the characters, the character arcs, and the plot structure—deeper even than the themes of Willa Cather’s “two or three human stories”—there is the resonance of story itself as a foundational archetypal reflection.

I don’t know about you, but that’s a plenty good enough reason for me to make story a constant companion for the rest of my life.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! Why do you think you were first drawn to stories? Has that changed over the years? Tell me in the comments!

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