“We do need to teach them, but we need to change how we teach them, and more importantly, we need to teach why stories are important.” - David Vann
Elements of a story
Not long ago, I attended a book discussion at the Bookworm Literary Arts Festival in Chengdu, China and was struck by one of the author’s ideology of how we should teach literature, “We focus on things like setting, plot, and conflict,” he said, leaning forward with fascinated disgust, “THESE THINGS AREN’T IMPORTANT!”
I was shocked. Not important? Aren’t they the bedrock to every story? The outline to every middle school teacher's syllabus? I tried to listen to what was important, but like many magnetic personalities, he never gave a concrete answer. Instead, he talked about the process of writing, pursuing passion, and authenticity. When he finished, we applauded.
After his time, I approached him, “Could it be that you give very little importance to such elements of a story because you know them so well?” He got excited, “Yeah for sure!” His eyes were huge, the room dark, and a few people were jockeying for a their place in line.
“So shouldn’t we still teach them?” I asked.
"Absolutely!” he almost yelled, “We do need to teach them, but we need to change how we teach them, and more importantly, we need to teach why we teach them, why stories are important.” He extended his hand, “Sorry, I gotta go. Thanks for coming.”
“Thank you,” I said, then went and bought his book.
Most anybody can rattle off the essential elements to a story - we've been learning them for years and they are ingrained into our psyche, but not many can articulate why they're important. Why must every good story have these elements?
Below is a growing discussion that will try and answer that question.
No matter where or when in the world one finds themselves, at the root of it all, we all share the same storyboard: we are born, live a certain amount of time, and then we die. Nobody has it different. No one is exempt.
:: From Joseph Campbell to Dan Harmon, this fifteen minute video explains why every story is the same and why we, the audience, wouldn't have it any other way.
:: The job of the director is to find ways to tell the audience a story. Most directors aren't very adventurous in how they do that. Then there's Steven Soderbergh (director of Ocean's Twelve) . . .
Conflict moves the story along, it's what makes the story interesting . . . at least, that's how it is often taught in literature and writing classes around the world. But try applying that to life, to a middle school child struggling with the harshness of bullying, to a father searching for answers after losing his job, or to a wife and mother of three who has recently discovered that she is still a mother of three but now must carry the burden alone. Suddenly, conflict isn't interesting and the story no longer moving. Rather, it seems to have stopped, dragging single days into what feels like thousands of years. What then is the purpose of conflict?
For stories to have relevance, they need to be relevant - and there is nothing more so than conflict.
Because, simply put, conflict reveals Truth.
- Purpose of Conflict -