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Story Types

The Six Steps: A Storyteller's Journey
by Alan Irvine

here are you? How many steps have you taken in the journey through your art? How many more do you wish to travel?

In his book Understanding Comics (Kitchen Sink Press, 1993, specifically Chapter 7), Scott McCloud develops the idea that mastering an art form is a journey of six steps, each step representing mastery of a crucial element of the art. McCloud’s model provides us with a framework for thinking about the crucial elements of storytelling, how these elements interconnect, as well as highlighting areas of important questions about our art and its development. This model also provides us with a handy map against which to gauge our own individual development as storytellers.

All art begins with an idea the artist wants to express or communicate. Indeed, we might argue that the very purpose of art is to communicate ideas. For storytellers, the idea usually takes the form of a story we want to tell. When considering ideas, we ask questions such as: why this idea? Why choose this story over all the other possibilities? What is this story really about? What is I want to communicate with this story?

Ideas, however, are abstract, amorphous things. We must embody an idea in some definite, understandable form if we are to express it. Would our idea be best expressed as music, or sculpture or dance? Even within the realm of stories we face a range of forms to choose from. We could tell it; we could write it out as literature, act it out as a play, film it as a movie, sing it as a ballad, write and draw it as a comic book... Given these possibilities, we must choose the one form most appropriate for effectively communicating our idea—or, conversely, if we are dedicated to a specific form, for example, we have decided to be storytellers, we must choose ideas that fit that form. In either case, we must first understand the form, its characteristics, its limitations, its strengths, its possibilities. Storytellers, for example, need to understand the differences between written and spoken language. Only then can we weigh the choices and pick the most effective form for our ideas, only then can we anticipate how the choice of form will shape our ideas.

Having settled on the form, our choices continue, for most art forms contain within them idioms, clusters of various approaches, techniques, and concerns; that is, various ways of "speaking," or idioms. Although a Woody Allen comedy and an Arnold Schwartzenegger action-adventure are both movies, and so are both shaped by the demands of that form, we certainly do not expect them to be similar. They tackle different sets of concerns, use different technical elements, employ different rhythms and pacing, follow different sets of conventions. If form is the language we will use, idiom represents a particular vocabulary and grammar within that language. Within written literature, the many idioms, or genres, are well defined. We expect a science fiction novel to differ from a romance novel or a western. We expect the science fiction novel to use different language, explore different themes and ideas. So, too, does storytelling have different idioms, different ways of presenting a tale. A ghost story differs from a folktale differs from a myth differs from a personal story. Our choice of idiom shapes how we tell a story, even what sort of story we can tell.

Every art form also possesses its own structure, or way in which the elements are put together to carry the idea forward. In a story, the plot represents the most obvious structural element, but not the only one. How the characters, descriptions, mood all fit together to carry a story forward are also important. We need to understand how a story’s plot works, why one scene follows another, what effect a sequence of scenes produces. We must understand why one character is highlighted while another remains in the background, why detailed description is important in one part of the story, but not in another.

Craft, or the technical skills, involved in creating art constitutes the fifth element. An artist should know the basic tools required to create a variety of effects and impacts. A painter needs to understand paints and pigments and the techniques of applying them to various surfaces. A film maker should understand lighting and composition and editing. A storyteller’s craft includes the use of gestures and intonation, along with an understanding of how and when to use them. Craft also embraces basic character development techniques and the command of different types of language, such as descriptive, narrative, and dialogue.

Finally, we concern ourselves with style—the finishing touches, the individual polish. Style distinguishes one artist’s work from any other artist’s work. A storyteller’s personal observations and choice turns of phrase represent elements of their style, along with their use of humor, pacing, and dramatic embellishment. Style often catches our attention and first attracts us to great storytelling. We delight in Donald Davis’s gentle humor and observations, in Ed Stivender’s quick pacing and delivery, and his odd-ball comments upon the story as he tells it. Indeed, we can easily fall into the trap of regarding these stylistic elements as what gives the story and the telling their power. Craft, structure, idiom, form, and idea lie beneath the surface of style, less easily observed during the course of the telling, often easily discounted. Yet without a solid grounding in all of these, style would be meaningless, empty flourishes communicating nothing.

But while this order of the steps, beginning with the idea and ending with style, represents the order in which, ideally, we would consider these element and ask these questions when developing any idea into a finished piece, it does not reflect the way in which we develop as artists. Paradoxically, as artists, we take the reverse journey, beginning with style and only slowly working our way back towards form and idea. Nor, upon consideration, should this surprise us. After all, those elements of style are what first catch our eye and ear. Those unique, surface aspect of a telling - the humor, the pacing, the wild voices - first attract us to this art form, cause us to consider partaking of it. Naturally, then, we begin by exploring what is familiar: the surface.

As beginning storytellers, we concentrate on telling a story more or less intact from the original. We do, however, try to put the story into our own words, to incorporate our own observations, humor, voice into those words. We work at understanding how to put our own, unique surface upon this tale. Folktales make excellent stories for beginners for just this reason. Thousands of tellers over the centuries have worked at the story, have tackled the underlying concerns, have addressed the other levels of questions and concerns. Only the question of individual style necessarily confronts the teller, leaving the teller free to devote their entire energies to exploring and developing their own style.

But at some point, simply dressing up a story with our own surface touches no longer satisfies us. We realize that these elements of style rest on, are variations of, the aspects of craft. We move on to learning the basic tools of our art. At this stage, we explore how to use our voice, how to project, give emphasis, suggest emotion and sounds. We begin to build a repertoire of character voices and physical gestures. We begin to go beyond strict adherence to our source material to constructing our own descriptions, details, characters in the tale.

Most storytellers move quickly through the first stage, style, into the second. Style tends to have a low profile in storytelling; perhaps many of the technical concerns of spoken language limit how much we can play around with the surface of our tales. As a consequence, we seem to lack the high-profile, unique styles that capture the imagination and inspire imitation in many other art forms, such as Hemingway’s style continually inspires imitation among young writers. The very effort of trying to learn a story and hold it in memory forces us to learn these basic skills of remembering and communicating fairly early on. Most storytellers begin to develop their craft relatively soon, and most of the telling we hear is at this level: good, basic storytelling from people who have a good command of the technical aspects of storytelling.

At some point, however, we may begin to look beyond the skills of the telling to the stories themselves. Knowing how to tell a good story, we begin to ask just what, in fact, makes a story good. We begin to concern ourselves with questions of structure, questions of how and why a story works. We begin to take our stories apart, analyzing their constituent parts and their relations to each other. Why does one scene follow another? we ask. Why does it come here and not somewhere else in the story? Why does this character act thusly? We explore different configurations of elements and the differing effects of each.

The more we learn about stories, the more we realize that not all stories are alike. Stories have different types of structures, need to be told in different sorts of ways. This realization spurs us to explore these differences, asking ourselves how a particular story should be told. We begin to explore the different idioms, or genres, ofour art.

To some extent, the very idea of different genres within storytelling strikes us as odd since storytelling has been dominated for many years by a single genre: the folktale. The vast majority of the stories that get told are folktales, to the extent that many people, both tellers and non-tellers, view the art form and the genre as one and the same, assuming that storytelling means, by very definition, the telling of folktales. Obviously, this is not the case. In recent years, for example, we have seen a surge of interest in personal stories. We tell personal stories in a different fashion from folktales. The dramatic embellishments, the character voices, the wild exaggeration that can fit so well in the folktale come across as jarring and out of place in a personal story. Audiences do not expect us to talk about our own lives in the same manner as we talk about Jack’s. We talk about our own lives in a quieter, more intimate fashion. Similarly, ghost stories require a different set of techniques, work towards a different end. Many of the techniques important for a successful folktale only serve to undermine the building tension that marks a successful ghost story. And yet, because of the predominance of the folktale within storytelling, it can be all too easy for a teller to assume that the folktale represents the only model for telling. Many tellers end up treating all stories as folktales.

It is important, then, that we recognize the different genres of storytelling, the demands and requirements, strengths and purposes of each. We can then begin to ask how the choice of genre affects our stories. Given the dominance of the folktales, we may find ourselves asking what other genres even exist, whether they are long established genres such as the ghost story or newly emerging genres such as the personal story. Newly emerging genres may require us to develop and define them more fully. We may even find ourselves asking what genres storytelling is missing, what genres we need to create.

Concerns such as these lead us to the next possible step in this journey. At this point, however, we face a choice. We can move from questions of genres within the art form to examining the very nature of the form itself, or, having mastered the existing aspects of the art form, we can use those aspects to explore new ideas and concepts. Both directions are valid and important, but each leads us to different ends.

When we concentrate on form, we begin exploring the very nature of storytelling, its boundaries and limitations. We grapple with questions of just what constitutes storytelling, what makes it different from other forms. We may examine the notions of what sort of stories we can tell, what sort of techniques can be used, what sorts of limitations restrict us. We may delve into the areas between art forms, the areas where storytelling shades into theatre or mime or song, often challenging existing notions of what separates storytelling from these, even finding ways of blending arts together. Charlotte Blake Alston’s Raccoon Story, for example, explores incorporating jazz as an integral and equal element within a story, as opposed to music as background to a story. At this point we begin to play with the art form, asking ourselves what new and different things we can do with it. My own work adapting the plays of Shakespeare into storytelling form is often driven by just such concerns. Can I do this? How can I do this? How can storytelling convey the poetry, images, complexity, richness of the plays?

On the other hand, instead of challenging the aspects of the art form, having mastered them, we can turn our attention to using the art form to explore new ideas. Instead of exploring the how of storytelling, we concentrate on the what, on stories, themes, ideas we want to explore and develop. We may be driven to create our own stories, bringing forth new worlds and insights. We may take an existing tale, such as a folktale, and turn it over and over, examining it from new angles, finding new insight and ideas within it, using storytelling to re-invent and re-image the story. Rather than asking ourselves "how can I say this?" we ask, "what do I have to say?" or even "do I have anything to say?"

The decision to pursue form or idea is not an irrevoable one. We can pursue one set of questions on one project, in one period of our career, then turn to the other set at another point. Indeed, a good artist must be concerned with both sets of questions, but in any project, one set or the other must dominate, or the project lurches out of control, trying to accomplish two very different sets of goals at the same time.

Not every storyteller reaches the point of addressing all these questions. At each step along the journey we find fewer and fewer people. Everyone begins with the task of putting a story into their own words, and for some people, who may simply wish to have a couple of stories to tell, that may be sufficient. Others will become intrigued by this art, perhaps inspired by other tellers or a workshop or conference, and will want to master the craft of telling, to develop all the basic skills of good, solid storytelling. Of these, some will begin to wonder why some stories work better than others even when good, solid telling underlies both. These tellers may start fiddling with their stories, examining and reworking their structure, gradually mastering these elements of the art. A few of these tellers will grow intrigued with the problems of different structures and start to explore the questions of genres. And a few of these will find themselves driven to explore the very nature of the art form and the ideas it can convey.

There is no requirement that anyone try to reach these latter stages. Storytelling, like all arts, needs at least a few practitioners examining, critiquing, redefining the boundaries and nature of the art, generating new ideas and themes and concerns to be explored. Such work keeps the art form alive and vital. But we do not, can not expect that everyone engage in this work. We need artists to flesh out these developments, to create a body of art and a thriving art form. We need people who just want to tell a good story. The six stages are not a race. Rather they are a journey into the art of storytelling. Like any good journey, they offer a number of vistas from which we can view ourselves and our stories. From these points we can gauge how far we have traveled from our starting point. Each of us must decide for ourselves, however, where we are ultimately heading. Any one of these stages represents a possible destination, a point where we say "I am satisfied with how far I have travelled, so this is where I am going to stop."

McCloud’s stages provide us a map, that we can more accurately judge how far we truly wish to travel, that we can know what other vistas lie ahead if we wish to go farther. But as with any journey, where we end up is not nearly as important as what we learn along the way..

—published in WIP Winter 1997

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