Story and Narrative
Foundation Studies in a school like Art Center teaches us how we make sense of the world through what we see and create. And some hand skills, too. I have been lucky to be a foundation teacher for twenty five years, and the experience continues to be a philosophical eye-opener and a useful base on which to structure a worldview.
About five years ago the Grad ID chair asked me to teach a class on story structure and how it can assist in designing presentations. The proposition was exciting then, but now I realize that story has become a conceptual thread that runs through everything else I teach.
Art Center did not embrace the concept of narrative ten years ago. At that time the word “concept” was the ultimate validating word, and narrative was not considered a deep enough subject to be conceptual. We now live at a time when narrative has often replaced concept as a way of elevating the prosaic to higher realms of expression. We don’t yet agree on what story is, though.
A story, taken structurally, can be a formula as simple as a character, a problem, and a solution. “Hey, remember that dork who sat next to you in tenth grade Biology? He runs Teledyne now,” is a story. I suspect Facebook repeats this kind of story every hour.
But we also use the word story to simply imply linkage between one action and another. When we relate something in sequence, we assume that there must be a reason for one action to follow another, unless we are watching a David Lynch film. This is our most everyday approach to narrative—the projection of cause and effect on to the random chaos of our lives.
Stories are easy to remember, they seem to explain things to us and they entertain us. But, on a grander scale, some kinds of stories seem hard-wired into our culture to provide a template for action. Joseph Campbell’s Hero With A Thousand Faces codifed the meme of The Hero’s Journey for the last few decades, and his disciple Chris Vogler has convinced thousands of readers that The Hero’s Journey is the only story there is to tell. It isn’t. A three year old girl who loves pink and dreams of being a princess is living an aspirational story, but one shares that shares very little with Theseus, Neo or Frodo.
And this is what the story structure class is concerned with. There are a limited number of narrative models that an audience is preprogrammed to follow with ease because we have heard them so often. In my class I use seven—Rags to Riches, Journey and Return, Tragedy, Comedy, Rebirth, Overcoming the Monster and The Quest (otherwise known as The Hero’s Journey). As tools for persuading an audience these story types are more compelling than concepts, partly because the emotional content works side by side with cerebral content. We remember information by storing it in narrative form. Truthiness is always a story.