The Map is Not The Territory

In Storytelling, as in all things, the map is not the territory. When we strive for a storytelling toolbox full of models and paradigms, we're not intending to (nor could we ever hope to) capture the true essence of storytelling. Just as the map can never contain as much detail as the territory (otherwise it would *become* the territory) the true essence (and detail) of storytelling can only be captured in stories themselves. All models are broken; some are useful.

Michael Hauge compares each storytelling paradigm to a view through a different window all looking at the same thing. Sometimes it feels like these storytelling models are looking at something fundamentally different. But the reason for this is that different perspectives emphasize different patterns found in storytelling. Due to the fact that no model can be truly complete or accurate (the map is not the territory), we as storytellers must be willing to change our perspectives early and often.

In many disciplines, there are different schools of thought. And each school of thought emphasizes different patterns. In strange ways, each school has a different grasp of the truth. Each has a different perspective on different patterns. Normally people survey each school of thought and adopt the one that best fits their values, whether that derives from logic, morals, or utility. But we storytellers are not normal.

If we can ever hope to grasp the essential nature of storytelling, we can't become complacent or prejudiced. We can't become cut off from other perspectives and ideas. We can't relegate ourselves to one school of thought. We can't handicap ourselves and use only one map. If we ever hope to find the "truth" of storytelling, we must use as many maps and perspectives as we possibly can! We must find the kernels of truth in each perspective. We must adopt the ability to change our perspective and emphasize different patterns at different times. We must consult multiple maps, because no single map holds the truth.

Let's take this a step further. We can create our own storytelling schools of thought that each advocate themselves as the "true" and "right" way. And there's real truth to that. Each storytelling school of thought is correct when peeking through the window from the school's perspective. Just in the same way that we gain a significantly better understanding from a video or from the ability to view an object by circling around it rather than simply from a static picture, we can gain a better understanding of storytelling by accepting the seemingly objective dissonance.

There's dissonance in believing at the same time that all storytelling schools of thought are correct. And yet, the process of trying to get a grasp on the truth of an art form cannot be an objective matter. We must change our thought process. We can't attempt to adopt all of the storytelling schools of thought at the same time. They each emphasize different patterns of the truth. Instead, we must be willing to change our perspective, adopting the view of a single school at a time. Each time we switch our perspective to a different school of thought, we adopt a new subjective truth. And from that perspective, there is absolutely truth. We're all looking at the same story, but through different windows.

We can generally denote the differences between schools of thought based on their answer to the question, "What's the most important part of storytelling?" Because here's the objective truth: "yes." All of it is the most important part of storytelling. The map (the paradigm, the school of thought, the model) would be ingenuous in saying that any one pattern is more important than the rest. They're all necessary to represent the true detail, richness, and complexity of the territory of story. There are merely different perspectives, all trying to point to the same essential nature.

What are some different ways we could attempt to answer the question, "What's the most important part of storytelling?" That will give us a list of some storytelling schools of thought.

  • The Moral Argument

    • The moral argument school of thought argues that the most important element of a story is the ability to properly explore and debate a moral argument (a theme). All elements of a story should be in service of supporting the argument of the theme. Structure, character arcs, character actions, risk, desire, and stakes all exist for the purpose of supporting or opposing a moral argument.

  • Information Management / The Revelation

    • The information management school of thought sees storytelling as a process of revealing and concealing information. The audience and all of the characters can each be called a "stakeholder" of information. Each stakeholder can know or not know any given piece of information at any given point in time. The job of the storyteller, then, is to manage who knows what and when. Stakeholders can have informational inferiority, equality, or superiority when compared with any other stakeholder.

    • Importance is bestowed upon the reveal--the moment at which information is revealed to a stakeholder. Storytellers can be thought of as emotional brokers and each turning point is a transaction.

  • Stakes

    • The stakes school of thought argues that all importance in a story is derived from the stakes. Stakes exist on an external, internal/emotional, and philosophical spine. Actions only demonstrate underlying character value if there is something at stake when taking the action. Stakes become motivation for fear of loss or desire to gain. As stakes are raised, so is audience interest and character commitment. The crisis is of utmost importance in defining values and character change over time. Stakes setup the great gamble of a story: "What do you value so much you'll risk it all?" Stakes create suspense. Stakes create emotional involvement. Stakes are at the core of both drama and theme. Stakes create consequences. Stakes create meaning.

    • This school of thought views a character desire using the model of a bet. A desire is a bet that something can be gained or that loss of something can be prevented. With that initial bet comes a set of stakes. The stakes can be raised over the course of the story and the outlook of the bet can shift as new information is revealed. At a certain point, the outcome of the bet is forced and the winner of the stakes is decided.

  • The Dramatic Question

    • The dramatic question school of thought argues that the most important aspect of storytelling derives from a well-formed absence of information. The audience is given just enough information to realize that there is a dramatic puzzle to solve. Mystery and suspense are of utmost importance. The universal law of 2+2 reigns supreme.

  • Juxtaposition / Synthesis / Kuleshov Effect

    • The juxtaposition school of thought argues that both meaning and interest comes from a the juxtaposition of two disparate elements in time, space, or medium. The process of synthesizing and reconciling the disparate elements is a puzzle resulting in meaning. It keeps the audience working for the meal and provides a payoff.

  • Cause-And-Effect

    • The Cause-and-Effect school argues that as long as a story maintains a contextually believable chain of cause-and-effect that most anything can be done in the story. This school argues that narrative is a psychological process of deriving meaning about causes from their resulting effects. It's about imposing explanations on a chain of events in order to attempt to make order of the chaos. If cause-and-effect is strictly adhered to, stories thrive.

  • Empathy / Identification

    • The empathy school of thought argues that other elements are useless if the audience does not empathize with not only the characters but also the problems and situations of the story. The audience must be able to psychologically insert themselves into the story in order to feel the emotions of the story and take away the most value from the story's moral argument. The empathy school of thought believes that the audience's ability to psychologically project into the story (the avatar bond) should be prioritized.

  • Desire

    • The desire school of thought argues that desire is the wellspring of narrative. From desire comes action and only through action can conflict become possible. Conflict then implies uncertainty which gives rise to suspense, thus resulting in audience interest. Desire itself is an indication of moral values and the action born of desire can demonstrate a character's moral values when there are stakes. Desire is motivation. Desire is what causes the narrative engine to move forward. Desire is the root of subtext, dialogue, and all character action.

None of these schools of thought are individually wholly correct. None of them can capture the essence of storytelling on their own. But by changing our perspective and considering each at different times, we can hope to have a better understanding of the territory of storytelling. Storytelling is quick to learn, and incredibly hard to master (the mark of a good game). The more we learn, the less we know.