Wednesday, 2 November 2011

The Story Structure Choo Choo

People seemed to rather like my somewhat academic post on Reception Theory. So let's see if we can push it any further and still get a positive response. Try getting your head around this... 

In psychological terms, there are three elements to a text:

a) The words;
b) the things the words label, indicate or signify;
c) the conceptual meaning those words generate in the mind of the individual.

Words and what they label and signify are clearly variables and therefore not useful for analysis in themselves (imagine if they are in a foreign language - the words don't signify anything and the text becomes a useless scribble. Language is simply an agreed set of conventions shared by a community). No, a text is a dead pile of paper until it is brought to life through reading and the tangible value of a text is in the conceptual clouds of meaning that it can generate in the mind of the reader. If I give you a signifier: say, TRAIN you instantly have an image in mind and structural mental concepts bolted all around it to do with carriages, stations, track, ticket inspectors, passengers, drivers, signals, timetables and innumerable other things that make the signifier TRAIN meaningful to you in the real world.

But what exactly is the '8.15 Brighton to London' train? We all know, conceptually, what it is. But tomorrow it will be a different locomotive, different passengers, different driver, different carriages. It might not even leave at 8.15. But we all know what we mean.  

This is structure. Everything you can think of (in the peculiarly human, imaginative sense of thinking) exists only in linguistic patterns and only in terms of the other mental concepts you can place around it to give it a meaningful context. And it is ALL in the mind. But - and here lieth the problem - meaning is four-dimensional. The structures change continuously over time. When we absorb a text, we read one word at a time and the structures the words generate change and grow with every new word we add. Structure changes in mind, second by second, forever.

Let's take our train a little further. Every turn of the wheels forces new clouds of smoke into the sky above the smokestack. The smoke emerges in powerful billows, builds and grows, then as the train moves on, the smoke settles and floats a while, then dissipates in the distance. The smoke and its precise shape at any given moment can only ever be a snapshot of precisely that moment on that one and only journey. As readers, our eyes run like a train along the rails, taking in a journey of words. Every word we read billows cloud-shaped structures of meaning in our minds. We read sequentially, and each word we take in forces the smoke-like structures of meaning to change and grow. Strongest at the point of immediacy; but as we read, we forget. Like the smoke that changes above the smoke stack and dissipates in the distance, we cannot remember our precise mindset when we took on a new word and its meaning to the story at a particular moment along the way; we only retain the broad essentials that we need to understand the story going forwards. We end up completing a story, and we derive learning and pleasure and new understanding from completing that journey, but we don't remember the precise shape of our understanding of the story at any particular point, because it was ever-changing and amorphous. The journey was a unique, personal one-off experience, not an object that can ever be fixed. It never had a single, unified, grand structure that defined it.

And in the same way that a snapshot of the smoke billowing from a train's stack cannot possibly tell us anything about the individual journey that is being made by that train (let alone any individual passenger's feelings on that journey), so any structure that claims to represent any story is lost like wisps of smoke into far distant skies.

Stories are mental concepts. The text is merely the track along which our eyes run. Stories are the journey-in-mind - they have a time dimension. There is never a single representative structure that defines any story because it changes over time. There couldn't possibly be a single journey-defining shape of the smoke. Ever.

Structuralists have noticed that every time they find some rails they can successfully deduce information about a journey. And they go on to presume lots of things about the signals, stations, ticket inspectors, drinks trolleys, carriages and the rest of it.  

However, the real structure of a story is not about the rails; it's not about having three acts, a turning point on page 27 and four types of conflict. Story structure is different for every reader. It is more like the smoke above the stack. Ever-changing, indefinable, unique at every single moment and never, ever available for definitive structural analysis. A journey is about the way people feel and what they experience, not about the rails on which the journey took place. 

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