Tuesday, 20 January 2015

The Delivered Story; The Interpreted Story

Whenever you absorb a story, you are actually experiencing *two* stories. Or at least, two versions of the same story. This is well accepted in academia, and was first documented by the Russian Formalists in the 1920s, (Victor Shlovsky, Vladmir Propp et al) who called the first version the Syuzhet and the second version the Fabula. Great words, but let me try to simplify it to what can help a writer deliver better story today. 

The first version is the delivered story. All the tangible sensory stimulation you receive from having the story communicated to your eyes and ears. So, in a film, this includes the music, images, dialogue, action, character behaviours, the poster, the trailer, the reviews you read, the blog-post, your knowledge of the star's personal life - everything that contributes to what you think about the story.

In a book, of course, the written words are the total sensory stimulation. Here is, allegedly, the shortest novel ever written:

"For Sale. Baby's Shoes. Never Worn."

In this case, the total delivered story is just those six words (and whatever else you might overlay if you know it was (allegedly) written by Earnest Hemmingway).

But of course, there is more to every story than just what you are delivered. There is the second level - the Fabula - or the interpreted story. This is everything you know from the delivered story PLUS everything else you add to the delivered story in order to make a complete production of it in your own head.

    The delivered story
 + Your conclusions from understanding the delivered story
== The Interpreted story

The delivered story is the same for everyone; it is objective and denoted. We can point out all its elements and quantify it. 

The interpreted story is a unique and individual production, produced in full inside the head of the receiver as a result of interpreting the delivered story.

The skill of a writer is in crafting the delivered story - that's what you write - but just enough so most target audience will fill the knowledge gaps in similar ways, and create for themselves in mind a wonderful, complete interpreted version of your story.

So, what interpreted story did you get from Hemmingway's six words? most people get a sad story comprising a child tragically lost in pregnancy or shortly afterwards. If pushed, they can describe the couple and envisage numerous events going back to their meeting, the circumstances surrounding the conception, the onset of the tragic problem, what happens afterwards and so forth; but the interpretation is essentially the same for most people.

However, those six words could just as easily have spawned a comedy story in mind, in which the grandparents have bought the new born baby a pair of baby shoes, only to find that the kid has giant feet, coming in at size nine from birth, causing much mirth and a driving need to sell the shoes.

However, very few people get anything like that from this delivered story. We all interpret the knowledge gaps in the same way... and that is master storytelling.

As a writer, the thing to bear in mind here is that we humans *love* to fill in knowledge gaps. We adore puzzles and questions and projecting and speculating and subtext and getting the right answer. As a writer, your job is to craft knowledge gaps. They are the tool of your trade. You bed knowledge gaps into your delivered story in order to inspire interpretation; in order that that the complete, interpreted story is found in the subtext and built beautifully in the mind of your audience.THAT is the skill of a fine writer. 

So learn about knowledge gaps. Learn about the relationship between gaps and subtext. Learn about the relationship between gaps and morality.

The more knowledge gaps there are, the more your audience will love your stories.


  1. Great post, David. I love this concept. It's part of the magic. Do you think subtext can come subconsciously during the writing process? Sometimes I've had feedback from a reader who's gleaned something I haven't consciously added in but they're spot on. That's so exciting!

  2. Thanks Wendy. I love this concept too. As writers, we can manage large parts of the subtext/knowledge gaps we embed, but yes, subtext is implicit to every story whether you intend it to be there or not, and will feature all over the place in ways you hadn't intended! If you picture the relative size of the 'delivered' compared to the 'interpreted', if they are the same size, there is no interpretation. It's just communication of solid facts. The smaller the 'delivered' becomes relative to the interpreted, the greater the amount of interpretation that's going on, until you reach 'story' forms where different people will interpret the 'delivered' in different ways, and will get different stories; e.g., Shakespeare sonnets, poetry and - perhaps at the furthest extreme - song lyrics, where you and I might hear the same song and have totally different ideas regarding what the lyrics mean.

  3. Wow, David, this is most welcome, this take of yours, the subtext, which we all hear about but which isn`t mentioned in the manuals because what can story mechanics say about subtext? Not much! Perhaps nothing. The writing world is desperate for this kind of discussion, despite not knowing they need this kind of discussion. I hope I don' have to wait another two months for your next post. I've just got to know you! More! Cheers.