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Three Paradoxes of Story Meaning

In storytelling, paradoxes abound.

In every case of paradox, we need to notice not just the effect we intend to create, but also the potentially opposite effect.

Continuously noticing the effects of our storytelling like this is demanding and sometimes unsettling. But it can also help our telling.

Let’s look at three paradoxes that concern meaning.

Story vs. Plot

Do you know E.M.Forster’s famous distinction between story (what happened) and plot (why it happened)? He said,

“The king died and then the queen died” is a
story. “The king died and then the queen died of
grief” is a plot.

Forster goes on to say (in his book, Aspects of the Novel, page 86) that a plot with mystery in it is higher still, because it gets us further from the bare facts of what he calls “story”:

The queen died, no one knew why, until it was
discovered that it was through grief at the death
of the king.

As a plot grows further from a purely sequential recitation of events, Forster claims, it demands more than curiosity from its listeners; it demands intelligence and memory.

Adding a Third Level

Now enter Viktor Frankl, author of Man’s Search for Meaning. Frankl does not discuss plot or story, but what humans need:

What man actually needs is … the striving and
struggling for some goal worthy of him. What he
needs is not the discharge of tension at any cost,
but the call of a potential meaning waiting to be
fulfilled by him.

From this point of view, neither the sequence of events (what you seek) nor the causality (why you seek it) is as important as the meaning of seeking it. The most important aspect of a human’s “striving and struggling for some goal…”, we could say, is a potential meaning, waiting to be embodied by a person’s actions.

Forster’s examples don’t take on the question of meaning, but perhaps Frankl’s level of story would be met by something like this:

The queen saw that, once her husband’s inspiring
personality was no longer among them, her subjects
needed an example of selfless bravery; and so, on
what turned out to be the last night of her life,
she carried bread through the snowstorm to the
stranded and starving peasants; that was how she
caught pneumonia and soon died.

Combining Forster and Frankl, therefore, we can view a story on three levels:

  1. The events: what happens;
  2. The causality connecting the events;
  3. The meaning that the causally connected events have.

The Paradox of Importance

Paradoxically, the third, most important aspect of a story – its meaning – is not intrinsic to the story. Rather, it is born in the minds of the listeners.

For example, the queen’s sacrifice of herself may be seen by one listener as noble. Or, by another listener, as a tragic waste of her own life. Or, by a third, as ineffective, self-delusional folly. A fourth may conceivably find it a slightly comic reminder of our tendency to over-estimate our own importance.

So we have this paradox: as humans, we need meaning above all. Yet the meaning of a life’s story is determined, not by the person living it but by those who hear it told.

From the storyteller’s point of view – especially in applied storytelling – we care most about the meaning that our listener’s receive. Yet our stories never fully “contain” that meaning. Rather, we must induce our listeners to create it anew each time.

Are You Helpless to Determine the Meaning?

The teller of a story can certainly slant our understanding of its meaning in own direction or another.

If the teller thinks the self-sacrificing queen is unrealistic, for example, the teller may give the queen a breathy tone of voice, or insert a scene early on in which she is primping herself in front of a mirror, imagining herself being lauded for selfless bravery.

Another teller, who thinks the queen is a true hero, may instead say the queen’s words with a sincere voice and solid posture, or may insert scenes that show how close to death the peasants are and how few options are available for saving them.

The teller’s artistry can make it more likely that listeners will attribute a particular meaning to a story. But, in the end, meaning is always the listener’s creation.

The Paradox of Ownership

What about just telling your listeners what your story is supposed to mean?

When the meaning is not that important, that strategy works well. But here’s another paradox:

When listeners create their own meanings for a
story, they feel ownership of them and therefore
hold them close to their hearts. But when they are
told what the teller thinks a story means, they
are less attached to that meaning.

In other words, there is a trade-off between participation and control. If you want high listener participation in meaning-making, you lose some control over what meaning they make. If you reassert control, you lose their sense of commitment to the story’s meaning.

The Paradox of Character Speech

That said, there are certain techniques that increase the probability that the meanings your listeners create for your story will be closer to the meanings you have in mind.

One example is having a character make a meaning statement in the course of the story. Suppose the queen said this as she began her fatal journey into the snow:

I think I can more helpful to the peasants as a martyr than as a living queen.

In this case, a meaning has been suggested, but not by you. Because the queen is attributed with saying this, your listeners won’t likely be resentful of your saying it. But, because they will identify to some extent with the queen, they will entertain that meaning – and perhaps even adopt it as their own.

Paradoxically, by speaking as the queen, your words aren’t attributed to “you.” Your words do their suggestive work, but you aren’t blamed for it.

Living in Paradox

Keeping all these tricky paradoxes in mind as you tell can be daunting. It may even be daunting enough to keep you humble – and light on your feet.

Paradoxically, those are good qualities to adopt, if you want to stay effective as a storyteller!

(For more techniques for combining participation with control, see the Message Telling course.)

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