Two old tramps stand in a field. One struggles to take off his boot. The other does nothing to help. They talk, but they don’t listen. They are are waiting for somebody. Whoever it is does not arrive.
And that, folks, is the whole of Waiting For Godot by Samuel Beckett. Beckett’s play is one of the most infamous in the history of theatre, because it breaks the most fundamental constant of story. It’s a text for the theatre in which, famously, nothing happens.
And nothing changes.
A story without change is a like a wall without bricks. Change isn’t just a part of story, it’s what story is made of. To tell you a story I have to tell you what changes.
Jack was lazing on the sofa when his mum threw him out the door and said “go sell that cow!” Jack took the cow to market but nobody wanted it, so on the way back he traded Betty for a bag of magic beans! Jack’s mum saw the beans and went crazy, “you stupid boy, I don’t love you any more!” Jack wanted his mum to be proud, so when the beans sprouted into a giant beanstalk, he climbed up it.
And the rest, as they say, is a story.
Jack and the Beanstalk is one of the all time great stories. According to the Aarne-Thompson classification of folktales, we’ve been telling the story of a boy who steals from a giant for at least 3000 years. Will Star Wars, or Harry Potter, or the Hunger Games last that long? They already have! You can find stories just like these modern blockbusters going back thousands of years.
Stories that last, and stories that become bestsellers, blockbusters and box office gold, are stories about the kind of change that lots of people can connect with. Jack and the Beanstalk is a story about growing-up and becoming an adult. Jack starts as a lazy young boy, and ends as a man grown, with money, a big house, and a pretty wife (depending on the telling). Children hearing the story see the change ahead of them. Adults remember the changes behind them.
Universal, archetypal change is the material of every great story ever told.
But not all change is equal. Some changes effect the entire world. Other changes are felt inside a single human soul. When I’m crafting a story, I think about change on four levels: Physical, Social, Interpersonal and Psychological.
Physical – An earthquake flattens your village. The Vogons destroy your planet. You find a gold nugget in the forest. These are physical changes in your world that imply a story. Physical change can produce a great spectacle. Disaster movies like Titantic often focus on a big physical change, like a sinking ship. The cinema screen is the perfect place to show physical change. Most stories have some physical change. Jack can’t begin his adventure without the beanstalk shooting up into the sky. But on its own, physical change is flat. For it to have impact, we need to know how it effects people.
Social – Your king is killed by a rebel lord. The corporation you work for is bought out by asset strippers. A tribe escape slavery and cross the desert to freedom. Any storyteller worth their salt, the moment the see any of these social changes, will imagine the story around them. Unless you are a hermit in a cave, you live in a society of people. And for better or worse, our society shapes our lives. And change in our society will effect us deeply. Television is a great medium for social change, with HBO style tv shows like Game of Thrones or The Wire exploring dynamic changes in societies both real and imagined. War & Peace is a classic novel of social change. But to really engage with social change in a story, we need to see how it impacts closer to home.
Interpersonal – Your parents are killed in a car crash and you’re left an orphan. The family patriarch is dying and the kids squabble over the inheritance. A young daughter can only marry once her elder sister is married. Interpersonal change is about family, and tight knit friendship groups. It’s at this level that the real beauty of life unfolds, and the most blood is shed. From Cain and Able to Six Feet Under, interpersonal change is a well spring of great drama. Theatre, with its small cast, limited locations, and intense bond to the audience, is the natural medium explore dynamic interpersonal change at its most intimate. But as Shakespeare knew, when he gave Hamlet and Macbeth time on stage alone for a solioquy, there is an even deeper and more essential level of change.
Psychological – A man is convicted of murder and, alone in his cell, finally admits his own guilt to himself. A young lady rejects a marriage suitor three times, then realises she loved him when he marries another. An office worker realises he can do better and quits to become a writer. We all lead rich internal lives, and go through profound psychological changes. When we see that level of change reflected in a story, it tears open our emotions like nothing else. Love, hate, guilt, redemption, shame, healing and hope are all states of psychological being that change like the seasons. The novel, written in the language of our inner monologue, is the medium that dives most deeply into the psychological landscape of our lives.
It’s useful to seperate these tiers of change, so that as storytellers we can think about how they work in seperation. But the real beauty of story is in how changes interconnect. A volcano explodes on a small island. A nearby village is forced to evacuate. One family are torn apart in a desperate ocean crossing. The oldest daughter must come to terms with the loss of her parents, and take responsibility for three young brothers. Once you think across the levels of change, beautiful stories leap our everywhere you look.
Take a deeper dive into change, and the seven foundation sof storytelling, with The Rhetoric of Story. Course code STORYTEN.
Some thoughts on the fracticality of story.
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