“Storytelling, then, is born from our need to order everything outside ourselves.” – John Yorke, Into the Woods
In his excellent book Into the Woods, John Yorke talks about how other cultural forms, from philosophical texts to jazz records, are like stories. They all try to provide order in a seemingly chaotic world, something that humans instinctively do. It’s a way of giving life meaning and asserting some control.
Books about story structure follow this same pattern. They’re attempts to assert order out of the apparent chaos of words and imagination. Yorke’s own book fits the pattern he’s describing.
Good or bad, right or wrong, writing guides help us to assert order over writing. In doing so, they make us feel good, which perhaps explains why so many writing guides, of such variable quality, go soaring off the shelves.
These structures can be useful as well as satisfying if they give us enough feeling of control to grapple with the task of writing. And as Yorke shows, beneath their novelties, many of them follow the same underlying patterns.
At the end of the day, these too are stories – stories about how stories work.
I love novel approaches to story and games. So when I saw a flyer for a monthly “art, gaming and storytelling experiment” delivered to subscribers by post, I was never going to resist.
Each month, Cryptogram Puzzle Post sends you a bundle of beautifully presented and interconnected puzzles. There are pretty pictures, brain teasers, and a suggested playlist, all themed around a story of alchemy and nature. It’s so fricking cool.
I haven’t got far with my puzzles. I’m still stuck on the last page of the first set and the second delivery arrived days ago. But even that adds to the excitement. Having something fun come by post, instead of junkmail. The lovely illustrated envelope. The anticipation of knowing that it’ll arrive and of opening the envelope.
The modern world has made it easier to experiment with culture. The internet lets you reach a wide audience with niche products. But this means we can get stuck doing stuff electronically.
Cryptogram Puzzle Post is something a bit different. For that alone, I salute it. And spend hours obsessing over it, trying to solve that last damn puzzle.
If anyone ever tries to tell you that stories don’t matter or that the arts aren’t important, point them at Napoleon Bonaparte.
During his meteoric rise from republican army officer to ruler of France, Napoleon was always telling a story. It was the story of his triumphs.
He sent reports home from campaign before anyone else could, portraying his actions in the best possible light. He commissioned pamphlets and paintings. He made sure that everybody knew that he was the best. His campaign in Egypt was a disaster in which he ended up leaving his battered army behind, but he spun it as a triumph. This was a large part of how he gained power.
As First Consul and later Emperor, Napoleon continued this trend. He backed newspapers. He sponsored art competitions. He filled the salons of Paris with depictions of his greatness, tying France’s successes firmly to his own. Many of the most famous paintings of the period were commissioned by him, and they all make him look triumphant. Even as he over-stretched and a foreign coalition closed in, France believed in him.
You could say similar things about Donald Trump. Despite bankruptcies and court cases, he has told a story of himself as a success. Enough people believe it to make him president of the USA.
Stories matter. Art matters. They shape the way we view the world.