Friday, September 14, 2007
What All Stories are About
By David G. Woolley
There was a time in my college days I didn't believe the script writing professor. He said all stories were ultimately about birth and death. The man was an ad director who retired from his Manhattan agency for a career in teaching script writing. Not that you can't trust ad people and their creative attempts to convince me I need a hand sewn magnetic head warmer to promote brain wave function, but they're the ones who hype high fructose corn syrup to reduce the risk of type four diabetes--the type of diabetes the coroner diagnoses. Can you really trust a professor who makes a comment using the word all ?
I don't remember everything I learned in my college statistics courses, but when a lecturer said it was statistically possible to know if a question was true or false based on how it was phrased, I perked right up. You mean there is a real-world application for standard deviations? I admit my perkiness was more about not having to study the course material too deeply and still have a statistically significant chance of acing the test. It was the greatest find since Columbus used a time machine to transport the Pilgrims to Plymouth Rock. History is my best subject. My statistics professor was also the same scholar who advised a local frozen food packing company that the best way to insure lower rates of employee turnover was to hire applicants who scored below thirty percent on the company's entrance exam. Apparently exam scores predict a reverse correlation between the repetitive work of stuffing pasta into plastic freezer bowls and job satisfaction. Based on those findings I was willing to suspend my disbelief and I took copious notes to preserve forever the knowledge of how to divine which test bubble, A or B, to darken with a #2 pencil.
Turns out it was a pretty simple matter of semantics. If the question uses the words all or always, you can be 95% certain that the answer is false. When my script writing professor insisted that all stories are ultimately about birth or death, I was statistically skeptical. It wasn't until after he explained the nuances of his claim that I learned he fell into that narrow 5% category of being always semantically false while at the same time remaining true to the art of storytelling.
I said, "Where is the story of birth or death in the Sound of Music?"
He pointed out that when characters change they essentially let their old way of thinking or behaving die in exchange for a birth into a new way of behaving. What he called a new life. Maria, the Captain, all the Von Trapp children, the blond-headed telegram delivery boy of going-on-seventeen-fame turned Nazi. Even Max the freeloader who loved rich people ephiphanized new wine and stored it in a new bottle. There's something to that Jewish parable. It was Max who said he loved the way he lived when he was with rich people, but finally exchanged his greed and let his new-found Von Trapp Family Singers escape over the Swiss Alps.
Okay. Maybe my script-writing professor was right. There are metaphorical births and deaths in that rerun-of-a-drama, but that was an old story lost among millions of newer stories.
I said, "What about Ground Hog Day?"
I was willing to concede the stories of romance, drama even documentary. But comedy? I figured I had him until he pointed out that the main character in Ground Hog Day, when he discovered he was living in a repetitive day that re-cycled every twenty four hours, searched for happiness in the base pleasures of the world. When that didn't make him happy, he gave away his former life, essentially letting it die. It wasn't until he was reborn into a new life did the repetitive daily routine break and the story end with a satisfying conclusion.
Darn. I was forced to concede comedy too.
This is the point where I should limit my analysis to storytelling and declare that birth and death act as metaphors for character change. But its deeper than that. Character change just may be a metaphorical death and birth equivalent for slavation. The spiritual connections are obvious. Faith. Repentance (and its corollary forgiveness). Baptism. Atonement. Maybe what my script-writing professor was teaching me without actually mentioning it was that all things are spiritual. Even all our stories.