Posted by: meredithalawrence | October 14, 2012

Understanding Narrative from Two Sides of the Story

In Chapter 17, O’Shaughnessy and Stadler lay out two terms with which to analyze story, binary opposition and dialectical synthesis, which offer the reader a stark view of the narrative arc of a story. “Narratives are organized around conflict and opposition, which are fundamental to narrative interest,” they say (p. 284).

While it seems undeniable that much of the material that makes for a compelling story stems from some conflict, when we read Jack Hart’s chapter, “Story” from his book Storycraft, and hear about the construction of a story from the point of view of the storyteller, O’Shaughnessy and Stadler’s black and white lines start to blur and we are left with a more compelling and multi-facetted definition of what drives a good story.

Hart tells us that is own favorite definition of a story comes from Jon Franklin and states that, “a story consists of a sequence of actions that occur when a sympathetic character encounters a complicating situation that he confronts and solves.”

It is this concept of a “sympathetic character” that I find lacking in O’Shaughnessy and Stadler’s conversation on narrative, and which I find most appeals to me as a storyteller. O’Shaughnessy and Stadler present characters mainly as objects that drive the plot, stating that “major characters are initially presented in narratives as having some kind of flaw in their character or an emotional problem.” While this may be true, it ignores the power that a good character has to bring member of the audience into the story. I find that it is often a sympathetic character that lies at the heart of any good story, even a primarily plot-driven one.

Take for example, the story that Hart relates working on, entitled “The Boy Behind the Mask,” which is the story of a local boy who is living with a major facial deformity and facing the judgment crucible that is high school. When plastic surgery nearly kills him, he and his family rally and he resolves to live with his deformity and get on with his life. Clearly this story has an element of opposition and is moved forward by both an emotional problem and the search for a cure to a physical flaw, but as Hart relates it, it is the strength of the boy that renders the reader riveted.

Hart tells us that, “a compelling story must immerse readers in another world, carrying them away from their mundane daily cares.” “The Boy Behind the Mask” accomplishes this immersion through the representation of a character that the reader cannot help but sympathize with. If the boy were not sympathetic, were a horrible human being, or handled the daunting task in front of him in a cowardly way, there might have been a simple news report, but there would not have been a narrative worth telling. Which brings me to ask, is it really enough to consider a story in terms of opposition or must we consider the deeply sympathetic nature of the characters who draw us into their stories?



  1. I think you make a good point about the stark analysis of narrative in our text. O’Shaughnessy and Stadler are coming at their description from an academic perspective, whereas Hart’s real-world experience has the feel of someone who has learned what actually succeeds and doesn’t through trial and error.

    O’Shaughnessy and Stadler also more or less ignore the talent of the media creator. We all know that it’s the quality of writing/filming/etc that makes a story, whether the story fits a formula or not.

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