Once upon a time…

In Erich Auerbach’s famous book, stories in the western tradition originated from two ancient (and very different) ideas:

Aristotle’s Model (character/conflict/resolution)

  • A person wants something
  • Comes close to getting it
  • Is smashed down
  • Finally gets it, or not (clear resolution)

Ovid’s Model (continuous transformation and change)

  • One thing transforming into another
  • Transformations are both delightful and tragic
  • Inexplicable, unpredictable, emotional, messy
  • Process is ongoing and continuous (no clear resolution)

Ovid’s model of continuous change and transformation could turn out to be the way stories are told for the internet. But Aristotle’s Model has held sway for most of modern times.

Two different approaches to storytelling evolved from Aristotle:

Homer’s Odyssey

  • Characters were aristocrats and gods
  • Acted in adventures/misadventures of their own making
  • Characters controlled their destiny (it didn’t always work out their way)
  • Used their skills and intelligence (decision making) to make things happen
  • Personally unchanged by experience: didn’t learn anything
  • Result: neat; clear resolution; nothing is hidden or unexplained (and therefore less real)

The Bible (New Testament)

  • Characters were ordinary people
  • Lifted up or smashed down by unknowable forces (God) outside their control
  • No control over their destiny
  • Obedience (to God), not decision making, was the only way to save themselves
  • Were profoundly transformed (they were older, wiser, dead) by the experience
  • Result: messy; no clear resolution; many mysteries and questions remain (more like real life)

Modern storytelling methods take elements of both:

  • Characters are ordinary people (Bible)
  • Conflicts of their own making and/or driven by forces beyond their control (Aristotle/Bible)
  • Characters use decision making to solve conflicts – or not (Aristotle)
  • Characters are profoundly changed and learn something (Bible)

Memesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature – Erich Auerbach (2003)