Stories: celebrations and warnings

In simple terms there are two basic stories: happy ones and unhappy ones.

For dramatic effect, a sophisticated story contains sections within it that will be happy, while other sections will be unhappy. A satisfying story demands changes in tone. In a film, it’s the ending that ultimately decides if the story as a whole is one or the other.

Happy stories are celebrations. They are uplifting, jubilant — sometimes comedies, sometimes serious in tone, more often than not associated with success. Unhappy stories are warnings, tragedies — linked to failure. Hansel and Gretel is a warning that turns into a celebration. Scarface is a celebration that turns into a warning.

Dramatic stories are extremes of the two states. Constant reversals of fortune. Less dramatic stories are more nuanced, existing within a grey area. The audience continues reading or watching to find out if the story is a celebration or a warning, or a combination of the two.

In the sandpit metaphor of storytelling, stories are safe places where readers or an audience can safely experience emotions. The sandpit offers a child a simulation of reality. Fiction offers readers and an audience a place where they can have emotional experiences without putting themselves in danger.

Celebrations are the heroic victories that we look up to and admire. They are simulations of success.

Warnings tell us not to emulate the characters, or pay a price, because poor choices, bad luck, and foolishness bring ill fortune. We read or watch their mistakes reassured that we are not so foolish.

Readers and audiences are emotionally fascinated by the spectacle — the admiration, or the schadenfreude — of watching fictional characters face or avoid their challenges. Their dreams and fears. Sometimes we wish we were more like them. Sometimes we’re glad it’s them and not us.