As a storyteller, one of my favourite things is story theory.

And talking about it – I am a nerd, after all.

Storytelling is a craft that is intrinsically linked to being human.

Because ever since we could tell stories, we have been.

Cave paintings were the first animations.

Marc Azéma, a Paleolithic researcher and filmmaker, proposed in a 2012 paper that the cave paintings found in Chauvet, Lascaux, and other famous Palaeolithic caves were actually early animations.

That makes the art of animation 32,000 years old!

Palaeolithic artists designed a system of graphic narrative that depicted a number of events befalling the same animal, or groups of animals, so transmitting an educational or allegorical message. They also invented the principle of sequential animation, based on the properties of retinal persistence. This was achieved by showing a series of juxtaposed or superimposed images of the same animal.

– Marc Azéma & Florent Rivère, Animation in Palaeolithic art: a
pre-echo of cinema

According to Azéma’s theory, the effect of animation was achieved with the flickering of firelight as it was moved across the stationary stone wall where the drawing was.

The combination of the flickering light and moving it across a surface allowed for the images painted onto the walls to come alive – and, presumably, this was accompanied by storytelling and dramatisation.

It would have looked something like this:

Video source: Flipt pictures

Azéma himself made a video juxtaposing the cave paintings with their animated counterparts to show what the intended animation was:

Science journalist Zach Zorich noted, that when Lascaux was discovered in 1940, over 100 stone lamps were also found throughout the cave, lending credence to Azéma’s theory.

Zorich explained that the archaeologists who discovered the cave paintings didn’t consider how the brightness and location of lights altered how the paintings were supposed to be viewed.

Jean-Michel Geneste, the curator at Lascaux, believes that early artists used the small area of light created by the grease lamps they used at the time as a storytelling device.

The spot of yellow light containing only one, two or three animals, and the darkness surrounding it was a crucial tool of the narrative structure.

Today, when you light the whole cave, it is very stupid because you kill the staging.

– Jean-Michel Geneste, Lascaux’s curator

So, storytelling has been our constant companion throughout human existence.

And today’s modern audiences are flooded with advanced storytelling.

Why do we love stories?

Storytelling is nature’s way of making it pleasurable to understand and remember important information.

We’ve been using stories to communicate important concepts and pass down information from the very beginning.

And I don’t think it’s too idealistic of a statement to say that storytelling is a kind of quest for meaning.

We engage with stories intellectually and emotionally in an attempt to understand – it’s essentially an exercise in empathy.

Today we turn to stories for information, comfort, catharsis, escape, catalytic challenge and inspiration.

Telling stories around the campfire, drawing animals on the walls of caves, and singing songs of love and death is all a part of our questioning the meaning of being, of life and death.

Stories are the tool by which we search for our place in the world.

And the artist is someone who is full of questions, crying them out in great angst, discovering rainbow answers in the darkness, and then rushing to the paper or canvas to record them, as Madeleine L’Engle said.

An artist is someone who cannot rest [. . .]. Along with Plato’s divine madness, there is also divine discontent, a longing to find the melody in the discords of chaos, the rhyme in the cacophony, the surprised smile in the time of stress or strain.

– Madeleine L’Engle

Storytelling is a process of ordering by which we, humankind, strive to understand our own existence.

As you learn more about the craft of storytelling, you eventually encounter story theory.

Story theory is humanity’s collective idea of what stories are.

Story theory poses that there are certain patterns to stories that repeat themselves over and over again to create the very definition of what we consider to be a story.

And though many writers tend to identify the individual parts as mere “rules for success”, story theory is so much more.

In recognising that the story itself is archetypal, the tools and techniques of the storytelling craft emerge as a fascinating meta-commentary on the deeper questions of life itself.

Knowing story theory helps you derive more meaning from stories.

The first time I watched The Matrix, I walked out of the theatre having no idea what I’d just witnessed, but utterly, hopelessly in love with it.

I was besotted.

And in subsequent years I watched and rewatched the movie.

But it wasn’t until I started learning about story theory that I really began to understand what I was so drawn to in that particular story.

In learning the hero’s journey, about things like peripeteia, and by understanding character development, I was able to look at the story in a critical manner.

And it was through that repeated analysis that I finally gained a deeper understanding of what that story means to me and why it resonates with me so deeply.

Some stories, like the Transformers film adaptations, don’t stand up to critical thinking and analytical scrutiny very well, and once you’ve been able to lift the wool off your own eyes, watching the films again becomes a study in patriarchal storytelling rather than a story about robo-aliens.

Having read the books, watching HBO’s Game of Thrones was an exercise in frustration.

But it wasn’t until analysing the show that I really understood why it was so frustrating to watch.

Understanding story theory hasn’t just been a part of education as a writer, it has also made me a more cognisant reader and viewer, that understands herself and her place in the world better because of it.

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