Means of communication

28 May 2015
28 May 2015
West Lafayette, IN
5 mins

How many Harry Potter fans are there in the world?

I don’t really know, either. But I don’t think it’s a question that there are a lot of them – millions of people in hundreds of cultures, languages, and countries. And every single one of these millions of fans has either watched over a dozen hours of movies in the franchise, or read almost thirty-five hundred pages of the books, or both. And that’s not counting the thousands of fan fictions, hundreds of songs, the dozens of HP-inspired bands, websites, and the handful of spin-off books in the massive Harry Potter universe. And lest we forgot, J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy boasts an equally impressive fandom, inspired by the films, the books, the languages, or the LoTR universe behind the stories. But to some extent, hundreds of major stories, from The Fault in Our Stars to The Hunger Games, inspire and bring together millions of people across almost any boundaries to make a community of people passionate about the same stories and the characters.

Looking at what unique stories can do, it’s obvious that they – not only novels and short stories, but also movies, fairy tales, bedtime stories.. the entire gamut – are more than words on paper. Stories are more than just an arrangement of words in a neat and recognizable pattern, because they’re an embodiment of the people and culture behind the stories. In other words, the stories well tell are collective a piece of our identity. We’re responsible for the stories we create, and our stories are responsible for who we are.

But when we talk about stories in the context of literature, I think there are two distinct “levels” of a story that operate somewhat independently. There’s the actual meat of the story, the plot, the characters, the ideas, and the details that form the events in a story and give it substance. And then there are the “mechanics” of the story, the word choice, literary devices, the sentence structures, historical background, literary movements, and symbols. When we talk about a “good story” or a “good book”, we’re almost always referring to the former – the story itself. The part that makes a writer a good author, rather than a good English speaker. And of course, the literary mechanics of a story is absolutely central to making a good book or a good story. Without the artful use of word choice and symbolism, neither Harry Potter nor To Kill a Mockingbird would be what it is – not even close. But the goal of writing a story isn’t to produce a cool collection of symbols, metaphors, and high-level vocabulary and diction, that’s just a by-product of using the tools of language to create engaging and meaningful stories.

For the vast majority of the people, classic stories like To Kill a Mockingbird or Catcher in the Rye make their first impressions on us in high school, in a class with the incredibly descriptive and specific name of “English” or “Literature”. But there is a mismatch between how we celebrate great stories as a community and how we choose to study these stories in the backdrop of a classroom. We recognize and celebrate great stories by looking at the big picture, the story itself rather than the mechanics, and only then do we sometimes choose to dig deeper, to find how the symbol of a sword plays a role in the idea of victory and courage in Harry Potter, for example. But in a classroom setting, we don’t look at stories in quite the same way. We start with a focus on the mechanics, and build up to look at the entire work as a whole by the end, with a different mindset. Rather than first admiring a van Gogh, and then seeing how each brushstroke and color choice affects the whole of a painting that some of us love, or taking your favorite movie, and then dissecting it to see how a particular character’s actions affected the whole plot, we do it the other way around. We start out by talking about individual brushstrokes on a painting. We spend too much time talking about he different kinds of brushes available, the different particular shades of blue, and the different ways of expressing skin tones in a painting. And when our minds are saturated with the low-level concepts of the mechanics of language, only then look at the complete whole.

Objectively speaking, there’s nothing wrong with either method. But I think, at least for my personal taste, talking about stories and works of literature as a whole, rather than drilling down into the details of mechanics and spending most of the time talking about them, makes the story so much more meaningful and, more importantly, interesting to think about.

Great stories come in two parts, the story itself, where characters meet their destiny and symbols shine light on truths, and the mechanics of the language, the tools the author uses as a vehicle to get his ideas and imagination across to the readers. And while it’s important that we have a good understanding of the vehicle authors use to communicate their stories, writers don’t write in order to show off their diction or metaphors. Artists don’t paint to express their favorite shade of red, and musicians ultimately don’t care if you like their intonation. The meaning of any work of art, and especially great stories, comes alive when the work is looked at as a whole, and when more focus is placed on the story itself rather than the details that make it what it is. And while those two things may not be completely separate, I think language can be a whole lot more than just a means of communication to telling great stories.

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