There is a significant difference between tales and stories. One can be thrown out and quickly disregarded because it has relatively little to stand on. The other offers meaning and emotional resonance that extends far beyond the initial viewing.
A tale is merely a statement: a linear progression from one event to the next culminating in one singular outcome. In contrast, a story is an argument: a course of logical and emotional reasoning aimed at proving that a particular approach is either a good one, or a bad one. Complete stories argue their point in such a way that they leave little for the audience to reject or refute.
A tale, on the other hand, is ultimately forgotten because of the proliferance of exceptions that are inherent to its form. There is no argument being made, no discernible point to it all.
This is why stories are superior. An argument’s ultimate goal, after all, is to tell some truth; its purpose is to relay some meaning to an audience. This is where the power of stories lies and is why so many Authors strive to produce them.
Stories as Arguments
The attached montage of movie clips seeks to prove that truly wonderful films are the end result of a filmmaker trying to argue a particular meaning. Spoiler Alerts abound for the films Fight Club and The Sixth Sense - if you haven’t seen these films and still want to be surprised, don’t click play and please stop reading!
One cannot possibly come away from The Shawshank Redemption without the understanding that no matter the situation, there is always hope. It is what Stephen King and Frank Darabont were trying to communicate through by telling this particular story—there was intention behind their creation.
Likewise, one can’t watch Fight Club and not believe that sometimes anarchy and self-destruction is an effective solution to one’s problems. David Fincher certainly has a point of view about the hopeless reality of life and more often than not executes it brilliantly. At the other end of the spectrum, Walt Disney’s Pinocchio argues that one should simply do the right thing. While handled in a more obvious way than Fight Club, Pinocchio is no less effective; both films are about something.
But it is in the climactic clip from The Sixth Sense that one can clearly see how meaningful stories work on all levels.
The Connection Between the Personal and the External
Malcom Crowe (Bruce Willis) had been fooling himself (as many Main Characters do) into believing that what he saw and what he perceived as being reality was in fact, real. It was only by working his way through the story and allowing the influence of Cole into his life that he finally understood what was really going on.
The truly great thing about this story was that this understanding was reflected not only in Malcom’s personal throughline but also in the larger story about a disturbed boy and his even more disturbing visions.
Many of the characters in the film (Malcom included) perceive Cole’s outlandish actions as symptomatic of a heavily disturbed mental psychosis. They believe that Cole must be a victim of some sort of child abuse or that he is acting out because his father is gone. He couldn’t possibly be seeing real ghosts.
As it turns out, they were dead wrong.
The Real Reason Stories Exist
Their error of perception, the same that Malcom experiences personally, is shown to be deception, deliberate or otherwise. Overcoming this problem is the focus of the story, and the ultimate meaning of the film.
When people talk about the importance of story, of creating a narrative that matters, what they are really looking for is some way of bringing meaning into the piece. Structure exists to create this meaning. This message, or purpose, has to be in there from the beginning of development. It can’t be tacked on towards the end of the writing process and the specifics of it can’t be tied to a myopic story paradigm.
The Shawshank Redemption, Fight Club, Pinnochio—all these films were carefully designed with an overall purpose in mind. Whether it was the benefits of hope when there is no hope or the healing power of anarchy, each film was trying to say something the Authors felt was very important. Tales are usually the unfortunate result of an Author unsure of what they want to say, or confused as to how proper story structure can aid in their writing process.
In regards to this last point, the argument made in The Sixth Sense can be applied to writing as much as it can towards deceased ghosts who don’t know they’re really dead. People should look beyond what they see, what they perceive to be the truth about storytelling, and really dig down deep to the reality that exists.
Story structure communicates the Author’s argument.
Advanced Story Theory for this Article
The concept of the difference between a story and a tale is something that sits at the heart of the Dramatica theory of story. The first chapter of the theory book states in no uncertain terms that Dramatica is concerned with stories that seek to be meaningful by arguing a particular point-of-view. Tales can attempt to be meaningful, but this meaning will always be left to interpretation by audiences; the meaning will warp and bend because of each individual audience member’s subjective experience.
Complete stories, what Dramatica refers to as Grand Argument Stories, are designed to communicate a specific perspective regardless of who receives the message. If the givens in the story are accepted, audience members will find it close to impossible to argue a counterpoint. This is because a complete story covers all the bases.
The message is not left open to interpretation.