Before becoming a poet, a Wizard of AdsTM and a writing instructor, Peter Nevland was an engineer at Motorola.
Andrew Backus is a geologist and the living embodiment of Doctor Doolittle. The number of injured animals Andrew has rescued from the roadside would overflow the San Diego Zoo. Andrew and Peter are both cognoscenti graduates of The Magical Worlds Communications Workshop.
When I saw Peter talking to Andrew I walked over to where they were standing. This was going to be interesting.
Peter looked at me and said, “What makes one storyteller more interesting than another?”
Not sure where this was headed, I asked, “Are you asking, or are you about to tell me?
Peter said, “I’ve developed algorithms* to help me grade the writing assignments of my students, but I haven’t been able to reverse engineer what makes the basic structure of a story interesting.”
I said, “Ahhh. Architecture. So you’re asking, then?”
Peter nodded, so I continued. “Stories become interesting when highly divergent components converge. Predictable stories are built from elements with too few degrees of separation between them. That’s what makes the narrative arc (the plot) of those stories feel linear; the listener can easily guess what’s going to happen next. Good storytellers begin with a high degree of separation between the elements in their stories, thereby increasing the listener’s surprise and delight when those elements converge.”
Andrew said, “Can you give me an example?”
I decided to use a technique called Random Entry that I learned from Mark Fox, one of the instructors at Wizard Academy.**
I said, “I want each of you to think back over the past 24 hours and focus on something that has occupied your attention for a period of time, something you felt to be interesting and worthwhile.” A minute later Andrew said, “I’ve got something,” and Peter said, “Me, too.”
I looked toward Andrew and he told me about Zoysia grass. “Not only will it grow in dry climates, but it will also grow in the shade.”
Peter spoke of a pattern in Psalm 15 that is broken – intentionally, Peter believes – to dramatically emphasize the unique nature of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
I said, “You will agree that those two ideas are highly divergent from one another?”
Both of them smiled and nodded.
I then told them the story of how God is like Zoysia grass.
One of my literary heroes, Tom Robbins, says, “Everything in the universe is connected, of course: it’s a matter of using imagination and research to discover the links and using language to expand and enliven them.”
I did the “research” Tom Robbins speaks about as I listened to Andrew and Peter. The key to this research is to probe for the defining characteristics of each story until you’ve clearly identified components within the two stories that can be linked. These are your points of connection. All that remained for me, then, was to build a bridge between Andrew’s tale of Zoysia grass and Peter’s tale of Psalm 15. The points of connection make it possible.
Building the bridge is easier than you would think. The points of connection are always there. I know it sounds crazy but, “Everything in the universe is connected, of course.”
I continued my explanation to Andrew and Peter. “The bridge that connects highly divergent ideas is like the flow of electric current. It’s powerful and illuminating and it always feels like magic.” * * *
Andrew said, “So the bridge is like a third gravitating body?”
“Not quite,” I answered. We won’t have a true, third gravitating body until we find a third idea that’s as divergent from Zoysia Grass and the God of Israel as those two ideas are from each other. When a single bridge unites three highly divergent components, you have a tool that will gain and hold the attention of the masses.”
If anyone can build that into an algorithm, Peter can.
I’m interested in seeing how this turns out, aren’t you?
Roy H. Williams
* In mathematics and computer science, an algorithm is a step-by-step procedure for calculations. Algorithms are used for calculation, data processing, and automated reasoning. – WIKIPEDIA
** Mark teaches Da Vinci and the 40 Answers twice a year and Systematic Idea Generation when he’s in the mood.
* * * We discuss the electricity that flows from the two poles of a duality when they are brought into close proximity in “Sinatra’s Riddle,” the Monday Morning Memo for July 7, 2014.
Ray Seggern (left) and Gair Maxwell (right) are the dynamos behind The Branding Highway, a new class at Wizard Academy. The inaugural journey will be October 14-15 and you should be aboard. Take a look and see what you think.
Dennis Kneale is an award-winning journalist known for afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted. A senior editor at the Wall Street Journal, managing editor at Forbes and an anchor on Fox Business, Dennis recently left journalism to start his own consulting firm. Listen in at MondayMorningRadio.com as Dennis dishes dirt on his old journalism colleagues, describes the impact of powerful storytelling and shares with Dean Rotbart the trials and tribulations of becoming a business owner.