The Nature of Story

diagram + cartographer's key, 2020


Cartographer’s Key

This work examines the nature of story at four different scales through four different fields of science.


Exhibit I: Intersubjective Narratives of Reality

Our world is made of stories. Everything we know, value, and love lives inside a network of intersubjective narratives that have been constructed, deconstructed, connected, and transformed throughout history. In Exhibit I, we find our collective consciousness represented by a three-dimensional neural network, where each node is a piece of storytelling intricately connected with, influencing, and woven into the larger sphere of human experience. What is the function of this neural network? How do individuals interact with it? These are questions left up to the audience to ponder and interpret.


Exhibit II: Elements of Story

The basic unit of meaning is composed of several key elements. In Exhibit II, we find the atomic model of the story, with subatomic particles and interactions representing key components and forces within the story. In the nucleus, we find positively charged protons representing the conflict (both external and internal) driving the movement of electrons, or characters, in the story along the lines of the plot. Intimately intertwined with the conflict and held together by the strong nuclear force, the themes of the story are represented by neutrons. The old Rutherford model of the atom is used to visually represent the movement of characters through plots, but in reality, characters and plot are deeply intertwined through wave-particle, energy-matter duality in a sort of three-dimensional vibration across the space of the atom. How do other atomic models fit into the metaphor? What happens when energy or light from the outside interacts with the story? Again, up for audience interpretation.


Exhibit III: Dynamics of Change

Stories are dynamic, often taking us, the audience, through time. In Exhibit III, we find a graph that represents both the character arc and the narrative arc of the classic hero’s journey. At the beginning of the story, the character is significantly flawed, but after some inciting incident, they embark on a journey of self-discovery and self-conquest laden with challenges. Eventually, they reach a moment of epiphany or self-actualization, after which they leave the story a better person. Similarly, the energy of the narrative arc starts low during the initial exposition, but after intensifies as during the rising action, peaks at the climax, and stabilizes back out during the denouement, leaving the world a little more vivid than it was in the beginning. Up for interpretation: What metaphorical meaning could combination, decomposition, and replacement reactions have? What kinds of chemical reactions could represent non-hero’s stories and unconventional structures?


Exhibit IV: DNA of Language

Some stories are made of words, while others are made of brush strokes or music notes or body movements, but every story uses its own language composed of smaller subparts that are carefully selected and organized to create something greater than the sum of its parts. In Exhibit IV, we find the genetic makeup of language. Like words or phrases, each nucleobase has its own properties (even if there are far more types of words than nucleobases). Often, these phrases are bonded together with other ideas through contrast—like yin and yang, this pairing of opposites is what generates meaning. The arrangement of words and ideas across a strand of DNA creates the artist’s unique style of expression. At times, mutations in style facilitate shifts in tone or create points of emphasis within the story. On a larger scale, DNA curls and folds in on itself in secondary and tertiary structures, with bonds and forces forming between different parts of the storyline. Up for interpretation: What does the sugar phosphate backbone represent in language, melody, movement?



Through touching on a variety of scientific fields (computer science, physics, chemistry, biology), this work invites audiences of all types to use the diagram as their own clay with which to build their own meaning—those with expertise in neural networks can contemplate how convolutional networks and back-propagation can be found in the collective consciousness; those with expertise in atomic structure can explore how the probabilistic nature of quantum wavefunctions is reflected in the elements of the story; those with expertise in chemical reactions can examine the role of orbitals and energy states in the progression of the story; those with expertise in biology can construct the metaphorical meaning of epigenetics in the DNA of language. Moreover, what happens when the different metaphors interact? How can the connections between neural networks, atomic structure, chemical reactions, and DNA be translated into storytelling? This diagram is but a seed implanted in the audience’s mind. From here, it is meant to be nurtured by many minds, given nuance based on expertise and personal experience, eventually blossoming into a multiplicity of meanings across our collective consciousness.