Gestalt Storytelling


I was recently thinking about the potential connections between Gestalt Theory and storytelling. Gestalt is a theory which suggests that the human mind places patterns and meanings on reality in order to make sense of it. One of its most well known terms is “Closure”.

Gestalt, I think, explains a lot of what is happening when someone reads a story. A story is an incomplete reproduction of a reality imagined by an author. No matter how detailed an author is in her descriptions there will always be gaps. Spaces left to fill in, like a join-the dots game. This is where the reader steps in to provide closure for the story. Hemingway identified and utilised this principle in his work, see his famous theory of omission:
This thought led me to an interesting article by Peter Mortola where he explores the links between Gestalt and Narrative theory. Two quotes below highlight the usefulness of Gestalt to storytelling.

“Although the concepts within Gestalt theory and narrative theory are divergent in many ways, both sets of theories hold at least one thing in common. That is, the concept of a central, three-part, or “triadic” process involving a movement through equilibrium, disequilibrium, and modified equilibrium. In Gestalt theory, this movement is described as being central to the ongoing process of Gestalt formation and closure. In narrative theory, this three-part movement is described as being central to the process of telling a story and “making sense” of human experience.” (Peter Mortola) The triadic structure here is interesting. It probably goes without saying how important this movement from equilibrium to disequilibrium to modified equilibrium for anyone familiar with story writing, but still it’s useful to reflect on it. Most stories move in this way, showing a character changing through a new experience. The reverse can work too, I think, a character is faced with a problem but fails to change. Either way this movement shows how people make sense of the world and underlies a primary experience of life. In a sense humans are the creatures who tell stories. To be a human is to be a story in the process of creation.

Mortola suggests this too when he states: “the concept of “disequilibrium” is at the core of Gestalt theory […] The constantly revisited process of establishing equilibrium, losing equilibrium, and establishing a modified equilibrium is, in the view of Gestalt therapy theorists, nothing less than the healthy ongoing process of being alive. Latner (1973) describes an individual in need of water as an example of the creation of a need—or Gestalt formation—and the destruction of a partial equilibria. When the individual finds water, there is Gestalt closure—the fulfilling of a need and the organismic assimilation of something new. The individual is able to move on and address his or her next need as it arises. Latner argues that the process of being alive is the process of addressing needs and being changed by these encounters with the environment as one does so. In other words, one is constantly moving through the process of equilibrium, disequilibrium, and modified equilibrium as one grows and changes.

The concept of need is useful here for storytelling. Life is founded on the fulfilment of daily needs. Both stories and life are the process of meeting needs. Needs can be simple, like food and water or more complex, like love and acceptance, but they have the same underlying structure, like a story. We usually tell stories about what we have achieved or failed to achieve in life.

Anyway, both of these quotes show the potential usefulness of Gestalt theory for anyone aiming to write stories. I think stories are basic to our humanness. To sum up, the concepts are:
Closure: the reader completes the story:
Triadic movement: characters move from equilibrium to disequilibrium to modified equilibrium.
Need: Life is the endless process of fulfilling our needs.

For more on this read Peter Mortola’s fascinating paper below.


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