Monday, March 12, 2018

Story: What It Is, What It Isn’t

     I read – or try to read, at least – quite a lot of fiction from indie writers. The percentage of them who fail to appreciate the required characteristics of a story worth reading is simply appalling. (Sometimes their tales start off well enough to seduce me into paying for their stuff, which makes it worse.) At a rough guess, about 75% of the indie novels I start, I toss aside long before the climax, assuming there will be one. Clearly, the indie movement has had both positive and negative consequences.

     When I find myself unable to finish reading a book, the cause is likely to be a faulty or missing story.

     What constitutes a story is not arbitrary. It wasn’t laid down by some gaggle of fusty academics intent upon distinguishing themselves from the hoi polloi. It’s a discipline that a writer must acquire, and must respect fanatically, if he is to produce worthwhile fiction.

     Yes, this is the start of yet another series of pieces. Consider yourself warned.

     One of the oldest exhortations a writer is guaranteed to receive as (if not before) he sets forth is to write from your passion. That is: write about what engages you deeply and intimately.

     This maxim is susceptible to misinterpretation. “Passion” is not “obsession.” A writer obsessed with sex will succeed in producing only pornography. Neither is a passion the same as a fetish. A writer hung up on mackerel, Corvettes, or the 1927 New York Yankees will fail to attract a readership beyond that of compatible fetishists.

     A passion worth writing from is one that can be communicated to the reader, on the strength of his common humanity with the writer. As I wrote in The Storyteller’s Art,

     [T]he writer can’t simply scream at his readers, “Feel deeply for my characters!” That would be akin to an actor trying to evoke audience emotion without a script, by the sheer power of his expressions and poses. That’s called “emoting,” and no self-respecting theatergoer—or reader—will stand for it.

     Theme, as embodied in plot and character, is the conduit by which the writer transmits his passion to his readers. There’s a conservation law at work here, though not one you’d study in first-year physics: passion can neither be created nor destroyed, but only transmitted from artist to consumer. The passion originates with the writer. He strives to infect his reader with it. His vehicle for doing so is his theme.

     A communicable passion is one that has its roots in our shared human nature: i.e., our common needs, drives, and desires. Military SF writer Tom Kratman has expressed this principle thus: “I write to illuminate eternal verities.” As human nature is, as far as we know, immutable, its elements are as close to eternal as we can find on this side of the veil of Time.

     What human needs, drives, and desires, as depicted in the fiction you’ve read, engage and impassion you? Justice? Freedom? Charity? Love? Courage? Perseverance? Whatever it is, you’re most likely to produce an arresting story by wrapping your tale around it.

     Of course, a passion is not a story; it’s the reason the story is written, the engine that gives it drive. Whatever passion animates it, a story must also conform to Brunner’s Laws of Fiction:

  1. The raw material of fiction is people.
  2. The essence of story is change.

     (The late John Brunner produced some of the most riveting science fiction of his era. His blockbuster Stand on Zanzibar won the Hugo Award for Best Novel, back when the Hugo was an award worth having. In his books, one can see a perfectly disciplined adherence to the two laws above, as if they were written into his genes. Whether or not they were his possessions from the start of his career, formulating and articulating them for our benefit may be his greatest gift to us.)

     A worthwhile story will always be about the changes someone must undergo in confronting some significant problem. The problem might be internal or external; what compels him to confront it is the writer’s choice. In coping with it (or failing to cope with it), he must change. He must learn something about himself, or people generally, or the world around him that has emotional impact, and he must adjust himself, whether attitudinally or behaviorally, in consequence.

     These are the absolute requirements of every worthwhile story. You cannot, no matter how prodigious your effort nor how great your skill with words, create a story worth reading in which the protagonist experiences no change.

     Your probability of success at crafting a worthwhile story will be determined largely by:

  • Whether you’ve selected a sound, communicable passion from which to write;
  • Whether you’ve chosen problem for your protagonist that the reader will deem significant and worthy;
  • Whether you’ve contrived a scheme of events and changes that strike the reader as consistent with our common nature,
  • And whether you can make those things consistent with one another.

     From there, your struggle to entertain, edify, and exalt the reader will enter the realm of narrative technique, about which...

     More anon.

No comments: