Thursday, May 14, 2015

What is Story?

Lately I've become obsessed with a question. It is, more or less, this: What is story?

I know some stuff about story. My stories have been published in magazines and anthologies, I have a YA fantasy book that many readers like, and my new fantasy novel is coming out next spring from Baen Books. I know a good story when I've read it. Or written it.

But what is it, at essence? There's something there that I can almost taste, but can't quite get my hands around. Something at the fundament of the concept of story, that crosses all forms, from flash to epic, from song to movie, from Saturday morning cartoons to Shakespeare's sonnets.

What is story? What would I see if I held its beating heart in my hand?

I re-read my writing books, sucking marrow from the words of those who ought to know. I put the question to the internet. I ask everyone who will stand still long enough.

Story, a number of writerly friends inform me, is when a character, with a challenge, after struggling and failing, finally solves (or fails to solve) said challenge. Stuff happens, see. People change. Situations get resolved. Beginning, middle, end. Tension. Resolution. Resonance.

Well, yes. That's plot structure - or some kinds of plot structures, anyway. But I could write a story that fits all that just fine and still brings you to yawns. (Yes, I'm that good.) If it's boring, it's not a story for you. So what makes a story come alive?

It's about character, someone tells me. Intriguing characters who draw you into a greater meaning.

Yes, again. None of this is untrue, but in a sense these are only tools. What about Story with a capital "S"? I'm still hunting for the essence of the beast itself. I'll know it when I hold it in my hand, gooey and throbbing.

"Story..." says Ursula K. Le Guin, in one of her essays, "is one of the basic tools invented by the mind of man, for the purpose of gaining understanding. There have been great societies that did not use the wheel, but there have been no societies that did not tell stories."

That all societies use story seems an important clue to my hunt. That it's a tool to understanding -- another clue. I can sense the answer out there.

In another article she says:

"The very quality of story is to hold, to fascinate."

I can feel myself inching closer.

Casting about for answers on the net, this quote catches my eye:

"What is a story? A structured way of looking at reality. A way that works for us because it matches the way our brains work. Reality, in its raw, unfiltered, and ugly state, is chaotic. But we are not very good at dealing with chaos. Hence, we impose structures on our experiences of reality in order to make sense of it. We impose stories."

Making sense of reality. I hear a distant bell. I'm closer.

Some friends question the intensity of my obsession. "Why do you need to know how the sausage is made? Isn't it enough that you can make it?"

It sure isn't. I need to understand not just sausage, but Sausage.

Finding another analogy wouldn't hurt, either.

Ever played with a kitten and a string? Even better -- tie a ball of crinkly paper to the end. You tug and the kitten follows, utterly fascinated. Maybe it pounces, making adorable mock-killing motions. After a while, kitten might tire just a bit, and sit back on its haunches, and look around to see if there's another crinkly ball lurking in the neighborhood.

Want kitten's rapt attention back? Draw the crinkly ball behind a corner, just out of sight. Somewhere not visible but clearly in reach. Kitten is unable to resist following. Perhaps it's genetic wiring for the mouse that has just slipped into a shallow hole. Kitten will follow. Kitten has no choice.

As I see it, this is Story. Kitten Story.

What is the human equivalent? When we are deeply intrigued by a tale, what makes us so? When we are moved to tears, what has done this? How does a story become irresistible? What makes us care so much, makes us so happy when it's completed well?

I know the answer varies from person to person, from culture to culture, and across genres. But I believe there's something at the heart of all stories that draws our attention relentlessly forward, that leads our ravenously curious minds around. As if we were kittens chasing crinkly paper balls. That thing we are genetically unable to resist.

Another writer friend says this: "Stories are ways to live without living. To experience significant things without all the troubles of actually being there. Living takes time and resources; If you can live a dozen years around a campfire in one night, there's value there. Useful experience on the cheap."

Stories can teach us how to live, so we don't have to try to live all those lives ourselves.

I can smell it now, the answer. It's pungent. I'm so close.

I score a chance to talk about plot with an award-winning story author, and at one point in the conversation he's on about characters who face challenges that keep getting worse, about how they slam up against a dilemma with obvious resolutions, but the ideal story solves the dilemma in a non-obvious way, and then...

...and then...

The bell rings. I have it. My answer.

I'm bouncing up and down, saying "that's it! that's it!" and my friend is gently trying to tell me that while it might be a profound insight for me, it's not necessarily going to seem like a big deal to everyone else. But I don't care -- I have my answer -- I have the beating heart of Story, right in my hand.

It's not complicated. In fact, it's deliciously simple.

Oh, you want it, too? Here it is.

Our minds are built for making sense out of the world, and making sense is, at its core, about solving puzzles. So when someone starts solving puzzles and unwinding mysteries in front of us, we notice fast. If the puzzle or mystery happens to be similar to something we've tried to solve ourselves, successfully or not, we become intrigued. Stories that work for us intrigue us because they solve mysteries we care about.

Now, I use the words "puzzle" and "mystery" loosely here. A social challenge. How power is wielded. Dealing with death. Exploring new lands. Surviving hardship. Finding love. Making community. Having children. Living in peace. The nature of consciousness. What we want. What we fear. All this and more.

Story is puzzle solving, done well.

I start to see how the canonical rules of storytelling fall naturally out of this principle. Why is it so important we identify with the character? Because if the character isn't enough like us, we can't follow the pattern to the solution. Why the escalating challenges? To show that the character is dealing with a non-trivial problem, one worth solving. Why must the character transform? Because they can't solve the problem at the story's start and at the conclusion they can, so the problem changed, the character changed, or it's a lousy story. To see how we might follow in their path, the change must be evident. Why an unexpected solution? Because we already know the expected and obvious ones. I could go on.

As humans, we are keenly aware when anyone tells us they've untangled a knot. It intrigues us at a very deep level. When Story draws us forward irresistibly, it is offering to solve a mystery for us.

When it delivers, it gives us great satisfaction, because that's how we and our clever minds are put together.

So I've solved my mystery. The crinkly ball is mine.

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