Aspects of the Story

We are returned now to Melbourne, although the combination of exhaustion from the flight and some other major life events on coming home took me away from the journal. I have managed to keep up my writing every day, although to be honest, that has grown into such a woody, bark-swollen habit, that I’m not sure I could shake it off if I wanted to.

In part, I wanted to use this journal as a place to muse on the writing process. Lately, I’ve been thinking about what I will call the aspects of stories, for wont of a better term. When you break apart a story, teasing it open like a ripe mandarin, it is not a single, homogenous mass. There are parts hidden within.

I’ll define a story itself as anything in which a something changes. This is Le Guin’s definition: I can’t claim it for my own. As a definition, this works neatly. It requires no characters and no plot. A good example of a story that consists only of change, is the Ray Bradbury short in which an automated house of the future keeps whirring and cleaning itself long after an apocalypse has taken away all the people. Over time, gradually, the house fails, falls apart, decays and is claimed by nature. It is a beautiful, sad, even melancholic story, but it would be quite a stretch to claim that the tale has a plot. Maybe the house is a ‘character’, but as it has no motivations, no thoughts, no intentions. That would make the house a ‘character’ only in the thinnest, most metaphorical sense.

Plot then. What is plot? I’m defining plot as the questions that keep a person reading. These questions are usually either why did it happen? or what happens next?, although sometimes more nuanced variants drive a plot. Plot twists, unexpected turns, foreshadowing and try/fail cycles are all different ways of thinking about plot. I think some of these approaches are a bit didactic. In the end, all a plot needs to be is an intriguing question or set of questions that drags the reader along.

Now we are getting into thornier territory. Now I’m having to make up terms. Let’s call the next aspect the ‘fabric’ of the story. Fabric also keeps a reader reading, but in a more immediate way. Fabric is the short-term payoff of a story. Beautiful prose, humour, erotic or horrific titillation, or the layering into the prose of a thick ‘mood’, such as a mysterious, menacing, wondrous or absurd feelings, are all part of the fabric of a story.

The final aspect I’m going to define is ‘narrative’. Narrative is the more human part of the tale. It is the part of the story that explores human behaviour. At its simplest, narrative consists of motivation, action and consequence. In its more preachy forms, narrative can turn into a self-conscious morality play. But when more refined, more considered, and more thoughtful, narrative is the core of most really good, lasting stories. I suspect also that narrative is the evolutionarily kernel of storytelling too. Narrative is what drives an examination of one’s own empathy for others, it sets up in-group identifications, as well as modelling possible behaviours for the listener to a tale. Narrative is the mental experiment of the tale. If I am motivated in this way, and if I behave in such-and-such a way, what are the likely consequences for me? In the end, a narrative is about behaviour and consequences. It potentially teaches you a hard lesson learned by others, passed along and along. If I am greedy and petty, what will others make of me? What about if I am brave, clever and never give up?

In each case, I think it’s possible to identify stories that consist either primarily or wholly of one aspect or another. There are a good number of literary short stories that are entirely story without plot, along with maybe only a few dashes of fabric and narrative. On the other hand, ongoing superhero comics tend to be all plot and no story. Superhero comics give the illusion of constant change, but it is only an illusion. Nothing ever actually changes in a superhero comic. A character dies? They’ll be back somehow or another. The world is shattered in a catastrophe? It’ll be fixed. Comics, I suppose much like literary novels, make use of fabric and narrative too. Some comic titles are funny, others are moody. In terms of stories that consist largely of fabric, the clearest example is probably Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, a dazzle of wordplay and wonderment–other examples might include the unrelenting absurdity of Catch 22, or the ludicrous, overwrought horror of Lovecraft’s work. Finally, tales that are almost entirely narrative tend to be, at one end, stripped-down folktales, fables or fairy tales, and big, deeply imagined character dramas, like Anna Karenina or Crime and Punishment, at the other extreme. Narratives don’t need to be realistic… some children’s stories are almost pure narrative… here is a motivation, here is an action, here is a consequence… although, I suppose that narratives perhaps do need to scale to a stage of life. Simpler narratives for simpler times. Complex narratives for more complex times. That might be something to think more on.

Of course, there may well be other aspects of stories I haven’t considered yet. It’s something I’ll come back to in time and think over.