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.



Where the Green Shadows Sleep


Yesterday, we went for a walk up Mount Pirongia in the Waikato region of New Zealand. The New Zealand forest is a myriad of greens, primordial and ancient. Mosses and lichens drape the rocks, glistening liverworts grow over ochre soils and the canopy of grey-green kahikatea casts shadows and sun-dapples down through treeferns and onto the red-green tongues of the parataniwha. New Zealand forest has a mythic feel to it, and yesterday did not disappoint. Besides the tangles of supplejack vines and strange little gullies and hollows, the tangles of roots form themselves into strange magic tunnels along the trackway. Gloomy little holes, where it’s easy to imagine old things of the earth might lie sleeping. I took a photo of one of these little elemental lairs so you can see what I mean. Quite the suitable home for some charmed flax-fairy, tipua or patupaiarehe.

New Years

If you have found a thing in life that enthrals you and enchants you, then, please, go ahead and pursue it. The world is full enough of people who force themselves to trudge in endless march through obligations, stress and furious activity. If you have found a thing that brings joy, that makes time seem both wondrously slow and strangely fast all at once, then chase it down and make it yours. It could be a hobby or an art, a topic of research, an idea, an invention, a handcraft or anything at all. It could be carving stone sculptures. It could be restoring old cars. Whatever it is in life that you find brings out the best of your attention, focus and pleasure: do that thing. This has, after all, been said many times, repeatedly, and by wiser folks than me. Seek the flourishing life. Follow your bliss. To thine own self be true.

In Hamilton

I type this in Hamilton, New Zealand, the town where I grew up. I am back visiting. We are staying in a nice little hotel that understands the importance of having good access to a wireless internet. But it is always a strange experience coming back here. The town (technically a city, but really, Hamilton remains at its heart a town) has changed, and it has not changed. It has sprawled and grown outgrowths of bypasses and expressways, but there is more than one street or path by the riverside that are so much like how I remember them that I experience an actual shiver walking along them.

I remember a line from a short story I read years and years ago. I remember nothing much about the story itself, except that it was a New Zealand author, set in New Zealand, and the story was about going back to a childhood holiday place beside the sea. The line was something like, ‘It is dangerous going back to a place where you were happy as a child’. No doubt, the intervening years and murky memory have paraphrased the exact words, but the underlying intent is still there. Memory can be a dangerous place to wander, and going back to old places can cunjure up such phantoms as to be monstrous. We all have our things we’ve left behind, and sometimes going back and prodding at them can be a sort of sickly enjoyable experience, sometimes merely sickly.

Meantime, I’m working on what now will be the second novella in the Winter King, following on from what was called Crone of Bone and is now titled A Treasure of Bone and Promises. There has been something of a mixing around of my plans. I have already written about 160,000 words of material for the series, but ceased up a bit on realising that there was simply too much of a narrative jump between the first story and the second. I’ve gone back now to fill in the gaps, so to speak. The work I am hacking away at right now is (currently) tentatively titled The Wolves at Winter’s Door, although I’m also considering, The Apple that Blooms in Winter, and Where the Wind Took. It will be short, just on 20,000 words, or maybe a little under. I’ll follow it with one more novella length piece, which will take the story nicely into the material that is already written. It’s all a bit frustrating to put a halt on my earlier release schedule–I really, really thought book two would be finished and released by now–but I also think the series will be better on the whole for taking a step back and rethinking how best to progress things from the first tale onwards.