Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Stories as VR headsets

"Story" was and is the world’s first and best virtual reality machine.

When you're reading a good story and you're absorbed (assuming you have good reading comprehension and you're paying fair attention), it's like the old TV program: YOU ARE THERE.

Even if you're not identifying with the hero and you're only watching out of the fascination you have with a train wreck, you should still be seeing the sights, hearing the sounds, smelling the coffee, and feeling the angst of the characters in the story world.

But first, let us back up a step. What IS a story? Is it that rambling anecdote your co-worker has been droning on about for three minutes without actually saying anything other than "like, man," "she was all like 'He's a fool' and stuff," and "I know, right?" Sort of. But not really.

A story is not just a plot that orders characters around. A story has to have a character arc, IMHO.

A story is how what happens (the plot) affects someone (the protagonist) in pursuit of a difficult goal (the story question) and how he or she changes as a result (which is what the story is actually about).

Despite appearances (and disregarding all the beautifully cinematic stuff you sometimes see on the big screen that has no meaning and leaves you asking, "What was that about?" as you leave the theater), *story* is internal, not external.

A story is not about the plot, even though so many readers, reviewers, and even writers believe it is. (Why would there be two words for it if they didn't have different meanings, connotation as well as denotation?) A *story* is about how the plot affects the protagonist. The *story* is what helps us as readers take the "vivid, continuous dream" that we have co-created with the author, extract the helpful bits that feed our need for story (including the take the author has on the eternal human condition), and make sense of the world using the information.

In part, the way a story gives us the sense that we’re in the protagonist’s world is through identification with the character(s). Writers convey the protagonist’s internal reaction to what happens via internal monologue, thoughts that are slipped in between the action or dialogue, or even subtext in the dialogue itself (the toughest way to do it, as different readers will get different things out of it depending on their cultural immersion). This is what gives readers the vicarious experience. We want to evoke emotion in readers AND allow them to identify with the hero.

That’s why it’s maddening that writers are constantly warned not to include internal thought. For most readers, the introspection just slides on in with the rest of the story. But editors and agents weary of seeing the endless "thinking" in some literary tomes went too far in banning it entirely. You don't want to have three pages of introspection about what happened in the past stuck into the midst of action. You don't want to have someone ask Tad a question and then have him muse for three pages about various things it reminds him of before you have him answer, partly because the reader will have forgotten the question and the setting in story-present by the end of the musings, and partly because it makes story-time seem in slow motion. This does not, however, mean that a few thoughts slipped in will not make it clearer for our readers. And clarity is our goal, above all, as I mentioned in a previous post.

Chip and Dan Heath have identified a phenomenon they term the "Curse of Knowledge." They remind us that "when you know something, it’s very difficult to imagine what it’s like not to know it." This is why some math professors find it impossible to teach middle school math or explain a simple fast Fourier transform to a classroom full of drooling undergraduates: they can't IMAGINE what it would be like not to just SEE the derivative when you look at something. To apply this to writing your novel, think about how many things you already know about the character and the plot. Not all of this is known by the reader. Unless you put it on the page, either express or implied, the reader can't just KNOW this stuff.

Writers are often taught that it’s talking down to the reader to actually let them know how the protagonist is reacting to what’s happening. This is wrongheaded. As Aunt Fannie Belle would've said, "It ain't, sugar. If you don't tell me what you mean, I'll never know."

Writers are often told that if you simply show something happening, the reader will always accurately intuit what the protagonist’s inner response is. In almost every case, this is patently untrue, and instead of inviting the reader in, it locks the reader out. Readers get frustrated. Readeres misunderstand what you are saying. Readers bring their own issues and ideas to the fire and throw them onto the blaze, making a maelstrom, when all you meant was that the guy blinked. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. But when will readers know this? Is there some kind of Big Symbolism that we're missing here?

The deeper problem is the universal notion that it’s the reader’s job to “get it” rather than the writer’s job to communicate it. Thus the writer tells us, in passing, that Ashley is obsessed with mayonnaise. (In point of actual fact, she is terrified of mayonnaise and faints when she thinks it might touch her body, as it would burn off her skin.) He doesn't spell this out, however. No one has come right out and SAID what the problem is. The writer has implied it in the way she glares at people who order no mustard at Whataburger and with similar subtle clues. Now the writer assumes that when Joe orders a pastrami on rye with mayo (how dare he!) right in FRONT of her, we’ll know exactly why she breaks up with him on the spot and runs away screaming. I mean, how could we not know?

Writing like this is really very passive/aggressive. "What's wrong, Fred? You seem troubled and distant." "Yeah, well." "What's wrong?" *sniffle* "Well, if you don’t know, I’m certainly not going to tell you.” *wail* *sob*

Certainly there are times you'll have to trust your readers to “get it,” but you can only do this once you’ve given them enough specific information so that they actually can.

When it comes to story, telling is not always bad. In fact, ALL stories are told. "Tell me a story!" is the child's original demand of the parents at bedtime. Well, go ahead . . . TELL it.

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