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STORY IS, STORY AS
I had a debate teacher once, and part of his deal was to endlessly hound us on a single point:
Define your terms.
If you were going to make a point — or, more important, refute someone else's — then you had to make it clear what you were talking about precisely, so that there could be no doubt of your message.
It's also an idea that holds true when you're writing a thesis paper — whether that thesis paper is about the unstable geopolitics of North Freedonia or how the mating habits of the unruly puffin helped spawn Western civilization, you have to be clear about every aspect of what you're trying to say. You have to define your damn terms.
And so, it seems like a good idea to try to define my terms.
Which means, up front, I need to define the biggest term of all:
One problem, though. Story evades definition. Perhaps because, as I noted earlier, so few rules actually govern the act of storytelling, the very idea of story escapes just as you try to define it. It's like a greased-up python — it'll always squirm and slip from your grip, just as you think you've got a good hold on the thing. Saying that "story is this" or "story is that" is a very good way to invite a dump truck full of exceptions to the rule. You will be buried in them. For every supposed rule that exists in storytelling, countless deviations also exist.
Instead of focusing on a single definition, let's look at story through a series of lenses, each framing story in a different way — not to give us one perfect view of what storytelling is and how it works, but rather, to see it multiple ways, from multiple angles, to give us a larger, broader, and altogether weirder view of narrative and how we create it, evolve it, and share it.
Two words: Freytag's Pyramid.
Nope, it's not the strange occult store that just moved in at the edge of town. Nor is it a game show, the new drug all the kids are doing, or a kinky sex move. Rather, it's a visual device to help you grasp the rough shape of narrative. The shape is, well, a pyramid. At the base of the pyramid, you have exposition, or the information you need to know to get into the story. On the left side of the pyramid, you get rising action, which is the part where, simplistically put, stuff is beginning to happen. At its peak is the climax — the whiz-bang coming-together of all the tale elements! — and then it sinks back down the far side with falling action and denouement. Events slow as the bits of the story are all tied up. All is concluded.
Freytag's Pyramid is also bullshit.
I mean, it's not bullshit-bullshit, okay? Of course it gets a few things right: Most stories do have a rise to action, a climax, and then a conclusion, but that's not really all that different from saying a story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. It's a nice bit of visualization to see the story as a mountain one must climb, true, but at the same time, that single shape is woefully limited and overly simplistic.
No story conforms to a standard shape.
A story might look more like a jagged mountain. Each individual peak, of which there can be many of varying heights and angles, illustrates a rise-to-and-fallfrom-climax in miniature. At every peak, you thin out the oxygen, and in every valley, you breathe more oxygen in. Each peak of the mountain is higher than the one before it, thus creating an overall sense of upward momentum — the same momentum indicated by Freytag's Cough-Cough-Mostly-Bullshit Pyramid, but with greater nuance.
Of course, even the Jaggedy-Toothed Mountain shape is bullshit, too, because stories aren't really two-dimensional. It may offer you a good start, but it's not necessarily enough to convey the overall movement of the narrative. If you think about story in a three-dimensional way, suddenly you get a roller coaster — it rises, it falls, it whips left, it jerks right, it corkscrews through the air before spinning you upside down in a vicious loop de loop. And then it slows and the ride is over. Isn't that how a story looks, sometimes? Or better yet, how a story feels? A two-dimensional variant assumes the tale is predictable in its inevitable ascent, however herky-jerky it might seem. A roller coaster, though, is full of surprises, offering twists and turns that all fit together as part of one track. Some roller coasters are faster and scarier. Some are slower, with gentler curves. Consider the shape of every roller coaster and how each might reflect a different story.
STORY AS A HOUSE
We use the metaphor of architecture a lot when talking about narrative, and it's appropriate because, as with the roller coaster, architecture is more than a two-dimensional blueprint. Architecture is three-dimensional. It has space — and, in a sense, it has time, too, as we move through it (which I think makes it demonstrative of the fourth dimension).
More specifically, though, consider story as a house.
Just as story is not one thing, neither is a house one thing. You think of a house, and you may think of a Cape Cod, or a rancher, or the haunted sprawl of the Winchester Mansion, or one of those fancy "tiny houses." A house is a house is a house, just as a story is a story is a story, regardless of the variance in their shapes.
You could argue that the more two-dimensional representations of narrative (like Freytag's Half-Ass Triangle) are more emblematic of plot than they are of story. And here, it's vital to understand the differences between those two things, once again seeking to (as my debate teacher roars at me from inside my own memories) DEFINE OUR TERMS.
I am fond of saying that story is an apple and plot is the arrow through the apple. Meaning, story is the whole picture, whereas plot is merely our path through the picture. Plot is our sequence of events, the steps by which we experience the story. But the story is bigger, unrulier — a much roomier entity than the plot itself. Apple versus arrow. Or, if you want a more meandering sequence of events (one that is not so much a straight line) think of the worm's path through the apple as the plot, a worm drunk on fermented juice, zigzagging his way through fruit flesh. The fact that this is a "path" matters here because it means plot is not merely the sequence of events, but rather the sequence of events as revealed to the audience. It's how they experience moving through those events — it is in how you arrange them.
If we think of story as a house, then our path through the house is the plot. It is the steps the audience takes when led through the space.
In a sense, the reverse is also true: If we see a story as a house, it's worth seeing how a house is also a story. Meaning, if you take someone's actual home, and you break into their house and wander through it like a nosy tiptoeing tourist, the house will offer up the story of both the people who live there and, perhaps, its own architectural narrative. On the architecture front you might say, "Ah, this is an American Craftsman-style home with a gabled roof and the exposed beams and the preponderance of stone and wood, and I would guess that it was built in the 1920s." But as you looked deeper, as you poked through the refrigerator and the medicine cabinets and the dresser drawers, you'd get a picture of the characters who live there. (Vegan food, vitamins, and sex toys! Empty fridge, Xanax, and punk T-shirts! Leftovers, pain meds, and unused yoga pants!) You'd look at the walls and see photos of the family, and that would tell a story, too — Timmy used to play soccer, now he's playing baseball; Dad's in the early photos and now he's not, which means either death or divorce. The photos might reveal a series of dogs. Of course, if you were allowed to open the homeowner's computer or phone, or find the shoebox of old letters and Polaroids under the bed, you'd see a deeper, more secret story. You'd find emails and text messages and love letters that reveal a hidden side to these people — and that would lead you to realize that some parts of a house are a public story, and other parts contain a private, secret story. When you enter a house, some of it has been sanitized for you, the stranger. Other parts are meant to be inaccessible, hidden behind passwords or in lockboxes.
Then you wonder, what else can't you see?
And so we come back to how a story is like a house.
A story reveals itself in pieces, just as a house does: Exposition moves us from the public to the private, though we may see hints of the private early on (an overdue bill on the table, a half-empty bottle of bourbon on the counter, a naked dead guy on the living room couch). Deeper into the house and deeper into the story, we gain access to secrets — we see the public veneer of family photos peeled away to reveal problems (drug habits, an affair, a father's anger issues). It takes us from text, or what's on the surface, to subtext, or what the house has tried to hide. We move through the house, ascending stairs and entering rooms that are meant to be locked.
And other things remain hidden, too.
Just as a house keeps much of its own infrastructure hidden from view, so too does a story keep its infrastructure concealed. Behind the walls in a house you'll find pipes and wires and ducts. And behind the walls of a story you'll find theme, motivation, ideas, and other unspoken literary devices that feed the story invisibly. And the decor of a house is like the mood of the tale at hand: A house might have bright paint, new furniture, clean floors. Or it might have water stains on the ceiling, roaches running about, and rot in the corners. The house has its own feel, just as a story does — and a story exhibits this feel through things like word choice, imagery, metaphor, and motif.
A story has characters just as a house has occupants and visitors.
A story has plot just as a house has our path through it.
A story has secrets, and so does a house.
When you tell a story, think about how it mirrors a journey through a house. A house, perhaps, into which we were uninvited. A house where something is wrong, where we have been compelled to enter by dint of a broken window, or blood on a doorknob, or the sounds of a struggle within. Think about moving through the house, exploring its broader spaces and then its nooks and crannies — and how that parallels the telling of a story, the exploration of a story's larger spaces and then the smaller, more forbidden ones, too.
In terms of narrative arrangement, a storyteller first reveals those things that visitors to the house would see right away: the obvious elements. The visitors would see a house in obvious disarray. They would see the doorways and the windows. And then, as they move through the space, they might begin to follow the trail of mysteries. What caused the disarray? What can be seen through the windows or be visited by entering through the doors? Visitors will chase these mysteries.
With enough time and thorough wandering, a house will reveal to guests its mysteries and then give up its truths. And so will a story. Your readers are your guests, after all.
THE MAGIC TRICK
We like to think of storytelling as actual magic. Like we have a little wizard or witch hiding in our heart, and she's the one who's barfing inspiration into us — where we then translate that magical inspiration-barf to our fingertips as we write or to our jabbering mouth-hole as we in turn regurgitate the tale at hand.
Hell with that. Writing and storytelling aren't magic, even when they seem to be. We control them. There are no wizards, no witches. No Muse exists to fuel our whimsy.
Think of us instead as stage magicians.
Stage magic, magic tricks, illusions — they work a certain way. There exists a narrative to every trick, a beginning, a middle, and an end, just as in a story. And the stage magician does not make these up willy-nilly out of nowhere. They are articulated, designed, and practiced endlessly, until they are worth taking to the stage and, by proxy, the audience beyond it. This isn't entirely different from how we create more formalized stories, right? We write them down. Some of us plan and outline them. And even when we don't, that first draft isn't the final draft (or, ahem, it damn well shouldn't be). We iterate and reiterate. We do a second draft, a third, a seventh, we create as many drafts as it takes to get the story — the magic, the trick, the illusion! — just right.
So, a trick has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Christopher Priest, in his book The Prestige, calls this "the Pledge, the Turn, and the Prestige." Just as many films have three acts, so too does each bit of stage magic.
The beginning establishes the status quo of the trick: Behold, here is a hat, a box, a chicken, my Grandpa Gary, whatever. The trick even attempts to establish the normalcy, the reality, of what you're seeing. The magician shows you the inside of the box. He taps the bottom of the hat and puts it on his head. He lets the chicken squawk or leans in so you can hear Grandpa Gary snoring and farting in his sleep. "Look," the magician says. "All is normal, all is well, all is as expected." Implicit in this is the subtext, "And now I'm going to disrupt it all to hell." This is the Pledge.
The middle is the flourish, the Turn. It's a twist, a change of state in the way that one could turn liquid to gas. It is an elemental shift. A rabbit is out of the hat, a woman in the box disappears, the chicken is now a dog, Grandpa Gary is now dismembered with his still-flailing octogenarian limbs cast about the stage like so much kindling. The stage magician has not only ended the status quo, the magician has, in a sense, broken reality itself. The rules you thought you knew (rabbits can't appear out of nowhere, people can't disappear, grandpas cannot be chopped into bits and remain alive) are way out the window, bye-bye.
The final act of the trick is, in a sense, like the final act of a hero's journey — the hero must return from his adventure, the same but changed, and so too must the rabbit go back into the hat. The woman must reappear. The dog once again becomes chicken. Grandpa Gary is whirled about and, in a flash, all his limbs are mysteriously unsevered, and he's free to go back to sleep. As Priest explains in The Prestige, "Making something disappear isn't enough; you have to bring it back."
A magic trick, then, is the ultimate act of performative trolling: The magician shows you the world, breaks your world, and then puts it back together again. But you, the audience, are left with the suspicion that what you thought you knew is wrong. Now you fear everything is fragile, and the status quo can change with the snap of the magician's fingers.
Speaking of the snap of the magician's fingers —
There exists another vital component to the magic trick.
It is this: misdirection.
To repeat: Stage magic is not real magic. A rabbit is not literally appearing out of nowhere. Grandpa Gary is not literally being dismembered. It's a trick. A ruse. And in order for it to work, it has to feel real. We can't see the wires or the mirrors. Seeing the secret compartment where the rabbit hides will cause our disbelief to flare up like a bad case of herpes. We will begin to doubt, and doubt ruins the fun. (Just as it does with a story.)
To cover up the truth of the trick — to hide the mechanism — the stage magician must do something to distract you. Or, more correctly, he must misdirect you, turning your attention away from the mechanism and to some other, innocuous detail. Misdirection may be happening as early as the first part of the trick, organically folded into the act of demonstrating the normalcy and the status quo. As he shows you the hat, spinning it around, putting it on his head, tapping it inside and out, he's misdirecting you. While you are focused on the hat, the magician is expertly preparing the release of the rabbit from whatever Secret Rabbit Chamber exists on the magician's body (from a pocket sewn into his vest, perhaps, or, I dunno, from up the magician's own ass).
The question becomes, then, how is stage magic like a story?
BEHOLD AS I PULL THE NARRATIVE RABBIT OUT OF THIS METAPHORICAL HAT — AND DEFINITELY NOT MY ASS.
A story, as noted, is about the breaking of the status quo. The story shows us The Way Things Are, then it reveals the truth about them. It demonstrates a secret. Or a lie. Or it breaks the thing we (and the characters inside the story) assumed to be safe. Then, at the end, it concludes — it returns things to the way they were, or at least to some kind of status quo in the world.
It's probably best not to think of your story as being a singular magic trick, though: Rather, it is a collection of them. The story, especially a longer-form tale like a screenplay or a novel, demonstrates an entire show of stage magic, a series of escalating tricks that get more bold and more brazen, even building off one another to produce a jaw-dropping, pants-shellacking, climactic finale.
And, just as with the illusion, misdirection is key.
Excerpted from "Damn Fine Story"
Copyright © 2017 Chuck Wendig.
Excerpted by permission of F+W Media, Inc..
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