On stories and “On Stories”: or, how I updated C.S. Lewis’s argument by accident

Recent reading — my own and others’ — has inspired me to tackle a subject that’s been simmering quietly for a while: the value of writing stories that satisfy expectations.

This has been brought to mind by my social media’s reactions to Harrow the Ninth (which I haven’t read yet), leavened by the occasional post complaining about showrunners killing people or plots off to frustrate their viewers’ expectations that bobs up in the Tumblr flotsam from time to time, and topped off by a recent mention of Gérard Genette, of all people, on my dash.

Any post I was going to make about plot and story was bound to reference C.S. Lewis’s essay “On Stories,” in which the most memorable passage to me was about the quality of “surprisingness” in stories being what makes them worth reading more than once. So I pulled out that essay and reread it, and was rather shocked at how unwieldy the argument was. Lewis does not, for instance, have handy access to the idea of the trope. (If he could surf TV Tropes he’d know exactly what it was all about, but half his argument was circumlocution trying to get at what the word represents in our present fora.) He seemed to think that if a story had Things Happening, explosions and travels and adventures of various sorts, it would by definition not be concerned with character development or social commentary. I had to remind myself that in 1945 Lewis has not read N.K. Jemisin or even The Old Man and the Sea. Benveniste is not in his rearview, much less Genette or Joanna Russ or René Girard or Walter Benjamin.

Nor has he read Robert Alter, who, I note, did not have a chapter devoted to Plot or Story in The Pleasures of Reading in an Ideological Age — in blogging about that book I had to get at those things sideways from his chapters on Structure and Character and Perspective. (So it’s possible Lewis was right about critics having a blind spot there.) Yet part of Lewis’s argument is still relevant, if we clear away the class snobbery he festooned it with: that danger (no matter what quality) and plot twists (even — or especially — if executed in an adversarial spirit toward readers’/viewers’ expectations) can be a weight against the attraction of the story’s central idea; that being able to project what will happen is not by definition a flaw in a story; that “surprisingness” in stories isn’t actually generated by surprises.

I find this borne out by both how I read and how I write. I’ve mentioned before that when I pick up a book, I give my full credulity — and the author has to work to lose it. This extends, very often, to not guessing the murderer in mysteries even when fellow readers have it worked out halfway through; I’m often not just struck by the surprisingness of a story but by actual surprise. But if I really, really liked a book, the first thing I do is turn to the first page and start reading it again. If I like it even more than that, it winds up on my bedside table, or sits open while I eat dinner.

(Oh, that reminds me — I need to put out my copy of A Memory Called Empire so I won’t forget to lend it to F.)

The plots I choose for the stories I write are sometimes flagrantly projectable. With some plot points, my feeling is that if you didn’t see that coming, either you’re as credulous a reader as I am, or else I did something wrong. Sometimes the excitement of a story depends not on not knowing what will happen, but not knowing how it will happen. That’s halfway to “surprisingness” right there. Even so, I’ve had someone comment to say they figured out a story’s punch line early on, like I was trying to hide it and failed. Uh, I…wasn’t? Good for you?

We’re so aware of tropes now, so sensitized to their particular pitfalls of laziness and bigotry, that we rec a book or film or show to someone on the grounds that it “does interesting things” with the tropes of its genre — sometimes by subverting them but sometimes also by giving them their full dimension. Tropes themselves can be spoilers: there’s another handy word not circulating in 1945. I like to avoid spoilers when I can…but it’s not the plot so much I worry about being spoiled for. It’s the quiddity of the clutch moment and all that ties into it, the thing I like to come to without preconceptions being formed.

And it’s hard to market a story with “This story has Fencing and Explosions and Submarines and Grief-fueled Sexual Interludes, but they don’t necessarily happen right away because the story is Not Entirely About That” — though in keeping with strict truth in advertising, that’s my shortest pitch for Ryswyck yet. Despite the common currency of tropes as story foundations, it’s not (yet; Netflix seems to be working on it) the thing to sell or rec stories using nothing but the tropes they contain. (Though honestly, if someone maintained a rec list or a database of titles searchable by their tropes, I confess I’d use it. TV Tropes is too haphazard and sometimes disappears up its own whatever from high atop the thing, or induces me to do so, which is why I stay away.)

But even without that, we’re living in a rich, if somewhat frangible, critical environment, where you can seek out stories based on whether you want surprisingness or merely to be surprised — and have a menu of options for each. You can squee with an Oxford don on Twitter about Doctor Who, or read elegies for Chadwick Boseman from a savvy working man, swap Old Guard gifsets on Tumblr with a scientist on the other side of the world, or start a critical revival of Charlotte M. Yonge on Facebook. We’re all hoi polloi now; and possibly, if Jack Lewis were here to observe it, he’d call that the most surprising plot twist of all.

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