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.

Structure and pacing: part five in a series

I’m going to talk about this one today because just now I’m finding it hard. For those of you following the home team, I’ve been blogging from time to time in response to Robert Alter’s The Pleasures of Reading in an Ideological Age, a book which is 30 years old but which still offers a cogent, pithy critical approach to literature. Alter asserts that literary art is indeed art, with particular skills and functions, rather than a serendipitous mumbling of the zeitgeist produced by hapless writers pretending to say something real on purpose.

Honestly, half the fun of this little series is name-checking a respected critic, who is willing and able to make such assertions without being accused of special pleading, as a writer would be. Of course we think we are making meaningful things with words on purpose. To be sure, the meanings we intend are not the only meanings we produce, but character and perspective, style and structure — these are real tools that have real effects depending on how we use them.

In fact, I think a large factor in the problems we have responding to narrative art in public venues now is just this: we think of narrative art as special pleading run amok. To tell a story at all is to demand attention. It is to make a bid to charge your reader or viewer or hearer with the energy of your artistic force, to overcome whatever resistance there may be to the moral imperative of your story, and to do that with the “high fun” of every skill at your disposal. Writers are not disinterested people. We only pretend that disinterestedness is a desirable quality in writing when we want an upstart to shut up.

The tools and skills of a writer, however, don’t care who it is that’s using them. We may wish that such tools would leap in protest out of the hands of, say, Leni Riefenstahl — but they don’t.

Where was I? Oh, yes, structure and pacing.

A story’s structure, after its characters, is probably the most reactive element of a text. Which is odd because it’s not really the first thing you think of when you think about what goes into a good story. It’s the matrix for all the meaning that the text contains, and for that reason it is subject to a lot of expectations from both writers and readers, for good and ill.

But a storyteller can turn those expectations to account. I saw the new film version of Little Women last week, and enjoyed it immensely. But it is not at all structured in the same way as the book. The movie is intensely interleaved, cutting scenes together not by their chronology but by their contrast. For instance, in the story there are two sequences where Beth becomes ill; one has a happy outcome and one does not. The film puts side by side each stage of the sequence, and each stage comments on the other, future commenting on past and past on future. In part, Greta Gerwig’s film can get away with this because the story itself is already so familiar; and yet subverting the expectations of that familiar story, having the past and the future comment on one another — sunny, happy tones set against grey, grieving ones — magnifies the pathos of the story no matter how familiar we are with it. I thought it was utterly masterful.

As a writer, then, how does one know what structural technique will produce the strongest effect? How does one know when to subvert expectations and when to justify them? And how does one deal with the uneasy awareness that to choose one thing is to not choose another? There is no single approach to any of these questions, much as people will try to sell you a formula that works every time.

The challenges I had with writing Ryswyck are very different from the challenges I’m facing with The Lantern Tower. With Ryswyck, I started out knowing a couple of things: I wanted the style and pacing to evoke a cinematic feel; I wanted my two main characters to reflect on Ryswyck after leaving its context; I wanted Barklay’s philosophy to be put to the test in war conditions; and I wanted the climactic note to be one of supreme vulnerability for nearly all the characters. This unfocused list of beats gradually resolved itself into a three-act structure set up like a trebuchet: a slow winding up of tension; then a few ratchets more in the second act — and then chop the rope — KAPWINNNG!

But because I had chosen that structure, there were things I couldn’t do. I couldn’t interpolate any scenes with du Rau in the first two acts, for two reasons: I did not want to diffuse any tension “onstage” by reminding readers he was there; and there were no scenes I could add that had any load-bearing content in terms of his character and situation. All I could do was introduce him as a future POV character in the prologue, alert the reader to his offscreen machinations, and then pick him up again in Act Three with as much continuity as I could gesture in.

Similarly with Inslee, whose POV scenes appear only in Act Two. I so much wanted to write a scene about the decision point where Inslee and his beleaguered senior staff realize they can’t destroy the GT lines and still have time to evacuate the island. Inslee says, evenly: “Then we don’t evac.” But the structure I had chosen simply would not admit such a scene, no matter how much I wanted to do justice to Inslee’s unembroidered heroism.

Now, if Ryswyck were an actual film instead of a novel with cinematic elements, I could and would structure the action differently. A film’s prologue, instead of establishing the POV characters for future context, could center on the past events of Solham Fray — which would add dark tones to the first view of Ryswyck Academy with minimal storytelling effort. I’d probably have to cut a good deal of the community-building sequences in Act One and find some other way to highlight Ahrens as an important character for later on. And instead of trying to hold out for a big surprise at the end of Act Two, I’d probably cut in some scenes with du Rau, Fortinbras-like, approaching the gates with stealth, and I’d probably use that sequence with Inslee instead of letting it languish on the cutting-room floor.

Why didn’t I do these things for Ryswyck as a novel? Well, because it’s a novel, first of all, and beats hit differently in a literary medium than in a visual one. Because the cumulative community-building of the first two acts was three quarters of the point I wanted to make. And because, goddammit, setting up a trebuchet is fun.

There is, alas, no trebuchet to set up in The Lantern Tower. The action is equally divided between two locations, so the challenge there will be to interleave sequences in a way that makes them interdependent and mutually interpreting. The pacing of the action in one place will need to complement, not overbalance, the other. The catastrophe (and the eucatastrophe) will be visible, hidden in plain sight as it were. The fun here will be building my ship in a bottle and then raising the masts at the end with one slow pull of a cord.

Sometimes a structure needs a unifying thread. Or, as the case may be, a cheese man.

But in either case, my objective is to write a story whose plot and structure stand unaffected by spoilers. I mean, for the truly spoiler-phobic, the above would be terribly spoilery (sorry). But it’s one thing to know what happens; it’s another thing to care about how it gets there.

And that’s the significance of structure that I aim for.

Meanwhile, watch this space for a more detailed review of Little Women. After, that is, I go watch it again and reread the book.

Character and the fictional imagination: part four in a series

In the movie As Good As it Gets, a vapid receptionist asks Jack Nicholson’s novelist character gushingly, “How do you write women so well?” Nicholson replies: “I think of a man. Then I take away reason and accountability.” Given the earlier scene of him composing text, this is probably not how Melvin Udall actually conceives his characters; but the exchange does further confirm both Udall’s obnoxiousness in real life and what kind of books his novels are.

Regardless of the quality of literary art, it is character more than anything that attracts people to a book and compels them to keep reading it. This is my fourth blog post about Robert Alter’s The Pleasures of Reading in an Ideological Age, but the topic of character is only the second chapter of his book, preceded only by a discussion of the distinctions of literature itself. Of all the chapters, this is the one I am most tempted to quote in large chunks, and at the same time, it’s also the chapter I would most like to update for the 21st century, thirty years on from when he published the book.

A large part of Alter’s project is to push back against post-structuralist criticism that tends to view literary art as a closed system of arbitrarily exchangeable parts, driven in service of some ideology or other. Not only does late-20th-century criticism have no good critical tools for discussing character: it is actively hostile to the concept of character as an artistic endeavor that can be “representational” of anything like “reality.” Alter points out that to attack “character” as a naive delusion is to exhibit a different kind of naivete. Or, as C.S. Lewis put it in a different context: “The trouble about trying to make yourself stupider than you really are is that you very often succeed.”

No reader, Alter says, really thinks that a character in a book is “real” in a flesh-and-blood sense; else the world would be filled with Don Quixotes attacking puppet shows thinking they are fighting a real battle. But that is not to say that the representational art of drawing character is not a thing of great power. In our current times, I would point out, vast conflicts are being waged online and in public spaces about the nature of character in fictional media. Books and films overpeopled with women who have reason and accountability, oh my! Or, in another vein, showrunners killing off minority characters and depriving fans of viable representation in the stories they love. Critical discourse is no longer just the preserve of academics writing seminar papers; the conventions and habitual biases of people making fictional characters is daily fodder for public discussion.

For that reason I think Alter is right to wish for a really good critical apparatus for talking about character as an artistic function. The nexus between the multiple layers of our common reality and the characters we find compelling is something that we should be able to talk about, both with awareness of the ideological valences and with a practiced insight into how written representational art is produced and received.

But even academics, as Alter says, can suffer from a want of training in how to both frame and discuss the subject of character. And that’s where I think the insight of actual writers can be useful. I mean, writers talking about character is not guaranteed to be useful, especially if you have a couple of dogmatic voices dominating the conversation. You would need a fairly democratized situation where a large number of writers weigh in. And in the 21st century, we have something like that: we have communities of writers of fanfiction, who not only produce “transformative” works with existing characters, but also who are able to interact more and more freely with the original creators of those characters.

“Transformative” is the word chosen by the OTW to describe legally-defensible fanwork; in ground conditions, transformative fiction is so in large part because it is performative. Are characters from the modern drama White Collar still recognizably themselves when translated to a 1920s gangster scene? You decide! But the means by which such a fiction is produced depends on an imaginative act by the author to enter in to a character and work within what they feel to be essential to that character based on their life experience and literary skill. And in that sense, any writer of fanfiction is engaging in practical literary criticism.

The only thing about this that is truly new is the fact that it is all happening on an instantaneous basis in our age of global communication, where one can send an email on Tuesday afternoon to someone in Japan who will get it a nanosecond later where it’s already Wednesday. The Aeneid, meanwhile, uses the exact same critical and literary skillsets to address the Iliad and the Odyssey, by expanding the ‘verse of the original to accommodate new viewpoint characters in service of — a national story, to be sure, but one that has the same imaginative immediacy to its audience as the original Greek texts did to those who first heard them. This is, in fact, one of the ways in which literary continuity operates.

So it really is, as Alter says, useless to think of literary texts as closed systems made up of propagandistic symbology. The perduring (I’m grateful he introduced me to that word) elements of human nature, threaded through eons of change, make the high art of literary character worth studying as a real function rather than a delusion.

I would point out, meanwhile, that the current Discourse going on in certain circles (“In my day,” she said archly, “we were honest enough to call it Wank”) is centered on the contentious axiom that Depiction is Endorsement: some people see little to choose between, say, the pedophile Humbert Humbert and Vladimir Nabokov who conceived and wrote him. People have rightly pointed out that this is mostly motivated by a desire for censorship: “I don’t want to read a story with a character like this” becomes “Nobody should ever read or write a story with a character like this.” And this contention is being shamelessly applied to writers of fanworks as well, as a criticism with teeth of the way in which a writer performs a canon character. This would be an example of a willful delusion: that a character is indistinguishable from an author such that the author is exactly as despicable as the worst character they invent.

Worse, any attempt to push back on this argument often draws scathing references to out-of-touch academics who don’t understand anything about the predatory dangers of the Real World. Given that post-structuralists were so intent on deconstructing the existence of any such thing, it appears that modern academia has been hoist by its own petard. Sad! That’s rather unfortunate, as a voice with recognized authority could be useful in such a discussion, just as the multiplicity of writers’ voices could broaden the discussion’s horizons.

Here’s an extended example of Alter’s critical skill, springing from his example of Stendhal in his discussion of character:

There is surely nothing in the structural necessities or formal requirements of the novel that could bring the writer to this moment of subtle comic illumination….If we look beyond the formal configurations of the text to the [person] that produced them, we will find scant support for a mystique of the writer as a special repository of wisdom….Between the unpredictable pattern of illumination in the work and the touching human foibles of the life, one is compelled to conclude that when fictional invention is going well, it is an activity that ‘privileges’ the writer in some uncanny way: in the incandescence of the imagination that produces good fiction, elements of knowledge and bits of perception variously collected, many of them no doubt stored subliminally in the mind of the writer, coalesce, take on revelatory form in the speech and acts of imaginary personages. It is as if the very process of writing allowed the writer to tap unguessed levels of [their] own self, to achieve a kind of nonvolitional heightening of ordinary insight, as, analogously, the process of free association in psychoanalysis is supposed to do.
Fiction, then, involves above all an imaginative intercourse between the experience of the writer, beautifully focused as it would not be elsewhere, and the experience of the reader, which is both necessary to recognize adequately what the writer has produced and capable of being deepened by what the work of fiction offers.

Now that is a not only useful but usable insight into the representational art that is fiction, and as a writer I find it relatable as a description of process. If someone were to ask me, “Now which of your characters do you most relate to?” I’d have a hard time answering. I’m not a caretaker like Speir, or calm and decisive like Douglas. I don’t have du Rau’s elegant fighting skill or sympathize with his patriarchal worldview. Barklay, my most “problematic” character, is not a transcript of my own temptations or a way for me to fulfill some wish toward exploitation. But the nature of literary art is to enter in to a character, to create and enjoy simultaneously the quiddity of their presence in the world, to work the wool of one’s own self into the thread of them where needed; it’s like knitting a sweater around one’s self. I’m not Speir, but I inhabit her. I get the fun of that private, indeterminate process of inhabiting, and I also get the fun of sharing her with the world. A friend who read Ryswyck remarked in casual conversation, “So you’ve just had these characters running around in your head the whole time I’ve known you.” Well, yeah, and now they’re running around in his head, too.

I mean, if that’s not the essence of “high fun,” nothing is.