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Artist, Heather Oliver             

The Mysterious Story: A Theory of Fiction, with Exercises (Part 2)

by Calvin Johnson

I’m delighted to once again host my friend Calvin Johnson, who earlier gave us insights on Galactica/Caprica, Harry Potter and A Song of Ice and Fire. Because the essay is slightly longer than usual blog length, it appears in two parts.

The Mysterious Story, Part 1

The Mysterious Story, Part 2

Opening questions are how a story starts the seduction of our minds. To keep us reading, a story must carry out a balancing act, like a good joke, between logic and surprise.

If, for example, Tolkien had never answered the question of “what is a hobbit,” but instead zoomed off to examine the lives of Russian serfs, we might well feel cheated of the logic of the story. If, by contrast, Tolkien had written, “A hobbit is another name for a rabbit, the end,” we might feel the story lacks enough surprise as a reward.

Understanding that a story balances logic and surprises gives underlying support for many so-called “rules” of writing that seem irritatingly arbitrary to novice writers. Deus ex machina endings, where a sudden character or event out of nowhere “solves” the problem, violate the principle of logic. Chekov’s dictum, that a pistol on the mantle in the first act must be fired in the third act, also feeds on the principle of logic, as well as what I call the “reverse-Chekov dictum,” that if you are going to fire a pistol in the third act, better introduce it in the first.

Classes and books on fiction writing often advise one to write stories wherein the main character, or a main character, changes; e.g. Rick in Casablanca, who evolves from an aloof, uninvolved man to a freedom fighter. In truth, such character evolution isn’t formally necessary at all, but character arcs do provide a powerful and logical pattern for our minds to tease out. Rick’s story is made all the more logical, and more compelling, by the fact that he had previously been a freedom fighter.

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Logic alone is not enough. There must be surprises as well.

But surprise is a tricky thing. One method of introduce surprise is introducing a random event.  While common, it is a weak structure, because randomness is the opposite of logic.  A random event–such as a cyclone ripping through the fields of Kansas, or an old flame walking into your gin-joint–can kick off a story, but the response must be rigorously logical and one cannot rely upon too many random events. It doesn’t matter that real life is full of randomness; our minds demand patterns and rebel when the patterns don’t make sense.

Another strategy is through concealing information.  The logic is there, but only apparent in hindsight.  Again, this is a tricky strategy.  Simply withholding information from the reader so you can spring a surprise on them can tread dangerously upon logic.  Too many weak plots, especially those built on mistaken identity, rely upon characters making assumptions that few normal people would make.  Concealment can work, however, if the character concealing the information has good reason to.

A third and stronger strategy is misdirection.  One give a logical alternative while dropping clues to the real solution. This is a favorite strategy of J. K. Rowling, making Snape, or Lupin, or Sirus Black appear to be a villain, while quietly laying the groundwork so that when the true villain is revealed, you say, Ah! That makes sense after all. (Rowling is not above using heavy-handed concealment when it suits her, though.) Alternately, one can frame an situation to imply a wrong assumption, which is how the joke about the grasshopper works.

Surprise doesn’t have be just in plot. It can be in character as well.  My two favorite pieces of advice for constructing characters are, one, work against cliché and convention (i.e. instead of making the female love interest pale, thin, and helpless, make her dark, large, and kick-ass), and two, in addition to a primary character trait, add a secondary, seemingly contradictory character trait. A globe-trotting archaeologist who is afraid of snakes. A gangster who shoots his rivals yet gives money to the poor. A wizard powerfully skilled in dark magic who still worships the memory of his one true love.

Exercise: read a story carefully, taking note of the surprises, especially those beyond the initial hooks. What mechanism is used for those surprises? Going further, is the response to the stories logical?

And, for you writers out there, here is your final exercise: write a marvelous story, full to the brim with surprise and logic, that delights us with the patterns they weave in our brains.

For further reading: Samuel R. Delany, “About 5,750 Words,” which can be found in his book, The Jewel-hinged Jaw:  Notes on the Language of Science Fiction (Dragon Press, 1977; revised 2009). An excellent essay on how we read, and especially how we read science fiction.

Images: 1st, Anton Chekhov, who grew increasingly more sophisticated in the use of loaded guns in his plays (painter: Osip Braz, 1898); 2nd, Delany’s The Jewel-Hinged Jaw (illustrator: Richard Powers).

3 Responses to “The Mysterious Story: A Theory of Fiction, with Exercises (Part 2)”

  1. Athena says:

    I really like the symmetry/fusion of logic and imagination in this theory — which of course speaks to our liking of patterns! It makes sense on many levels, without using meta-polysyllables.

  2. C W Johnson says:

    Thanks. Of course, it’s part of my impulse as a physicist to look for grand, unifying theories 🙂 . Actually, it was motivated by my own struggles to understand why some elements of my own fiction, and those of some of my fellow would-be writers, don’t work–and not just because someone said a story should do X.

  3. Athena says:

    Exactly. As you said in Part 1, sometimes descriptions work far better than prescriptions (which is another reason why writers would do better with more reading and less workshops).