David Louis Edelman July 26th, 2006
I’ve been thinking about the purpose of telling stories. Simply for amusement or diversion, as the most cynical critics suggest? For education, as those in the ivory tower suggest? For enrichment of the soul, as the spiritually inclined might say?
I tried to break down the story into its most base elements. What are the ingredients that no story can possibly do without? Every time I tried to think of something that fit this description, I kept coming up with exceptions. Eventually the only things that remained were somewhat… metaphysical.
Here’s what I’ve come up with.
1. Change. We can argue about whether the classic Aristotelian concepts of storytelling (inciting action, rising action, climax, etc.) apply in every case. But in every story ever told, something happens. Characters move from place to place, characters grow in their understanding of something, characters fight and deal with conflict and come to decisions.
I’m not saying it’s impossible to write a story in which characters don’t change. Not every story has to end with our protagonist learning a Very Important Lesson, and it’s certainly possible for your protagonist to be the same stubborn, ignorant son-of-a-bitch in the story’s last sentence as he was in the first. But something has to happen in the interim, or it’s simply not a story — it’s a description.
2. Causality. Not only does something happen in every story ever written, but the cause-and-effect principle has to be present as well. If event B follows event A and there is absolutely no causal link between them — even a thematic one — then you haven’t written a story, you’ve written a series of descriptions.
Keep in mind that cause is a different thing than reason. A bolt of energy from the QX-5 dimension may strike your character dead for no apparent reason, but there is a cause-and-effect principle at work here.
3. Viewpoint. We are incapable of completely comprehending the universe in all its infinite complexity. Douglas Adams reminds us of this in The Restaurant at the End of the Universe with a torture device called the Total Perspective Vortex, which shows you the entirety of the universe with a microscopic dot on a microscopic dot marked “You Are Here.”
Every story ever told stakes out its own microscopic dot in the Total Perspective Vortex. For every word you write, there are several hundred thousand words you didn’t write. For every action you choose to describe, there are an infinite number of actions you didn’t describe. You as author are actively choosing to focus on this particular time and place.
4. Audience. There is an implied audience to every story, otherwise there would be no reason to use the medium of language to communicate it. Language by its very definition implies that there’s a listener. Beings with perfect mental telepathy wouldn’t need to tell stories.
So who is your audience? Is it the teenage MySpace crowd? Is it the Western SFF audience that grew up with Heinlein and Asimov? Is it the entirety of humanity? You don’t necessarily need to have a nice, neat spreadsheet of every person you’re trying to reach (although wouldn’t that make marketing so much easier?), but if you have at least a general idea, that helps.
Note that even if the intended audience for your story is just yourself, the author, you’ve still got an audience. You’re still filtering your thoughts through the medium of words and sentences. Otherwise, you’d simply be sitting and thinking to yourself.
5. The Human Experience. I suspect this point may prove controversial, but I’m going to state it anyway. The very act of telling a story is the act of filtering the universe into human terms. You can’t write a story that’s completely divorced from the human perspective. Your story might be a very distant satellite floating in a very distant orbit, but ultimately it’s still tethered to humanity.
Why? Because you’re using the medium of language, which (with a few exceptions) is
inimical intrinsic to humans. You’re expressing the concepts of change, audience, and viewpoint, which plants and animals don’t understand.
And so, I would argue, every story ever written has the common elements of human experience as part of its backdrop: birth, growth, communication, longing, death.
So what have I missed?