David Louis Edelman October 23rd, 2007
As part of the planning process for how I’m going to wrap up my Jump 225 trilogy of novels, I’ve been thinking a lot about the structure of story. I think it’s useful for us writers and readers to occasionally step back from the process to remind ourselves of one crucial thing: stories are artificial. They’re constructs.
I’m not just talking about the difference between fiction and non-fiction. I’m talking about the very idea of storytelling itself. It’s an art form, which means it’s a product of the human intellect, which means it doesn’t exist naturally in the world.
Sometimes readers get so heavily focused on plot mechanics that they mistake the plot — which is simply one element of the art, albeit a crucial one — for the story itself. What happens at the end of the Jump 225 trilogy? they ask me, as if that’s the only question worth asking. Let’s say I tell you what happens at the end: Natch vanquishes his enemies and learns to live in peace with himself. Or, Natch dies heroically. Or, Natch and his enemies join forces to take on a different enemy altogether. You know the broad strokes of any ending I could possibly think up, and you’ve seen them all a million times before. So obviously the important question is not what happens at the end of the story, but why and how.
I just watched Batman Begins for the umpteenth-plus-oneth time the other night. Spoiler alert: Batman defeats Ra’s al Ghul. He chats with Lieutenant Gordon at the end, only to discover that there’s a new villain named the Joker out there causing trouble. Roll credits.
So what happens after the cameras stop rolling? We assume that Batman goes on to defeat the Joker (and indeed, we’ll find out next summer when The Dark Knight hits theaters). And then he defeats another villain, and then another, and then another, until Bruce Wayne dies in battle, hangs up the cape, or hands the keys to the Batmobile down to the next guy in line. We can safely assume that Batman will never completely succeed in vanquishing crime, that there are certain villains that will always elude his grasp.
If you were to stand back at the end of Bruce Wayne’s life and try to chronicle it from the beginning, chances are that his balance sheet will show a number of defeats alongside his victories. How often does Batman defeat the Joker, and how often is the Dark Knight thwarted by him? Well, let’s be charitable and say that Bruce collars the bad guys more often than they elude him. If that’s the case, why chop up the narrative the way we normally do — starting from stasis, going to crisis, ending in victory? Couldn’t we just as easily tell a series of Batman stories the other way around, where we begin with him triumphantly nabbing the Joker and end with the Joker escaping and creating more murder and mayhem?
If we took the naturalistic approach, narrating events as they “really” happened, certainly we’d have to take a more nuanced view of who the central character is in this saga and how successful his life of crime-fighting really is. If you wanted to narrate the “real” life of Bruce Wayne, if you wanted to know what really happened, you’d have to include all sorts of information about the kind of food he eats, how he pays his taxes, what his doctor has to say about his ulcers, etc. I mean, no human being has the energy to fight crime for more than a few hours a night, right? How does Batman fill the other 20 hours of the day?
But we don’t tell stories from a naturalistic perspective. We might try to simulate nature’s point of view or use it as a tool in our own story-telling, but by and large we construct an artificial framework on which to hang our stories. We have a point of view. The protagonist’s experiences are filtered through a set of moral questions or psychological dilemmas. We focus on Batman’s efforts to stop the Joker from poisoning Gotham’s water supply rather than the audit of his 2003 taxes because it’s a convenient metaphor. Can Batman overcome his feelings of despair and hopelessness to face a challenge? Will Batman press ahead against overwhelming odds when it’s very likely he’s going to fail anyway? Does Batman believe that he’s fulfilling his mission to act as an instrument of justice? And so on.
When does the story end? It ends when the moral or ethical or psychological question is answered, whether in the affirmative or in the negative or some combination of both. Bruce Wayne finds the strength to put on the mask one more time. Bruce Wayne chooses to follow his convictions, even though they clash with society’s. Bruce Wayne perseveres when a lesser man would have given up. Whether he actually succeeds in capturing the Joker or not is of secondary concern.
So as I plan to wrap up the Jump 225 trilogy, I have to go back to the primary questions facing these characters since the beginning. For our main protagonist Natch, the question is whether he can reconcile his extreme selfishness with the dictates of society — and whether he should. For our secondary protagonist Jara, the question is whether she can overcome her self-loathing and become an actualized person capable of taking control of her own life. These are the questions that have been facing Natch and Jara since the very first page of Infoquake, and all of the plot that happens in Infoquake, MultiReal, and Geosynchron is in service to answering those key questions.
How will the Jump 225 trilogy end? It will end with a resolution of these key questions. Spoiler alert: the answers are yes and yes. Why and how are these questions answered? That you’ll have to read the books to find out.