Wednesday 3 July 2013

Story is an emergent property

Yesterday, Brian Keaney and I gave the first lecture of our summer school course at Cambridge University. We don't script out lectures. Brian did have half a page of scrawl which he called notes, though that's really an overstatement. (Sorry, Brian: they were sweet.) Instead, we sit in a cafe for three hours before the lecture and just talk around the subject. That stirs the ideas up. It's a bit like poking a muddy pond with a stick. We get all that sludge of acquired knowledge about writing moving around. Then when we have the students chained to their chairs, glasses of wine in front of them, we just talk.

One of the things we were talking about last night was how to make stories. What is the difference between an account and a story? An idea that came up in the cafe but didn't make it to the lecture was that story is an emergent property. An emergent property is something which comes about when you put things together, but isn't inherent in any one of the things. So wetness is an emergent property of water. If you have one water molecule, it's not wet. If you have a million water molecules, you also have wetness.

When you first ask a small child to tell a story, it gives an account. For example:

I got home and my cat had killed a bird. The bits were on the floor. I made a sandwich.

That's an account of unrelated events. Well, they are related in that they are in a chronological sequence, but not causally or in any other way. Add a link and it becomes a narrative:

I got home and my cat had killed a bird. The bits were on the floor. I made a sandwich, but I couldn't eat it.

You might say that's not a link. But it's the ingredients of a link - the reader will make a link out of it.

Although there is no statement of cause, we infer an emotional connection. The narrator can't eat the sandwich because the bits of dead bird make him/her feel sick, or disgusted. Now we know something about him/her - they have the beginnings of a character. There is movement; our understanding of the first part of the narrative is altered by what comes afterwards. It does the 'show, not tell' thing, and it makes the reader do some work.

Stories emerge if you put the bits together - plot, character, causation, emotional change, setting, motivation. They emerge because the reader is also a human being with similar consciousness/experience. You don't have to state the links all the time - you can rely on the shared human experience of writer and reader to supply the links. And that's another thing. It's fine if the reader makes a story that differs slightly from the story you thought you wrote. A person with OCD might assume the narrator in that little snippet couldn't eat the sandwich because the mess was offensive simply as mess. That's fine. Let the reader make what they will of it. It's not your story once you've let it out of the box. You put things together, and something else comes out of their juxtaposition.

Look at this:

The man stood on the high ledge. Then he plunged off.
The raven stood on the high ledge. Then he plunged off.

See? You know ravens can fly, and men can't. The first is a tragic ending. The second is an exciting start. The story emerges from the mix of words and the reader's knowledge.

(Of course, that's not all it takes to make a story that is worth reading. Writing a good story, that's another week's lecture.)


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