Sunday, January 23, 2011

Idea Garage Sale: A Structure in Search of a Story

(Note on Monday; I see the post was messed up on Sunday, when I was hurrying to get ready for the game and didn't make the last check on the blog. Fixing this now.)

We are all the heroes of our own stories, and the secondary characters of other peoples. My story is not the same as my husband's, though they are entwined so intimately that you'd be hard-pressed to tell one without telling the other.

So much is obvious. But work outward from that. All our friends, all our relatives, all our co-workers, everyone we sit next to on the bus or drive behind in traffic - they all have stories that can brush against ours and send them in new directions, and vice versa. All those people in turn function within similar vast nets of relationships, and so on, until we are all affected by the actions and inactions of people of whose existence we have no notion. Forget the flapping of butterfly wings causing hurricanes; if I turn left when I should have turned right, smile when I could have frowned, answer a question correctly or incorrectly, I have affected multitudes.

I have always wanted to tell a story that reflected this. I know it's possible. Dickens does it - in fact, the Victorians generally did this, but since I read Dickens in his entirety (well - the entirety of his novels) in chronological order back in middle school, Dickens is how I know it's possible. He's often criticized for plots that hinge on improbable coincidences; but improbable, meaningful coincidences are so common in real life they have a name - synchronicity. Blaming Dickens for putting synchronicity to artistic use seems to me nitpicky and ill-natured. Personally, I love the way he connected people to each other with long, complex chains of causality. Even half-hour TV shows these days have A plots and B plots, but Dickens had C, D, and E plots, balls and knives and flaming torches all in the air at once and suddenly coming together into a cohesive whole.

It was easier to do this with Victorian audiences, but it's not impossible with a modern one. Boris Pasternak did it in Dr. Zhivago. Fannie Flagg did it in Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistlestop Cafe. Virginia Woolf was constantly on the verge of doing it, especially in Mrs. Dalloway. Soap operas do it as a byproduct of their nature. Anyone who uses a common setting for multiple works with different protagonists will do it at least to a limited extent.

Heck, one of the reasons I like playing Sims games is that, by playing each household in the neighborhood in rotation and building the connections between them, I can scratch the itch to do this. Doing it for an audience, though, is different. I can do it a little when DMing by keeping timetables of what the NPCs are doing and letting the players interact with a dynamic set of characters instead of the series of set pieces - three ogres in this room and seven in that, engaged in certain activities, regardless of what time of day it is or which sequence the rooms are encountered in - typical of modules. One of my proudest moments as a DM was when my players were discussing what to do next and one of them said: "Remember, these are Peni's NPCs. They're not going to be sitting around waiting for us to do everything." But in a game, the player characters are paramount; no matter how much individuality and purpose I endow my NPCs with, they cannot ultimately have as much effect on the storyline as the PCs. Also, my insistence on doing this is one reason DMing is so labor-intensive for me. It's exhausting, constantly working up chains of contingencies that change with every choice a player makes.

It ought to be easier in my chosen medium, narrative fiction, where theoretically I control everything; but the fact is, I don't. Editors are always telling me to tighten my focus, strip down the viewpoints, leave out the irrelevant stuff - and if I can't write it all well enough to persuade the editor it's not irrelevant, I have to do so. If a method is out of fashion or makes large demands of the reader, it must be done superlatively in order to be accepted.

I used to have a friend at a soul-sucking day job who had a concept like this. She had created a fictional East Texas town which was periodically affected by the blossoming of a rare psychoactive flower, causing weird things to happen and permanently affecting the behavior and relationships of everyone who lived there. Her problem was that she knew all the characters in town and had a hard time leaving any of them out of any given story, so everything she wrote in the sequence was overpopulated and had no center. In order to create the town whole, she'd have to write dozens of stories containing only little pieces of it, pieces that could stand on their own and be published out of context, but which would reward those who read the whole thing with a startling 3D picture. She died before she managed it.

Publication wasn't The Most Important Thing for her anyway, thank goodness, and I learned quite a bit by helping her analyze why these particular stories of hers were not publishable. Periodically I try to sketch out a plan of a town, or a school, or a subdivision - some small, manageable community cohering around a central premise, something like her psychoactive flower, that would provide a core around which to build a series of independent, interlocking stories. And then it turns into an exercise in world-building and I never write the stories.

But there are so many possibilities! The history of a school of magic from its founding in a misty Age of Heroes to a modern Age of Magic. A small town with a temporal anomaly, or a functioning wishing well, or a gate between worlds, in the middle of it. A family consisting of people whose goals drive them apart while their choices drag them back together. A single block on a single street where the neighbors barely know each other, but something extraordinary touches them all. Or, or, or - it's too overwhelming.

In particular it's too overwhelming to work out the overall story arc and write the stories to fill in. Wouldn't it be better to write one story, then riff off of some hint or incident or image in that to write another one, which spins off another which spins off another which connects back to the first one and spawns another, and so on? Oh, infinitely so; a story sequence like that would be a thing of beauty when put all together, if done right. But who would publish the component parts, with the short story market so bad right now? I'd have to have a driving urge to write them in order to make up for the whole frustrating, piecemeal process of publication and the possibility that I'd never publish enough of them for anyone to notice what I was doing.

And so it doesn't get done.

1 comment:

  1. I too like the way Dickens connected people though synchronicity. Life is like that. My husband and I meeting...