Sunday, December 04, 2005

causation and people: the living story

Some people lament the death of The Novel; others champion experimental forms: post-modernism, 3D movies, smellerama. To me, these two types of people, the lamenters and the experimenter, seem very similar. The lamenter mourns the decaying flesh, but fails to notice the thriving soul. The experimenter sees the soul but, ignoring it's subtle beauty, dresses it up in frilly costumes so that it will be more obviously arresting. Both refuse to stare the soul squarely in the face and see its true nature.

What is the soul of fiction? Causation. We're fascinated by it. This causes that, which causes something else, which causes the next thing. Without causation, we wouldn't have plot. We wouldn't wonder "What's going to happen next?" We wouldn't groan when the episode of our favorite show ends with a cliffhanger. We wouldn't even turn over one page to see what's on the next.

The funny thing about causation is that it might not exist. I know just turned the doorknob and I know that, following this, the door opened. But those are just two separate events: turn knob; door opens. What does it mean to say that the first event "caused" the second? This is a fascinating question, but I'm not going to get into it here. Whether or not causation actually exists, it SEEMS to exist. The truth or illusion of causation is inescapable, and it's the clockwork that drives fiction.

But causation alone is not the soul of fiction -- it's just one aspect of the soul. If causation exists, it exists for both humans and objects, but we don't much care about objects. One might be fleetingly amused by a story about a lever controlling a pulley controlling a gear controlling a garage door, but after a while, one would long for a person.

A "person" need not be an actual human being. It could be an android, a talking horse, a hobbit, etc. It's a "person" if it has human-like psychology. I can imagine stripping a story of almost every element, but if the characters don't get scared, fall in love, blush with shame and shed tears, they surely wouldn't keep my interest.

A person doesn't merely "get scared." Something CAUSES his fear. He fears the monster that's trampling the trailer park or the dark man following him into the canyon. So we're back to causation again. Causation involving people. Sometimes I call it "social causation," or, when I'm feeling less pedantic, "plot and character."

Successful stories -- stories that move me -- must contain these elements, but they needn't be rendered in a straightforward way. Characters can be mysterious. Plots can contain unanswered questions. Such stories merely tease my desire to tie up all lose ends. "You WANT to know what's going to happen next, don't you?" they seem to ask. "Well, we're not going to tell you!" This is tantalizing, titillating and, sometimes, aggravating, but it's still plot and character.

Some writers claim to write plotless stories; others write "genre" novels that seem to be almost all plot. But both types really utilize plot and character. Chekhov, the uber-character writer, was a master of plot. His plots are well-wrought, but subtle. In "Uncle Vanya," a professor and his wife come to stay with their relatives, the wife falls in love with the local doctor, Vanya tries to murder the professor, the professor makes plans to sell the country estate. Plot, plot, plot. And after twenty minutes of a James Bond film, I'd be bored with the gadgets and pyrotechnics if I didn't care about Bond himself. Character. Stories are about caused characters.

Caused characters will never stop thrilling us, because we'll always be human and we'll always be trapped with the the truth/illusion of causation. Which is why I laugh when I hear that The Novel is dead. It is certainly possible that people will one day stop buying paper bound between soft and hard covers, and I'll be sad when that day comes, because I love the smell and touch of printed books. But as romantic as those books are, they're nothing compared with the stories inside them. I may temporarily loath reading "The Great Gatsby" on a screen, but the deeper I get into it, the less I will care how I'm receiving the story and the more I'll be wrapped up in the complex, causal world of East Egg, West Egg, Daisy, Nick and Gatsby. If you get me to wonder "What's going to happen next?" or "Why is she crying?", I won't really care if I'm flipping pages, pressing buttons, or hearing speech.

A couple of years ago, I started listening to recorded books. I'm an insatiable story lover, so during any given week, I'm generally listening to one book and reading another one. After doing this for some time, I began to realize that once I was done with a book, I had a hard time remembering whether I'd read it or listened to it. There are some books I recall from, maybe, half a year ago, that I literally couldn't tell you whether I turned pages or turned up the volume. But I COULD tell you every detail about the story itself. The medium is not the message. The medium is the medium. The message is the message.

Maybe in some sad future, people will not only stop reading books -- they'll stop reading. The printed word will die. (I'm skeptical that this will really happen, despite the influence of television, because print is such a useful, economical way of conveying information.) If this happens, the novel WILL be dead -- but only in a literal sense. The NOVEL will be dead. Stories will be as alive as ever. Stories thrived before written text was invented; they will thrive after it dies.

I challenge any dictator to banish all stories. He'll fail. We'll cease telling and listening to stories the day we cease to be human. Stories are entwined with the core of what it means to be human. Every known culture, throughout time, has told stories. Take two babies and plop them on an uninhabited island: they will create their own language and use it tell each other tales. Papyrus may die, scrolls may die, radio may die, comic books may die, films, television and books may die... but in some form, stories will live on. We'll shed a few tears for the death of our favorite story-conveyor, but our eyes will dry, and we'll stop caring, as soon as we get wrapped up in a new story. (I bet when the printed book became popular, people mourned the death of the oral tradition!)

Stories will live, because they feed our insatiable yearning for causation and psychology. The flip side of this coin is that anything UNrelated to causation and psychology has a hard time sticking. Yet people are continually trying to innovate. 3D movies, choose-your-own-adventure books, holograms, etc. Generally, these tricks fascinate for a day or two, then they quietly die. They are all tweaks of the story-delivery process, not of the story itself. And these tweaks generally make the delivery more complicated. History shows us that the simpler the delivery process, the more likely it is to survive (books, comics, radio-plays, projected pictures). The key is to strip down the delivery to something so simple that it can be ignored -- so that we can focus on the story. The point shouldn't be that it's a 3D MOVIE. The point should be that it's a love story, a western, a mystery or a fantasy.

Innovations that HELP you sink more deeply into the story DO survive. This is why color, special effects and surround sound have been so quickly accepted in movie theatres. While you forget about them, they add to your immersion in the story.

It's mostly artists and academics who care about innovation, anyway. Audiences just care about stories. The artist, wrapped up in his ego, wants to create something new. Or rather -- and this is crucial -- he wants people to SEE that he's created something new. So he tweaks the delivery system. He directs a play in which the audience sits on the stage; He puts a CD-ROM in the back of his novel. Or he messes with the form. A simple linear progression of events generally conveys causation and psychology best, but the artist isn't content with this. So he chops up time, breaks the fourth wall, tells one half of his story in prose and the other half via comic-book, etc. All of this makes him seem more original, generally at the expense of the story. It muddies causation. (Every once in a while, someone finds a way of using a trick to enhance causation, psychology and immersion. "Annie Hall" comes to mind, as does the best of Bergman and Fellini. These are exceptions. In such cases, one DOES find oneself thinking about the story and its characters -- not about the cleverness of the artist. So, when should the artist delve into non-linear and experimental devices? Perhaps he should follow the "rule" of musical theatre? When should a character burst into song? When mere spoken-words can't convey the intensity of the emotion. When should a story become non-linear or experimental? When traditional story-mechanics fail to convey the necessary plot and character details. Any other uses of experimentation are necessarily gratuitous.)

True innovation -- the type that satiates readers and audiences, takes place within the realm of plot and character. It's generally subtle. It's the surprising smile that forms on the hero's lips when he discovers his wife has been murdered by his best friend; it's the source of that strange, grinding noise behind the door; it's the shock that the mother feels when she realizes she cares more about her career than she cares about her son.

But an artist must be selfless to pour all of his creative powers into plot and character, because he knows the result will be, "Cool story!" not "Brilliant artist!" (Also, plot and character innovation is much more difficult to create than form jiggery. One can play a parlour game of form innovation and rattle off neat tricks: what if the movie was projected into a circle instead of a rectangle? What if the book's chapter numbers counted down instead of up? What if the men were played by women and the women were played by men? Compare the work needed to come up with these cheap tricks to the work needed to find a new way, within a linear plot, to tell the story of a man leaving his wife. One must rely on an intricate understanding of psychology, great skill with language and metaphor, and a subtle sense of timing. Alas, the number of people who want to be artists far surpasses the number of people born with true storytelling skills, hence the reliance on cheap tricks that signify "I am an artist.")

The true storyteller doesn't even care about innovation. He cares about telling his story. Innovation is all about ego. Storytelling is about communication. I will tell you that I love you, and I don't care if millions of people have said those words before. I'm not thinking about them. I'm thinking about my love for you. A real story is like that -- it's a selfless act of communication. Generally it winds up being innovative, simply because the artist is pouring his heart and soul in the act of communication -- and he happens to be a unique human being. Without trying, he stamps it with his personality.

The academic often accuses the novel of dying. Or he says, "We must search for new forms!" Why? The old forms are powerful and from them, we can generate an infinite variety of stories. They will never be exhausted. Fifteen stories about revenge will be fifteen unique stories about revenge. And what if they're not? What if they're pretty much all the same? As long as they're truthful -- as long as the psychology makes sense and the plot is arresting, we (the audience) won't care. Why are there so many people who read fantasy after fantasy, mystery after mystery, romance after romance? Aren't these book all the same? In some ways yes, just as today's plate of scrambled eggs is the same as yesterday's. Yet we devour both with relish.

We don't want constant innovation in our food. And we'd scoff at the man who proclaimed breakfast dead! We do like SOME innovation in food, but within limits. We're generally not interested in eating pie made with mud and rusty nails. But we'd try pie made with unusual fruit or a crust made without wheat. We understand that subtle innovations are just as meaningful as over-the-top ones.

I'm baffled by academics who search for new forms. They only seem to care about fiction at the macro level. They notice general similarities between stories, label the stories based on these similarities, and once labeled, they move on. They don't engage with these stories the way the rest of us do -- getting involved in the minutia of plot and character detail. They can't seem to see that there's a universe of difference between the tears Julie sheds when her lover dies and the tears Mary stifles in the same situation.

I suspect these scholars operate under similar principles as the "innovative artists." It's much easier to make a splash in academia by talking in bold strokes about genre, trends, theme, formal concerns and media than it is to talk about subtleties of plot and character.

It always seems to me that there are a large number of people who hover around fiction that don't actually LIKE stories. They prefer the mechanics of story-telling, the glamour of celebrity, DVD-commentaries, special effects, the author's political or social life, collecting first editions, etc. I've spent years working in the theatre, and I'm stunned by how often I've heard fellow actors and directors say, "I don't really like going to the theartre that much." From my perspective -- as someone who eat, drinks and dreams stories -- these people might as well be from Mars. Which is why I so enjoyed Whit Stillman's parody in the film "Metropolitan." The character Tom spends hours arguing with his friend Audrey about a Jane Austin novel, only to admit that he's never actually read it.

Stunned, Audrey says, "You haven't read it?"

"No," says Tom, "I don't read fiction. I prefer good literary criticism. That way, you get the author's idea plus the critic's. With fiction, I can never forget that none of it actually happened."

The funny thing is, this too is a kind of story -- an interplay between author and critic. So maybe even the innovators and academics need stories. Odd as it seems to me, they feed their story hunger by looking outside the book. Yet they still gobble down plot and character. One finds plenty of both in gossip columns, university committees, The White House, literary journals, coffee houses and the classroom. Some people prefer stories about stories to the stories themselves.