Thursday, September 20, 2007

The Engine of Story

What is a story?

We begin with a fact, an event:
1. A woman died.

This is not a story. To have a story we must have at least a second event.
2. A woman died. Her husband died soon after.

This is starting to sound like a story. But we still need a definite link, a causal connection between the two events:

3. A woman died. Her husband died of grief soon after.

That is a story. Something happened, to someone or something, or someone or something took an action as a result. The addition of the explanation “died of grief” is what does the trick. From there on, it’s just embellishment. For example:

4. A beautiful young woman died suddenly of a strange illness. Her lover,mad with grief, took his own life soon after.

That still may fall short of the classical ideal of story. Aristotle would have said that we may have a beginning and an end, but we still need a “middle” for our story. He would have liked to see a bit more struggle-- a third element that charges the causal link with a bit of suspense. In a word: drama. We might amend our simple story this way:

5. A beautiful young woman died suddenly of a strange illness. Her lover collapsed into grief and considered suicide. In a profound dream, the woman appeared to him and begged him to go on living for them both, assuring him that in the hereafter they would be reunited. When he woke, the young man realized his loss and was sad again. Yet, as he went about his day, he was repeatedly reminded of the girl in the dream and of her admonition. He began to see the world in a new light, filled with possibility. He decided to enter medical school, to learn to eradicate the very disease that took his lover from him.

That may seem a bit hokey to some, but in the hands of a good presenter it could make a powerful impression. The middle of the story is any element that throws the outcome, at least for a while, up for grabs. There are endless other possible outcomes to our little story stem, where the initiating event (her death) is responded to with a man possessing a different kind of character and might lead to a different outcome. The middle of any story is a free space for action driven by the first fact, and which lead to a plausible conclusion.

So that is story: a generative event, followed by one or more actions selected by a character, which lead inevitably to a concluding event.

This approach to story is based on structure.

Can a perfectly good story be laid out like a child’s castle of building blocks, later to be decorated and extended over a movie- or novel-length arc? Or is there some mysterious process in which a premise need only be imagined for a given character, and then allowed to spin itself out, almost of its own design, onto the page? Clearly it is easier to explain story analytically, and easier for the novice storyteller to apply it according to a classic pattern. The experienced or more gifted storyteller may rely on his subconscious to follow the same underlying rules.

It may be that both obtain; that a universal structure will always appear under analysis of any good story, whether the process of creation was a deliberate or spontaneous one.

What constitutes drama?

So much for story. Is that synonymous with drama? Drama is a kind of story that has a compelling quality, a story which, once we are engaged in it, it is impossible to not want to learn the outcome. For a story to be dramatic, it most be based, according to Aristotle, on conflict. For Lajos Egri, it must be based on a premise, a fundamental argument that lies behind the story and for which the story is an execution. A premise contains an event or driving fact just as a story does. But depends equally on another component, that of character.

Let's go back to our discussuon of the root story above. In my trite little story line, I implied, but did not fully explicate the character of the man, the lover who became despondent. What might have been premise that lay there in story version 2 ?

A beautiful young woman died suddenly of a strange illness. Her lover,mad with grief, took his own life soon after.

The premise is that the nature of their love was exclusive and that for him anyway, life without her would not be worth living. When she dies, the premise is tested. So too is the young man's character. The dramatic quality comes when we are caused to wonder what the young man will do. A conflict is set up within him; "must I end life or grasp it?". To the extent we can identify with the character, we will sufffer in suspense until he makes his decision.

The little play we began to develop with few linked events here finally enters the realm of drama. In addition to the raw elements of story, there is a moral quality that arises in the actions of characters confronting events. The premise is like an engine, working deep under the story arc. If the premise is a sound one, it can be drawn out for play or film of great length and complexity.

For Egri, as for Aristotle, there is a determinism underneath even the most suspenseful story. The outcome must be implied in the premise established in the beginning. In Aristotle's day, when plays were a religious rite, it was the will of the gods, carried out by the Fates, that determined the ending of ther play. In modern drama, we are most satisfied when the character's vices or virtues play themselves out in the struggle, and yet prevail.

The audience's satisfaction with a story can be attributed to many factors; performance, detail, atmosphere, even "effects". But without the fundamentals of story (linked events) stacked upon the driving element of premise (character in conflict) you won't raise the emotional response required to bring them inside the story, making it their own.


Jim Shamlin said...

looks like you're scratching at the door of literary theory. While seemingly fundamental, questions of definition get very complex: What is a story? What is drama? What is literature? Generations of academics and theoreticians have spent their lives chasing these questions and are constantly refining and reformulating various answers. That said, I'll do my best to keep to fundamentals:

Your discussion of "story" falls a bit short of the mark. You start with an event (good), but conclude with "story" defined as a sequence of events - which is a step short of the mark. A sequence of events forms a narrative, but not all narratives are stories.

In its most fundamental sense, a story is a narrative in which there is an objective (someone wants something) but there is an obstacle (sometimes many, all at once or in sequence) preventing him from easy success. The story follows the protagonist as he discovers these obstacles and devises a way to overcome them to achieve his objective. Those are the key features of story - objective and obstacle - and they can manifest themselves in various ways, but they are virtually always there. I'd go so far as to say that if they are not there, then it's just a narrative and not a story.

From there, it's possible to get pretty tangled up in minutia: I could go on for pages, but I think that addresses the fundamental question you're trying to answer - what is a story? In further examining the sequence of events in a story, your post may be straying toward a subtopic - "what is a plot" and how a plot should be structured - plot being the sequence of events, isolated from character, theme, and the other elements of fiction - but that's more of a follow-on discussion.

On your second topic, what is drama: I think you hit that squarely on the head in the first paragraph. "Drama" is the quality of emotionally engaging the audience in the story being told. But your follow-up to that begins to meander off course, in suggesting that drama can be intellectual in nature - "we are caused to wonder what the young man will do."

It's not so much that we wonder what he will do, but that we *care* about what he will do, and we want things to work out well for him (or in some cases, we want to see him fail), and we are engaged to read further to see our hopes fulfilled. Intellectual curiosity and suspense can be qualities of a dramatic experience, but emotional engagement is its defining characteristic.

One minor bug: I don't believe that Aristotle originated the conflict resolution theory. Aristotle's treatise on the subject is the Poetics - which is a bit simplistic by current standards (fiction has evolved and become far more complex over the years), but just about every theorist has either expanded upon or argued with the core theory Aristotle set out in that book. If you haven't read it, grab a copy. If you haven't read it lately, it's worth revisiting. I recycle it through my reading list every few years.

I'm not positive about the origin of the conflict resolution theory (I lent out the reference I'd check for a definitive answer, and can't seem to find the information online), but if memory serves me correctly, that theory was a component of Structuralism, which came about in the 19th century. A key figure on that topic is Georges Polti, famous for "The 36 Dramatic Situations" (also a good read, albeit dated and simplistic by current standards).

Gainell said...

Great work.