Friday, September 3, 2010

Drilling Into Gooey Blocks of Story

A big part of storytelling, and for the purpose of this essay let's assume that all creation is storytelling, is revelation. I don't mean a revelation from god, I mean the way an author reveals the details of setting, character, theme and plot. The way the argument unfolds.

I always visualize a story as a four dimensional block, floating in idea space. The four dimensions might be time, characters, point of view and plot. To express the story you need to unravel this block into a linear line or maybe drill through it to uncover the details.

The point is that writing is two-dimensional. It's a line that moves in one direction from left to right. (There have been experiments with multiple lines like Jeffrey Jones' Night Coil or the footnotes of Infinite Jest or The Widow's Son, but for the most part simultaneous linearity is too confusing to effectively communicate much.) On the other hand, the true source of the story is holographic.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead and other parallel works are great examples of what I'm talking about. Hamlet exists somewhere as an ideal block of information, emotion and experience. Shakespeare chose one way of presenting the material while Stoppard chose another. Telling the story from Gertrude's point of view or about Gertude would require a different route through the four dimensional block and would reveal different things. (Maybe very interesting and heartbreaking things. Has this been done?)

The choice of how the story unfolds or, to continue my poor metaphor, to choose the route through the holographic block of story, is the real work of writing. They say there are no new stories to be told and that may be true to a certain extent, but how those existing stories are told is still a wide open field.

A big block of uncooked story (I'm thinking that it's more like a lasagna than a block) has no suspense, sentiment, humor or excitement in it. It's a bunch of information. Those things come from the unfolding. Suspense and humor, for example, are based on timing. The timing of when information is presented. It's in the execution of the storytelling that truth, wisdom and laughter are revealed.

Final geek note:
A great example of how the unfolding/revelation of a story affects every part of it is the Star Wars saga. I think of the story in the order I saw it. Episode 4 came first, followed by 5, 6, 1, 2, 3 and the Clone Wars. My son and his whole generation will always think about the saga starting with The Phantom Menace. That's hard for me to imagine. First of all you have the issue of The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones being pretty terrible movies. Then you have the big reveal in Empire being no big deal. "Luke, I am your father!" (yeah, so?). Finally the whole thing becomes about the tragedy and last minute redemption of Anakin Skywalker rather than, as I see it, the heroic journey of Luke.

Then you have the Clone Wars which is so great in itself and makes the final film (or the third film if you're younger than 15) so much better by piling in a bunch of backstory.

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